I just finished The Power Broker, Robert Caro’s majestic account of how 20th-century New York came to be shaped by a malign super-actor named Robert Moses. How do you sum up 1162 pages totaling about 700,000 words? Like this.
A man in New York was extremely smart, but he was also bossy and arrogant and liked to push people around. The aim of his life, the one thing he wanted to do, was to build roads, bridges, and parks exactly where and how he wanted them, with no interference from anyone else. He wanted to do this because it was a spectacular form of pushing around, the pushing around of an entire landscape and the population living atop it. He managed to live his dream by taking over New York’s political system.
Robert Moses was never elected to anything and never held party office. But put him in charge of a project and he got results, and this trait made him indispensable to elected leaders. In the 1920s, when the cities were bursting and people needed parks, he brought them parks and became a hero to the public. In the 1930s he brought them more parks and much else, and by decade’s end he was the man no one could do without, a seemingly permanent feature of government. Mayors and governors came and went, reappointing him to the long list of government posts that he monopolized.
But Moses didn’t just excel, he maneuvered and corrupted. A master at drafting laws, he was a master at evading and rigging them; above all he had no respect for laws or the people who made them. By this attitude and its accompanying methods, he managed to get the results that made him so indispensable. Once having reached that status, he built an institution that put him almost beyond the reach of politicians and the public. This was a system of giant bridges joining Manhattan and two other New York boroughs. He put on tolls so the bridges could be paid for, and then he kept the tolls there because the rules, written by himself, allowed him to do so. For decades the money poured in, and nothing restricted what he could do with it except a law that he’d written and bond contracts that he’d authorized. Further, the money coming in was a sure thing; he could borrow against it forever.
Sitting atop this pile, Moses became a kingpin. New York politicians could be bought by giving work to the various law firms, insurance firms, real estate firms, and accounting firms that they owned. Moses had lots of work to give. In the 1950s he wrangled control of a second gusher, the dollars sent up from Washington for the demolition of slums and creation of highways. He decided which companies got the money to do that work, and some of the companies belonged to politicians or party officials (usually Democratic; Moses was a Republican but didn’t care about party).
The political bosses of classical New York ward-heeling distributed good things to cooperative voters. Moses distributed good things to party bosses; not for the bosses to pass on, just for them. Thus, he was a political boss whose constituents were other bosses; Caro doesn’t use the term, but Moses was a boss of bosses, capo de tutti capi. Non-pols also got a cut. By building, Moses generated income for a long line of people: partners of Wall Street firms, owners of construction companies, leaders of unions, and the armies of men who laid asphalt, drilled rock, hauled cable, and paid their union dues.
What the general public got from all this was hope. Someday they could drive from here to there without encountering slow traffic or standstills. The next bridge would do it, the next expressway. But none did. Construction of each somehow caused more people to drive, and traffic always meant traffic jams, perpetually. Moses might’ve given the public their cut. He could’ve strewn his works about the landscape, and hot-wired the political system, without condemning the public to traffic jams. Put some train lines in there for the suburbs, fix up the subways in the city. But he didn’t want to; it had to be cars.
Why is hard to explain. A general cussedness pervades Caro’s Moses; he’s the man who won’t let good things happen. But note that his car preference began when owning a car of any sort still counted as a status symbol. In general, he favored people who had more money over people who had less. He favored the high over the low, a dynamic he defined in vulgar terms and fulfilled in brutal ways. The north end of his system, the high peak of importance, was him, Moses himself. Having plunked down on cars, Moses wouldn’t reconsider because he wouldn’t reconsider. No trains because he hadn’t thought of them, and nothing for subways because they were underground and his work wouldn’t be standing where he could see it. Anyway, the people who rode those things couldn’t afford cars.
The result of his preferences is a city gashed by expressways but choked with traffic, and served by rail systems where passengers encounter extreme conditions every day of operation. In reaching this point, Moses gradually made himself unpopular. He’d climbed atop city and state by exercising his nature, and the effects of his nature eventually made themselves felt. The public caught him trying to build a parking lot in Central Park, a sort of psychic heartland to the city’s public. The newspapers exposed his system for letting pols steal slum-clearing money. In the halls of power, and here I add my speculation, his habit of blackmailing compliant politicians and otherwise pushing them around may have worn out his welcome.
Above all he was old, and along came the man who’d take him down. Nelson Rockefeller rode in as governor and slapped Moses hard during his first term. It happened when the two had a difference of views and Moses threatened to resign his many jobs in state government. At first Rockefeller was shaken. Many politicians had backed down from Mr. Indispensable’s resignation threats and he might’ve been the latest. But on thinking it over, Rockefeller said yes. Moses, who’d already left behind some city posts, was now down to his base, the toll bridges.
As the 1960s wore on, the old man was still master of his bridges and their money. But Rockefeller took them away. I interject here that Moses would’ve lost them no matter what, since his term as chairman of the relevant authority expired in 1969. The only person who could reappoint him was the mayor of New York, who very much wanted Moses to go away and leave his money for the city to use. Caro doesn’t make the point, but Moses was boxed in.
Rockefeller offered a different possibility. All the government bodies running various roads, bridges, and trains in the city area, including the subways, would be gathered under one body, and the man who ran that body would be appointed by the governor. Moses didn’t hope for the top seat but he hoped for something, and Rockefeller seemed to say he’d get it. Moses pitched in and campaigned as the governor pushed for the new laws and massive borrowing that would make the revamp possible. But the new order, on arrival, stripped Moses of everything but his car and driver, his secretaries, and an office where he and his staff could sit. He was a government consultant now, in charge of nothing. Rockefeller wouldn’t let him build one last bridge. The governor had stuck him on an ice floe and wouldn’t let him off.
Moses lived a dozen more years. He sucked up to Rockefeller, his hope never dying. He envisioned a grand scheme for stacking the poor in towers. He talked to an assiduous young biographer and came to regret it. And he wondered why no one was grateful.
Footnote. There you have The Power Broker as it emerges after cramming my brain. All views are Caro’s except where otherwise noted; maybe traffic and the Long Island Railroad aren’t as bad they were in 1974, and when I was a New Yorker I never found Central Park all that psychically important, as opposed to pleasant and handy but dull.
My summary leaves out some things, notably that Robert’s brother accused him of ruinous persecution lasting decades. But the book leaves out how Moses built and ran his upstate power dams, how he tore down Pennsylvania Station and plotted against Washington Square Park, how he battled Jane Jacobs, and how he came to afflict Manhattan with a cohort of vast, grim excretions posing as buildings (the Coliseum, Stuyvesant Town, Peter Cooper Village), though we do get look-ins for Lincoln Center and the United Nations.
The Power Broker’s manuscript was a million words to start with, and the cutting made for some casualties. Someday I hope we can read the other 300,000 or 400,000 words. Not now. As of now, officially, I’ve read The Power Broker. That’s good enough for me and all I want is to rest.