We live in dangerous and interesting times. With all of the very heated discussions about the impeachment inquiry and possible removable from office of President Trump –both sides accusing each other (and anyone else within shouting range) of various forms of wrong doing–it seemed like a good time to do a little digging and see what historical imperatives/perspectives were available to provide background on this unique moment in American history. You don’t have to be President to be impeached–it’s an equal opportunity legal remedy provided for in the Constitution–but there is no doubt that everyone perks their ears up when a Presidential impeachment is being discussed or pursued. That is, to be crass, the “glamour impeachment”. There have been three Presidential impeachments in American history: Andrew Johnson (acquitted), Bill Clinton (acquitted), Richard Nixon (proceedings terminated due to Nixon’s resignation) . In each case, plans had to be made for the government to continue, plans which would be put into action–or not–depending upon the outcome of the impeachment process. There was no need for a Presidential replacement for Clinton (he stayed in office and left with a soaring approval rating) or for Johnson but there was for Nixon, whose situation was more complex.
A little digging turned up the fact that Theodore Sorensen, President John F. Kennedy’s close advisor and speechwriter (and also the author of the seminal biography, “Kennedy”) had written a Memo while the Nixon impeachment was progressing, detailing the nuts and bolt of replacing a sitting president. The Memo was written for Carl Albert, who was then Speaker of the House and was produced to insure that there would be a smooth transition in the Presidency if/when President Nixon was forced from office. For background, the Nixon/Watergate scenario can be found in this recent article from The Washington Post and it was that situation which generated the impetus for this post.
Nixon’s situation, and the necessity for the Memo, was created by the fact that Spiro Agnew, Nixon’s Vice President, had been forced to resign due to legal troubles and the possible resignation or impeachment of President Nixon was imminent. A change was going to come, and it was going to have to be managed. Succession in such cases followed a mandated order: President gives way to Vice President and if the Veep is not available, then the Presidency would go to the Speaker of the House. Nixon had no Vice President (Agnew was out) at the time, so the next person in line for the Presidency would have been Representative Carl Albert (D-Oklahoma), who was then Speaker of the House. Sorensen and Albert both felt that there could be a vacuum in the Presidency if there were a delay in confirming Gerald Ford who had been selected as the new Vice President to replace the disgraced Agnew as the new VP for Nixon. But proceedings were dragging on and a break in government leadership was unthinkable. Thus–the “Sorensen Memo”.
Sorensen’s Memo was a typically brilliant and level-headed way to give Albert a “heads up” on what would be required if he, Albert, had to step into the role of President. Ted Sorensen was one of our very best minds( a member of the “best and the brightest generation” in Washington) and his memo details the logistics and structure of assuming the Presidency; a reading will re-iterate what we have always expected our presidents to do when they take office and will also highlight the significant differences between the ethics and process expected of an American President vs the current administrative occupants in the White House. Perhaps the current administration needs a refresher course in how it’s done. Look no further, it’s below.
The “The Sorensen Memo”, is required reading for our times and was obtained via the Fordham Law Archive of Scholarship and History. Please see the citation at this end of this incredible historical document for proper attribution. We thank the Albert Family, The Sorensen Family, and Fordham University for making it available to Americans. There is a direct link that will take you to a copy of the original document (look sharp, you’re at Fordham Law!) and may be an easier read than the text of Sorensen’s memo, reproduced below, with admittedly some awkward formatting. In any event, it is strongly advised that you read the “Sorensen Memo”, so you have a working knowledge of how a new American president is installed after an existing American President is booted out of office. Given the times, it may come in handy.
TABLE OF CONTENTS OF THE SORENSEN MEMO
PART I- IMMEDIATE STEPS – PRIORITIES FOR THE FIRST DAY
1) Taking the Oath of Office
2) Physically Taking Over the Office
3) Resignation from the House
4) Preservation of White House Files
5) A “Quick-Fix”on the National Security Situatio
6) The Outgoing President
7) Communications with Existing White House Staff Cabinet, Agencies
8) Congressional Leaders
PART II – OTHER EARLY TASKS AND DECISIONS – FIRST WEEK
1) Your Personal Staff
— 6 or 7 slots to fill immediately
2) Address Congress in Joint Session
3) Projecting your Command of the Office to the World
— a series of steps to take
4) First Presidential Press Conference
5) Other Meetings or Phone Calls in FirstWeek
— list of categories of bases to touch
6) Other Decisions to be made in First Week
a) The Vice Presidency
b) Future political plans
c) Succession in Speakership and House
7) Personal Arrangements
c) Financial Arrangements
THE SORENSEN MEMORANDUM
TO: THE SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE
FROM: THEODORE C. SORENSEN
PERSONAL & CONFIDENTIAL
November 8, 1973
This Memorandum is for your use in the event that
you are suddenly elevated to the Office of President of
the United States by an unexpected vacancy in that Office
before the confirmation of a new Vice President. Should
that vacancy occur as the result of a lengthy and foreseeable
process or orderly agreement or arrangement, the additional
planning time thereby provided will make unnecessary
certain portions of this Memorandum and make possible a more
precise elaboration of certain others. Should a new Vice
President be confirmed before a vacancy occurs, or should
the President serve out his term, this entire Memorandum
will become unnecessary and can be destroyed (if you fear
that its existence, if discovered, might be misinterpreted
as evidence of an improper motivation on your part for the
If, on the other hand the President should
suddenly become incapacitated or die (and either of those
contingencies would impose additional concerns not set
forth in this Memorandum), or if he should suddenly resign,
this Memorandum — once it has been reviewed, amended as
necessary and finalized by you — is designed to think
through in advance the steps you will need to take in those
first hours and days of unprecedented pressure.
The intended result of the Memorandum and the
theme which should be conveyed in all of your early
actions and statements is simply this:
This country cannot afford even a brief
interruption in the continuity and functioning
of government. Any confusion or instability at
this crucial juncture that gives the impression
of a rudderless ship would risk serious damage
to the national security, economy and spirit.
A new President under these unprecedented circumstances
must visibly, smoothly and efficiently
take charge of the instruments of office in fact
as well as name, and without any show of uncertainty,
before either the nation, its government servants
or its allies lose heart, and before other centers
of power in the government, the nation and the world
start spinning off in different directions.
A few cautionary reminders, undoubtedly unnecessary,
for that first week in the White House:
(1) Beware or men, agencies and nations
seeking to take advantage of the pressures, to test
you, to commit you or to outmaneuver you. Make no
decisions or announcements at the request of others
until necessary and until all possibly interested or
knowledgeable persons have been consulted. Identify
and get rid of any hold-overs undercutting you or
(2) Do not let the press or anyone
else set artificial deadlines for you. The tasks
suggested below will be time-consuming enough
without your making other decisions — particularly
on policy and personnel — with which you will have
to live a long time and which can be made later in
more considered fashion. This Memorandum contains
no suggestions on the process of selecting new
Cabinet members or the process of devising new
policy initiatives. Both may be required later but
not in the first week.
(3) No one else, no matter how much authority
he had in your House office, should be allowed
to commit you to any action, person or.point of view
without your specific approval in advance. Every
casual statement by you or a member of your staff
on or off the record — that was previously a matter
of politics or public relations will hereafter be
regarded as Presidential and national policy.
(4) Many a new President has had difficulty
in shifting roles from'”legislator to Chief Executive;
in realizing that a different perspective and time
frame now govern his place in history, that attacks
by him on his predecessor accomplish nothing, and
that raising questions and pointing with alarm are
no longer enough for the man who must have the
answers and actually run the show.
(5) You must be your own man, listening
to your own common sense conscience and
convictions even when they differ from the experts,
the pressure or the majority opinion. You are not
required to either follow or revamp the patterns
of White House operations established by any of
Finally, you will need from the start — both for
private peace of mind and for public use — a “Basic Posture”
regarding your service in the Presidency an approach which
will govern your attitude and actions in undertaking both
the early agenda set forth below and your subsequent conduct
of the office. This “Basic Posture” should also be the basis
of your earliest public statements as President; and, although
this involves highly personal decisions on your part that we
have not yet had an opportunity to discuss, I am suggesting
a posture in the form of a first-person statement as
the most helpful way of setting it forth for your consideration:
At no time did I seek this awesome burden; but I
cannot shrink from my responsibility. Under the
statute long ago considered with care and lawfully
enacted by the representatives of the people
convened in Congress, my election by the House of
Representatives as Speaker placed me next in line
for the high office to which I have now succeeded.
