WASHINGTON, DC—Beltway insiders report that since his appointment in February 2005, Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns has been preoccupied with the fact that he is ninth in the line of presidential succession.

Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns.

Said Johanns: "It's really something to think that, if the president and the vice-president, the speaker of the house, the president pro tempore of the Senate, the secretary of state, the secretary of the treasury, the secretary of defense, the attorney general, and the secretary of the interior were somehow unable to fulfill their capacities as president, I would have to be the one to take up the mantle."

Those close to him say that Johanns never expressed any particular knowledge of or interest in presidential succession prior to his appointment as head of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

"If you've ever wondered what it's like to be nine heartbeats away from the presidency, just ask Mike," Deputy Secretary Chuck Conner said. "He'll tell you."

Johanns said he has promised his children that should he become president, he will not allow the press to exploit them or put them in the spotlight.

"I used to be intimidated by it a little," Johanns said. "But now that I've had a chance to settle into the post of the presidency nine times removed, I finally feel up to the challenge. God forbid it should ever come to that, but if my country needs me to take the helm of the ship of state, I'm ready."

Last Thursday, Johanns testified before the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee On Agriculture, Rural Development, And Related Agencies about the potential dangers of avian flu communicability within the poultry industry.

"Alarmingly, bird flu can attack, and possibly kill, people in their prime. If we don't take aggressive preventive steps now, people from all walks of life—even the eight most important people in the executive branch of our government—could be victims."

A December visit by officials from Mexico's Agricultural Ministry was marked by Johanns' insistence on distributing number-nine-embossed T-shirts, pencils, and coffee mugs to all assembled. According to Conner, Johanns "kept saying things to them like 'the president didn't make me numero nueve for nothing.'"

In recent weeks, Johanns has taken his preoccupation to a new level, formulating contingency plans in the event he is forced to assume control of the presidency. During a four-hour meeting earlier this month, Johann debriefed his staff on possible scenarios, and their corresponding duties.

"He rattled off everything from mass assassination to a catastrophic roller coaster disaster," Conner said. "Frankly, I'm worried about his capacity to continue to maintain his position in his current mental state, which is pretty important, because if he should prove unable to fulfill his duties, I as deputy secretary would be next in line to replace him."

Conner added: "Imagine me, Chuck Conner, in charge of the entire Department of Agriculture."