State of the Union 'Designated Survivor' Demystified

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After the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, however, the role of designated survivor changed dramatically, taking on added gravity and increased security, according to the accounts.

No longer could the selected cabinet member be far from the White House, much less out of the country, wining and dining or entertaining family with little security. The pre-speech briefings became less about logistics and more about the possible actions the survivor could be called upon to take in tragedy, according to government historians.

Nicholson, who served as designated survivor less than five years after 9/11, said a government helicopter carried him from near his home in McLean, Va., to an undisclosed location. There he was given a classified briefing over a steak dinner prepared by the White House mess, he said.

The location, of course, was not the White House but had some of the trappings, including senior administration staff, a security detail, and "things related to" the U.S. nuclear arsenal, Nicholson said. He was not responsible for the "nuclear football" that follows the president wherever he goes.

"I think 9/11 created a new aura of reality that even in the safest of places and safest zones that the unthinkable could happen," said Salazar. "It added a dimension of seriousness to that kind of protective measure."

Citing security concerns, Salazar declined to say where he watched the 2011 State of the Union address. But he made clear, as did several of his post-9/11 predecessors, that it was no casual viewing party.

"9/11 created a new aura of reality that even in the safest of places."

Each cabinet member told ABC News their duty as designated survivor ended abruptly the moment word came that the president was back safely inside the White House and that other top leaders had dispersed from the Capitol.

As quickly as the weighty responsibility was bestowed, it disappeared, the former designated survivors said.

"When it was over, I'm glad it was over," said Salazar, "and that nothing happened and all went well."

Asked about advice for this year's pick, Nicholson said: "I would tell them to show up with a great appetite, they're going to have a great meal."

ABC News' Ann Compton contributed to this report.

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