Between now and January 20, 1977, I intend to fulfill
the obligations of that office to the best of my
ability. I shall not be a candidate for the Presidency
in 1976 or at any other time.
Our principal task now is to heal the wounds
which have sorely divided and troubled our
country and to renew our national spirit. To
this end, I pledge a non-partisan administration
of national reconciliation and unity. I intend to
retain and appoint in my Cabinet and Administration
the best men and women in the country available for
the job, regardless of party.
To the Congress, to the news media, to those now
serving the Executive Branch and to the American
people, I pledge my unceasing efforts to work with
you for the achievement of our national goals; and
from you I request your patient understanding and
cooperation. With your help, and with God’s help,
we shall not fail.
PART I – IMMEDIATE STEPS — PRIORITIES FOR THE FIRST DAY
1) Taking the Oath of Office. For both legal and
practical reasons consistent with the need for no hiatus in
the functioning of government, you should be sworn in as
President as soon as possible, within a matter of hours
after the vacancy occurs.
Where? The East Room of the White House
is preferable to any Capitol Hill location as a symbol
of the transfer of power. An outdoor ceremony or a
large auditorium would be inappropriate.
Who Administers the Oath? The Chief Justice
is the best symbol of non-partisan continuity, although
any Federal judicial officer will do if you have a
strong preference. A family Bible should be on hand.
Who Attends? Numbers are limited by both the
size of the room and the fact that a small, quiet ceremony
is the most appropriate. Invite your family, close friends
and aides, leaders of the House and Senate from both
parties, members of the Cabinet and Supreme Court, and
a pool of correspondents and photographers. In keeping
with the need for visibly demonstrating to the world
a calm and purposeful take-over, television cameras on
a pool basis should be allowed. It should be a somber
occasion — no music or refreshments.
What Statement? A full-scale inaugural address
would be inappropriate. After taking the oath, you can
read and/or have your aides distribute a very short statement
along the lines of the “Basic Posture” suggested above
on pp. 4-5, possibly combining with it some thought
from the “Succession Theme” set forth on p. 2. From
the moment you learn of the vacancy until the issuance
of this “Statement Upon Taking the Oath of Office,” no
other statement to the press or public is necessary or
2) Physically Taking Over the Office. To show
continuity, to assert command and to obtain the maximum
use of the indispensable and unequalled White House communications
and transportation network, and for your own
security, you should move your base of operations away
from Capitol Hill and to the White House/Executive Offices
complex as quickly as possible. If time is required for a
removal of your predecessor’s personal belongings from the
Oval Office, another office can be used temporarily.
Arrangements should also be made to move your own aides, their
secretaries and your secretary into temporary offices near
yours as quickly as possible, even if doubling up is required,
until more permanent staff arrangements can be made when
everyone’s situation (and loyalties) are better known.
Career personnel, military aides and the Secret Service can
brief you regarding the faci!ities and services now at your
3) Resignation from the House. By such letters as
the Parlimentarian suggests, you should promptly resign from
the Speakership and from the House.
4) Preservation of White House Files. Depending upon
the circumstances creating the vacancy, a possibly unpleasant
but obligatory task, which if ignored might open you to
charges of dereliction and on which the advice and assistance
of the Attorney General and/or Special Prosecutor and/or
Senate Watergate Corrunittee Counsel will be required, is to
irrunediately take such steps and issue such orders (implemented
by the FBI) as may be necessary to prevent the destruction
or dispersal of any files or tapes until an orderly
decision on their future can be made by the appropriate
5) A “Quick Fix” on the National Security Situation.
An immediate briefing from the Director of the CIA, a
briefing from the existing White House military aide regarding
the “buttons”, the courier who follows you about and
the emergency facilities at your disposal, and a brief meeting
with the National Security Council can all be limited the
first day to ascertaining the answers to two questions:
(a) are there any crises or danger spots likely
to explode this week, or likely to be exploited by those
wishing to take advantage of this country’s preoccupation
with the change-over; and what should be planned by way
of deterrent or response; and
(b) What are the procedures to be followed
that will assure your knowing of all developments in ,
the national security area before any corrunitments or
responses are made in your name?
