Well, this brings this mini-blog to a close. We’re close to 15,000 words in this page, and it’s been a worthwhile endeavor for me. I’ve enjoyed more than anything your comments and texts and calls because they’ve led to great discussions about power, cities, politics, and government.
This will go down as one of the best books I’ve ever read. The writing is inspired and the research is well-past thorough. It’s a brilliant book with applications in so many disciplines. I’m prepared to now become one of the acolytes who recommends this book to everyone.
To those of you who are finding this post-early summer 2013, the blog starts at the bottom of the page and works up by chapter. Bold headlines are new entries, usually broken down by chapter (or several chapters).
Finally, to those of you who recommended I read this book, I’m grateful. Really an eye-opening learning experience for me. You’ll be happy to know I’ve purchased the LBJ series. Hopefully they won’t sit for three years on a shelf like “The Power Broker” did.
If you enjoyed this mini-blog, I’m contemplating doing another one again in a few months. If you’ve got suggestions for good book to feature, put them in the comments or send me a tweet at @somuchtoread.
Thanks for reading.
Chapters 49 and 50 (The Last Stand and Old)
These two relatively short chapters end “The Power Broker.” They are about an old man losing the last vestiges of power and the dealing with that loss.
When, in “The Last Stand,” Nelson finally gets the best of Moses by utilizing the Governor’s relationships with the big banks, Moses is left with no leverage to fight back and must hold on to an easily-broken promise that he’ll be involved in the new Metropolitan Transit Authority.
This line sums it up: “And now, having used his name, having gotten everything out of him that he could, the Governor threw him away.” The final saga of how Nelson wrestled power away from Moses is less interesting than much of what we’ve read already in “The Power Broker.” Instead, it’s just the final insult to a man whose career had careened out of control in the last few years.
The next chapter, “Old,” is the saddest of all. Moses is the old man, still possessing intellect and ideas, but no power. He is humiliated and must realize he is no longer the icon he once was. He knows that the new leaders in Albany and NYC are humoring him and yet he cannot help but try to get back in the game. It is nothing short of pitiful.
Just before the end of the book, Caro writes: “[Moses] had to suffer also what was for him perhaps the ultimate humiliation. He had to know that people knew that he no longer had power.”
Caro gives us Moses in retirement and the picture resembles an old animal put out to pasture. Contrast it with the picture of Moses as he took power after the Great Depression, and it’s hard to believe you are reading about the same person. You almost wished that a guy like Moses dropped dead at his desk before he had to live with this loss of power and influence. Caro offers minimal sympathy, and maybe he thinks it is poetic that this is how Moses must live out his days.
The book ends with Moses getting an award, but unable to shake a thought–“the ingratitude of the public toward great men.” Besieged by bad press and criticism of Moses’ approaches to planning, Moses seems bitter at the end. I think Caro liked leaving him that way. But to be fair, it’s a suitable contradiction–Moses receiving accolades and still sitting there bitter. Caro is so good.
I have mixed feelings about the end Moses was a lion–the man who built New York City. And he made huge mistakes. But you can’t make huge mistakes unless you are doing huge things. I’m told there’s some new thinking about Moses: that NYC is considered one of the greatest cities in the world, and had it not been for Moses, it might not have that distinction today. It makes me wonder what Caro would write about Moses in an afterword published today. I hope he talks about this at the Niehoff Lecture in November at the Mercantile.
As of last week, I’ve finished the book. I’ve got six more chapters to recap and reflect upon and then probably a closing entry or two over the next few weeks. I appreciate all of your comments and emails. This has been a fun project. I also needed a little break, so forgive the light posting. (At least on this page, you’ll start to see more regular recaps again on the main page, so sign up or bookmark for updates.) Honestly, this book was dense as any I’ve read, and truthfully, lugging it around became a chore at some points. Don’t get me wrong–I loved this book. But the break has been nice. I’ve read three fiction books and a easy-to-read business book since finishing “The Power Broker.” I’m just now starting back with non-fiction. I’ll leave this post up for a few days while traveling, and then hopefully by this weekend I’ll wrap up my chapter recaps and add the final thoughts. Thanks again.
Chapters 47 and 48: The Great Fair and Old Lion, Young Mayor
There’s an interesting dichotomy in these two chapters. The first chapter is just difficult to read because Moses isn’t the Moses we’ve been reading about for 1100 pages. The second chapter is Moses besting the naive John Lindsay, new Mayor of the city.
The Great Fair is sad–Moses is totally hapless. He can’t manage his way out of a paper bag, he relies on old politics when the time calls for something much different, and he is in a constant, pitched battle with the media. It’s ugly to watch. It’s Roger Daltry trying to recreate the magic of The Who 40 years later. You see the image and reputation of Moses falter to a point where it is abundantly clear the end is near. The one quality Moses held dear his whole career was that he wasn’t in it for the money, and the fair destroyed that image too, probably unfairly. Tacked on the end of the chapter is a sad coda about Moses’ wife Mary. Portrayed as a dedicated and supportive spouse, Mary withers as she sees her husband face stiff criticisms, and eventually dies. Caro, throughout the book, notes that Moses was unfaithful. He doesn’t dwell on it, but it’s there. So we aren’t surprised to learn that within a month of Mary’s death, Moses remarries.
The next chapter is Moses’ last stand. When confronted by new Mayor John Lindsay about a plan to combine the transit and Triborough Authorities, Moses resists as if it is 1944 again. He calls in every last chit, manipulates the rookie Mayor, and wins big in the state legislature. It would prove to be his last big victory. You are rooting for Moses again, and the chapter has a wistfulness to it that I think is appropriate given the journey we’ve been on. Moses may not have even been right, but this is like seeing the glimmer in the eye of an old Senator, using knowledge of the rules to show up some newly elected kid. Everyone cheers for the old lion.
By the way, for a great dissection of the Lindsay years in New York, I must suggest Joe Flood’s “The Fires,” which was reviewed here a few years ago. A fantastic look at NYC in the late sixties and early seventies. (You’ll note in that post I recommend to myself that I read “The Power Broker,” noting I needed a few months to get to it. Only took three years.)
Chapters 45-46: Off to the Fair and Nelson
Caro is now chronicling, step-by-step, the fall of Moses. The Title I housing scandal is closing in on Moses, reporters are circling and finally have established a beachhead from which to attack. A tenuous connection to a mafia/thug provides a sensational aspect to the story. And Moses, despite holding on to power, has lost the air of infallibility. It’s a strange tonal change in Chapter 45–no longer is Moses the wily operator, playing chess six moves ahead of his opponents. He is now responding to events all around him. Once that builds, for any political operator, it is a tough cycle to break.
The lesson of all of this goes back to what I discussed in the previous post. The press was changing at this point. The media of the 60s was far removed from the media of the 40s. Caro explains:
“But fighting the press is a battle that no public official can win, for the battleground is not just of the press’s choosing–it is the press. His attacks would be played as the media wanted them played….Many key newspapermen in New York had previously had a vested interest in preserving Moses’ image; now many of these same journalists had a vested interest in destroying it.”
Moses eases his way out of housing, in part by choice and in part by necessity. He falls up, as some say, and winds up in charge of the World’s Fair project–a gift that allows him to earn some money. Caro points out Moses retains much of his power, but began a slow slide of resigning or losing certain titles (he had 12 at one point), a slide that continues into the excellent chapter called “Nelson.”
Another mini-biography of Nelson Rockefeller appears in Chapter 46, and it’s a very different portrayal than others that I have read of him (notably the “Making of the President 1964 and 1968” books. Caro implies that Nelson has some of Moses’ characteristics–a desire to be a builder of a grand scale, arrogance, and an ability to use power effectively. There are some great lines, including a quote from a veteran New York politician, describing the difference between old money and new money: “I bet on money–not just any kind of money but old money. New money buys things; old money calls notes.” Oh, man. So true. So true. Look at the power structure in ANY city, and it is SO often that old money trumps new money in the big disputes.
Nelson intends to put his brother in the job as State Parks leader, and toys with Moses. When Moses pulls out his favorite trick, offering to resign all jobs, Nelson, impressively, doesn’t blink. It’s the first time in the book this happens. You get the sense that Moses was outplayed here. I think had he been 60 and not close to 80, he might have outplayed Rockefeller. But he was getting old and relied on an old trick. Caro writes, almost with a haughty smile: “For decades, Governors had dreaded what would happen if they had to be the one to fire Bob Moses. Now one Governor had fired Bob Moses. And nothing had happened.”
