Capitol Limited: Eavesdropping on History

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I remember it well.

It was not just an era that changed history.

It was a frozen moment in time when American politics would never be the same again.

The date was September 26, 1960.

The place was Chicago.

The time is unimportant.

The country settled back to see Vice President and seasoned campaigner Richard Nixon go face to face with a brash, upstart, young Catholic, John F. Kennedy, only forty-three years old, in the nation’s first televised Presidential Debate.

The televised debate between Kennedy, left, and Nixon.
The televised debate between Kennedy, left, and Nixon.

I was sitting there along the other seventy million viewers.

The television was black and white. The pictures were never clear, not even for test patterns.

America was embroiled in the Cold War.

We had nuclear missiles.

So did the Russians.

One of us would be annihilated before the decade ended.

That’s what the preachers said.

Found the scripture in Ezekiel, I think.

A Soviet spacecraft was orbiting the earth.

The Soviets would put men on the moon.

It would be the end of us all.

The preachers preached that, too.

America was ready to vote for a new President.

Lighting on the Chicago stage was harsh and brutal, to say the least.

But there stood Kennedy.

He was calm.

He looked refreshed.

He had charisma.

He looked like a leader.

We believed him even if he talked funny. The Massachusetts dialect didn’t play well in Texas. Never had. Never would.

And there stood the Vice President.

He looked frail.

He looked drained.

His gray suit was too large for him., and it made his face a shade of gray. His pancake makeup began to melt in the hot lights, and, Lord, his face looked flush and haggard, cursed with a five o’clock shadow. (He would tell broadcaster Walter Cronkite, “I can save within thirty minutes of going on television and still have a beard.”

Kennedy stared at the camera, and looked at America eyeball to eyeball.

Nixon’s shifty gaze never found the camera.

He looked like the Tricky Dick he became.

No one remembered what was said. The words, the policies, the rhetoric, the promises – none of it mattered.

A poll of radio listeners said that Nixon won the debate.

The seventy million television viewers overwhelmingly cast their vote for Kennedy.

He looked good.

He looked like a President.

After the debate, Kennedy’s mother called him and said, “Son, you were brilliant.”

Nixon’s mother called him and asked if he had been sick.

Well, he had been in the hospital. He had lost twenty pounds. He had not recovered.

He would never recover from the debate debacle on television.

He was certainly sick now.

From that single frozen moment forward, Presidential candidates would win or lose depending on their television performances.

The thought among American voters was: “I don’t care if the candidate is Presidential as long as he or she looks Presidential.”

Suddenly, it was all about image.

David R. Stokes
David R. Stokes

The new novella by David R. Stokes – CAPITOL LIMITED – looks again at John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon thirteen years earlier as the two freshmen congressmen journeyed to McKeesport, Pennsylvania, in April of 1947.

They were debating then, too.

They would be arguing the merits of the brand new Taft-Hartley labor law.

But even then, as Stokes says, their minds were clearly on bigger things.

Stokes points out, “as fate would have it, Kennedy and Nixon found themselves sharing a Pullman compartment on a famous train called The Capitol Limited, the pride of the B&O line, for an overnight trip back to Washington.

They stayed awake all night talking about their lives, hopes, and visions for a better world.”

In CAPITOL LIMITED, bestselling author David R. Stokes imagines how the conversation might have unfolded on that long-ago night. The novella is fiction, but it is housed in fact, based on extensive research and complete with a lengthy and an unusual-for-a-novel bibliography.

CAPITOL LIMITED gives readers the chance to eavesdrop as two men who would one day sit in the Oval Office have an animated conversation about history, world leaders, and the brewing geopolitical issues they would one day face as leaders of the free world.

It was the dawn of the Cold War, and these two former Naval officers were developing a vision for the world, one that would be “tempered by a hard and bitter peace.” Bernard Baruch had just days before introduced the term “Cold War” into the vocabulary. And years later, the political torch would be passed to John Kennedy and Richard Nixon, who represented “a new generation of Americans.”

They would become America’s premier Cold Warriors.

Please click the book cover image to read more about Capitol Limited.

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