Cabinet's odd member out gets a taste of presidency

Precaution: While others gather for the speech, the Secret Service spirits someone away, just to be on the safe side.

February 02, 2005|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Tonight, if history is any guide, one Cabinet member will watch the State of the Union address on TV, sequestered with the Secret Service, fighting thoughts of becoming president between bites of cold pizza.

"The thought goes through your mind, even for a 10th of a second, and you think, `Who knows?' But then you say, `Don't be silly. This is just a precaution,'" says former Transportation Secretary Federico F. Pena, who sat out Bill Clinton's 1995 State of the Union so he could step in if the top ranks of the government were obliterated during the speech.

In the end, the closest Pena got to the presidency was a Secret Service souvenir mug.

Every year, the White House selects one Cabinet member to stay home when the ruling class gathers for the State of the Union. Should calamity strike the House chamber, wiping out the entire line of succession to the White House, this official would lead the government.

To some, it's an honor, though they also acknowledge they're often picked because they're obscure enough not to be missed.

The security precaution has taken on new seriousness after the 9/11 attacks, of course, but for many officials what it really offers is a brief moment to live as leader of the free world.

"They told me I could go anyplace," former Veterans Affairs Secretary Edward J. Derwinski recalls his military escort telling him in 1990, when he was kept from George H.W. Bush's State of the Union. "I said could I go to Hawaii? And they said, yes, I could go to Hawaii."

But Derwinski - who was tapped as a junior Cabinet official in a department that had just been elevated from an agency - decided on a pizzeria in Alexandria, Va. The night as reserve commander in chief sounded like a bigger deal than it was, and he sums up the experience in four words: extra cheese and sausage. Though he had presidential-style security, the pizza toppings were far more memorable than the reception from the other diners.

"They didn't know me from a bale of hay," he recalls.

Tonight, Cabinet stars such as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld will likely bask in the network coverage from their front-row seats. But since the advent of the nuclear bomb, at least one low-ranking Cabinet member has missed this political celebrity-fest.

In 1996, Secret Service agents told Secretary of Health and Human Services Donna E. Shalala that she could go anywhere but the floor of the House chamber, where Clinton would be speaking. She settled on what she said was a cheaper - and more entertaining - option.

"I took my whole staff to the White House," Shalala recalls. She watched the State of the Union on TV in the Roosevelt Room - where she, too, ordered that ubiquitous pizza - but also took a detour. "I checked into the Oval Office," she says, "to make sure the seat fit."

Soon, after the Secret Service gave her a tour of the building's top-secret fixtures, her time was up. "The president came back and told me I was off the hook, I didn't have to be president," she says. "I just told him, `I'm glad you're back.'"

For the odd-one-out, it is an evening spent dressing up with presidential accessories.

In 1997, then-Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman decided to spend his turn by taking a military flight to see his daughter in New York City. He arrived with a three-car Secret Service caravan, a military attachM-i armed with nuclear passwords and a personal physician. The apartment building management mistook his entourage for an immigration raid, but soon the security squad disappeared as swiftly as it arrived.

"The minute the president finished his speech, the Secret Service called up and said, `Mr. Glickman, the mission is terminated. Do you want to go back with us or not?'" the former secretary recalls. He decided to grab dinner with his daughter instead, a move he later regretted as he walked 12 long city blocks in the rain.

"I couldn't even find a cab," he says, "and just four hours before, I was the most powerful man on the face of the Earth."

Still, real presidents probably don't get attitude from their Secret Service agents. Former Education Secretary William J. Bennett remembers asking his military escorts whether he could have a phone number for England's then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in case the United States came under attack.

"They told me, `We have it, sir,' but I wasn't going to get it unless I needed it," Bennett recalls of his sequestered State of the Union during Ronald Reagan's second term. The Secret Service vibe: "It was both respectful and, `You're still the secretary of education, so relax.'"

The order of presidential succession starts with vice president, then speaker of the House, president pro tempore of the Senate and, finally, Cabinet members of varying rank - federal law places the attorney general in line before, say, interior secretary.

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