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Washington is thrown into a turmoil when the seriously ill President of the United States asks the Senate to "advise and consent" to the appointment of Robert Leffingwell, a highly controversial figure, as the new Secretary of State. The President's chief support comes from Bob Munson, the Senate Majority Leader, while the principal opposition is raised by Seab Cooley, a southern senator who uses the testimony of a mentally unbalanced clerk, Herbert Gelman, to brand Leffingwell an ex-Communist. Although Leffingwell confesses the truth of the accusation to the President, his Communist affiliation is dismissed as a youthful indiscretion, and Leffingwell denies the accusation while testifying under oath before the Senate subcommittee. The committee chairman, Brigham Anderson, learns of the perjury and demands the withdrawal of Leffingwell's nomination. When the President refuses, Anderson decides that for the good of the country he must make the truth public. Before he can do so, however, he is threatened with blackmail by Fred Van Ackerman, an overambitious senator who warns Anderson that if he fails to approve the nomination, his own youthful indiscretion (a wartime homosexual experience in Hawaii) will be exposed. Unable to face the shame of his own past and unable to confess the truth to his wife, Anderson slashes his throat with a razor. Following the arrival of the tragic news, the Senate votes on Leffingwell's nomination. It ends in a deadlock, with the decisive vote going to the Vice President. As he ponders his decision, word arrives that the President has died. The once ineffectual Vice President is suddenly inspired by the monumental responsibility of his new office and announces that he will appoint his own Secretary of State.