Advisors said the loss of the state jobs (which brought him down to holding just two positions) were heartbreaking. He had passion for Long Island–it was his first love. His arrogance of power made him unable to envision a scenario of the park system being led by someone else.
Chapter 41, 42, 43, and 44: Rumors and the Report of Rumors, Tavern in the Town, Late Arrival, and Mustache and the Bard
Caro has made it plain he believes Moses to be so far gone and so corrupt that all that is left to do in this biography is celebrate his fall. Every last moment of it. And I have to say, it’s kind of sad.
These four chapters build nicely–a chapter about how liberals began organizing against Moses’ housing policies and worked to show, via a detailed report, that he was lying about the success of relocations. The next chapter is about a fight Moses has with defenders of Central Park. In an attempt to pave paradise and put up a parking lot (sorry), Moses draws the ire of some neighborhood moms and activists–and more importantly, he drew the imagination of newspaper editors. It’s a lesson in how to lose the press. Moses had for too long taken advantage of the fact that the press gobbled up his spin without question, and now, they found themselves with a story that was too perfect. And they ran with it. Ultimately, Moses caved, but as Caro points out, it was too late. This chapter is a study in how to lose the press–sometimes you just have to see that you are on the wrong side of an issue and that it is best to back down. Moses never cared to learn this lesson.
It gets worse. After a chapter called “Late Arrival” where Caro gives us a profile of the newspapermen who finally arrived to challenge Moses, we learn about a fight he had over a Shakespearian festival in Central Park. Noting repeatedly that Moses’ heart wasn’t in this fight, Caro details how Moses fought with a theater producer of Shakespeare in the park. It’s more of Moses fighting losing battles, and in this case, battles he didn’t even want to win. Again, the book is getting sad at this point. Moses’ power is beginning to look tenuous, and he’s lost his onetime greatest ally, the press. Caro notes in this chapter that Moses had long been the “hero” of the press. Now he was the “villain.” And as modern political observers have noted, once you lose control of your image, your brand, and your storyline, it’s very, very difficult to get them back.
I will say here that it is obvious to me that Moses would never have survived as long as he did if he spent a career dealing with the post-Watergate press, to say nothing of dealing with social media! Despite the competition that was prevalent in the newspaper industry in the 60s, it was still clubby enough that a well-timed call to an editor could spike a story. That’s less and less the case today. Imagine what he would have done if a Facebook page sprouted up with 5,000 likes? Where the Mayors and Councilmembers felt like they could comfort in the power of their constituents? Moses would have had a hard time maintaining his power for so long. And it’s evident in the relatively short political careers we see in today’s governments.
But that’s really another beautiful angle of this book. We’re getting a glimpse into not only who Moses was and what NYC was, but also, how our society and politics operated during these four decades. No wonder this book is so invaluable.
Chapters 39 and 40: The Highwayman and Point of No Return
These chapters go from the 5,000 foot view featured in “One Mile” to the 35,000 foot view. Caro is mostly arguing with Moses’ philosophy of building highways instead of mass transit and is offering evidence that Moses’ highways did permanent damage to Long Island and New York.
I can’t help but feel that Caro set us up with “One Mile” so he could follow with two chapters that amount to basically a referendum on cars, highways and sprawl. We’re vulnerable here, Mr. Caro, we’re hating on Moses pretty bad, and then you go all in on the gospel of mass transit over cars and density over development. Are you taking advantage of us?
Like with all of these chapters, Caro is a skilled prosecutor. Moses built highways and they did nothing to alleviate traffic. More cars filled the old and new routes. Moses did not leave room for trains and transit, when that might have encouraged density in places like Long Island, rather than sprawl and more traffic. His highways were self-perpetuating–because Moses needed to keep building to stay in power, he just found ways to build more highways. The examples of Idlewild Airport (now JFK) and the Long Island Railroad are, as usual, persuasive. (See the separate entry below, for a verbatim example of Caro’s convincing writing style.)
But what’s nagging at me here is that Caro is laying all of the traffic and sprawl right on Moses’ doorstep, and ignoring the fact that in the late 40s and 50s, people wanted cars and different lifestyles. This might be an example of how, too often, planners try to impose their lifestyle preferences on everyone. Some urban planners think city life is so wonderful that they want to remake every neighborhood in that view. Walk everywhere, take buses for longer trips, live in dense communities. Suburban planners can be just as unbending–we have to have big yards, big roads, big developments. But planners aren’t the people, who have their own preferences, who vote with their feet, and who have free will.
Caro, at times, seems to argue that had Moses spent his time on public transit in Long Island, that the Island wouldn’t be as sprawling as it is. Maybe there would be more nature and more density. I don’t buy this. I think that during the baby boom, people were seeking to live a different lifestyle. Caro believes that the highway created the demand. I wonder instead if the demand didn’t exist and the highway was the response.
This is tough for me, because I’m naturally a city guy. I like the density and noise and even the disorder that comes with living in an urban environment. If there was effective public transit nearby, I’d use it. I could not imagine living north of the Ronald Reagan Highway. Sitting in traffic on 71 sounds just like the traffic Caro describes. Awful. A miserable life. But. It’s my decision. I choose to live this lifestyle. Others choose different.
The person who chooses Fields Ertel Road isn’t choosing the traffic–they are choosing the yard, the pool, the bigger house and lot, and the convenient shopping zones. The road didn’t force them there. They are just making different value judgements.
I think that’s where Caro goes a little astray in these chapters. He blames Moses and the road for giving the people what they wanted. Sure, there are times when you can control sprawl and encourage sustainable development (see Portland, Oregon), but it has to be done in a way that respects the citizens’ desires. Or else people will move. Absent the highways, would Long Island today look like Caro thinks it should have? Or would people have sought out other places to live that better suited their preferences?
I was pretty critical of these chapters–not because Caro is wrong, but because they are somewhat incomplete. I can’t believe I’m saying any part of a 1100 page book is incomplete. But it would have been worth looking at the people who were buying cars and choosing, on purpose, to live away from the city lifestyle.
Addendum: Chapters 39 and 40
Up above, I noted Caro’s persuasive writing style. I can’t help showing you. Here’s ONE SENTENCE, from page 908-909, where Caro is arguing that Moses was out of touch.
Changing realities could have changed his thinking, but he was utterly insulated from reality by the sycophancy of his yes men; by his power, which, independent as it was of official or public opinion–of, in fact, any opinion but his own–made it unnecessary for him to take any opinion but his own into account; by, most of all, his personality, the personality that made it not only unnecessary but impossible for him to conceive that he might have been wrong; the personality that needed applause, thereby reinforcing the tendency to repeat the simplistic formula that had won him applause before; the personality that made it possible for him to relate to the class of people that owned automobiles and that was repelled by the class of people that did not own automobiles; the personality whose vast creative energies were fired by the vision of cleanliness, order, openness, sweep–such as the clean, open sweep of a highway–and were repelled by dirt and noise, such as the dirt and noise he associated with trains; the personality that made him not only want but need monuments and that saw in highways–and their adjunct, suspension bridges (“the most permanent structures built by man”)–the structures that would have a clean, clear in-eradicable mark on history; the personality that, driven now by the lust for power, made him anxious to build more revenue- (and power-) producing bridges and parking lots (and highways to encourage their use) and that made him either indifferent or antagonistic to subways and railroads which would compete with his toll facilities not only for users but for city construction funds.
Argue with that. Tough, right.
Chapters 37 and 38: One Mile and One Mile Afterward
My friend Scott calls these chapters “one of the greatest bits of writing he has ever encountered.” He’s not wrong.
For all the years I’ve heard about this book, people have described it as a biography, as a book about politics, a book about power, a book about city planning, and a book about cities. Here’s where it all comes together, in a triumphant chapter that, if you only read part of this book, is the one to read.
Caro’s flexing his muscles with this chapter, writing about New York and its neighborhoods in such an impressive fashion. Earlier, when I quoted Caro describing how to “understand” a neighborhood? This is exhibit A. He puts readers in East Tremont, hangs Moses’ meat ax over their heads, and slowly brings it down in crushing dramatic fashion.
