One Night Spent A Heartbeat Away

Notice anyone missing at the State of the Union address? White House Correspondent Mark Knoller did, and has the story behind it.
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I'm sure you weren't keeping score last Tuesday evening, but trust me - you didn't see Attorney General Alberto Gonzales at the State of the Union Address.

It was deliberate, but it was not a snub. In fact, the White House asked him not to come.

Gonzales had been chosen by Deputy Chief of Staff Joe Hagin to be the odd man out.

That means Gonzales stayed away so that in the event an attack or other catastrophe befell those in the Chamber of the House of Representatives, one cabinet official in the Presidential Line of Succession would be available to take over the reins of the federal government.

The Presidential Succession Act of 1947 lists the Attorney General as 7th in line to the presidency.

Neither the White House nor the Justice Department will say where Gonzales was taken to sit out the speech.

But we get a feel for what his evening was like, by speaking to a former Cabinet member who went through the experience ten years ago.

As Secretary of Agriculture to President Clinton, Dan Glickman was the odd man out for the State of the Union speech in 1997.

In a phone call the other day, he recalled it as a remarkable evening.

He says the US Secret Service recommended he leave the nation's capital for the evening of the Address. Glickman decided to visit his daughter in New York.

He remembers getting presidential level security and transportation. A government aircraft flew him to New York City – and a motorcade drove him to his daughter's apartment in lower Manhattan. Not only did Glickman have a sizeable Secret Service detail, he says his entourage included a military aide that he thinks was carrying what's known as "the football." That's the special briefcase carrying the codes by which the President can launch nuclear missiles.

That's quite an elevation of responsibility for the Secretary of Agriculture. In fact, Glickman says he wasn't sure what he would have done had the responsibility of the presidency fallen on his shoulders.

"I was not given a briefing on what to do if something happened," Glickman told me.

Fortunately, nothing untoward took place. President Clinton delivered his State of the Union Address without incident. Glickman watched the speech on TV from his daughter's appartment.

Soon after it was over, he got a phone call from his Secret Service detail downstairs.

"Mr. Glickman, the mission is terminated," Glickman recalls the voice saying.

The speech was over, the President was safely back at the White House, and Glickman's few hours as the fail-safe official in the Line of Succession had come to an end.

He was offered a flight back to Washington, D.C., but decided to visit longer with his daughter.

He says they decided to go out for something to eat. Glickman recalls it was raining, and he and his daughter tried to hail a cab in search of a Japanese restaurant.

But no cab was to be had.

Gone were the government limousines and the Secret Service escort. He was back to being the Secretary of Agriculture, an anonymous figure to most Americans.

Quite a comedown, he recalls. But a fun story.

Glickman now serves as one of the top lobbyists in the nation's capital as President of the Motion Picture Association of America.

Under the provisions of the Presidential Succession Act of 1947 as amended, this is the line of succession:

1) The Vice President
2) The Speaker of the House
3) The President pro tempore of the Senate
4) The Secretary of State
5) The Secretary of the Treasury
6) The Secretary of Defense
7) The Attorney General
8) The Secretary of the Interior
9) The Secretary of Agriculture
10) The Secretary of Commerce
11) The Secretary of Labor
12) The Secretary of Human Services
13) The Secretary of Housing and Urban Development
14) The Secretary of Transportation
15) The Secretary of Energy
16) The Secretary of Education
17) The Secretary of Veterans Affairs
18) The Secretary of Homeland Security

A couple members of the Bush Cabinet could not have served the odd man out on State of the Union night.

Neither Commerce Secretary Carlos Guttierrez nor Secretary of Labor Elaine are American-born, and therefore are constitutionally ineligible to be President. Guttierrez was born in Cuba, Chao in Taiwan.
  • Mark Knoller On Twitter»

    Mark Knoller is a CBS News White House correspondent.

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