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The West Wing opens its season tonight without its creator, Aaron Sorkin, but with John Goodman having replaced Martin Sheen in the Oval Office. Last year’s season finale took viewers deep into the obscure corners of our presidential succession system, ending with a Republican House Speaker (Goodman) taking over for an incapacitated Democratic President Jed Bartlet (Sheen). Did the show’s writers faithfully represent the intricacies of presidential succession? And what can we expect tonight?
First, a recap. Toward the end of last season, Vice President John Hoynes resigns after it was learned that he was romantically linked and providing state secrets to a Washington socialite, and she was on the verge of publishing a tell-all book. Then Qumari terrorists kidnap President Bartlet’s daughter Zoey from a nightclub party following her Georgetown graduation. Under great mental strain, the president is clearly not himself as he stumbles in a number of critical decisions, and he comes to the conclusion that he could not make the best decisions for the nation if faced with a choice between daughter and country. He consults with his Cabinet and aides and decides to “invoke the 25th Amendment,” declaring himself temporarily incapacitated and allowing a successor to take over until he is recovered. The twist is that because there is no vice president, his successor is Speaker Glen Walken, who is Bartlet’s chief political opponent. The season finale ends with Walken resigning as Speaker and taking the presidential oath in the Oval Office.
Did The West Wing get presidential succession right? More or less, yes. Here’s a look:
What can we expect?
There is an underlying conflict that will drive the plotline. An acting president such as Speaker Walken possesses all of the powers of the presidency, but the incapacitated Bartlet has the right to come back into office at any time he feels able. Walken would act as commander in chief and could initiate some military action even without the approval of Congress. He could fire all of the White House staff and the Cabinet. But any time that Bartlet felt that his actions had gone too far, Bartlet could sign the letter that declares himself able, and he would resume the presidency.
First, a new vice president would probably displace Walken himself and become acting president, leaving Walken with no job. This new vice president would remain in office as vice president even if Bartlet returned to the presidency. Second, in a complicated maneuver, Walken could nominate himself to be vice president. This would give him a more permanent position. It would also allow him to challenge Bartlet’s return. As vice president, he could attempt to get a majority of the Cabinet (whom he could appoint with Senate confirmation) to declare that Bartlet was incapacitated, and if Bartlet disagreed, then he could ask Congress to decide, by a two-thirds vote, that Bartlet was incapacitated and that Walken should continue to act as president.
Odds are that Aaron Sorkin will not return to his job, but will Martin Sheen? And how? Tonight will begin a season to answer those questions.
John C. Fortier is executive director of the Continuity of Government Commission at AEI.
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