The Sorensen Memo: How To Manage A Presidential Replacement

Embed from Getty Images

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.



Succession Theme

Basic Posture


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


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

a) Health

b) Residence

c) Financial Arrangements

d) Offices






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

President’s ouster).

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

forming factions.

(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

your predecessors.

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.


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

legal authorities.

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.


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

and hand-holding.

(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

Ambassadors abroad.

(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

and unnecessary.

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

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.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *