“No single gesture would do more to demonstrate continuity and stability — to show that the government of the United States would continue to function without interruption despite the assassination of the man who sat at its head — and to legitimize the transition: to prove that the transfer of power had been orderly, proper, in accordance with the Constitution; to remove, in the eyes of the world, any taint of usurpation; to dampen, so far as possible, suspicion of complicity by him in the deed; to show that the family of the man he was succeeding bore him no ill will and supported him, than the attendance at this swearing-in ceremony of the late President’s widow.”

Why is it great? The great presidential biographer Robert Caro has proved countless times that he understands the power of a short sentence.  His description of the instant in Dallas that changed LBJ’s — and America’s — life forever is told in just six words “There was a sharp, cracking sound.” Contrast that to the 115 words in the example above.  Notice that it contains the two qualities that characterize good long sentences.  It takes us on a journey of sorts, not across a landscape, but across a plan of action.  And it contains an inventory, not of physical objects but of a set of purposes.  It adds a final element, though: a body of evidence. The case is made early and late in the sentence that after JFK’s assassination, the best way to show the peaceful transfer of power in America was by the presence of Jacqueline Kennedy at LBJ’s swearing-in ceremony.  Every word within that frame is designed to convince.  (Editor’s note: This is excerpted from Clark’s latest book, “The Art of X-Ray Reading:  How the Secrets of 25 Great Works of Literature Will Improve Your Writing.”)

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