The Power Broker

Robert Moses and the fall of New York


The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York, by Robert A. Caro, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1974, 1162 pp., $17.95.

Robert Moses, when asked to provide some patronage jobs for a state Senate Finance Committee Chairman, listened attentively to the catchpoll's recital. His reply was characteristic of his attitude toward petty politicians in particular and New Yorkers in general: "Jerry, you can take that bill and stick it up your ass."

We have no record of the senator's physiological response; we do have a graph of the anal impaction that confronts New York traffic flow as it attempts excretion from Manhattan to the outlying boroughs on Robert Moses' bridges, Robert Moses' tunnels, Robert Moses' highways—an attempt to escape from the drabness and terror of a Robert Moses housing project, to find a few fleeting hours of relative privacy in a Robert Moses state park. The toll on the spirit which is subtracted from a New Yorker's commuting life is paid in material tribute to an agency of Robert Moses.

In The Power Broker, Robert A. Caro documents the life of Robert Moses in the context of six New York mayors, six governors, seven presidents, and thousands of city, state, and Federal officials who stood in awe of The Man on Randall's Island. Caro's work is a remarkable dossier of political pressures, of acquisition of power literally incomprehensible in a democracy, and how Robert Moses used that power to build an economic empire that he ruled for over 40 years. Its fuel was the tolls of Triborough Authority: its morality was altruism through a park and playground system dedicated to the People of New York: its leader was Hero Moses, battling Privilege and Politicians in a press that was slavish in its praise and support. Its goal? Power for Robert Moses.

He built things. At an early stage in his career, the idealist Moses offered the things as ends worthy of attainment: beaches for recreation where before only barren dunes and rotting garbage existed. Then he built bridges to get people to the beaches. He discovered the "gimmick" of Authority bonds that he could perpetuate through refinancing, and as guardian of those bonds, perpetuate himself and his projects in ever-widening spheres of influence. His character altered and impatience gave way to compulsion and vindictiveness as he smashed anyone daring to disagree with his Dream. President Roosevelt, frustrated by his inability to deny Robert Moses Federal money for the Triborough Bridge, plaintively cried, "Isn't the President of the United States entitled to one personal grudge?"

"No," was the recorded answer: not if that grudge meant a confrontation with Robert Moses.

He consolidated power by obtaining state and city commissions hitherto denied ordinary mortals: he was given them because only Robert Moses had the engineering drawings completed, the projects costed, the contractors bonded and the titles assured. His third post, that of New York City Planning Commissioner, allowed him to torpedo anyone who even came close to challenging his rule.

Robert Moses' personal drive and energies would kill other men if emulated. He demanded absolute loyalty and ruined colleagues who dared to disagree with him. He lied. He secreted the books of Triborough so effectively that he could plead poverty for the Authority for years, while netting millions of dollars to build anew elsewhere. The bondholders must have loved the charade as they clipped their coupons for early redemption, but others hated his guts when he closed Battery Park for five years. He had been denied this site for a Brooklyn-Battery Bridge, so he destroyed the Aquarium at that location, and would have razed Ft. Clinton had not Federal authority finally intervened. He assured maximum revenue for his bridges by vetoing subway extensions and building highway overpasses so low that the highway would not allow the passage of a bus.

Mr. Caro contends that Al Smith was the only man Robert Moses admired. At the crest of Moses' popularity, he was warned by Smith that the public's adoration was a slender reed upon which to build. Years later, Robert Moses learned just how slender that reed was when two incidents—The Battle of Central Park and the denial of Free Shakespeare—cost him his "good" press. Central Park, the oasis of greenery nestled in the madness of the metropolis, gave recreational facilities to mothers and nurses who strolled with their carriages on the southern 59th St. border. The Tavern On the Green, a restaurant concession under the Park Service, wanted to expand its parking facilities, and despite neighborhood protests, brought in the bulldozers and began carving up the landscape. A flying squad of mothers, baby carriages, and irate oldsters who envisioned their sunning benches falling beneath the blade of the Cats, rallied in front of the equipment and prevented any further encroachment. Robert Moses, in defiance of his prior discriminating sense of public sensitivity, fought them. He lost. Two years later, Joseph Papp, a Greenwich Village producer and promoter, initiated free Shakesperian drama in a park bandshell that had fallen into disuse. When Moses learned of Papp's leftward leaning politics, he put the squeeze on the entire operation in order to evict them from the park facilities. Again, he ignored press sentiment, public opinion, and more importantly, the local defenders of New York culture who saw Moses' actions as vindictive and destructive: again, he lost.

Unlike the Conqueror heralded in a Roman Triumph, Robert Moses did not have anyone in his chariot whispering in his ear that all glory is fleeting: he had fired the cautioners and surrounded himself with sycophants. Consequently, he was unprepared for his encounter with a man whose calculations were greater, whose knowledge of power was even more intimate, and who did not tremble when the ultimatum of a Robert Moses resignation was flourished in the New York arena.

Robert Moses was beaten and banished by Nelson Rockefeller.

Robert Caro has written about Robert Moses for 1162 pages. It is not enough: the span of time is immense and the political system in which the action is cast is so filled with conflict and battle that one reads on with adrenaline percolating for page after page. Mr. Caro is a liberal: he identifies his bias honestly and does not cause discomfort by the intrusion of his views or skewed selection of his material. The wealth of events overshadows political affiliation. His book emerges as a political treatise on contemporary power, as a documentary of the life of a giant who walked among us, and as a warning that if a Moses ever again promises to lead us from bondage, the kindest act we could perform is to let the Pharoahs have him.

You can always get rid of a Pharoah.

Howard McConnell is a medical electronics representative with Roche Medical Electronics. He holds an M.A. in psychology from Indiana University.