He personifies the neighborhood with Mrs. Lilian Edelstein, an unforgettable character who becomes the neighborhood’s strongest activist. There are Lillians in every city, so there’s some familiarity for anyone who has ever worked in a city. In this instance, the evidence that she is on the side of angels is so overwhelming, that it’s impossible not to root for her and against Moses. Caro has picked the perfect circumstance to illustrate the entire thesis of the book. It’s brilliant, really. And after Scott pointed it out, it’s hard not to see the entire book as leading up to this one chapter about one mile in one neighborhood.
For recap purposes, Moses is building the Cross-Bronx Expressway, and runs it directly through a neighborhood called East Tremont. He has several other and much better options, but even when confronted with the fact the better options exist, Moses refuses to bend. The neighbors assemble, fight and fight, and Moses wins, destroying the fabric of a neighborhood in the process. Moses loses a few battles in the process, but as always, wins the war. He overpowers Mayor Wagner and various other political actors, and his will is worked. Again.
Caro weaves into this chapter, as he has done intermittently, his direct interviews with Moses, referring to himself as the author. The description Moses offers of why a certain player in the Cross-Bronx debate changed his mind is eerily reminiscent of a scene from The Godfather, where Luca Brazi tells someone that either his brains or his signature would be on a certain piece of paper. The comparison is jarring. (And I’ll observe that these Caro cameos in the book are excellent–he uses them sparingly but perfectly.)
At the end of the main chapter, after the emotional turmoil of seeing Lillian, your neighbor and mine, lose to Moses, Caro smacks us with his own ax: the presumed truth about why Moses chose to route the Cross-Bronx the way he did. And it’s rooted in a political decision not to mess with a crappy little but terminal that was a convergence of Bronx political interests.
The afterward is simply a eulogy for the neighborhood.
Again, this could be a stand alone magazine piece or article (in fact, it may have been, as some of this book was excerpted in the New Yorker). If you are daunted by this book and it’s 1160+ pages, try these two chapters.
Chapter 36: The Meat Ax
Caro is firing on all cylinders now, and it turns out that “The Meat Ax” is how he describes Moses’ approach to building roads. In a way, this chapter is an introduction to the following two brilliant chapters, “One Mile” and “One Mile: Afterward.” The title of the chapter is referring to how Moses once described the challenge of building in “an overbuilt metropolis,” noting the only way to achieve success is to “hack your way with a meat ax.” This is horrifying language to Caro and he intends to show how Moses’ meat ax destroyed homes and families and neighborhoods.
Caro writes that “it is no accident that most of the world’s great roads–ancient and modern alike–had been associated with totalitarian regimes.” The reference is obvious to anyone who has read 846 pages of this book. Moses, “had a dictator’s powers”, and was able to cut and carve up communities to work his will on the people because of his power. He, like others in command of a totalitarian regime, was able to make a decision because his mind, and his mind alone, had been persuaded.
The title of this section of the book is “The Lust for Power,” and this chapter fits nicely into that theme. Caro points out that Moses enjoyed working his will on a neighborhood–“he loved to swing [the meat ax].” It’s a damning charge: Moses isn’t someone who wants to build a project because the project itself is good, he wants to build the project because it strengthens his own power and feeds his own ego.
At times, I’m still in awe of Moses. Believe me, Caro makes it tough to like the guy. But he is pressing forward and paying attention to infrastructure. Neighborhood groups be damned. In the Cincinnati bridge example we’ve already considered, a true Moses-like figure would run roughshod over the buildings and houses in Covington that are adding money and time and opposition to the project. Our inability to be like Moses is delaying by years a bridge that is imperative. Moses always claimed that “succeeding generations would be grateful.” What are we going to say generations from now if we never build that bridge because we’re worried about a few houses? Wouldn’t we be grateful if we had our Moses once in a while?
I guess it depends on whether you live in those houses or not. So much to think about with this book.
Chapter 35: RM
The detail in this book knows no bounds. RM is a chapter that is really about Moses’ personal style and preferences. It’s about how he used the trappings of power to intimidate and manipulate. Whether it was tickets to the Jones Beach shows or food at the opening of a bridge, Moses was “a host on an imperial scale.”
Caro’s research shines in this chapter. Each section describing a Moses event or style is brought to life like a movie scene, especially the descriptions of an invite to Jones Beach.
Caro sees Moses’ aides as sycophants, and it’s smart that he included a description of how Moses treated his staff. Powerful people can be awful to their employees as a way of intimidating and scaring loyalty into them. It’s horrible to see up close because it is so manipulative and preys on emotion. Moses had his people whipped into shape; they referred to him as “RM” and fretted over every detail, in hopes the boss would never be displeased. How many members of Congress behave the same way? How many executives? Plenty. It may be power, but it ain’t leadership.
As his power grew and the protective bubble he requested closed in, Moses became more out of touch. He never drove so he failed to understand driving, traffic, or the true highway experience. He never “allowed himself any time for reflection, for thought.” This is a damning charge by Caro. His punch lands with example after example about how Moses was unable to deal with the new reality of living in New York. And then, in almost a low blow, Caro tells the reader that Moses was going deaf. Of course, this is a symbol, a physical manifestation of what Caro thinks is a giant Moses flaw: his inability to listen.
And that incapability of hearing is what led to the drama in the next three chapters.
An Interlude: Insure vs. Ensure
An interlude. It seems Mr. Caro prefers to use “insure” universally throughout the book, even at times when “ensure” seems to be the better fit. It has been driving me mad:
- “Half of all tickets, moreover, would be placed on sale on the evening of the fight, to insure that there would be plenty for the general public.”
- “And it therefore had been important to insure that these families had the most pleasant surroundings possible to drive through, and within the city’s limits the most pleasant surroundings were those provided by parks.”
- “Soon, to Moses’ rage, the commission was even embarking on a study of criteria for playgrounds to insure that they were built where they were most needed.”
In none of these sentences is Mr. Caro actually talking about an insurance policy. So what gives?
To the tubes!
Webster’s says that a secondary definition of “insure” is “to make certain especially by taking necessary measures and precautions.” Which seems to mean that Mr. Caro’s use of “insure” is technically accurate. “Ensure,” in the same dictionary, is defined as “to make certain, sure or safe.” And “insure” is listed as a synonym for “ensure” and vice-versa.
Over at “DailyWritingTips,” there’s a reference to the AP Stylebook and the Chicago Manual of Style, which both encourage a distinction between insure/ensure.
- The AP Stylebook offers these guidelines: Use ensure to mean guarantee: Steps were taken to ensure accuracy. Use insure for references to insurance: The policy insures his life.
- According to the Chicago Manual of Style, “we ensure events and insure things. But we assure people that their concerns are being addressed.”
And in 2005, in a New York Times column, the nation’s grammarian in chief, the late William Safire, wrote: “In American English, ensure and insure have merged and are now interchangeable.”
In regular business writing, I’ve always corrected “insures” to “ensures” unless we were talking about a financial instrument. I guess I was wrong.
Chapter 34—Moses and The Mayors
Caro’s drifting now from the structure at the beginning of the book. As we’ve gotten further and further from Moses’ early days, we’ve gotten less attached to a chronological approach to biography. In fact, from here on out, at least until the end of Book VI, we’re going topic by topic and bouncing all over the place from a date point-of-view.
This chapter talks about the relationship Moses had with the three Mayors post La Guardia: O’Dwyer, Impellitteri, and Wagner. Having established that Moses was more powerful than any one Mayor, Caro spends some time describing how he dominated each of these three Mayors. Impy is the best section, by far. Hearing about how he was first run for office—basically he had an Italian name and lived in a district where they needed an Italian candidate. Moses just ran roughshod over each of these guys.
We revisit the Wagner episode from the introduction—where Moses threatens to resign unless he is reappointed to all three commissionerships, and Caro gets Wagner to sheepishly admit that the episode took place, basically as it was told in the introduction. It shaped the entire Wagner administration—once Moses realized he had that power over Wagner, he always had the upper hand.
Caro seems to believe these mayors are total stooges, and faults them as much as he faults Moses. They were unable to control Moses, and Caro points out where they should have been able to stand up to him. But they didn’t, and as the chapter concludes: “Under Wagner, as under O’Dwyer, and Impelliterri, not the Mayor but Moses shaped the city.”
Chapter 33—Leading out the Regiment
“The magnet which attracts corrupters…the natural locus of corruption is always where the discretionary power resides.”
