The Power Broker by Robert Caro


It has taken me weeks to listen to this 66-hour audiobook and it’s been a grueling, but fascinating undertaking. This three-volume work about Robert Moses, written in the 1970s, is about an extremely unusual figure, a man who for nearly 40 years was a powerful figure in New York City and State politics who was never elected to any office. It is about how he amassed power, what he did with that power, and how he lost it. It is not a biography:  details about his personal life are limited.

Moses came from a comfortable, but not rich family; he graduated from Yale in 1909 and went on to Oxford, then Columbia. He was Jewish and thus set apart from the mainstream of Yale, but was greatly respected for his academic abilities. His studies focused on government and in his early days he was an idealist who worked with others to reform the civil service of New York City.

Caro says Moses’ idealistic effort to reform civil service failed because he did not have power to make it happen. The power to do whatever he wanted came slowly and from several sources. First I would say he had an important combination of traits:  he was brilliant and he was able to work harder than imaginable. He had a lucky break in his connection to Al Smith, the governor who named him Secretary of State. He could write legislation and he had a vision for parks and highways and at an early age grew confident of his own abilities so he became unable to tolerate others’ opinions.

He created parks, first on Long Island, notably Jones Beach whose 1929 bathhouse was filled with touches to encourage fun activities for people. It should be said he was from the very start intent on building for “the right sort of people” which did not include poor people or non-whites. He was unusual in the thoughtful things he created, for example, before Robert Moses came along, there were no rooms devoted to changing babies and he made sure the tables were at the appropriate height for that purpose. He created small parks and many swimming pools throughout New York City with certain areas exempted, Harlem for example.

Then he turned his attention to road-building which he envisioned as beautiful parkways so that driving would be a pleasure. This was possible, at least for a short time, with roadways built on Long Island, but of course, the very building of them created traffic which made them very unlike a park. He was responsible for creating almost all the major limited access highways in the New York City area, including choosing the precise locations for them all.

His enduring power came partly through the structure of highway authorities. He helped create the Triborough Bridge Authority in 1929 to build that bridge by connecting with corporations that would sell bonds to fund it. The original idea was that after the construction costs had been recouped by the tolls, the bridges would be turned over to the city. Moses managed to make a change in the legislation so the Authority could “refinance” the loan and that money could be used to build other bridges. Eventually the Authority he controlled was the only entity with enough money finance projects.

He had no interest in public transportation and took action to keep it from expanding. The highways he built could have been made wide enough to allow public transportation to be added later between the lanes; he adamantly opposed that. Ultimately when public transportation was built to JFK airport, the cost was exponentially higher. The overpasses on Long Island were purposely built with eleven feet of clearance so that buses could not use the roadways.

Then there was his control of money from the 1949 federal legislation for “slum clearance.” In the case of the Manhattantown project, under his authority tenements worth $15 million were sold to a developer friend of his for $1 million to tear down the projects and build new ones. Instead the developer forced tenants to move around, raising the rent each time, did no upkeep, and never built new housing. Finally the city transferred the project to another developer. The original developer was not sanctioned and continued to profit from the project. Robert Moses didn’t receive money directly and was considered incorruptible.

The end of his stranglehold on power came slowly. One source of his power was positive press; he built parks and was able to get things done. Beginning in 1960 that invincibility was beginning to change when some of his relentless tactics were brought to light. His reputation was tarnished by his determination to build another parking lot for Tavern on the Green in a glade that had been used by women bringing their children to play from the nearby affluent neighborhood. His tactic of bringing in the bulldozers to end any question of opposition was publicized. Ultimately it took Governor Nelson Rockefeller working with his brother David who was president of Chase Manhattan Bank to wrest power from Moses in 1968.

Robert Caro is now writing the fifth (and last) volume of his work about Lyndon Johnson. Not sure I’ll be up for that challenge anytime soon.

Robert Caro, The Power Broker, Vintage Books, 1975, 1246 pages (I listened to the audiobook). Available in the public library.

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