Wednesday, April 4, 2012
April 2, 2012 Issue
Of the many great writers who have contributed to The New Yorker during its eighty-seven year history, one of the greatest is Robert A. Caro. I base my opinion solely on the eight portions of Caro’s extraordinary biography of Lyndon Johnson that have been published in the magazine. I haven’t read The Power Broker (1974), his Pulitzer Prize-winning book about Robert Moses, which was excerpted in four parts in The New Yorker. This week, Caro’s ninth Johnson piece, “The Transition,” appears in the magazine. It is riveting! It puts the reader directly inside the Vice-Presidential convertible, one car away from the Presidential limousine, at the moment President Kennedy is shot (“The loud, sharp sound, the hand suddenly grabbing his shoulder and pulling him down; now he was on the floor, his face on the floor, with the weight of a big man lying on top of him, pressing him down – Lyndon Johnson would never forget 'his knees in my back and his elbows in my back'"). It puts the reader directly inside the curtained cubicle in Parkland Hospital at the moment Johnson is told that Kennedy is dead (“As he stood in front of that blank wall, the carnation still in his buttonhole, there was a stillness about him, an immobility, a composure that hadn’t been seen very much during the previous three years”). And, unforgettably, it puts the reader directly inside Air Force One as Johnson is sworn in as President (“The Judge held out the missal. He put his left hand up – the hand, mottled and veined, was so large that it all but covered the little book – and raised his right hand, as the Judge said, ‘I do solemnly swear …’”).
I can’t remember when I last read as intensely as I read Caro’s “The Transition.” I devoured it. I wished it wouldn’t end. I didn’t look up from the pages until I finished it. And when I was finished, I felt dazed, almost as if I’d been in Dallas that fateful Friday, November 22, 1963, and experienced firsthand those bewildering, nightmarish events.