So says Edward Costikyan, quoted in the chapter “Leading out the Regiment.” This quote sums up the chapter and its point about Moses’ power being based on his ability to steer contracts and keep his allies fat and happy. I had a hard time with this chapter, but I recognize its importance. Moses is finding ways to make sure insurance companies, banks, engineers, architects, and developers kept getting rich. And once the spigot is turned on, it becomes less and less likely that any one of those groups will decide to challenge Moses. Moses, Caro points out, never got personally rich—he was “money honest.” But his friends got rich, and this web of corruption enabled him to maintain and consolidate power.
Caro puts it best.
“[Moses] mobilized economic interests into a unified, irresistible force and with that force warped the city off its democratic bias. During his decades of power, the public works decisions that determined the city’s shape were made on the basis not of democratic but of economic considerations…He and he alone—not the city’s people, not the government officials the people elected to represent them, not the power brokers who dominated some of these officials—decided what public works would be built, when they would be built and to what design they would be built. He was the supreme power broker.”
The theory is this: control the flow of money—the discretionary power—and control the city.
GUEST POST! by JIM SHUMAKER
Editors Note: Guest Post #2 on this mini-blog from a reader in Columbus and a dear friend who has known me since I was in diapers. Probably before that. Here Jim adds an important piece to the discussion of “The Power Broker,” Moses’ reaction to the book. Glad to have you reading along, Jim.
So as I’ve been reading along–in what turns out to be a nearly 1200 page, absolute page-turner of a book–I’ve been wondering how “The Power Broker” reacted to Robert Caro’s work. Still alive at the time of publication in 1974, did Robert Moses submit to interviews, offer praise or denial, provide any public reaction, at all, to such an intimate, exacting, and even damning review of his life?
Chapters 29-32 of Book VI, The Lust for Power
I’m hesitant to group these four chapters together, but I feel like they are interrelated enough to do it.
The basic plot of the story of these four chapters surrounds the Tunnel Authority, which Moses did not control and wanted to. Moses uses his power to push a plan to build the Brooklyn Battery Bridge instead of the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel. He wins every legislative and administrative fight, despite unprecedented opposition, until he is stopped by an old enemy, President Franklin Roosevelt, who declares the bridge to be a national security risk. This is a great story and as you read it, you can tell that Caro delighted in telling it. He writes here with suspense and drama and characters that could only be imagined in the movies. The battle is made more intense and personal because many of the reformers that helped Moses rise to power decades before and supported him all along, finally have their very public break with him. They are forced to look in the mirror and realize that their enemy in the bridge fight is an enemy they themselves created. High drama, I’m telling you. There are old men with canes storming City Hall, trying to thwart the bridge plans with passionate speeches. Moses responds by throwing dirt and arm-twisting.
And then, the dramatic scene at the end, when the reformers realize they have one card left to play and decide to “Call Eleanor.” You want to cheer. Aaron Sorkin would be proud.
But Bob Moses plays the long game. No sooner has he lost (and a loss that Caro helpfully points out, took a U.S. President to deliver), Moses seeks revenge. Petty revenge. He tries to destroy a historic castle in Battery Park, succeeding in tearing out it’s popular aquarium. (Caro waxes eloquent throughout this chapter, and his love for New York, especially historic New York, is palpable.) Moses’ again may not have had complete victory, but he was wearing down the opposition and winning even when he was losing.
Someone once spoke to me of a political enemy and said “Someday, they will make the unfortunate mistake of stepping into my crosshairs, and I’ll be waiting.” It was a violent metaphor, but the point was this: hold your grudge, and be waiting to take advantage of a situation when your opponent inevitably trips up. Moses laid in wait for the Tunnel Authority, and finally, when he had the ability to publicly embarras its leadership, he pounced. And won. Once he did, he had a complete monopoly over all inter-city water crossings. He opted for complete destruction of his opponent, even taking care to make sure the tunnel’s engineer and designer was frozen out and given little credit for his work. It’s a power play, plain and simple. It makes you cringe, but at the same time, it is awesome. The chapter ends with La Guardia on his deathbed, wistfully remarking of Moses that “now no one will be able to control him.”
We are now seeing Moses’ power in full bloom. It is ugly and cruel and deliberate and vengeful and what’s most frightening? It works. At this point, if you still “like” Moses, well, I’d be surprised. The guy is a bad man. But at this point in the book, he is still building. And in 1946, his power and influence over New York was only growing. It’s nothing short of astonishing.
I always do this. I read ahead and then have to go back and blog something from 200 pages ago. I’m currently on page 800. The book is in full slog right now. I’m still enjoying it, but man, there’s Just. So. Much.
Back in the 600s, we were learning about Moses’ familial relationships. Thank goodness for the two guest blogs, which allowed me to take some deep breaths after learning what a horrible human being Moses had become.
The final chapter called “Changing” details Moses and La Guardia’s falling out over the tunnel authority and housing policy. Little Flower sees that Moses has increased his power to an extent that makes governing problematic and so perhaps “Changing” is referring to how the perception of Moses had changed. Or maybe it is referring to how Moses is “Changing” in his approach to governing. He begins to focus on accumulating more power, for the sake of it, and to do it outside of the bounds of the traditional political system. And that leads into a chapter I loved, “The Warp on the Loom.”
This chapter draws influence from “The Best Bill Drafter in Albany” and it looks at how Moses created more power within the Triborough Bridge Authority to do other projects, make contracts, and supersede government action. Bottom line, by using the Authority, Robert Moses was ensconced in his role. You can’t help but admire the sheer power grab of Moses in this chapter. He rewrote state law to expand the powers of a public authority, described by Caro as possessing “not only the powers of a large private corporation but some of the powers of a sovereign state.”
There’s a rumor that people who work for public authorities are often urged to read “The Power Broker” and this chapter would explain why. Caro masterfully explains how authorities can work and what they can accomplish. If you live in city with a public authority, you should also read this chapter. These are bodies with incredible influence and power, but are often unaccountable and indifferent to traditional government pressure points. That’s not always a bad thing, but people should take more time than they do to know exactly what is going on within these organizations.
Midway through the chapter, Caro points out that one of Moses’ favorite tools for exercising power and manipulating others was the use of persuasive marketing materials. He quotes Jack Madigan: “It never ceases to amaze me how you can talk and talk and talk to some guy about something you’ve got in mind, and he isn’t very impressed and then you bring in a beautiful picture of it or, better yet, a scale model with the bridge all in white and the water nice and blue, see, and you can see his eyes light up.” Ain’t that the truth. Planners and developers have manipulated elected officials and communities for years with colorful maps and displays. It’s candy. And Moses realized it. Control the blueprints and the plans, and you’ve got a leg up on everyone else. Memo to everyone out there in the persuasion business: find yourself a talented graphic designer.
GUEST POST! By Keith Dailey
(Editor’s Note: By my count, there are at least four of us reading The Power Broker. Maybe there are lurkers out there too. Here’s the first of what I hope will be several guest posts from the others reading the book. Want in? Just email me. Take it away, Keith.)
I’ve heard that in some cultures a speaker before an audience always begins by apologizing. Apologizing for standing before them, for lacking in qualifications and requisite wisdom, etc. Not to do so would be considered poor form – a lack of humility.
So I’ll begin by apologizing, mainly because I am woefully behind Brendon and the group that has commented so far. My thoughts are relegated to Parts I and II of Caro’s masterpiece.
I too loved the chapters featuring Alfred E. Smith, and the description of him and Robert Moses’ budding friendship in the early 1920s – from the time after Smith lost reelection as governor until his landslide victory to take back the state’s top job two years later.
In it, Caro paints a picture of a changed Moses.
Moses – once a reformer, an idealist, a “Goo Goo” in Al Smith’s vernacular – had changed under the tutelage of Mrs. M and through his walks and talks with the then-between-elections Smith. He morphs, it seems, from a wild-eyed idealist to a Machiavellian political operator. It is a critical turning point in the Moses narrative.
And I think there is truth to this kind of transformation, though it isn’t particularly unique to Moses. In fact, it is more common than not that time spent in the heat of politics, particularly high politics, results in a hardening of sorts, a hardening that is a bit like steel forged in a crucible. Part of the reason for this hardening and shedding of idealism is that you are so quickly confronted with the harsh realization that your individual ability to affect change is terribly constricted. This constriction is at the very heart of how our political system is constructed. With two opposing sides, the ability to enact dramatic change is severely limited because the other side will always have an absolute incentive to disagree. That’s what leads so often to politics as a zero sum game, which the young Moses clearly learned through his early battles in the bureaucracy-reform crowd. Each time he came close to seeing the reforms he worked so tirelessly for enacted, an election or shift in the political winds crushed his dreams. Hard to remain an idealist in such an environment, Caro seems to be saying.