6) The Outgoing President. Assuming the vacancy has
not been caused by the death or disability of the outgoing
President, you should meet with him to pledge an orderly and
efficient transfer of authority, and an administration of national
unity; to request his cooperation and advice; and to discuss
practical problems of his moving out and your moving in to
the Residence and Oval Office.
7) Communications With Existing White House Staff,
Cabinet Members and Other Agency Heads.
By telephone or in group meetings (a Cabinet meeting is
desirable if time permits during the first day), with
such exceptions if any that the circumstances of the takeover
make obvious, you should ask each of them to stay at
least until you get to know them and their work and can
discuss their future with them in calmer fashion. Ask each
one to prepare a confidential report to you on major issues,
problems or tasks facing him at this time, and his recommendations
for your future decisions in his area of responsibility
in particular. Direct a top-to-bottom freeze on
all new jobs, promotions and replacements until you an
your people can examine the need therefor (to avoid any lastminute
partisan moves to create sinecures for friends, etc.)
8) Congressional Leaders, including key Committee
chairmen and ranking members, both Houses, both parties.
Invite to oath-taking ceremony, and meet immediately thereafter.
PART II – OTHER EARLY TASKS AND DECISIONS – FIRST WEEK
1) Your Personal Staff. If the change-over is sudden,
your Capitol Hill staff will have to suffice during that
first day. But you will not be able to function effectively
for very long in the White House without a top-flight team
personally loyal to you. Select only those individuals in
whom you personally have supreme confidence and who will
perform precise duties that you now know you will need. It
will be easier to add new bodies later after experience demonstrates
their need than to transfer those you have already
appointed, although some reshuffling during the first year
is inevitable. Keep the numbers down, avoid personality clashes
and rivalries, and keep titles to a bare minimum. The following
are basic (use of “he” means “he or she”). (Each of these
senior positions [the first six listed] may be paid salaries
up to Level II, which is subCabinet rank; and the first spot,
if filled, could receive Cabinet pay.):
(a) Chief of·Staff — You can fill this
role yourself as JFK sought to do; or you can seek
a true alter ego, a deputy President, an Executive
Assistant with even broader responsibilities than
Haldeman or Marvin Watson (but not, like Sherman
Adams, to the exclusion of everyone else).
Consider this with care, forgetting about imagery.
(b) Program and Policy Aide — The focus
here is on legislation, executive orders, the Budget,
and policy pronouncements, with the emphasis on
domestic policy primarily but not exclusively.
He should become plugged-in promptly to the Budgetary
process, inasmuch as work on the Budget you are to
present next January is begun many months ahead. He
should also ascertain immediately from OMB and the
Executive Clerk the status of all bills enacted by
the Congress and awaiting the President’s signature
or veto within the prescribed period of time. He
and you can decide later whether the formal Domestic
Council apparatus erected under Ehrlichman should
remain and how many assistants to cover the various
departments he should have. He need not be a lawyer;
but if he is, he can be called Special Counsel — a
once honorable title. Making maximum use of OMB can
drastically cut the number of White House aides
reporting to him. Speech-writing should be handled
by this aide and those reporting to him, if speechmaking
is to be reintegrated with policy-making.
(c) National Security Aide. This individual
will not have the power, staff or role of a Kissinger;
but as Commander-in-Chief receiving conflicting advice
from the Secretaries of State and Defense, the CIA,
the Congress and foreign officials, you will need
someone to refine and define the issues, keep track
of the “buttons” and budgets and coordinate
this part of your effort. He and the Secretaries
of State and Defense. should be compatible and acceptable
to each other. He should meet promptly with
all officials involved to ascertain what decisions
by you in this area will soon be required and what
is going on in various negotiations and problem areas.
You and he can later decide how large a staff he
(d) Press Aide. This role is clear.
In addition, consider in a later decision whether
to retain the Nixon system separating the White
House “press spokesman” from the “Director of
Communications” who is concerned with strategy,
overall administration press policy, and advancing
the Administration’s image. Your appointees in
this area of activity should also decide with you
after things settle down on their staff needs and
whether to retain in the White House or return to
Commerce the Office of Telecommunications Policy.
