Friday, February 12, 2021

Review of The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York by Robert A. Caro

This book review is written by Eugene Kernes

Book can be found in:
Genre = History

Short Description

Elaborate Description

A story of how an idealist who fought corruption became one of the most corrupting influences in New York history.  Having earned the friendship of a governor, Robert Moses took on the post of park development in Long Island.  A post with little power that over time turned into controlling construction on parks all over New York, a monopoly in transportation, and housing development projects.  Controlling massive construction works and heavily influencing the media, turned him into a power broker.  Those who supported him gained wealth.  Those who attempted to slow him down paid a heavy price.  It was public support that enabled him to gain access to power, and it would be public disapproval that would take it away.  With his influence and inability to listen to the advice of others, Robert Moses shaped so many areas in New York that his influenced projects are ubiquitous.  

Initially Moses was an idealist.  Admiring a rigid class differentiation, making it near impossible for lower division to rise in stature.  Class associated with university training, which was tied to wealth.  Was part of a team which focused on proving government official corruption.  During a civil service tenure, he wanted city jobs and promotions to be determined by merit and devised a system to measure performance.  Only the human element of the measurement kept it from perfection.  Under the system, many of the workers under the then corrupt payment system would either not have jobs or have lowered income.  Corrupt Tammany officials reduced the threat that the reorganization would have had.  Filing the reorganized paper work was so complicated that it eventually broke down.  Idealism was not enough to get Moses what he wanted, so he started to amass power.  Power to transform his dreams into reality.  It was not brilliance or logic that built public projects, but power.  Once Moses had acquired a bit of power, he wanted more and more power.  Becoming dependent on its intoxicating effects.   

Moses met Al Smith from an introduction by trusted friend Belle Moskowitz.  Under Moskowitz’ tutelage, Moses learned practical means of making his dreams reality.  Becoming scornful of those who like his former attitude, stuck to ideals and principles rather than compromise.  Al Smith was the only governor who Robert Moses respected and was willing to listen to. From Smith, Moses learned the importance of the media and how to manipulate the media to meet his ends without telling them anything more.  All the while Robert Moses became an expert bill drafter who was able to weave power from words while avoiding concealing the bill’s real content.  

Accepting the posting of Long Island State Park Commission which was acceptable to Moses’s dreams of grand public works.  Moses wrote legislature to keep him in that position and enabled legal powers which would allow him to take land away as needed.  With this power, Moses removed people from Long Island to get parks and roads built.  Moses set a price for the land and would not even consider alternatives.  A few people fought Moses on legal grounds whose rights were confirmed as Moses’s actions were illegal, but Moses made himself the ally of the people fighting the rich who were preventing public construction.  Even reasonably arbitrary power was not enough, so his actions went beyond the law.  Fighting Moses on legal grounds was futile because even the rich did not have the financial support the state did.  Judges who ruled against Moses were publicly attacked as Moses claimed that it was these judges who closed public parks.  It did not matter what means were used in obtaining the land and funding the construction projects as what mattered to the public was the end result, the expected parks.  

After building the Long Island parks, Moses went to limiting access to them.  Limited access to the parks by instituting parking fees which went against free parks, and made sure that buses could not go to the parks by building bridges low.  The fee and lack of bus transportation prevented poor people coming to the parks.  The low bridges would also cost a lot to increase their elevations to allow bus, of which there were a lot of low elevated bridges.   

Manipulating the media was a common way for Robert Moses to get what he wanted.  Finding information on everyone and blackmailing them into accepting his views or releasing the information.  It did not matter whatever the information was, or whether it was about the individual or a relative’s action a long time ago, or even if the information was genuine, Moses would use his public relation machinery to get his way.  Ending many careers and waging vendettas against those who attempted to disagree with Moses.

Robert Moses himself only revealed to the press what he wanted the press to know, and no other piece of information.  Building an empire on lies meant that he needed to protect those lies.  Claiming that public authorities were outside political influence, and would cost the taxpayers nothing.  These claims were believed because public opinion was on his side, and because the authority kept information sealed, no facts could test the claims.  Costing taxpayers money that it could hardly pay off, while reducing the tax revenue.  

Although Robert Moses never gave much credit to his family, he owed them much.  Intellectually nurtured and financially provided by his mother, Bella Moses.  As the initial jobs taken by Robert Moses were either voluntary or low pay, Bella provided him with upkeep income.  More money was given when Robert’s wife Mary was pregnant with their first daughter Barbara.  Bella Moses would finance her son’s early career and projects.  

Using the media as support for illegal and unethical actions was not the only lessons Moses learned from the Long Island Park Commission that were useful, it was also financing.  Once a project was approved, it was unlikely the more money would be denied.  Underestimating the costs of the projects, Moses got many projects approved with their true costs being revealed later.  Denying the additional money would mean that the initial money was wasted.  Even though the politicians were misled by the financing, they could not claim that they were misled as that would indicate that they did not investigate the project before approval of the funds.  There was an endless supply of blackmail that Moses could use to get the needed funding after the initial funds were provided and the project started.  Even greater effort to start projects was borne by the time that Smith had left as governor, as the governors support was needed for the projects.

Robert Moses pushed employees to work hard, but Moses worked harder still.  Tried to work almost every hour and day.  Making sure that problems were handled every day in the morning and did not pile up.  The employees were too afraid to leave before Moses.  Those around Moses initially were brilliant people who were able to disagree with Moses.  Over time, Moses became unwilling to hear his staff’s suggestions.  Employees rewards were not just money and power, but loyalty from Moses as he would defend them should the need arise.  Nevertheless, Moses was very abusive to his officials.