So we see Moses experiencing some of this during Smith’s first term as governor, and I agree that Moses had changed in someways during this early period. But lingering in my mind is a hidden theme: In a more fundamental way, Moses hadn’t changed at all.
You can look at his political maneuverings and his pure joy in political tricksterism as a sign of his change. But I also see his shift to underhanded political tactics as rooted in the very same character traits that Caro introduces from the first (his argument with the captain of his college swim team), and again through his period of entrenched idealism and absolute insistence on his way, damn the costs or consequences.
Moses’ animating desire is to have an influence in the world. That is Caro’s point, I suppose – the author makes clear that this is a story about power, and what is “influence in the world” if not power?
But how much has Moses really changed? At the end of the day, his motivation seems to be exactly the same: How do I, Bob Moses, have influence in the world?
Put another way, when the arrogance of his ideas didn’t work, he simply shifted to the arrogance of power.
Pride, a friend and mentor once said, is the cardinal sin in politics. You can mess up – even badly – and voters may forgive you. But they won’t forgive pride or hubris. They won’t forgive arrogance. Because those selfish motivations are rooted in one of the most destructive of all negative emotions: contempt. It can take many forms – condescending, patronizing, dismissing – but in the end to “hold someone in contempt” is simply placing yourself above others and looking down on them. It is about power overothers. And that is pretty much what we’ve seen from the young Moses until his time learning the art of politics from Mrs. M and Alfred E. Smith. Always a good student, he emerges wiser about “how to get things done”, perhaps, but Moses the man is no different in more fundamental ways.
It is hard to like Robert Moses. Thankfully, it is easy to love this book. I’m eagerly anticipating the next several chapters and fortunately, Caro’s “biography within a biography” device that Scott pointed out in an earlier post here adds flashes of light to what may become an increasingly dark story (it is Gotham City we’re talking about here, right?). And then there is Caro’s writing. Wow – simply spectacular how he moves the reader so lucidly in and out of details without ever losing site of the broader themes. We can all take lessons from that. I’m pretty sure I did not accomplish that in my post here, but I did enjoy the opportunity to share my thoughts.
Book V–(Chapter 26)
Oh, man. This chapter.
I remarked to someone the other day that I was curious why we weren’t learning more about Moses and his familial relationships. Since the early chapters about Bella and Moses meeting his wife, we haven’t heard much. And now I see because Caro has decided to save much of it up, sculpt it into a club, and beat us over the head with it. In this chapter, “Two Brothers,” we learn that Moses’ power trip didn’t stop on his way home.
The bulk of the chapter details his relationship with his brother Paul, described as an equally brilliant individual. By all accounts, Paul would have been an influential civil servant in his own right, but was prevented from being one because of a long grudge with his brother, the powerful Robert Moses. The chapter is painful to read because of the personal nature of the grudge and the mystery surrounding it. Even Caro is unable to uncover all of the details; Caro discloses he was about to hear more of the story but Paul Moses collapsed as he began it and died a few days later. The bitterness and sadness in this story seeps from the pages, and it’s difficult not to feel sympathy toward Paul and hatred toward Robert.
At the end of the chapter, Caro rounds out his picture of Moses, the man. He ignores his sister, talks badly about his father, and, don’t act shocked, cheats on his wife. The chapter ends with us learning that Mary Moses was likely an alcoholic, committed at one point to an institution, and Robert Moses was out on the prowl, doing what so many men with power have done for centuries.
I mean, I’m not really surprised by any of this at this point, are you? The guy manipulated and intimidated and used people in the most callous of ways, and well, for most, it’s impossible for that behavior to be compartmentalized in just a professional setting. See a guy who is always scheming and jockeying in the office, and chances are, he’s doing the same thing in his personal life.
Book V “The Love of Power”–Chapter 25
Chapter 25 is one of the longest in the book, clocking in at about 75 pages. It’s the second chapter called “Changing,” and Caro spends it showing how the City and Moses were both changing. It also feels like a turning point in the book for Caro’s own analyses of Moses. Caro’s criticisms seem more stern and judgmental; of course Moses’ behavior leaves the author no real choice. Yet it is clear: in Chapter 25, the tone of the book is also changing.
An early story in the chapter involves Moses tearing down a clubhouse out of sheer spite. Caro says that Moses “liked hurting” others, but his personal satisfaction out of besting opponents was second to the fact that by settling these scores, he was only increasing his power. Moses has learned the power of intimidation. Once he had clawed his way to power, one manner of keeping it was through intimidation. And reading about it, seeing each story play out up close, and it’s easy to see why Caro’s voice is changing.
The chapter shifts to a discussion of how Moses biased approach to building playgrounds and pools and parks. It’s a rare flaw in Caro’s organization: this piece of the Moses puzzle may have deserved its own chapter. In detail Caro shows how Moses left Harlem and other predominantly minority neighborhoods out of his plans. In some cases, he flat out uses his power and people to intimidate minorities from using the public works he built. It’s tough to read, because it feels just so evil. I suspect we’ll read more about race as the book goes on, in the housing chapters I assume, but this felt like it deserved more attention.
The rest of the chapter is spent on how Moses changed Brooklyn by building the Gowanus Parkway and Manhattan by building the Henry Hudson. The theme in the two stories is that in each case Moses had other options for building the parkways, but never acquiesced, despite clear evidence there were better ideas that existed. Moses’ arrogance is stunning–repeatedly he is refusing to listen or meet with constituents, just living by the notion that the parkway was his way or no way. In working this way, he destroyed neighborhoods and parks and missed out on opportunities that would have bettered New York.
At times, Caro’s defense of these neighborhoods sounds like he could be one of those Goo Goos that thinks their plan is better than the plan that is actually plausible. This is where my blind spot exists for this book. I don’t know New York other than as a tourist and hell, I’ve never even been to Brooklyn or out on Long Island. Google Maps has been my friend during this book, but even still, it’s tough to imagine what Caro is describing. Is he being a sentimentalist, or did Moses really, truly destroy these neighborhoods? I have no reason to doubt Caro–everything about this book is so studiously researched–but these are difficult judgments to make without, as Caro wrote in Chapter 24, “knowing and understanding” the neighborhoods.
The chapter ends with a Al Smith cameo, and a moment where the student decides he is smarter than the teacher. It’s moment when Smith cautions Moses about relying too much on the support of the press and public, by saying “That’s a slender reed to lean on.” Moses reportedly discounted the advice, with a now typical arrogance, firmly believing that he would never make the same mistakes Smith did.
Book IV–(Chapter 24)
The final Chapter of Book IV, “The Use of Power” is called “Driving.” Chapter 13 was also called “Driving” and there are three chapters called “Changing.” It’s an interesting device. Anyone want to comment on why Caro chose to do that?
Anyway, this chapter was brilliant. It’s mostly about Moses bullying his way into getting what he wants. (Like many of the other chapters.) But Caro does something interesting here when he delves into urban city life, and how Moses ran roughshod over it.
Caro’s writing is as good in this chapter as I’ve seen it, and I feel like I want to share several longish paragraphs with you. Here, Caro is describing the challenge of doing development in an urban setting (he’s comparing NYC with Long Island):
“If in creating public works on Long Island, one could paint on a clean and empty canvas, in creating public works in New York City one had to paint over and already existing mural, a mural whose brush strokes were tiny and intricate and often, when one looked closely, quite wonderful, lending to the vast urban panorama subtle shadings and delicate tints and an endless variety, so that if it was crowded and confused and ugly it was also full of life and very human, so much so, in fact, that while the painting as a whole might lack beauty, order, balance, perspective, a unifying principle and an over-all effect commensurate with its size, it nonetheless possessed many charming little touches and an over-all vitality, a brio, that made it unique and should not be lost.”
God Damn. Guy can write!
Now this, on the very next page, continuing his exposition on how cities were different than rural communities, and how Moses didn’t care to learn enough about the intricacies of a neighborhood before he decided what the neighborhood needed.
