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Willie Stark, a young politician in an impoverished area of an unidentified Southern state, suddenly rises to prominence as a result of a local tragedy. He had previously warned everyone that the contractor for the new schoolhouse had a reputation for using inferior bricks. But no one listened. Now, the building had collapsed, killing three children. Willie's unwavering conviction that the local politicians were in collusion with the contractor gains him statewide publicity.
Eventually, Willie Stark is chosen to run for governor. However, he doesn't realize that the bosses are using him as a dummy candidate to split the rural vote. When he finds out, his rage overcomes his disillusionment. He is angry not only because he has been played for a fool but also because the state's poor people have been deceived. In a high-spirited, emotionally charged speech he tells the people that all "hicks," including himself, are the politicians' dummies. The crowd loves his speech. But Willie resigns from the race and energetically campaigns against the candidate of the people who fooled him. In the process, he makes a name for himself. Four years later, Willie is elected governor.
Jack Burden, a young reporter for the capital city's newspaper, has closely followed Willie's rise to power. He finds much to admire in the dynamic politician. Shortly after Willie moves into the governor's mansion, Jack begins working as one of Willie's aides. Jack is a trained historian, and Willie therefore assigns him research tasks. Jack's main job is to discover scandalous evidence against Willie's political enemies.
Unlike Willie, Jack grew up in a well-to-do, aristocratic community. One of the outstanding members of the community is Judge Irwin, a longtime friend of Jack's. When the Judge defies Willie on a political matter, Jack is assigned to dig up some dirt that will ruin the Judge's reputation. Jack hesitates because the Judge has always been like a father to him. But then he decides that the task is simply another piece of historical research. Besides, the Judge has a sterling reputation, which surely no amount of research can smear. Willie knows better; every person, he believes, is harboring some secret sin, and the Judge is no exception. Indeed, after seven months of research, Jack does uncover a scandal in the Judge's past. The scandal involves not only the Judge but also the former governor, Joel Stanton, the deceased father of Jack's best friends, Adam and Anne Stanton.
Jack hopes that he is never forced to use his information. But the old scandal becomes known to the
Stantons when Jack has to convince Adam, a famous surgeon and a man of high ideals, to become
director of Willie's new hospital. The hospital is Willie's grand plan for helping the poor people and for
ensuring his own immortality. Adam does not want to become involved in Willie's corrupt
administration. But when he discovers that his father was involved in a serious political scandal, he
compromises his ideals and agrees to direct Willie's hospital. Adam's sister, Anne, also compromises her
ideals upon learning of her father's indiscretion and becomes Willie's mistress. Jack, who has loved Anne
since she was a teenager, feels betrayed, but he realizes that, in part, he is responsible for Anne's actions.
Meanwhile, Willie's administration becomes more and more corrupt. Yet, Willie holds on to one
idealistic dream: He refuses to let his hospital be tainted by political wheeling and dealing. But fate takes
another complex turn. Sam MacMurfee, Willie's most powerful political enemy, has discovered that
Tom, Willie's son, may soon be the father of an illegitimate child. MacMurfee threatens to make the
knowledge public, with a paternity suit against Tom, if Willie persists in thinking about running for the
With the Judge dead, only one strategy remains for stopping the paternity suit. Gummy Larson, a building contractor and a powerful friend of MacMurfee's, has been wanting the hospital contract for a long time. Willie agrees to give Larson the job if Larson persuades MacMurfee to back off.
The deal is arranged, and all seems well until Willie's son is paralyzed in a football accident. The crippling of his only child causes Willie to reexamine his life. He cancels the hospital contract, a decision that angers the lieutenant-governor, Tiny Duffy, who had set up the deal in the first place. In retaliation, Tiny tells Adam that he was appointed hospital director because his sister, Anne, is Willie's mistress. Outraged, Adam shoots Willie, seriously wounding him, and is immediately killed by Willie's bodyguard. A few days later, Willies dies.
After this series of tragedies, Jack tries to make sense of his life. He marries Anne and begins writing a biography, not of Willie Stark but of a man whose own tragic experiences during the Civil War era reflect Jack's personal sense of responsibility to history.