Hail the Independent & Designated Survivor

Hollywood Presidents For A Partisan Nation, Part 2

purple principle episode artwork with headshot of podcast guest David Guggenheim

Imagine creating a television series premised on a U.S. Capitol building attack, then watching a less lethal yet all too real version of that event unfold years later. 

Writer/Creator David Guggenheim relates how that felt in the second part of our Purple Principle series on Hollywood Presidents. “When the insurrection happened at the Capitol,”  recalls Guggenheim, “so many people were e-mailing… ‘Oh my God, this is like straight out of the show.’”

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That show was Designated Survivor, which aired on ABC in 2016 and starred Kiefer Sutherland as the low-level independent cabinet member Tom Kirkman, elevated to the Oval Office when a Capitol bombing decimates other high-ranking members of the government. The show’s main plotline over the three seasons is unraveling the conspiracy behind that Capitol attack while indie POTUS Kirkman attempts to heal the nation’s and his family’s wounds. 

Kiefer Sutherland, a grandson of a famous Canadian politician (and son of the actor Donald Sutherland), was fully on board with the notion of a more independent, more pragmatic American POTUS, according to Guggenheim. Interestingly, our featured guest on episode one of this series, director Rod Lurie, had cast Donald Sutherland as the antagonistic Speaker of the House in the earlier series, Commander in Chief, starring Geena Davis as the first female and indie POTUS.

Guggenheim also relates that Designated Survivor cast member Kal Penn, who plays the White House Press Secretary, brought considerable professional experience to the role. Penn served in the Obama White House and acted as an informal show advisor and, on one occasion, a White House tour guide. Guggenheim recounts how that tour provided the writing team with important physical details and security procedures recreated on the show. 

As with previous series guest Rod Lurie (creator of Commander in Chief), Guggenheim confides that creating an independent POTUS was largely a commercial decision aimed at reaching the largest audience possible. Yet, having made that decision, his team portrayed the unique dilemmas faced by a more centrist President lacking major party backing. Tune in to find out more about those dilemmas and the challenges of attracting viewers in our partisan age on “Hollywood Presidents for a Partisan Nation (Part 2): Hail the Independent & Designated Survivor.” 

Original Music by Ryan Adair Rooney.

[Archival audio collage, January 6]

David Guggenheim

I do know when the insurrection happened at the Capitol that so many people were emailing me going, “Oh my God, this is like straight out of the show.”

Robert Pease (host)

That’s our special guest, David Guggenheim. In 2016 he created the TV series Designated Survivor starring Kiefer Sutherland as the low-ranking independent cabinet member, Tom Kirkman, who becomes President after a horrific attack on the nation’s capital.   

David Guggenheim

We can’t ever possibly get a note that says this could never happen, when clearly that phrase doesn’t really exist anymore. Literally, anything, it seems like, could happen.

Robert Pease (host)

In this, the second part of our series on Hollywood Presidents, we’ll speak with David Guggenheim about the challenges of selecting an independent POTUS when every issue is fraught with partisanship from both sides. This is the Purple Principle, a podcast about the perils of political and cultural polarization. I’m Robert Pease.

Emily Crocetti (host)

And I’m Emily Crocetti. We’ll be speaking with David about two interesting cast members as well. First, of course, Kiefer Sutherland, of Canadian and British background, who was fully on board with the idea of an independent American President. 

[Archival audio, Kiefer Sutherland, Designated Survivor]

Robert Pease (host)

And also the comedian and actor Kal Penn. In real life politics, he was a member of the Obama administration before playing President’s Kirkman’s Press Secretary. That is, until loses his cool with the White House Press Corps.

[Archival audio, Kal Penn, Designated Survivor]

Emily Crocetti (host)

First, though, let’s hear from David Guggenheim on the premise behind Designated Survivor, featuring Kiefer Sutherland as indie President Tom Kirkman. 

[Archival audio, Designated Survivor]

David Guggenheim

The show is about a low level cabinet member who, during the State of the Union, is asked to be the designated survivor, which means they sit out the speech at an undisclosed location so that if, God forbid, there’s an attack on the Capitol, one person is around to continue the line of succession. And what happens in our pilot is exactly that: there’s a bombing at the Capitol. The entire Capitol blows up, and the designated survivor, who is Kiefer Sutherland, is the last person in our government who survives.  So this person goes from someone who is literally fired that morning to becoming the most powerful person on the earth in the span of a couple of hours.

