The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York, by Robert Caro
This is probably the longest, most involved book that I’ve read to date. It is 1300 pages of dense text. At first, this was intimidating. Then I started to read the book, and I found that it was really enjoyable. Finishing this book, simply due to its length was a rewarding accomplishment. It was also rewarding to learn about US politics and get a glimpse into the life of one of the most powerful men in US history.
Based on the book’s title, it is obvious that Robert Moses had some sort of downfall. It is not until near the end of the book that we learn about his loss of power. And honestly, it wasn’t as scandalous as I originally imagined. He simply loses power as he grows old. Some of the questions that I wrote down before reading the book:
How did Moses take his dream and turn it into a reality?
How did he acquire funding to literally reshape New York?
Could he have avoided the controversies that surround his legacy?
The book opens by talking about Moses’s childhood and his years at Yale. He grew up in a wealthy family and from his parents, he received the best education that money can buy. His mother was strict, but also very intelligent. Moses received his brilliant brains from his mother. In their house, mom was the ruler. Dad contributed very little to the conversations, although he was the breadwinner. Moses’s mother was a beautiful woman with a sharp mind. Moses was her favorite child and received a majority of her attention, likely because his mind was the most similar to hers.
At Yale, Robert was quiet and shy. This is in stark contrast to the man that he matures into. As an old man, he dominated conversations and was the center of attention. Anyway, at Yale he lived alone, read books, and wrote poetry. He was not involved in any of the popular clubs. Eventually, students began to realize how smart Robert was. They were impressed with the amount of knowledge that he accumulated. During the evenings, he would read books and books on whatever topic interested him at the time. I have a theory that high verbal intelligences comes from reading and writing a lot. If you read and write a lot, this implies that you’ve already formulated thoughts on a variety of subjects. It implies that you have already thought through many different types of questions and problems. Therefore, when these questions/topics arise in conversation, you are already prepared to discuss them. You’ve already done the prep work. Through your reading and writing, you’ve practiced your responses. In verbal battles, this makes you appear smart. This is just my opinion, and it might be entirely wrong.
At approximately half way through the book, I checked in to ask myself what I learned up to this point. Well, Moses is incredibly smart. He has a brilliant mind. His parents were independently wealthy. This enabled Moses to work for no pay after graduation. He never had any interest in earning vast sums of money. Primarily, he wanted to make a difference in the world. He wanted to make life better for the people of New York. He was motivated by selfless desires. As he gets older, it appears that Moses still wants to help the community, but he also becomes power hungry.
Robert loved the water. He enjoyed swimming, boating, and any other water-related activity. Throughout his entire life, he always made time to swim. When swimming, he would swim farther and longer than any of his assistants were able to. Therefore, to keep an eye on Moses during his old age, they would rotate in shifts. Obviously, Moses was a strong swimmer. He enjoyed this activity throughout his life.
After graduating from college, Robert struggled to find a job. Eventually a few people recognized his intelligence. By the time Robert graduated college, he had read many, many books and was knowledgeable on many, many subjects. This was evident to anybody that spoke with him. Eventually, his intelligence was rewarded with a job. Somebody in the government read his thesis and offered him a job. Moses wrote his thesis on how to reform the New York public works system. He wanted to create a pay scale and have performance reviews. He wanted to reorganize the New York state government. His thesis laid out the precise plans and changes needed to do so.
In his job, Moses pushed relentlessly for reform. Specifically, he pushed the reorganization plan that he outlined in his thesis. After much effort, his plans were accepted and implemented. This is how Moses go started on this path to power. He was given a position of authority so that he could implement his plans. In his position of authority, he drafted bills. He was known as the “best bill drafter in Albany.” He was knowledgeable about the law. He wrote parts of the law. When he wrote his parts of the law, he knew exactly what it meant and what he was entitled to. His ability to comprehend and remember the law enabled him to write the law and gain power. His ability to write laws was critical to his success. He wrote bills that enabled him to remain in his posts and made it difficult to nearly impossible to get removed from his positions of authority.
With his combination of intelligence and personality, he quickly rose through the government ranks and in the process acquired more and more power. I think it is important to note that not only was Moses incredibly intelligent, he was also charming. The women always noticed him, he could always liven a conversation, and he made people feel appreciated. His social skills cannot be understated. The combination of intelligence and personality is the key! This combination leads to opportunities.
Moses developed a reputation to “get things done.” He got things done. The ability to get things done is so important in a business. Sometimes, his methods were not the best and arguably immoral. However, they worked. When it comes to a job, the ability to get stuff done matters most, and morality can often take a back seat. For example, Moses would appropriate land from families before he actually had money to pay the family, then he would bamboozle money, and then he would start destruction/construction before actually receiving permission to proceed. One of the big things that allowed him to get things done is that he always had a fully developed a plan of action. He would organize the details, the costs, the time, the contractors, the schedule, all before presenting his plan to the authorities. In this way, government officials knew exactly what they were getting from Moses. Developing a comprehensive plan shows initiative and ownership. This is good business practice. One of the morally questionable things that Moses did was exaggerate costs. He might present a $5.5 million cost as only $2.0 million. Robert presented his ideas in a way that people liked to see them. This is another trick to getting work done; present ideas that people like. Talk about the positives, manipulate the good parts, and don’t mention the negatives. Robert Moses knew how to sell his ideas. Being able to put on a performance is also critical to being successful.
In terms of family, Moses had a wife and two kids. When he met his wife, she was a prominent political figure, filled with ideas and understanding. As Moses got older, his wife became more and more quiet, more and more shy. Moses dominated the relationship with his wife. Moses was the opposite of his wife; she became more shy as he became more outgoing. He started in Yale as a quiet and not outspoken student but over time became more and more belligerent. As he amassed more power, he dominated more conversations. He liked to assert his intellectual dominance. His ideas were always the best, and as he progressed in life he would listen less and less to the ideas of his subordinates. He became an all-knowing god in this own eyes. Throughout everything, his wife supported him and even idolized him. She saw him as a god. Moses worked long days throughout his career, even when in his seventies, he still worked 12-14 hour days, which left little time for family. He did not prioritize family. This book does not speak much about Moses’s family life, because much of his life was spent working. He had a family, and that’s about as much is said about it. This implies that Moses did not do much with his two daughters and wife.
I am not pleased with how Moses treated his family, especially his own brother. His brother was a talented engineer, but Moses purposefully prevented him from obtaining a job in New Work. Moses mistreated his brother, and would not even acknowledge his brother’s calls. We don’t exactly know why Robert mistreated his brother. Robert did not appear to value individual people, and his brother and sister were not exceptions. He ignored his siblings, and he refused to spend any time with them. He understood the needs of the masses, the population as whole, but did not understand the needs of individual people. He knew that he smart, and this created arrogance. Once Moses reached the point in life where he realized that he was smarter than 99% of the people he interacted with, he became dominating in conversations and he became arrogant. He forgot how to listen.
In terms of religion, Moses was raised Jewish, but he resented this religion. He refused to be called a Jew. He, as far as I can tell, was not a religious person. Similarly, he did not seem to struggle with sexual temptation. He was faithful to his wife, and he even argued against scandalous performers in his plays.
Honestly, I see a lot of similarities between myself and Robert Moses. There’s something about being intelligent that takes some time to click in one’s brain, but once registered, it is easy to become arrogant. Once you realize the power of knowledge, it becomes a weapon that can easily be used for evil. As I advance through my life and career, I want to avoid the mistakes that Moses made. I want to act morally, listen to the advice and wisdom of other people (assume that the person I’m speaking with knows something that I don’t), and most importantly I want to uphold my religious convictions. I think that you cannot go wrong with Christ as your guide. I will trust God’s wisdom and act according to His Word. Also unlike Moses, I want to be active in my family. There are many things to admire about Robert Moses, but also many things to dislike. Use what’s admirable and avoid the un-admirable parts.
The beginning of Moses’s power was his ability to draft laws. As he amassed power, he oversaw the construction of highways, parks, and bridges. He created an island of power on Randall Island. Randall Island became his kingdom. The island connects the 3 sections of New York City (Manhattan, Bronx, and Brooklyn) via the Triborough Bridge. Here, on Randall Island, Moses had his personal island, on which his office was located. It is fitting that the only way to get onto the island was by paying a toll. The bridge tolls were originally established to pay back the bond holders, who financed the construction of the bridges. Once the bonds were paid off, the tolls should have been removed from the bridges. However Moses personally wrote the contracts for the bonds, and in these bonds, he gave himself additional power. He was able to continue collecting money from the bonds even after paying back the investors. In this way, he established a never ending revenue of cash. Just like Moses was able to gain power by drafting the laws related to the Long Island State Commissioner role, he gained more power by personally writing the bonds. Moses convinced the mayor, La Gaurdia, to approve the bonds. Once approved, Moses had the legal rights to extend bond revenues indefinitely. He could continue to re-issue bonds and hence continue receiving tolls. With toll money, Moses no longer needed Legislator or Executive approval for projects. Moses could operate independent of the New York government. Robert Moses was the most powerful man in New York. If you thought that the Mayor had the final word, then you would be wrong. And, Moses knew the extent of his power. He knew that he had the resources to get stuff done, and he knew that this power could not be revoked.
Moses initially established his reputation by building parks for the public. His first project, which completely consumed his time, was Jones Beach. He wanted to make the beach accessible to the people living in New York City. He designed Jones Beach with elaborate bath houses, beautiful walkways, and an iconic water tower. Jones Beach established his reputation as a man who fought for parks. In the eyes of the public, Moses was a god. Robert Moses built public parks for the people, he was free of political ties, and he did not care about money. Since Moses was not a public official, he could operate without the inconveniences of politics. Also, since Robert’s parents were wealthy, they ensured that he received enough money to raise his family. Moses received minimal pay for his jobs. He did not receive a significant paycheck until much later in life when he organized the World’s Fair. Only at this time, did he receive a paycheck, and only so that he could support his dying wife. Throughout his life, Moses did not care for money. He only cared about the power that money granted him. He had many opportunities to become wealthy, but he never did. I read something the other day that said in order to be a politician, you need to be independently wealth. The ability to fully support yourself is a pre-requisite to being involved in politics. This seems a little unfair to me. Simply because my family is not wealthy, this means that I have virtually no chance of being a politician. Anyway, Moses was lucky in many regards because of his parents’ wealth.
In addition to building parks, Moses was well known for building bridges and highways. He is responsible for building the most magnificent bridges and highways in the world. However, Moses was a bit too obsessed with above-ground transportation. He advocated for bridges and highways, even when it made more economical sense to build mass transportation systems, such as subways. And this is where the controversies surrounding Moses begin. Robert Moses, due to his attachment with personal automobiles, doomed New York City to always rely on cars and crowded streets for transportation. When mass transportation was evidently the way to improve the flow of people through the city, Robert refused to listen to his associates, and using his power he pushed the construction of super highways.
As Robert grew older, he listened less and less to the people. He believed that his ideas were always the best. He was arrogant. For this reason, Moses fought mass transportation systems and destroyed communities by forcing the construction of his highways.
Another issue that tarnished Moses’s reputation was that he appeared to discriminate against black people and other minority groups. His projects never seemed to benefit the lowest income families. His parks were only accessible via personal vehicles, which could only be afforded by middle class families. And his highways displaced low income housing communities. There is much criticism that Robert Moses did not care about the low income families. Moses reputation degraded as a result of the low housing project. The people began to wonder if Moses was really the best man for the job. Another event that significantly ruined Moses reputation was the battle at Central Park. Moses wanted to replace a section of the park with a parking lot for one of the wealthy restaurant owners. Unfortunately for Moses, many of the wives in the surrounding neighborhood were against him. These women actively protested Moses destruction of the park. During a well-known incident, the mothers stood in front of the bulldozers with their baby carriages in order to protest Moses’s actions. They rotated in shifts so that the lawn was always occupied, the press captured many photos, and Moses was portrayed as a man against parks. This event completed reversed the public’s view of Moses. For years, Robert Moses was seen as the man who advocated for public parks. Now, he was seen as the man who was destroying the public’s parks, most notably New York City’s iconic Central Park. Moses’s reputation would never recover.
Robert Moses’s last prominent position of power was as the coordinator for the World Fair, being held in New York City. He was appointed to organize the World Fair. However, the World Fair was not successful and Moses lost much money as a result.
Overall, the book tells a compelling story about Robert Moses, an unelected figure who may be considered the greatest individual builder of all time. He is reputable for building many beautiful parks, but also for creating an inefficient and crowded highway system in New York. Moses accomplished many things throughout his life, without ever being elected to a political office. He tried once to run for Mayor, but ultimately he did not have the correct personality. Moses was brilliant and charming, but he could also be cut-throat to his opposition. When he ran for political office, Moses’s character was revealed to the public, and the public did not like it. The public liked Moses in his office, building parks and bridges. This book is filled with lots and lots of details about Moses’s actions, positive and negative. But overall, the book is biased against Robert Moses. Yes, he was smart. Yes, he worked hard. Yes, he got stuff done. But would have New York been a better place if Moses did not exist? I think that’s the question that this book tries to pose. It highlights the many things that Moses did wrong, how he refused to listen to advice, how he manipulated and bullied people, and his arrogance. Would New York City have benefitted more from a humble builder? Would New York City be a richer, less segregated, and less dysfunctional city without Robert Moses? Robert Caro thinks so.