(e) Administrative Aide — sometimes
called appointments secretary. Not to be confused
with the across-the-board deputy listed first. This
one handles your appointments, schedule and travel,
oversees the clerical and non-professional White House
personnel, and supervises other logistical and
housekeeping arrangements. He will need assistants,
one of whom oversees the flow of correspondence and
makes certain every letter gets the right answer.
(f) Congressional Relations Aide.
Another clear role. Must work closely with program policy
aide to “deliver” packages prepared by latter.
Needs at least one assistant for Senate and three for
House. All must know Hill, be liked there, and be
willing to spend considerable time in sheer palaver
(g) Personal Secretary.
— These 7 slots (six if there is to be no chief-ofstaff)
must be filled promptly, and are necessarily so personal
in their relationship to you that hold-overs from your
predecessor’s White House would not be appropriate. Give some
thought in advance as to whether your present staff can
adequately fill each of the above posts and whom else you
might draft if and when the unpredictable happens.
These key people can be supplemented in time by a
variety of assistants plus the following other posts which
may require your own man:
(h) Director, OMB — a crucial policy as
well as administrative and fiscal position
(i) Personnel and Patronage Aide.
(j) White House Physician — can be military,
but wholly up to you and your wife.
(k) First Lady’s Aides. Two or three principal
aides, serving as Social Secretary, Press Secretary and
Personal Aide; in addition, both the President and the
First Lady should decide on a Chief of Protocol for the
State Department and whether to change the Executive
Housekeeper and Chefs.
That is all that is required. Indeed, these plus their
assistants and the career people on the staff now are all that
the White House requires. A small, lean staff is desirable.
The functions of a “staff secretary,” “cabinet secretary” and
“counsellor” can all be absorbed in the above. Roving, freewheeling
administrative assistants are undesirable. You can
decide later whether one of the above, or someone on their
staffs, or additional special assistants, should be utilized
for narcotics, youth, aging, minorities, Indians, ethnics,
women, liaison with the National Committee, liaison with NASA
and the Space Council, and relations with state and local governments.
An International Economic Affairs Aide, a Science Advisor,
a Consumer Affairs adviser, the Council of Economic Advisers,
the Council on Environmental Quality and the Directors of OEO
and OEP, are all less personal, work out of the Executive Offices
buildings and should report through your aides primarily.
Bear in mind that you will also undoubtedly be needing
some top talent for your Cabinet later on, and should not move
people in and out of the White House staff too quickly or
foreclose a desirable Cabinet appointment by putting the man
or woman in question on your WhiteHouse staff.
All in all, these are potentially the most important
decisions you will make as President. Do not overlook talent
already in the Executive Branch; and scrupulously avoid any
conflict-of-interest problems. In selecting both aides at
the start and Cabinet and other appointees later, the most
careful check is required (as the Eagleton and Agnew
experiences demonstrate) inasmuch as most well-known figures
are rarely equal to their reputations and those whom you do
not know will often seem more attractive than those friends
whose limitations you do know.
2) AddressCongress in Joint Session — within a week
of your taking office at most — possibly the most important
step in reassuring the government, the public and the world
that you are otop of the situation. This will be largely
a personal statement of your hopes, themes and plans and cannot
be written in advance.
3) Projecting Your Command of the Office to the World.
(a) Work with USIA on material to be
broadcast and distributed abroad.
(b) Work with State on cables to principal
heads of state and heads of government, reassuring in
particular Israel, Japan, Western Europe, China and
(c) Plan an early address to the UN.
(d) Plan an early reception for the
Washington diplomatic corps.
(e) Schedule a series of reviews with our
(f) Meet with the UN Secretary-General.
(g) Meet with the NSC again, and with the
Secretary of State, Joint Chiefs, Secretary of Defense,
and CIA Director separately, and with the Chairmen
and ranking members of the Senate and House Committees
on Foreign Relations and Affairs.