Robert Pease (host)

And David, we don’t need to tell you the country has become increasingly polarized over the last several decades. How does that make things more difficult for creators in Hollywood? 

David Guggenheim

Well, for the most part, Hollywood is always going to go for the broadest audience. I mean, Hollywood traditionally will always lean left. It’s just the way it is. It’s just the reality of it. But I never got the sense, especially with the show, we never got a sense that they wanted us to lean left or lean right. They wanted us to not alienate any audience. 

Robert Pease (host)

But the majority of your colleagues in Hollywood are likely left-leaning. So did you have anyone saying, “Why does he have to be an independent President? Can’t we just do the West Wing again?” 

David Guggenheim

No, the opposite. I think everyone was really excited at the network side about having an independent lead specifically for a lot of reasons. My whole thing about the show, going into it was, let’s be like the anti-West-Wing whenever possible. You know, Bartlett was a governor. He was a politician, you know, he was a brilliant politician. But the idea is this is supposed to be an every-person. This is supposed to be Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. So it was really important. And I think Kiefer was very adamant too, that we keep it an independent because that way we can do both sides of an issue. And the idea is that these characters are to come in and heal a country that was in chaos. And what better healer than someone who’s coming in as an independent, as opposed to adhering to one party over the other.

Emily Crocetti (host)

So you mentioned that Kiefer was the one who was enthusiastic about being an independent. I know he’s Canadian and has a British background. Do you think that played into his perspective of playing an independent in U.S. politics, which is very much one side or the other?

David Guggenheim

I don’t think a lot of people know his grandfather is Canadian political royalty. His grandfather was one of the, if not the architect, was behind one of the architects behind the healthcare system in Canada. I mean, he has a wealth of knowledge about history and politics. And I think being an outsider, I think definitely may have influenced him saying, okay, I think it’s smarter to approach the show as a character who’s an independent, therefore can reach across both aisles. 

Robert Pease (host)

But it’s also really unusual that you had an actor, Kal Penn, who had served in the White House before. How important was he as an advisor, even though he was obviously also in the acting role?

David Guggenheim

I think the only problem is we definitely didn’t use them close to enough as we should have. But I was always advocating that we use Kal more in terms of his knowledge. I mean, he has so much, he’s such a smart person and he has so much experience for us to draw upon. Thanks to him, he arranged for all the writers to visit the White House, which was this unbelievable experience for us. Not only was it exciting and just like fanboy for us to be inside the Oval Office and inside the White House. But we picked up so many cool little details we never seen other shows take advantage of, and not necessarily political things. Just the ins and outs of the White House and little details such as, you know, locking your cell phone in a little locker before you enter certain rooms.

Robert Pease (host)

And was there anyone more on the outside serving as an advisor with a lot of background in congressional politics to say, you know, well, actually that’s not how it works, or, you know, I’m not sure factually that you can get away with this or that?

David Guggenheim

We also had Rich Klein on our show. He’s worked in Washington, you know, for decades now, he was a speech writer. He has a lot of contacts for us to reach out to, whenever we got into an issue or a character or some sort of situation. For example, for the gun issue, I remember the writer of that episode specifically going to two different organizations, one being a pro-gun and one being an anti-gun lobby to find out as many as both sides of the issue as possible. 

Robert Pease (host)

Well, how about your own interest in politics? Would you say that predated the show or did the show kind of pique your interest into becoming more educated, more aware of political issues, vocabulary, trends and things?

David Guggenheim

Certainly I came in like a lay person and I felt that was really beneficial for the show, because that was sort of the idea: there was this outsider coming in, who wasn’t a part of the system, wasn’t a politician. So it was very organic for me to write a character like that. Because I was coming in with that same point of view.  Kiefer’s character grows into the job and learns more. I was doing the same behind the scenes and thankfully we had incredible advisors and access to the White House and other research resources that I had never dreamt that I could learn from. 

Robert Pease (host)

And you’re also from an unusually accomplished family of writers. What is the probability of three brothers from Long Island all ending up screenwriters in Hollywood?

David Guggenheim

Definitely three in one house is probably low. What was weird is that we all, I think, entered the business in a different way. I was, I think, the only one who came in straight saying, I don’t want to be director. I wanted to be a writer for film or television first and foremost. My parents aren’t in the industry at all. So it’s definitely strange, but what’s cool is that we all sort of do our own thing. We all have our different interests and we usually don’t even overlap in terms of the type of stuff we write.

Robert Pease (host)

That’s our special guest today, David Guggenheim, creator and head writer of the show Designated Survivor, featuring Kiefer Sutherland as the independent President Tom Kirkman.  