“Moreover, even a genius couldn’t deduce the needs of a neighborhood–any neighborhood–until he knew and understood it. And the only way of knowing and understanding it was to study and learn about it, to find out how many children lived in it and how old they were, what games they liked to play, what games their parents liked to play with them on weekends, what games their parents liked to play among themselves, to find out whether the parents liked to play games at all or simply to sit quietly and talk, whether the neighborhood’s teenage boys wanted a place to walk after dinner and watch the neighborhood’s teenage girls walk or whether they wanted to spend their time after dinner playing basketball, to find out which streets the neighborhood’s mothers considered safe enough so that their children could cross them alone and thus use a playground on the far side whenever they wanted and which streets the mothers considered too dangerous, to find out exactly how far the children were willing to get to a playground in the first place. And there was only one way to learn about a neighborhood listen to its people, discuss their problems with them.”
I love that paragraph, because it reminds me of the really talented public servants I have known. They listened and discussed the problems and sought to understand them with nuance and an open-mind. The best city residents do the same thing–they take time to understand their own communities in a deep, textured way. I don’t remember that being a priority in the suburbs–the suburbs required less work from its residents. A lot less work. Cities require work and participation. Caro is capturing the uniqueness of city-living in this chapter–and he’s not giving Moses good grades for his understanding of it.
Anyway, this was the end of Book IV. Crossing to page 500 in Book V. Almost halfway home.
Book IV–(Chapters 22-23)
We’re approaching the end of Book IV, and the halfway point. These three chapters are important. In “Order Number 129,” Moses goes toe to toe with President Roosevelt in a colossal battle of wills. Moses wins. The chapter is a clinic in how to use power to protect yourself and win an argument. Moses schools the President of the United States. It’s also a classic example of how Moses fights to win, and then uses that win to increase his own power. Some, after a public battle, will be wounded and weakened. Not Moses. He comes out of these battles with even more power, another reoccurring theme in this book.
Reading “In The Saddle,” we find Moses manipulating LaGuardia and besting even his old friends. (If this is how you treat your friends…) Moses identifies what each individual needs to stay satisfied; with La Guardia it is publicity and accolades. So that’s what he gets, attending every pool and park opening. When Moses serves these up for the Mayor, it’s unlikely the Mayor would find it wise to challenge Moses at all. There’s also a moment where Caro describes the dynamic between Moses and La Guardia. He notes that the Mayor was jealous of the respect Moses showed for Al Smith. Because Moses knew this, it allowed him to more easily manipulate the Mayor. Amazing stuff.
Book IV–(Chapter 21)
As much as I liked Chapter 20, I disliked Chapter 21. This is the moment when we see the book’s main character fail in an embarrassingly public way. It’s like the scene in the Godfather where Michael Corleone gets beat up by the Irish cop. You know he’s going to get even, but still, it’s very tough to watch.
Moses runs for Governor. He is coerced into the race, though he surely would accept the power, and over five weeks in 1934 (yes, the same year he did all the building described in the previous chapter), he runs ugly. The campaign is painful to read about. And it is strange to see Moses exhibit such a political tin ear when it comes to his own image as a campaigner. But the bottom line is this–campaigning was beneath Moses. He believed he was right and didn’t need the voters to tell him he was. His confidence and ego made him the worst kind of candidate. And it seems he realized it.
I really didn’t like this chapter, but I see why it was necessary. It felt out of place, and indeed, it was somewhat out of chronological order as I alluded to above. In the previous chapter, we read about the entire year of 1934 and all of Moses’ amazing achievements, and not a word about his campaign for Governor that went on at the same time. It just felt “off” structurally.
The one part I loved about this chapter featured, who else, Al Smith. Moses goes to his former mentor, who owed him plenty, and asked for his support, despite the fact Moses was running as a Republican. Smith responds: “Bob, you know I play this game like a regular.” A regular, meaning a party-loyalist. It’s a great expression and one that is so perfect for the era. Playing the game like a regular. Love it.
Book IV–(Chapters 19 and 20)
Two more great chapters: Caro dives right into Moses’ work in the City and shows us his ability to get things done. After attempting to become Mayor of NYC on a Fusion ticket and losing the nomination because of a political feud, Moses joins the victor’s Administration, working for the new Mayor, Fiorello La Guardia. Harkening back to the chapter about the best bill drafter in Albany, we see Moses define a new role running the park systems of NYC. He assumes roles in both state and municipal government–an obvious conflict–and begins to build. This paragraph:
There were now seven separate governmental agencies concerned with parks and major roads in the New York metropolitan area. They were the Long Island State Park Commission, the New York State Council of Parks, the Jones Beach State Park Authority, the Bethpage State Park Authority, the New York City Park Department, the Triborough Bridge Authority and the Marine Parkway Authority. Robert Moses was in charge of all of them.
At the end of Chapter 19, Moses and his engineers (his ability to put engineers into the field more quickly than anyone else enabled him to get things funded and built) storm the parks, parkways, and roads to remake the City in Moses’ vision.
And then Chapter 20, “One Year.” The year was 1934, and it was the year Moses went to work remaking New York in a big way. The 30+ page chapter is just story after story of how Moses bigfooted his way through the City to renovate parks, reopen a zoo, and begin the building of the Triborough Bridge. Caro’s ability as a writer shines through here. You literally cannot read this chapter without getting a sense of the immensity of the work by Moses. The story of the reopening of the Central Park Zoo would be important if it were just about how he quickly accomplished his task. But it was also about how he found a way to honor his old patron, Governor Al Smith. Caro, thorough as always, makes sure he tells readers how Moses gave Smith a master key to the zoo, allowing him to walk around and feed the animals at night. That’s loyalty and also confidence.
Read this chapter for no other reason than to learn about the scale of the Triborough Bridge and how Moses was able to jump start the project in such a short period of time. It’s jaw-dropping. In Cincinnati, where I live, we have a structurally deficient bridge that is part of one of the most necessary highways in the United States, from an economic and transit standpoint. Everyone, everyone, knows it must be rebuilt. We know we must toll it. And we know that there are only one or two legitimately viable options for designing it. Yet this bridge will take us decades to build. It limits our potential and success as a region. Robert Moses would be aghast at our inability to build.
And then the coup de grace of “One Year.” Moses decides to settle a political score on behalf of former Governor Smith. He tears down the casino that belonged to Jimmie Walker, who humiliated Smith. It’s a tale of pure revenge and is just great fun to read. Anyone who goes to work in a bureaucracy of a city should be required to read this chapter.
Book IV–(Chapter 18)
This chapter is called “New York City Before Robert Moses” and it seems like this is going to be central to the rest of the book. I really liked this chapter. It was helpful to me, a non-New Yorker, in understanding the City and its history up until the 30s. The City’s infrastructure was crumbling, corruption was rampant, and essentially, the City was not functioning as it should. At the end of the chapter, we see Moses giving a speech to a civic club, articulating his vision for NYC, with new roads, bridges, highways, parks and infrastructure. The one thing that stands out here is that Moses’ vision didn’t shift much from when he first started work. He had a plan to connect the City and open up the state its residents. It was visionary. He would have been a SimCity champion.
Book IV–(Chapters 16 and 17)
As Erik alluded to in the comments below, these are the chapters where we meet Governor and future President Franklin Roosevelt, or as Robert Moses insisted on calling him, “Frank.” (!) We learn, via an introduction of the classic phrase “they go back a long way,” that Moses and Roosevelt did not like each other.
The bad blood between the two was enough to temper Moses’ power, but not curtail it completely. Though he lost his Secretary of State position, he retained control of the park systems. The bad blood was also rooted in the Roosevelt’s treatment of his predecessor, Al Smith. That’s not entirely unusual in my political experience; in order to draw a distinction between two administrations, the successor usually overcorrects and disses the predecessor in one way or another that is really just ego warfare. But it is interesting to see it come to life with a future president and Governor Smith.
The next chapter, “The Mother of Accommodation,” details Moses’ capitulation on the placement of the Northern State Parkway–more evidence that Moses would make a deal with the powers that be in order to amass more power later on. His decisions, Caro argues, cost taxpayers because the ultimate route was inferior. Moses and Roosevelt snipe throughout the chapter, but there’s also a level of mutual respect, in part because Moses allowed Roosevelt to get credit for some successes. “Moses was fond of repeating a quote often used in Albany. ‘You can get an awful lot of good done in the world if you’re willing to let someone else take the credit for it,'” Caro writes.
