Robert Caro “The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York”

New York at the dawn of 20th century – a city deep in administrative chaos and corruption, where an orderly budget is quite a recent invention, party bosses from Tamanny Hall wield absolute power and everything, from a janitor’s job to electing the city administration and million dollar contracts, rests upon connection, palm-greasing and loyalty to the (Democratic) Party. In such political reality one Robert Moses – the governor’s young advisor – carves out for himself a seemingly unimportant niche, construction of public parks. 30 years later the niche had grown into a sprawling empire, and his creator – into a despotic emperor. On the space of over 1000 pages Robert Caro depicts the biography of a man who, thanks to his creativity, genius, lust for power and utter lack of morals, rose from an ordinary clerk to the ruler of New York, the eponymous “power broker”, man who controlled mayors, built bridges, cut the city with expressways, welcomed tributes and crushed his enemies, transforming New York to his whim.

Moses began his career as an enthusiastic, almost dogmatic idealist, faithful to the idea of honest administration and professional civil service free from political pressure. Hired by a reform-minded mayor to fix the New York administration, which he finds in miserable condition, Moses single-handedly devises an all-encompassing reform plan, promising the New York a modern and efficient civil service. The plan gets scrapped – the mayor loses fight with the “Tamanny Hall tiger”, and embittered Moses ends up without a job. This first lesson – that even the most idealistic plan is useless if not backed by political clout and real, tangible power – soon bears fruit. Connections secure Moses the position of advisor to the New York governor, Al Smith, where he quickly learns the nuts and bolts of political play. Smith orders Moses to oversee the construction of public parks, which the New York’s population desperately needs. Moses’ genius transforms this post, to a regular clerk nothing more than an administrative chore, into the foundation of his future “state within a state”, an institution completely independent, politically and financially, from the public opinion, voters subsequent mayors and governors.

From the very beginning Moses demonstrates an exceptional talent and creative energy. His minds constantly springs with ideas of new public projects – huge parks, gigantic bridges and freeways – designed in meticulous detail, each and every one of them almost a work of art. The grandeur of his vision makes architects and engineers doubt its practicality, but for Moses nothing is impossible. He works incessantly, morning to midnight, building with lightning speed, almost obsessively. During Moses’ reign New York overshadows, in terms of number and scope of public projects, every other state – architects and constructors from all around the world come to New York to learn the “Moses’ method” at his feet.

Enormous public projects would have been impossible without the second kind of genius, which Moses had in abundance. His extraordinary talent with politics and bureaucracy, allowing him to find ways of extending his power in ostensibly peripheral places, shows early on, during his studies, when Moses, rejected as a Jew by social elite, creates a niche in academic community, running his own literary journal. Soon he becomes known as “the best bill drafter in Albany” – using manipulation, legal deception and downright fraud, he transforms the post of park administrator into an independent center of power. Blessed with irresistible charm, he skillfully exploits people using disinformation, lies and any dirty trick to make real his ideal of power – absolute, concealed from the public and responsible to no one.

Moses was a born despot. The first dose of real power – a true drug, and Moses was a user – liberates him from any idealism he once had, as well as morality. At first power serves only as means to an end, “getting things done” and making his visions come real, but soon it becomes an end in itself. Moses tolerates no dissent, destroys his opponents completely and with undeniable joy, often ruining careers for even moderate criticism. Whoever opposed Moses, no matter how brilliant an engineer he was, could be sure that he would never find job in New York again. Moses would resort to all sort of foul play, from false insinuations to accusations of Communist sympathies (a deadly weapon in the 30s), to crush his opponent. His critics derided him as “the most unethical man in the US” and his political system – the most corrupt political machine New York ever witnessed (Moses himself boasted that “nothing I have ever done was tainted by legality”).

The only criterion Moses uses to decide where and what to build is his own personal vision. Needs of New York’s residents matter only as far as they fit his schemes. Thus, he would split Bronx with a gigantic highway, resulting in urban decay and destruction of many prospering neighborhoods, whose residents had to resettle in slum areas. He wouldn’t hesitate to tear down a neighborhood to avoid building road through some influential businessman or politician’s lot. While in the beginnings of his career Moses was lauded by the public opinion (he was the only person who could build parks and roads fast enough to meet the city’s needs), later he was a classical example of a despot isolated from reality. Surrounded by loyal sycophants, he forced projects deaf to rational arguments, acting on whim; he builds more and more roads, even when it became clear that only mass transit and subway can alleviate nightmarish traffic jams. Always despising lower classes, he rejects plans for buses and public transport, intentionally building viaducts low enough so that buses would not be pass through (!).

Moses’ success would not have been possible without the sympathy from media and public opinion. In his early years, when Moses and his superiors needed voters’ support, he created his reputation of an independent, incorruptible civil servant, above politics and money (indeed, he never received salary), man who fought inefficient bureaucracy and got things done (making sure not to reveal his methods). When building parks made him famous, idealist and reformers knowing him from the past considered him “one of us”, long after he shed his old ideals. Up to 1950s nobody had challenged the myth of Moses the brilliant politician, Moses the savior – later, when the facade began to fade, he was powerful enough to ignore the press and the public. His decline and fall from power in the 1960s was brought about not by any democratic process, but by Nelson Rockefeller – a man as ruthless and powerful as Moses himself.

Although Robert Caro tries to describe Moses’ life as impartially as possible, it is hard not to feel disgust towards the book’s main character and his methods. Moses’ style and concept of power – authoritarian, based on secrecy and deception – does not align with any democratic, or even quasi-democratic, standard purportedly present in USA. Combined with grandeur of his visions, Moses would feel much more at home in Soviet Union during Stalin’s reign. “The Power Broker” is a brilliant (and extremely well written) treatise on technology of acquiring and exercising political power – in this respect, it is on a par with other positions from my “handbook of politics” (including “The Wire” and David Halberstam‘s books).

A minor shortcoming of the book is that Caro fails to convincingly explain how it was possible for the “Moses myth” to pass unchallenged for over 30 years, even though the press was relatively independent of his influence (although he had personal connections with the owners of “New York Times”, which often served as propaganda tool). If the public opinion had become aware of his schemings, Moses’ career would have certainly broken or at least come to halt. Since Caro does not mention any cases of media being intimidated or manipulated, the blame is on the public (for whom parks were more important than legality or morality of their creator) and the press, which lacked criticism and diligence (with the exception of a group of brave journalists uncovering Moses’ wrongdoings in the 1960s, in an effort not unlike the legendary work of Woodward and Bernstein a decade later). The book is also a bit too long (and it was abridged from over 3000 pages to a mere 1100) – Caro has a wonderful pen, but still, leaving out some one or two hundred pages would do the biography no harm.

As a side remark, I dream of a science fiction novel (even a space opera) which would describe politics, power plays etc. at the level of precision matching that of Caro or Halberstam. Most SF novels focus on technology and its consequences for individual of social life – it would be very interesting to see how SF ideas affect the political relations, style of exercising power etc. (is the “space empire”, a space-opera standard, different in structure from the court of Hajle Selasje or the bureaucratic “state within a state” of Moses?) Alas, I don’t see any authors capable of this task – apparently, it’s time to ditch mathematics and start writing….

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