Emily Crocetti (host)

And yes, one of three brothers who are Hollywood writers, along with Marc Guggenheim, a writer/producer of adventure films including the Green Lantern, and Eric Guggenheim, a writer/producer on several well known TV series, including Magnum P.I. and Parenthood

Robert Pease (host)

But it was David’s Designated Survivor that showed a mass audience some of the important issues we try to highlight here on the Purple Principle, such as the spoiler effect. 

Emily Crocetti (host)

That’s the problem of plurality voting, exacerbated by our two major parties, making it so hard for independent candidates to reach the statehouse, let alone the White House. 

[Archival Audio, Designated Survivor]

Robert Pease (host)

And how many TV shows make mention of the remarkable, not so long ago, third party run by Texas billionaire Ross Perot.

[Archival Audio, Designated Survivor]

Emily Crocetti (host)

Designated Survivor ran two seasons on ABC with a third on Netflix. And through all three seasons, the show is slowly unraveling the conspiracy behind the Capitol bombing. That tragedy elevated Kirkman to President – but a President with no functioning cabinet, Congress, or Supreme Court, and a whole lot of competition to fill that vacuum.     

Robert Pease (host)

We talked to David Guggenheim about his feelings when elements of his own creation tragically came to life during the January 6th Capitol insurrection. 

Emily Crocetti (host)

And we asked for his thoughts on other shows featuring indie Presidents, such as Rod Lurie’s Commander in Chief, starring Geena Davis. And a very different series – a comedy that managed to avoid the political party issue altogether, simply referring – in one way or another – to “the other party.” 

[Archival Audio, Veep]

Emily Crocetti (host)

The mega-multi-award-winning satire, Veep.

David Guggenheim

Veep wasn’t so much about the issues. It wasn’t an issue-oriented show. It was more about her and her staff and it was very character-driven. And her whole thing was that she was flip-flopping on everything. So it didn’t really matter really what side of an issue she was on. So, you won’t catch me saying anything bad about that show. I think it’s the most brilliant political satire on television we’ve had, I think probably ever. 

Emily Crocetti (host)

Well, we talked to Rod Laurie about his Commander in Chief, and he mentioned that he wished he had done more with the indie-ness.

Rod Lurie

If I had to do it again, I would sell that independence even more. I would sell it even more.

Emily Crocetti (host)

Do you wish that you had done more to push that or do you think that you did as much as possible? 

David Guggenheim

For sure. I think that’s what would help make the show even more unique as you had a character who wasn’t coming in like, I’m fighting this one side, this one political party. It was someone who was stuck in the middle. And I think that comes with a lot of challenges as well to explore. Especially in the beginning, when you launch the show, you have a concept, but then through other forces outside your control, sometimes your idea shifts, or you’re not allowed to explore certain things. So you have to sort of adjust accordingly. 

Emily Crocetti (host)

It makes sense. So, going back to trying to hit the independent thing over the head, it seems like the episode “System’s Broken” was a good example of that, where Kiefer comes out and is just done with the partisanship and tells the truth in a very independent way. 

[Archival Audio, Designated Survivor]

Emily Crocetti (host)

It sounds like most people were enthusiastic and on board with the independent president, but did you get any pushback from investors or distributors or actors once you made that decision?

David Guggenheim

We had to make a choice regardless, right? So it was either going to be a Democrat or Republican or independent. And I think people saw with Democrats that it had been done already. It’d be done plenty of times that you’ve seen the Democrat president, and you’re not going to do it better than West Wing. So therefore you’ve got the Republicans – and look, I’m not a Republican, so I didn’t really know how to embrace that character. So it just seemed like, okay, let’s do an independent. And I think once people hear that logic, they get behind it and I think they get excited about the idea of a character who could do both sides of the issue so we can get into left-leaning issues and right-leaning issues through one character.

Emily Crocetti (host)

And you mentioned that obviously most of the writers are liberal. I think most people in Hollywood are liberals. How do you think that affects the writing?

David Guggenheim

Yeah, it can, and that’s why it’s important to have as many points of view as humanly possible in a writer’s room. I’m sure the majority were liberal. But we had a centrist and we had a Republican who sat right next to me the whole time. And so we got to get into real debates between the two of them to make sure we weren’t going too far one way and too far the other way, because that was the fear, that you just get a Democratic writers’ room and you’re trying to do the West Wing through a character who’s supposed to be an independent and that’s the easy trap to fall in.