Finally, there’s a short discussion about Moses’ opinion of the public, which is to say, not a good one. We learn of his racist treatment of African American citizens, by making it more difficult for them to use the parks. We hear a quote from Frances Perkins about how he’d “denounce the common people terribly” and how “he loves the public, but not as people.” This is damning stuff, and it’s introduced, again as discussed in the comments below, as a way of showing that Moses was able to be dismissive of individual desires in favor of the public’s (as Luke points out, the public is as he defines it). In each successive chapter, you can see him slowly turning into the worst kind of powerful agent of the government.
More later this week. I’m through about 370 pages now–about a third of the book. On we go.
Book IV–(Chapters 13-15)
These three chapters take us to the end of Governor Al Smith’s term, when Moses is striving to finish the parks. In the chapter “Driving” we learn how Moses leads. At times, the description of Moses reminded me of David Cohen, Ed Rendell’s Chief of Staff in “A Prayer for the City” in terms of the commitment he gave to the job. Caro says that Moses “brought out the best” in his men. So we get a sense that, though he could be an incredibly demanding leader, his people were by and large glad to be on his team.
Lots of minutiae in these chapters, and many more instances of Moses using his power to get what he wanted. We see how he was reliant on Governor Smith, but also willing to push the envelope. I’ve observed that some who have power because they work for an elected official will be satisfied just using, by extension, that elected official’s power. But Moses used the elected’s power to build his own. There’s an extended discussion of why Smith kept Moses around, despite his rough edges. Much of it boiled down to personal friendship and respect (it always does). Caro notes that Smith loved a toast that Richard Childs gave describing Robert Moses. Childs said:
“You all know Bob [Moses] of course. He’s so forthright and honest that if he saw a man across the street who he thought was a son of a bitch, he would cross the street and call him a son of a bitch, lest by passing him in silence, his silence be misconstrued.”
That’s fantastic. I know people like that, and Childs does a great job explaining that kind of personality.
In Chapter 15, “Curator of Cauliflowers,” we see how Moses yells at people, how he swam every day to stay happy, and see more of how he led. Caro says that “Moses’ men feared him, but they also admired and respected him–many of them seemed to love him.”
At the close of the chapter, we see Robert Moses at his worst, taking property away from a farmer who had little means to fight back. After trying to take property from the barons, and realizing he could make deals with them to achieve more of his goals, Moses settles instead on taking property from James Roth. It’s a stark injustice and difficult to read, mostly because at this point, I’m still generally rooting for Moses. This was a raw display of power and here, quite clearly, someone lacking money and power gets screwed. This section is mentioned in a comment below, and I think it will end up being a pivotal story in pages to come.
Book IV–The Use of Power (Chapters 11 and 12)
Good lord, this is a fantastic book. I didn’t know I could be enthralled by a 50 + page discussion of how Robert Moses built a highway and park system on Long Island. But I was reading this like it was Grisham or Rowling.
The first part of Book IV is centered around the fact that Robert Moses very clearly broke the law in taking land to build the Southern State Parkway and ultimately the southern Long Island park system. There’s no question he broke the law–Caro makes that abundantly clear. But Moses won by using the court system, his unbreakable bond with Governor Al Smith, and clever public relations. This section of the book is a CLINIC on how to get public works projects built.
Near the end of the first two chapters (“The Majesty of the Law” and “Robert Moses and the Creature of the Machine”) we arrive at a black and white articulation of some of the lessons Moses learned while using power to achieve his goals. The first two are heard regularly in the world of politics (and business): “You can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs” and “If the end doesn’t justify the means, what does?” These are an indication Moses was willing to do anything necessary to accomplish his goals.
But the lesson I liked the most was this: “Once you sink that first stake, they’ll never make you pull it up.” While he used every government lawyer available to delay the outcome of the court case (that found his taking illegal), he kept building the parkway and the park. He knew that once he started, the public would be outraged if the project stopped prematurely.
I thought a lot about these chapters and I couldn’t stop thinking about it in the context of my home, Cincinnati. Around the same time that Moses was conquering Long Island, the City of Cincinnati started to build a subway. Quite of bit of it is still in place, underneath Central Parkway and out by I-71. Here’s some background. But midway through the project, the City leaders quit and gave up on the project. Why, given Moses’ lesson, were proponents of the project unable to bring it to completion? We wasted all kind of money building the pieces we built, and then, lacking the will and the political support, gave up. Were we missing a Moses-like character? Is the difference that no one had accumulated the same amount of power Moses had?
And you can’t think about the subway without thinking about our streetcar project. The comparisons are obvious. Controversial public transit project. Expensive. Money has been spent and some small amount of dirt has been turned. And yet again, the project is in danger of cancellation. Think what you want about the streetcar project, but if it is canceled, the two projects will be inevitably linked for decades to come. We could be accused, once again, of failing to do big things. (The opposition can rightly state that we shouldn’t do big things just for the sake of doing big things, especially if the big things are bad ideas in the first place.) I don’t want this to (d)evolve into a streetcar debate, but what’s missing here in Cincinnati? Does the streetcar project need a Robert Moses? Or is it that it has one and Cincinnati just disapproves of that kind of raw demonstration of power? Is there something about our City’s culture that would prevent the rise of someone with that kind of ability to truly build?
Our first stakes had been sunk, and now potentially with both projects, Moses’ lesson may prove untrue here in Cincinnati, Ohio.
This is the conundrum, right? The parks and highways were incredibly successful public works projects, but look at all the harm done in the process (stolen land, political corruption, wasted money). If you are a lover of cities, which do you prefer? A political power center with the ability to achieve a vision, no matter what means, or a dispersed power structure, where the system is designed to “protect citizens’ views” and prevent one person from ever asserting that will? Long term, what’s best?
These are among the many questions and topics for discussion with this book. Leave comments, please!
Book III–Chapters 8-10
Oof. Erik is now five chapters ahead of me. I need to go into a Power Broker ZONE to catch up. In my defense, I got sidetracked this week with “Just Kids” (check home page tomorrow for review).
These chapters were great. Not too long. First, we see Moses beginning to get things done. He learns the press and learned how to keep things simple. There’s a great anecdote about Smith boiling down a lengthy speech that Moses had given him. Political writing is best when kept simple and pointed.
Then, Moses finally takes a job–running the state parks department. After an interlude of pictures in this chapter, Caro sets up why parks mattered to Moses. The chapter is also a mini-history of Long Island, one that required me to regularly consult a map. Caro sets up why parks mattered to so many New Yorkers, and why it mattered to Moses. Class issues were certainly at play–at some points you feel like Caro is name-dropping every wealthy robber-baron who had property on the Island. And there is a stark image of lower-class New Yorkers driving out to Long Island, looking to get in the water, and finding all of the waterfront property blocked.
The final chapter–“The Best Bill Drafter In Albany” is a clinic on how to use legislative language and power to achieve a goal. Moses bigfoots a bill through the legislature, unanimously, that basically gives Moses unchecked power to create a statewide parks system. I loved the kicker: “At the age of thirty-five, Robert Moses had power. And no sooner did he have it than he showed how he was going to use it.”
These were great chapters, and based on the title of Book IV (The Use of Power), I feel like we’ve crossed a Rubicon here. No longer is Moses an aide or a helper–he’s got real power and influence. Looking forward to seeing what’s next.
Book III–Change in Major
One more update for the night. My friend Erik is reading along with me, and he just finished this chapter, so before I retire I’ll add a quick entry here. As much as I loved seeing Moses get more politically astute thanks to Belle Moskowitz in the last chapter, I have to say this chapter about Al Smith was even better. Most of the chapter is a mini-bio of Al Smith, someone I want to know more about. The Irish-Catholic political legend in New York is a great American political story. (Anyone know any good Al Smith bios?) Caro gives us the complete bio of Smith because it becomes evident just how important Smith’s career and style is to Moses. We see their political relationship blossom in this chapter.
I love this passage about Smith: “He had no patience for reformers who didn’t understand the importance of practical politics in getting things done, who refused to compromise, who insisted on having the bill as it was written, who raged loudly at injustice, who fought single-mindedly for an unattainable ideal. Their pigheadedness had the effect of dragging to political destruction politicians who listened to them, of ruining careers men had taken years to build.”
