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Just outside of Washington D.C., Philip A. Burd, U.S. Secretary of Health Education and Welfare, arrives by helicopter to a secret government bunker for a meeting of the National Security Council. Among the council members are the clumsy, well-meaning Vice President James J. Jordan, as well as the calculating Attorney General John Bergen. In a restroom stall, Burd nervously opens his briefcase to reveal a cluster of dynamite and a timer. As he begins wiring the explosives to the timer, he is startled by a greeting from the president in the next stall, who then asks him to read a newspaper article that praises his latest speech. Later, as the meeting commences, Burd slides the briefcase under the table toward the head of the table where the president is sitting. Nine months earlier, Burd attends an informal outdoor party for Supreme Court Justice Victor Ellinson, who is unofficially preparing to run for the presidency. When questioned by the press about his presence at the gathering, Burd assures the reporter that he remains best of friends with the president, who saved his life during World War II, when Burd lost his leg. At the climax of the convivial party, an unknown sniper assassinates Ellinson. The next day, Burd meets with the president, who confides that he is nominating the unqualified Arthur Yates as Ellinson's replacement. Burd expresses dismay, but the president assures him that Yates is dependable and soon after Yates is confirmed by the Senate. At a party for Yates, Burd receives a call from one of his agents who reveals that several of the Vista campsites under Burd's authority have been inexplicably fenced off and buildings put up with guard towers which are now under Justice Department control by executive order. The next day, Burd flies over some of the former Vista camps and realizes they are prison camps. Indignant, Burd meets with the president, accusing him of implementing prison camps, but the president states that in America they are "detention camps." Bergen interrupts to admit the camps were his idea and the president states that the troublemakers who disagree with the administration must be kept in check. Aghast, Burd points out the public has the right to dissent, but Bergen says dissenters should be "put away," but only, the president stipulates, for "rehabilitation." Bergen then questions Burd about his college-age daughter, Sara, who is a known member of a group diametrically opposed to the president, who is her godfather. Some days later, a statue of a historical figure just outside the White House is blown up. A few nights after the incident, the president of the United Steel Workers, Michael X. Maloney, and his wife Vanessa are murdered in their bathtub by an unknown assailant. In a news conference addressing the succession of recent tragedies, the president declares that Communist "dupes" are to blame. The press questions Bergen about the harsh tactics implemented against the anti-government protestors who he insists are a legitimate threat to national security. Meanwhile, a large hippie community in buses, tents and vans sets up near a junkyard outside of Washington, and Sara and her boyfriend, Tom Goodman, settle happily into the easy-going atmosphere when not engaging in regular protests in front of the White House. After watching a film of the mild treatment given protestors in a detention camp, the president announces the formation of a Special Forces branch to maintain order, then sets about designing the force's uniforms. As the organization of the Special Forces units proceed, Bergen arranges for the enlistees to undergo brainwashing to make them emotionless and inculcate their hatred of hippies and marijuana. Meanwhile, the protestors organize what is later dubbed "The Great Armory Caper," during which Tom, disguised as a military officer, leads a raid on an armory and absconds with a large cache of firearms. Distressed by events, Burd meets with the president in the Oval Office and announces his resignation. When the president demands an explanation, Burd expresses his fear that the country is poised to erupt in civil war and that he cannot accept the detention camps and Special Forces that are aimed directly at his daughter and her companions. The president expresses empathy but states that he must stick to his strategy and not disappoint tax payers. When Bergen arrives and learns of Burd's intended resignation, he admits that perhaps they have been too aggressive with the protest groups and grudgingly agrees to meet with them to discuss their differences. Delighted and relieved, Burd agrees to stay on, then tells Sara and Tom that he has the president's word that discussions will be held and the violence suspended. Shortly thereafter, however, the Special Forces attack the hippie camp, destroying the buses, vans and tents, and attacking and killing several unsuspecting hippies. Outraged, Burd confronts the president and accuses him of betrayal. The president attempts to explain the great weight of the office and stress it brings and insists he is the same man he has always been. When the president reveals he intends to suspend Congress because they are continually harassing him "on purpose" and that he will also suspend the next elections "just this one time" as the rising national tensions demands it, Burd is stunned into silence. Desperate to convince Burd, the president grabs a folder and declares there is proof that the demonstrators were plotting to ruin the country and that Ellinson and Mahoney were out to humiliate him in public. Realizing with horror that the president authorized the men's assassinations, Burd rises to depart as the president insists he is justified as he has toiled long and hard to become the "king of the mountain." Walking away from the White House, the stunned Burd is picked up by Bergen, who takes him to a private sauna where the other members of the NSC await. Bergen reveals the council members have agreed that the president has grown harmful to the nation and so must be eliminated. When Burd hesitates, Bergen brings in Tom, a double agent working at the behest of the president. Burd is crushed but reluctantly agrees to join the council members. Later in a private room, the members each take numbered balls that will be used to assign each man to their new position in a new administration. The man receiving the number one ball will take over the presidency and be responsible for the removal of the current president. Burd draws number two and a senior council member in a wheelchair, Jonas, gets ball number one, only to die moments later from the shock. Although stunned, Burd accepts his position. In the present at the bunker meeting, as the president greets the members, Burd is shocked when Jonas wheels into the room late. Noting Burd's reaction, the president says he leads the most patriotic administration in the history of the nation, as they are willing to make great sacrifices. Acknowledging that Burd has made a great sacrifice with the loss of his leg, the president explains that Burd will make another sacrifice by agreeing to being involved in a secret plot to kill him. The plot will fail, but it will allow the president to declare a national emergency, suspend Congress and implement the Special Forces units against any resistance. Burd remains dumbfounded as his briefcase is taken from under the table and searched for the bomb. When only a book on John Wayne is found inside the case, Burd rises to announce that he could never acquiesce to the president's megalomaniac ambitions. Cursing the president and the council while praising the nation, Burd pauses and, removing his artificial leg, places it in front of the president and says the country can take back his sacrifice. Assisted to the helicopter by M.Ps., Burd takes off just as the president peers into the artificial leg that explodes, wiping out the bunker and all within. Ordering the pilot to the White House, Burd bursts into laughter.