As governor, Roosevelt tried to prevent Moses from getting what Moses wanted.  But Moses power increased during Roosevelt’s tenure.  Part of the reason why Roosevelt used Moses was because Moses knew the administrative machinery better than anyone, while Roosevelt was unprepared for it.  The reason why Roosevelt gave Moses power was because Moses’s accomplishment.  Moses also antagonized the opposition, which left the elected officials unscathed.

In order to get more power, Moses wanted to become mayor.  But Moses did not appreciate the press.  Not willing to talk to the people.  Attacked the opposition.  Would not explain his ideas, and would not listen to the other opinions.  Moses projects were an important issue, but they were voting for a public candidate, a person, whom people did not like.  When mayor Impy was elected, Moses would get practically free reign as Impy relied on Moses to run the administration.  Moses was welcoming with advice and suggestions which Impy accepted.  Moses influence was not seen, but the city felt it.  Impy was not reelected due to Moses’s policies.  The public having a choice, would not have chosen Moses.  

The empire that Moses built was like a sovereign state, was hidden from the public.  Holding state and city posts made Moses near impossible to control by the highest elected officials.  Public authorities usually had a lifespan which depended on repaying their debts, which afterwards, the projects would go to the city.  Moses made his Triborough Bridge Authority to be perpetual by allowing refunding bonds, which basically means to never repay the debts.  To prevent retiring bonds, revenues would also be spent on new public works which would provide for immense wealth.  Changed graft into legally derived incomes form public works project.  Honest graft which included premiums, commissions, and retainers.  Large sums of money went into paying for entertainment and incomes of those who supported him.    Bent the democratic process of the city to support his view of what New York should look like.  Although money wise everything was legal, power wise Moses was corrupt.  Using money to achieve power.  Accepting a favor from Moses meant being indebted to him forever.  

Moses held many city posts which were very complimentary.  From Long Island State Park Commission, he also became State Park Commission which was a source of power for nearly four decades.  Holding posts such as Park Commissioner and Construction Coordinator in which he proposed project, while holding the post of Planning Commission which decided the merits of the projects.   For seven years, any public project required Robert Moses to approve.  Moses got even more power when he became the distributor of federal funding.  As Moses controlled the funding allocations, he was able to control what was built and what was not.  

Once Moses got a bit of power, he was going to get his way.  Dissension became taboo around Moses.  Even trying not to cooperate was impossible as that would mean never finding work.  As Moses became powerful, he compromised with others who held power rather than fight them.  Publicly shaming millionaires who prevented his projects, privately Moses colluded with them.  Those who had no power were disregarded.  

Moses applied the same architectural principals of Long Island parks to the rest of New York, which would prove disastrous.  While Long Island was sporadically populated and parks could be built where there were no people, the urban networks in the city had lots of people.  To build parks, the people would need to be evicted and communities destroyed. The human factor would not be added to Moses’s city park projects.  The parks would be built for middle class, neglecting the poor and especially people of color.  

Moses built highways and bridges to ease congested but the new access roads were soon congested with more cars overall.  The solution proposed to Moses was to increase mass transportation such as buses and trains, but Moses denied the ideas.  Building a city for cars rather than people.  Bridges would be built without support for trains.  Before the bridges were built, it would not require that much more funding to add train accessibility, but after being built it was be very costly to make bridges train accessible.  Moses would not budge on mass transportation.  To built roads, Moses tore down neighborhoods even when there were better alternatives to road locations, but that would require time and discussion which Moses did not want permit because he did not want anything to slow him down.  Rather than building or repairing the badly needed medical or education facilities, roads were built.  New York was in desperate need of housing but Robert Moses, even while building more housing that any other public official, did not built enough housing.  Under slum clearance programs, he created as many new slums as he cleared old slums.  Most people hated the housing built.

What brought Moses down was Moses himself.  Wanted to create a parking lot on a park that was used by people who had access to lawyers and the media.  The protesters were colluding with each other.  Moses started to appear as the anti-public politician and pro-rich.  The public used to support him but not anymore.  Because of the construction attempt, he could no longer be seen as anti-rich.  What is more important is because of the media attention on his actions, Moses was forced to allow reporters to go through his authority accounts.  Without public support, Moses lost posts and power.

Questions to Consider while Reading the Book
•What is the raison d’etre of the book?  For what purpose did the author write the book?
•How would you characterize Robert Moses’s legacy?
•In what way was Robert Moses idealistic?
•Did power corrupt Robert Moses?
•How did Robert Moses use the media?
•How did Robert Moses handle park construction?  What were the differences between Long Island park construction and city park construction?
•How receptive was Robert Moses to other people?
•Why did people do as Robert Moses wished? 
•How was Robert Moses work ethic?
•How did Robert Moses treat his employees?
•Why were the bill’s that Robert Moses drafted so effective?
•Who was Al Smith to Robert Moses?
•Even with governors and majors who opposed Robert Moses, why did Robert Moses power increase?
•What happened when Robert Moses wanted to become major?
•What happened to people who supported Robert Moses?  What happened to people who did not support Robert Moses?
•What measures did Robert Moses take to get his projects built?
•How did Robert Moses finance the projects?
•How did Robert Moses lose his power?
•How was the Triborough Bridge Authority like an empire? 
•Why did Robert Moses not want mass transportation? 
•To whom were the projected directed to?
•How were communities effected by Robert Moses constructions?
•What did Robert Moses think of unions? 
•How was Robert Moses’s familial relations?

Book Details
Edition ISBN:  9780394720241
Pages to read:   1162
Publication:     1975
1st Edition:      1974
Format:           Paperback

Ratings out of 5:
Readability    5
Content          5
Overall           5