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What ‘Designated Survivor’ Gets Right and Wrong About the White House

Jon Favreau joins ‘The Watch’ to explain his observations from the show’s pilot episode


If you’ve watched ABC at any time in the last couple of months, then you already know the plot for the Designated Survivor pilot: Jack Bauer … er, Kiefer Sutherland … plays Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Tom Kirkman, the cabinet member chosen to stay behind during the president’s State of the Union address in case disaster strikes and the country needs someone in line for the presidency. Then, disaster strikes. Kirkman becomes president and the show gets rolling. On the latest episode of The Watch, Andy Greenwald and Chris Ryan talked with former Obama speechwriter and Ringer contributor Jon Favreau about what the show got right and wrong in the pilot episode, which airs Wednesday. Minor spoilers ahead.

To hear Chris and Andy’s full opinions on the show — including why Kiefer Sutherland doesn’t really fit as the nerdy HUD secretary — check out the full episode here. This transcript has been edited and condensed.

The Designated Survivor Is Chosen Randomly: Inaccurate

Some cabinet members need to be in attendance to spotlight their programs and policies.

Jon Favreau: Sometimes the designated survivor is chosen based on, “Are their programs or policies going to be a highlight of the State of the Union?” I remember years where education would be a big deal in the speech and therefore Arne Duncan, who was the education secretary at the time, could not be the designated survivor.

Chris Ryan: [It was] always good to put Arne as the designated survivor because he’s probably the best pickup basketball player I’ve ever seen in my life.

There’s a “Designated Speechwriter,” Too: Inaccurate

There are just a whole lot of speechwriters.

C.R.: In Designated Survivor, Kal Penn plays a surviving speechwriter. Is there a designated surviving speechwriter?

J.F.: There is not. Well, most of the speechwriters aren’t at the State of the Union. So there’s plenty of speechwriters. There’s a full stock of speechwriters should something happen.

White House Speechwriters Have Crazy Computer Setups: Accurate

The White House has undergone some technological upgrades in recent years.

Andy Greenwald: [Penn’s character] had a very, very large screen and then a secondary screen.

J.F.: If we’re talking about accuracy in that show, Kal’s computer was [accurate].

C.R.: It seems like he was typing into a weird interface. Did you guys type speeches into a secure platform?

J.F.: No. If you were working with classified information, which almost by definition should not be in a speech, you would be on a separate computer.

A.G.: It should be on a private email server.

J.F.: [Laughs]. We walked into the White House in 2009, and everyone had Gateway desktops. It was awful. The technology did not catch up for a very long time. But by the end [of my time in the White House], they gave you these screens that would tilt vertically, which for speechwriters was actually quite helpful because it was an up-and-down screen.

Speechwriting on an Extremely Short Deadline: Accurate

Speechwriters have to move quickly all the time.

A.G.: So in the show obviously there is a catastrophe and the speechwriter survives … but he basically has to pick himself up off the bathroom floor, because he’s so shaken up by this event, and just immediately start doing what he does. Obviously you — and we as a country — were lucky enough not to have a catastrophe like this happen, but you have to really just be able to start writing and pulling stuff, right?

J.F.: The tough part about speechwriting when you’re in an environment like that, in the White House, is that when something happens in the world, the president has to go out and make a statement and [he often] doesn’t have a lot of time to make a statement. Because if he doesn’t [make a statement] within an hour then suddenly everyone’s like, “Why isn’t Obama saying anything?” So that’s the toughest assignment right there. When you have 30 minutes to write a statement that is of significant importance.

A.G.: What is the first step? Because the thing I’m always curious about is that you have to contextualize it, you have to have a grasp of the issues, you have to know what he’s going to say even more than you have in the statement.

C.R.: I think the first step is like, “Holy fucking shit, the Capitol building blew up.”

J.F.: The fastest I ever had to write something was … Well, I remember I woke up one morning, it’s like 6:30 a.m. and I look at my BlackBerry — this is back when there were BlackBerrys still — and no emails, no news. So I go into the shower, five minutes, come out, and in the five minutes I was in the bathroom, there were 100 emails on my BlackBerry. They had just announced that Barack Obama had won the Nobel Peace Prize. Something that absolutely no one was expecting, including Barack Obama. And [the White House was] like, “He has to speak about this in an hour.”

I thought I was being pranked. And we had to go into the White House, and immediately I drove in as fast as I could because he was going to speak at 9 a.m. and Ben Rhodes and me and David Axelrod just huddled around my computer and tried to bang out a statement. But it’s like, “What do you say?” He had to be appropriately humble and say, “I can’t believe I won this,” but he also can’t say, “No, I don’t want it.”

There’s One Aide Who Acts as the President’s Gatekeeper: Inaccurate

The character on the show that serves this role is likely a combination of several people.

A.G.: There’s just one devastatingly handsome aide who is very close to the president, who immediately becomes involved with Tom Kirkman’s nascent presidency. Is there one devastatingly handsome gatekeeper to the president? Is this guy basically a composite of the chief of staff or the body man?

J.F.: Yeah, I don’t know who that was. Definitely a composite of multiple characters. There’s like the body man, that’s what Reggie Love was for a long time. There’s deputy chiefs of staff that aren’t usually the direct gatekeeper, but there’s like the president’s personal assistant — there’s a group of people. There’s not just one devastatingly handsome [guy]. There’s many devastatingly handsome [people].

Some People Can Waltz Into the White House at Any Time: Accurate

But the character in the show that does get in would have needed to jump through some hoops.

A.G.: There’s an issue where, due to the chaos of the event, a young woman who works for Kiefer Sutherland’s character is unable to storm into the White House when it’s on full lockdown. Luckily, they yadda yadda that part, and then she does get in. Can you be on the list? Can you be like, “No no, check the guest list, I promise.”

J.F.: You have to have a blue badge. If you have a blue badge, then you can walk in and out of the West Wing whenever you want. If your office is in the Executive Office Building, which is next to the West Wing, then, unless you’re a senior, senior staffer, you’ll have a green badge, meaning you can’t just walk in and out of the West Wing whenever you want. So because she was at a cabinet agency, HUD, most staffers at HUD couldn’t walk in and out of the White House whenever they want.

There’s Tension Between the Cabinet Agencies and the White House: Accurate

Cabinet members do have to push to get their policies in the State of the Union like Sutherland’s character does on the show.

C.R.: Does it feel like almost there’s a team and [a guy who is] at the back of the bench? Because when [Sutherland’s character] comes in in the beginning of the episode and he’s like, “I have a lot of great programs I’m hoping to get in the State of the Union,” and they’re just like, “Yeah, not only are you not, but we’re going to fire you and make you go be the aviation minister to Canada.”

J.F.: As a speechwriter, I had problems with that because — and I used to say this to people who tried to get the president to mention their programs — I’d say, “The president is not your PA system.” The president’s speeches are not to list off various programs. So no matter what your cabinet agency was, or whether you were like a White House policy staffer, we tried to really think about what policy pronouncements are in the State of the Union. Specific programs at a random agency? Sometimes you’re just like, “We’ll do a whole event about that later, but we’re not going to put it in the State of the Union because it’s going to sound like a laundry list.”

There’s always tension between the cabinet agencies and the White House because they feel like they’re separate. It’s a physical thing. They’re not in the White House all the time and so sometimes [they can] feel like, “Oh, the administration is not listening to us.” But I think, at least when I was there, the first round of cabinet secretaries, just about all of them were very important advisers to the president, also. So he had a cabinet that was quite an all-star cabinet in those first couple years, of people who had been governors in their own right and big deals.