(h) However, travel abroad would be unwise
4) First Presidential Press Conference — not until
after your address to the Congress — schedule in advance
for prime time television as part of the effort to accustom
the public to you as President; also to show a desire to
accommodate all media to the extent possible. Be careful
of exclusive interviews in the meantime unless you know the
interviewer, subject and ground rules thoroughly.
5) Other Meetings or Phone Calls in First Week and
then in subsequent weeks:
(a) Key Governors, Mayors, political
leaders, Senators and Congressmen of both parties;
(b) Key publishers, editors, and leaders of
all the various interest groups; labor, business, farm,
racial, ethnic, religious, lawyers, college presidents,
etc. Lists of each of these can be constructed;
(c) the Special Prosecutor et al.;
(d) Pentagon employees, State Department employees,
heads of government employee organizations;
(e) Various wise men, elder statesmen and others
now in private life not likely to serve on a full-time
basis in your Cabinet but able to offer useful advice
on the Presidency, the country and potential appointees.
To the extent that they are Establishment figures, this
also helps reassure the business community. (Possible
examples: Earl Warren, John Gardner, Averell Harriman,
Robert McNamara, Elliot Richardson, Archibald Cox, George
Ball, Clark Clifford, David Rockefeller, McGeorge Bundy,
Arthur Goldberg, Tom Clark, Andre Meyer, Eugene Black,
J. Irwin Miller, Ralph Nader, Simon Rifkind, John Mccloy,
Ros Gilpatric, Arthur Dean, Douglas Dillon, Wilbur Cohen,
Paul Samuelson, Jerry Wiesner, possibly George Wallace,
and many other possibilities.)
(f) The Chief Justice;
(g) Comptroller General Staats — a useful
source of advice and information;
(h) The Cabinet.
6) Other Decisions to be made in the First Week.
(a) You should have a Vice President soon.
If as a part of your non-partisan approach you want
Gerry Ford and that is still appropriate, you could
include that in your Statement upon Taking the Oath of
Office. If not, you can seek suggestions and discuss
possibilities in the series of meetings outlined above.
NOTE: I question whether it is either necessary
or desirable to commit yourself to resigning in favor
of a Republican Vice President. That would only heighten
the impression of political instability in our government.
You are the legitimately chosen successor selected by
our most representative body under a long-standing plan
adopted by the Legislative Branch. This is stressed
along with the non-partisan nature of your Administration
in the Oath-taking Statement, which speaks in terms of
your remaining until January 20, 1977; and to that I
recommend adding your selection of a Republican Vice
(b) Do you intend to run for office again?
You need not decide that now; but whichever way you do
decide, if you do, that plan could also be included in
the Oath-taking Statement.
(c) Do you want to influence the choice of
your successor as Speaker? Do you want to influence
(c) Financial Arrangements. Exchange for
the choice of your successor in your House seat? If
so, you will want to take quiet steps promptly.
7) Personal Arrangements.
(a) Health. Get a thorough physical
check-up, and consider making the results public.
(b) Residence. Allow Nixon family
adequate time to move. Decide which if any other
residence you want to keep and dispose of the rest.
Your wife should tour the mansion and discuss plans
and staff needs with theHead Usher and Chief
Gardener. See Camp David. It is essential that
your family and the Secret Service fully understand
each other’s wishes. Indicate your preferences for
those to serve on White House detail. Exchange for
government bonds or place in blind trust any remaining
securities you and your family own; resign any
directorships or memberships, and sell any property,
that could conceivably prove embarrassing. Your
salary will be $200,000 plus a $50,000 personal
(d) Offices. As staff situation settles,
decide on whose desks and office will be where.
Your House office files and belongings must be
transferred or stored, and all the personnel in
that office appropriately placed.
Brought to you for free and open access by the Twenty-Fifth Amendment Archive at FLASH: The Fordham Law Archive of Scholarship and History. It has been accepted for inclusion in Watergate Era by an authorized administrator of FLASH: The Fordham Law Archive of Scholarship And History. For more information, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Citation: Sorensen, Theodore C., “Memorandum to House Speaker Carl Albert” (1973).Watergate Era.
The Fine Print: Photo of Theodore Sorensen courtesy of our friends at Getty Images, who have the photographic history of the 20th and 21st Century on File. This photo has not been altered in any way. All rights belong to respective artists. we thank them for sharing.