If you live in New York you may have heard of him, but outside the area his name may be a mystery. Robert Caro, famed author of four books on Lyndon Johnson, wrote his first book about him for which he won the Pulitzer Prize. The book was later named one of the one hundred greatest non-fiction books of the 20th century. The man is Robert Moses and the book is The Power Broker.
The book was written in 1974 (celebrating its 40th anniversary.) I have owned it for about ten years and finally tackled it on my recent vacation. Tackle it you must as it comes in at 1,162 pages not including notes and index. It chronicles the life of Moses who, from 1924 through 1968, became the most powerful man in New York though he never held public office and only ran once (for Governor in 1934 and was creamed). This was when New York was not only the center of the United States, but the world.
Moses was a floundering Ph.D. when Al Smith provided his first significant appointment. To remind you of who Al Smith was, at the time of the appointment of Moses he was the Governor of New York and became the 1928 Democratic nominee who may have mercifully lost to Herbert Hoover. He was also the first Catholic to run for President from a major party.
Moses’ initial foray into controlling a state agency was based on a law he wrote and was signed by Smith which allowed Moses to carve up Long Island and establish public parks for New Yorkers who needed open spaces. His most well-known park, Jones Beach, is known to all New Yorkers, who have used its facilities for almost 90 years.
From that point Moses amassed power through his control of 12 state and New York City commissions. To give you a taste of how powerful he became he stared down Franklin Roosevelt -- and FDR backed down. When FDR served as Governor of New York from 1929-1932, he found Moses useful, but the two men hated each other. While President and at the height of his popularity, FDR wrote a federal order aimed at forcing Moses from his powerful state appointments. The uproar from Albany, New York City, and the New York Congressional delegation was so immense FDR had to withdraw the order. Moses went on doing his thing for 34 years thereafter, long after the required retirement age.
So what did he do that made him so important? To give you a taste, I quote Caro: “The transportation network he built after World War II ranks with the greatest feats of urban construction in recorded history.” He built the longest tunnel in the Western Hemisphere and the longest suspension bridge in the world. He built or started 899 miles of highways around New York, which is almost twice as much as what exists in Los Angeles. All those parkways and expressways with those quirky names New Yorkers rattle off, like the Van Wyck, Major Deegan and Throgs Neck, were built by Moses under his auspices.
He also was responsible for approval of 148,000 units of public housing in NYC between 1945 and 1948. He built 658 playgrounds and virtually every park New Yorkers and Long Islanders know, not to mention others throughout the state. He did not build Central Park, but it was a shambles until it was rebuilt under his auspices as it is known today including the Zoo.
If you live in Duluth or Portland he affected your life. Your public parks are based on the work he did. Your highways are based on the work he did. City planners from all over the U.S. and the world came to review his accomplishments.
He was given a free reign because he got things done. Also the press rarely questioned him. In 1925 during a controversy caused by Moses pushing his vision, the New York Times wrote this: “It seems not unlikely that Chairman Moses has exceeded his legal authority. But he is acting in the interest of the people and of all future generations….” It seems like the Times was warming up for treatment of some other favored politicians.
The principal reason he garnered such power was the wide-spread perception of his lack of self-interest. It was 14 years working for the state and NYC before he received any salary (his mother supported him). To quote Caro: “In terms of money in which corruption is usually measured, Moses was not corrupt. He was, in fact, as uninterested in obtaining payoffs for himself as any public servant who ever lived. But in terms of power, Moses was corrupt. Coveting it, he used money to get it.”
Most fascinating was the chapter on how he controlled people though his use of public funds. He had control of public funds through the creation of public authorities, of which he was the first in America to establish. He had complete control over monies coming in from the Triborough Bridge and other facilities that collected fees. In current times, an example of this is the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau. Prior to her election to the U.S. Senate, Elizabeth Warren, in her unofficial capacity as advisor to President Obama, conceived the agency which is not responsible to Congress as it is funded through fees collected by the Federal Reserve.
Moses used commissions and fees to control people and banks. He built Marine Theater in Jones Beach Park which seated 8,200 people. Through his unregulated funds, he used it as his own personal place to entertain the rich and important. For his “house band” there, he had Guy Lombardo and his orchestra. For those of you too young to remember Lombardo, think of Jimmy Fallon getting the Roots as his house band. Moses threw lavish parties paid for from the dimes collected from people using the bridges under his authority.
For over 30 years, there was not a Mayor of NYC or Governor of NY who would even begin to challenge Moses. He accomplished things that leaders marveled at and they just stood aside then lauded at Moses-arranged ceremonies. The United Nations building might have been built in San Francisco without Moses. Lincoln Center would not exist without Moses; neither would Shea Stadium or Flushing Meadows where the U.S. Open Tennis Championship is played.
Moses was a dictatorial megalomaniac who actually obtained and controlled power that was unfettered. The story told with a critical eye by Caro is required reading for anyone who wants to understand how power politics is played, and Moses was the Master. His legacy affects us all.