Emily Crocetti (host)

Did you get any memorable feedback from foreign critics or distributors, people outside of America and their thoughts?

David Guggenheim

They loved it. My understanding is that the foreign audience, this is always bigger than the American audience. And I think that’s a testament to Kiefer, just to star power in general, but also I think, maybe there was some wish fulfillment and seeing like America in chaos and that’s kind of fun, but I think they got really invested in what was happening to Kiefer’s character and everybody else, as well as the overall conspiracy.

Emily Crocetti (host)

You mentioned that most of the time the presidents are Democrats, and if it’s a Republican, it’s one of those things where you really have to be really thoughtful about your writing. Do you think that it’s even possible in Hollywood right now to make a series or a movie where there’s a Republican protagonist president, who’s someone like a McCain or a Romney, someone more moderate and reasonable, but still a Republican, would that even be possible?

David Guggenheim

A hundred percent. I think it would completely happen. I think even if you watch the West Wing in later seasons when Alan Alda was in the running for the show, I mean, he was a Republican and very well-respected by the Democratic side as well on that show. And I would have watched the show with him as president for sure. Because I think it would be fascinating to sort of see their point of view on issues. 

Robert Pease (host)

Well, as a screenwriter and creator you’re trying to find new territory, new ideas, new situations. But as you watched the Trump administration and just feel like, I just can’t top this?

David Guggenheim

You remember definitely sending out emails to people. I was at studios going, you’re not allowed to give us the note ever that this can’t possibly happen after what was happening. I mean, it completely upended reality in so many ways. I do know when the insurrection happened at the Capitol that so many people were emailing me going, “Oh my God, this is like straight out of the show.” 

Robert Pease (host)

We were wondering if you had a particularly acute sense of deja vu.

David Guggenheim

Especially because we spent so much time at the beginning researching different ways to break into the Capitol and literally it turns out, all you could do is walk in. I mean, that’s just so insane. It was the level of security that you think exists. It seemed like it just didn’t on that day, on that horrible day. It was definitely strange. It was definitely like, Oh my God, we could relaunch the show right now, unfortunately.

[Archival audio collage, January 6]

Robert Pease (host)

That was some all too real audio from the January 6th, 2021 Capitol insurrection in Washington, D.C. Our special guest today, David Guggenheim, created the TV series Designated Survivor five years earlier, premised on a broader, more lethal attack on our nation’s capital. 

Emily Crocetti (host)

Starring Kiefer Sutherland as independent President Kirkman, Designated Survivor ran for three seasons, all of which are available on Netflix. 

Robert Pease (host)

We hope you’ll take a look at some Designated Survivor episodes. It explores the challenges of a more centrist president taking flack from both political parties, and from partisan media as well.  

Emily Crocetti (host)

And you can compare Designated Survivor with the earlier show, Commander in Chief, starring Geena Davis as the first female and first independent president. This was created in 2005 by our featured guest in Part One of this series, Rod Lurie. He’s also the director of many feature films on leadership, including the widely praised 2020 production, The Outpost

Robert Pease (host)

But next time on the Purple Principle, we’ll look at another Hollywood technique for reaching a wide audience with political content: the carefully constructed party ambiguity of Selena Meyer in Veep. We’ll speak with Veep showrunner and comic writer extraordinaire David Mandel about this and his relief at not having to produce the show during the chaotic conclusion of the Trump Presidency. 

David Mandel  

The idea that we would have had a regular episode of Veep airing while the insurrection was going on… why don’t we just take these episodes and throw them in the garbage. There’s no point in airing them. Again, I hate to put it like this. You can’t compete.

Robert Pease (host)

We hope you’ll join us for that episode and review us on Apple Podcasts. 

Emily Crocetti (host)

We want to thank George for his recent review, which said we’d have a better country if everyone listened and encouraged us to keep it up. 

Robert Pease (host)

You can help us keep the Purple Principle going by recommending it to friends, colleagues, and relations. Please also check out our newsletter, The Purple Principle in Print on our website, purpleprinciple.com.  

Emily Crocetti (host)

In each issue we take a deep dive into the many forces pulling Americans apart and important groups and individuals working to reverse that trend. 

Robert Pease (host)

This has been Robert Pease and Emily Crocetti for the Purple Principle team: Alison Byrne, Producer; Kevin A. Kline, Sr. Audio Engineer; Emily Holloway, Digital Strategy & Outreach; Dom Scarlett, Research Associate. Original music composed and created by Ryan Adair Rooney. The Purple Principle is a Fluent Knowledge production.