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In Washington, D.C., Secretary of State Arthur Eaton receives the news that the President and Speaker of the House have been killed in a building collapse in Germany. The Cabinet immediately gathers and the Chief Justice is brought in to swear in Vice President Noah Calvin, but Calvin, who is mortally ill from a recent stroke, refuses to accept the post. Although the Cabinet members turn to Eaton as the next obvious candidate, he reminds them that, due to a recently amended order of succession, the next in line for the presidency is the President Pro Tempore of the Senate, African American Douglass Dilman. Awoken in the middle of the night with the news, Dilman enters the White House with trembling hands, knowing that as the first black president, his appointment will prove divisive to the country. His daughter Wanda, a militant graduate student, chastises her professor father for his past ineffectiveness and urges him to stand up for his people. At his home, meanwhile, Eaton is berated by his wife Kay, who desperately desires his presidency and blames him for not pushing hard enough for it, calling him "kingmaker to a jigaboo." The next day, as Dilman peruses the Lincoln Monument, Eaton and advisor Jim Talley plan for Dilman's entry into the Oval Office, assuming they will control the neophyte closely. When Dilman enters the office, he contemplates the portraits of those who have gone before him. Soon, activity buzzes around him, but Dilman feels irrelevant and overlooked by Eaton's careful management and the other advisors' disregard. At the end of the day, the subject is broached of the new minorities rehabilitation bill, which racist Southern Senator Watson disdains. Although Dilman voices his approval of the bill, Watson warns him he should stay away from any insinuation of racial preference. Dilman quietly demurs, prompting Watson to announce that Dilman's appointment as President Pro Tempore was a mere gesture to stem militant uprisings and that they expect him to be discreet and uncontroversial as president. The next day, Talley and Press Secretary Steve Helms discuss the attempted assassination of the South African Republic Defense Minister by a black American citizen who was in Africa at the time. Although they try to shield Dilman from the news, he hears of it and relates his frustration at being shut out. His first cabinet meeting is called for the next day, and is interrupted by a previously scheduled meeting of black congressmen. Dilman insists on seeing the congressmen, who tell him that Watson is supporting a bill proposing that the President be prohibited from firing cabinet members without the approval of Congress, a move designed to rob Dilman of power. Dilman addresses his cabinet, and when Eaton assures him that the bill will not come up for a vote while he is in office, Dilman storms out. Hours later he heads his first press conference, consulting Eaton's copious notes for responses to the reporters' questions. However, when Webson, a reporter from the Negro Press , demands that Dilman provide unscripted comments to his questions about the South African assassination attempt, Dilman announces that he condemns the South African government's militaristic policies and believes it would deny a fair trial to a black citizen. Afterward, Talley questions how Dilman found the courage to defy Eaton and offend an ally, and the President responds that he finally has realized that he is just as worthy as his advisors. At a nearby bar, as Watson conveys his fears to Eaton that Dilman may gain popularity and seek election at the upcoming Democratic convention, news comes that Dartmouth student Robert Wheeler has been named by South Africa as the shooter. Knowing that Wheeler will return to America and attempt to come to trial there rather than being extradited to South Africa, where he will surely be indicted, Watson suggests that they let Dilman "hang himself" by making the difficult decisions about Wheeler's treatment. In the ensuing days, Dilman grows increasingly more commanding. One day, his friend, Reverend Otis Waldren, brings in Wheeler, who has just arrived in America. Wheeler insists that he was in Burundi during the assassination attempt and is being targeted by the racist government for past activism. Dilman arranges protective custody and, after verifying Wheeler's story, proclaims him innocent. South Africa threatens to break off diplomatic relations, and after a furious Eaton asks Dilman to apologize, Talley informs Dilman that he may be able to win the party nomination, but only if he sidesteps controversy. That night, they all attend a dinner at which a drunken Kay calls Dilman an "interim caretaker more than President," to which Wanda responds with icy anger. Meanwhile, the white supremacist South African ambassador shows Watson secret footage of Wheeler bombing the Defense Minister, who has just died of his wounds. Armed with this irrefutable proof of Wheeler's guilt, Watson slyly informs the press of Dilman's mistake. Days later Dilman calls in Watson and, after receiving more evidence of Wheeler's plot, demands to know why he was not informed sooner. After Watson leaves, Dilman wonders aloud if he wanted Wheeler to be innocent because he is black. At his inquest, Wheeler invokes the Fifth Amendment and Watson uses the forum to further his political aims. Just two weeks before the Democratic convention, the country is violently divided over Wheeler's treatment. Dilman calls the young man into his office and denounces his underhandedness, and in return Wheeler calls the President a "house nigger." Dilman responds that if he kills whoever displeases him, he will be indistinguishable from his enemies. Wanda sees Wheeler leaving and, realizing her father will not support the young man, condemns Dilman as dishonorable and scared. While protestors gather to support Wheeler, the newspapers announce voter support for Eaton as the next president. Even the black congressmen urge Dilman to shed his liabilities by asking another arm of the government to deal with Wheeler, but Dilman insists that he cannot back away from the moral issues at hand. On the day of the convention, Dilman announces that he will extradite Wheeler, explaining that in a time of escalating violence, the cycle must be curtailed. He quotes from Genesis: "Behold the dreamer. Come now therefore and let us slay him, and we shall see what has become of his dream." Entering the convention hall, a reporter asks Dilman if his strong words indicate that he plans to give up the nomination, but Dilman responds that he will fight even harder for it. In the crowd, Wanda is pleased and proud of her father's strength. Dilman takes the podium to the sounds of the crowd's passionate applause.