Al Smith even gets credit for coining the term “Goo Goos.” Fantastic. It’s not uncommon among people who work in politics to harbor incredible frustration at the Goo Goos who are removed from the true political arena. Caro shows in detail Smith’s, and ultimately Moses’ frustration with this type of attitude.
This disconnect between politicians and policy wonks/political amateurs is, when taken to an extreme, why we often get so frustrated at our elected officials. They must operate in a world foreign to business people and academics. Politicians must seek votes and stand for election. They must build coalitions and get votes from others who are also running for office in usually different circumstances. Motivations are murky at best, and it’s what makes politics such a tricky business. The loudest Goo Goos are often those who have never put their name on a ballot.
Finally in this chapter, we see Moses still a reformer, working for an interesting character named Richard Childs, while Al Smith was in between gubernatorial terms. Childs, interestingly, “had already succeeded in cheerfully forcing down the throats of more than a hundred astounded municipalities a nonpartisan ‘city manager’ form of government.” (Childs preceded Murray Seasongood as President of the National League of Cities, and it’s likely he had his hand in some of Cincinnati’s reform efforts. If you have any info about this, leave in the comments.)
It quickly becomes obvious that Moses used the position as platform to attack the incumbent Governor, Smith’s soon to be opponent. Moses fights dirty, tells a political whopper, and basically says he’s proud of it, because it would help Smith win. Caro concludes with this: “Under [Belle’s tutelage, he had been learning the politicians’ way; now he almost seemed to have joined their ranks.”
At the end of the chapter, Moses is headed back to Albany to work in a position of real power for the returned-to-office Al Smith.
More updates tomorrow. I’m about 180 pages in and a little behind on the blog. So far, I’m spending a lot of time frustrated that I hadn’t read this book sooner.
Book III–Curriculum Changes
Now things are getting good. At the end of Book II, Moses was licking his wounds when a call from Belle Moskowitz comes in. Belle is the wife of someone Moses worked with as part of his municipal research work. She wants Moses to come help her reform state government, working for Governor Al Smith. Belle’s a great character, and it is an interesting wrinkle in the story that Moses’ political education is furthered by a woman. Recall, the 19th amendment didn’t come until 1920, and Al Smith was first elected Governor in 1918. (She could vote in that election, but it was her first.) Caro gives Belle ample time, but I still want to know more about her. She clearly has power and the ear of the Governor.
Despite his incredible frustration at times with Belle, Moses obviously respects and trusts her. We see him learning from her, and at the same time, compromising some of his earlier principles that kept him from getting anything done. He stopped dealing in absolutes. Caro writes, “His conversation began to include the phrases of practical politics as well as those of scientific management textbooks.”
In his role as Chief of Staff to the reorganization commission, I also see a little bit of David Cohen, Governor Ed Rendell’s Chief of Staff, made famous in “A Prayer for the City.” He was an obvious workaholic and a micromanager. He had an obvious preference for how things should be done, and why argue, he was usually right. Caro comes back to Moses’ work style often. We are going to see Moses become the political animal he was known to be, but Caro wants to make sure we know that he also knew his stuff. He read everything, paid attention to details, and made damn sure he knew how to back up his chosen positions. This is not a man who cut corners. It makes me think of Senate Majority Leaders (someone can probably confirm this is an recurring theme in the Johnson bios.) Caro seems to be suggesting, at least here, that a secret to Moses’ success is that he amassed both knowledge and power.
The mentorship angle between Belle Moskowitz and Robert Moses was unexpected and fascinating. And the chapter concludes with handoff of sorts. Once again facing defeat (Al Smith, despite an initial victory in his attempt to reorganize government, was turned out office, taking Moses with him), Moses finds himself with a new co-conspirator and mentor, the former Governor. In fantastic chapter close, we see Moses telling his friend Ernie, “Al Smith listens to me.” Power.
Book II in the books. (Still misleading. It was only 27 pages.) In the chapter “Burning,” we meet Moses as he longs to get his career started and accomplish the ideas swirling in his head. And he falls in love. We also see how his arrogance, even at a young age, when it was undeserved, divided him and his peers. The second chapter in Book II is called “Age of Optimism,” and this is where the book almost feels like fiction. You know the tale, young, idealistic reformer finds a way to fix broken government and the powers that be quash his dreams by using all of the tools that politicians have used for decades. It’s obviously a critical part of the story because defeat, true defeat, for anyone, almost always leaves a taste and changes future behavior. Faced with colossal and public failure at an early age, you’ve got to believe Moses decided that he would not let his downfall, caused by his naiveté of politics, interfere with future success.
He learned that “science, knowledge, logic and brilliance might be useful tools but they didn’t build highways or civil service systems. Power built highways and civil service systems.”
“Age of Optimism” contains a familiar tale, and one that rings so true for anyone who ever worked in politics or campaigns (or business?). How many congressional aides have gone to Washington thinking they would change the world? I’m certain that I rolled into the mayor’s office at some point, all full of energy and enthusiasm, prepared only with some completely unrealistic idea about how to fix the city. Slowly that idealism falls away. You see how to really get things done, who actually makes the decisions, and where the right pressure points are. I’m describing everyman’s political education, right?
A political education takes time. And it also takes relationships. And that’s where Al Smith comes in. Check back later as I’m trucking through Book III today.
I’ve finished Book I. Before you go congratulating me on my progress, recognize that Book I is only about 40 pages. Book I is Moses’ family, his time at Yale, and his time at Oxford. It is mercifully brief. I’m not a big fan of biographies that morph into ancestry.com genealogy projects. There’s only so much that is relevant about Uncle Bill and how the great-great-grandfather got to America. Caro spares us from these flimsy parallels. Instead, we meet Moses’ mother, Bella, and she is indeed a relevant influence on her son. We also get more of that Yale store teased in the introduction, and his life at Oxford. A couple of observations are worth commenting on. First, Book I is titled “The Idealist.” Did I mention it is only about 40 pages? If, in an 1100+ page biography, only 40 pages can be dedicated to the time you spent as an idealist, well, that probably says something. Caro continues hammering home the theme that Moses was able to amass power at an early age. He quotes poet Leonard Bacon in the kicker of the Yale chapter, discussing Moses on campus: “In our little world, he made himself a position of power.”
I’m really enjoying the tight and incisive writing. I know the long, hard slog of the book is still ahead, but for now, I’m enjoying Caro’s exposition. The weekend is ahead. Look for another update Sunday. And please, feel free to start a conversation in the comments. Would you want your biography to include more on your family? Would your college years look flattering in the context of your later life?
Introduction–“Wait Until the Evening”
Well, that was about the best introduction of a book I’ve ever read. Caro kicks off the book perfectly. He introduces readers to Robert Moses as a Yalie, arguing with the captain of the swimming team and juxtaposes it with Moses at the height of his power, forcing Mayor Wagner to reappoint him to a position. And with those two anecdotes, Caro tells us this book is more than just about a person or a city, it’s about the use of power. Then we are treated to the overview of what Moses accomplished during his reign in New York City, and the scope of it is as immense as this book. He measures Moses’ career in longevity, immortality, and ultimately, statistics. During the course of the introduction, it seems that Caro is praising Moses for his work. But then he introduces another theme—that Moses’ great works were built on lies, corruption, and power plays that would have easily been scandals had they been public at the time. Moses’ “legend was a gigantic hoax,” claims Caro. And this: “Increasingly, the projects became not ends but means—the means of obtaining more and more power.
If the writing style of the introduction continues throughout, this is going to be a terrific read. Very biting language, astute observations, and an analysis of cities and power that will assuredly alter the way I think about both.
The Power Broker
I’ve started reading The Power Broker, by Robert Caro. The legendary author is slated to speak in Cincinnati at The Mercantile Library’s “Niehoff Lecture” on November 2nd. My goal is to finish the 1162 page tome by the time Mr. Caro lands at CVG. Given the girth of the book, this might take the entire six months that I’m budgeting. And instead of one blog update upon completion, I’m going to journal it as I read. This will be more of a living document, which may be appropriate, since I’m told my opinions on the book will most certainly evolve over time.
I’ll say this: Some of the people I respect most in politics and life in general have recommended this book to me for years. I’m anxious to join the club of those who have read it, and I’m also equally anxious to discuss it with said individuals and others who agree the book is, as David Halberstam once said, “surely the greatest book ever written about a city.” Said discussions could start in the comments section below, or take place over a beer. Both are welcome.
Off we go.