During every State of the Union address and every presidential inauguration, there is one person who holds greater importance than even the President. This person, the designated survivor, is whisked to a top-secret location, accompanied by a full security detail and a briefcase containing the codes for nuclear launch. Should catastrophe strike the House Chamber, or the Capitol, this person would likely assume power, tasked with governing a nation recoiling in fear and dismay. Suddenly the honor of holding the most sought-after office in the world becomes a grim duty.
I think of 1963, when Lyndon Johnson took the oath of office on an airport runway in Dallas, barely two hours after JFK was shot dead. He must have been sweating through his suit. In the frenzied haste to get the new president back to DC, they didn’t have time to turn on the air conditioning on Air Force One. Jacqueline Kennedy must have been sweating, too, but I know she refused to remove her blood-soaked pink Chanel jacket. She even said she regretted washing her hands and face. But, come to think of it, she was probably freezing cold, in shock.
At that same moment, in Saigon, it would have been the middle of the night. My mother would have just turned eight years old earlier that month. I can picture her sleeping. Her eight older sisters, two brothers, and my grandparents—also sleeping. They would have all been sleeping in the living room, together, somehow accustomed to the bombs screeching and exploding in the distance. My grandmother didn’t believe in designated survivors; if their home were to be struck, they should all be lost together. Better to all perish than to leave one person to identify the bodies. Better to all go at once than to leave a lonely soul to wonder “What If?”. You see, after Dallas—even in Chanel—Jacqueline Kennedy could no longer be called the envy of the world.