By Ellen Davies, UGrow Fellow, and Jay Sylvestre, Special Collections Librarian
With the 2016 Presidential election less than a month away, it will soon be time for another State of the Union address in January 2017. As portrayed in the show Designated Survivor you may know that one member of the President’s cabinet is selected to spend the address in an undisclosed location to guard against a catastrophic loss of the Executive and Legislative bodies of government. In the show Tom Kirkman, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, played by Kiefer Sutherland, is that member of the Cabinet chosen to spend the State of the Union in an undisclosed bunker. After an explosion kills the President, Vice President, Speaker of the House, President Pro Tempore of the Senate, and many other cabinet Secretaries, Kirkman becomes President.
The United States Constitution specifies that the Vice President succeeds the President, but makes no mention of further succession. Two amendments clarify the role of Vice Presidential succession, while the rest of the line is governed by laws passed by Congress. Cabinet-level succession is determined by the founding date of each department. For example, the State Department founded as the Department of Foreign Affairs was the first federal agency created under the Constitution. It was approved by Congressional legislation on July 21, 1789, making its Secretary the first of the Cabinet positions. The Department of Transportation, number 14 in line, was founded in 1967.
Of course, before a line of succession can exist, a President must be elected. Elections and campaigning have been fertile ground for Hollywood to explore. Satire, political thrillers, and outright comedy go hand in hand with movies about elections and often overlap with each other.
One of the most popular comedic explorations of political campaigns, and the moments of joy and frustration they can bring, is portrayed in Parks and Recreation. The series stars comedian Amy Poehler as Leslie Knope, a deputy director of the Parks and Recreation Department in small-town Pawnee, Indiana, and is known for her unwavering positivity, admiration (and borderline obsession) for powerful female politicians like Hillary Clinton and Margaret Thatcher, and undying belief in local government’s potential to have a positive impact on people’s everyday lives. When she decides to run for city council, however, she quickly learns she must overcome the influence of gender bias as well as overall skepticism of government in order to effect any change in the small town. One idea that receives major pushback for instance is on combatting childhood obesity, a major health issue in Pawnee, where the existing city council has just decided to sell the space allocated for a new park to a fast food chain called “Paunch Burger.”
Other popular TV shows like House of Cards, Scandal, and Veep work to pull back the curtain on political campaigns and presidential elections, giving an inside look at Washington through the use of story lines tied to current events and allusions to American politics and politicians that blur the line between satire and reality. These shows mix all the things that aren’t supposed to be discussed in polite conversation: money, sex, and politics, and allow us to binge on them in the privacy of our own living rooms.
In the first season of Netflix’s wildly popular series House of Cards, Frank and Claire Underwood’s marriage reeks of the early Clinton years. Southerner Frank Underwood, played by Kevin Spacey, is a Democratic Majority Whip in the U.S. House of Representatives who has aspirations of becoming President. Together he and his wife Claire Underwood, played by Robin Wright, are an unstoppable political duo ready to take on Washington and gain political power at all costs. Claire is the definition of a true “ride-or-die” and the pair have more of a business-like partnership than a romantic relationship, both more than willing to accept the other’s morally questionable actions and keep quiet about extra-marital affairs for the greater good of their own political careers. As the series evolves it ultimately becomes clear that while Frank is the public front man, Claire, like many first ladies and wives of politicians, is the tail that wags the dog.
Meanwhile it may be worth noting that Robin Wright, who plays Claire, recently made headlines for revealing that she earned less money than co-star Kevin Spacey in the first two seasons of the series and was only able to negotiate equal pay with Netflix after threatening to go public with the wage gap.
UM Libraries houses several books, movies, and television series related to political elections: