Monday, October 17, 2016
Robert Moses never held political office, and he never had a lot of money. He was a career bureaucrat without many of the trappings of power, with a reputation around New York City for being a selfless civil servant. Few knew he was the power behind the throne for almost 40 years. He didn’t serve at the pleasure of the Mayor; The Mayor served at his. He was above the law, and there was nothing the people could do to remove him. Not even FDR, who tried to orchestrate a coup against Moses at the height of the Great Depression, could unseat him. The whole point of a democracy is to prevent situations like that from happening. In The Power Broker, Robert Caro tells the story of how it did.
Moses was a builder. He built every major bridge in the city, as well as most of the highways that carve it up, and his name is plastered on dams, thoroughfares and parks across the state. Building massive public works is usually a collaborative process, involving balancing the competing interests of millions of people. Moses made it a dictatorship. The way NYC is laid out today is a direct reflection of his vision, and that vision shaped countless other cities around the world. Generations of architects and city planners learned at his feet, and his highways became the model for the interstate highway system. He came of age in the era of the automobile, and he is as responsible as anyone for the way it came to define the country.
The book delves into his projects, and the way they impacted the lives of millions, but at its heart is a more intimate story. A young man has a dream of making the world a better place. He goes out into the world and discovers that powerful people are standing in the way of his dream, and that his idealism is no match for their power. After trying and failing to fight the system, he becomes tempted by the idea of power, and of using power for his own ends. Once acquired, the power becomes an end to itself, and he slowly becomes the very thing he vowed to destroy. The corruption of Robert Moses is straight out of Lord of the Rings, and JRR Tolkien couldn’t have written it better.
The reason Caro can tell the story so well is because of how well he understands it. Caro is an obsessive researcher who leaves no stone unturned, literally in the case of the first highways that Moses built, and he talked to anyone and everyone who was even remotely connected to Moses. The fruit of that diligence is a book that clocks in at more than 1,100 pages. It’s a difficult read, but it’s not an intimidating one. Caro is the rare author who is a great reporter and and a great writer. The first draft was well over 3,000 pages, and what remains tells the story relatively concisely. It’s biography the way it should be done. One man’s life becomes a window into the world, making the past come alive and illustrating all that has changed in the time since, and all that has stayed the same.
People were flocking to New York City by the millions in the 1910’s and 1920’s, and there was nowhere to put them all. The land was filling up rapidly. What Moses understood was all these people needed somewhere to go, and something to do. His dream was to open up the great beaches of Long Island, and he refused to back down from the wealthy barons who controlled all of the great real estate. Part of his enduring popularity was the way he broke the backs of the 1% in the fight, using every trick in the book (including many he wrote himself) to get his parks, and the highways to those parks, built.
That fight taught him lessons he would use for the rest of his career. Manipulate the press. Control the money. Start building and dare people to stop you. Moses was a master of legislative maneuvering. He understood the law better than the people writing it, and he knew how to insert clauses no one would notice until it was too late. His personal fiefdoms were the public authorities, the temporary corporations created to manage tolls until a project had been paid off. He issued bonds on the revenues they generated, getting banks to front the money and then paying them off over time, and then issued bonds on those bonds, so that he could service them indefinitely without ever handing control back to the state. With hundreds of millions under his control, Moses vacuumed up all the best talent in the city, and he crushed anyone who tried to stand in his way. Moses was the only game in town, so if you wanted to build anything, you had to go through him.
The problem with giving one man that much power is that no one, no matter how smart and no matter how visionary, can see past their own experiences. Moses was shaped by growing up in the 1920’s, when cars were more luxury than necessity. He didn’t understand traffic patterns, and his only solution to congestion was to build more highways. Moses never learned that highways are like the Field of Dreams. If you build it, they will come. Highways through cities don’t ease congestion. They make it worse. They are a fundamentally inefficient way of moving large groups of people from Point A to Point B. Moses had a keen grasp on the importance of time in his life, but his highways consigned untold millions to wasting huge portions of theirs in traffic.
Moses was a man defined by his contradictions. He was the architect of the highway system, yet he never learned how to drive a car. He devoted his life to improving the lives of millions, but he didn’t even really like people. He built monument upon monument in his desire for immortality, and he is mostly remembered for a book written about him. The Power Broker was published in 1974, and it’s still being sold in stores more than 40 years later. The pen really is mightier than the sword, or in this case, the bulldozer and the jackhammer.