The Power Broker I

The New York Sun reports Moses, in the totality of his reign as ‘Master Builder,’ “built 13 bridges, 416 miles of parkways, 658 playgrounds, and 150,000 housing units, spending $150 billion in today’s dollars” across the City of New York. Nearly unfathomable nowadays is that Moses was able to wield such lofty power, from the mid-1920′s through 1968, without holding any elected office. Instead, as reported by Paul Goldberger in his New York Times obituary, Moses “held several appointive offices and once occupied 12 positions simultaneously, including that of New York City Parks Commissioner, head of the State Parks Council, head of the State Power Commission and chairman of the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority.”

These notes are on roughly the first 1/6 of The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York. Since I listened to this as an audiobook, it’s hard to reference specific chapters etc. I can say that the notes below are based on Caro’s retelling of Moses’ life up until his mid-30’s, shortly after he is finally made Park Commissioner.

Early on, Moses is presented to the reader (or listener, as the case may be) as very smart, very literate and extremely self-assured. He also demonstrates an extreme attention to detail, a very elitist attitude, a high tolerance for risk. Robert Moses is a voracious reader, a lover of poetry, and also maybe cruelly aggressive. In the prologue, the author (Robert Caro) offers two glimpses of Robert Moses: one is college-aged Robert at Yale, threatening to quit the swim team if the team’s funding needs aren’t met (which includes his plan to be less-than-forthcoming to a potential donor about where the money is going… this turns out to be a motif); the other is a middle-aged Robert, self-assuredly threatening to quit his assigned posts if he does not also get a seat that he coveted but was denied by the Mayor, who gave him two other seats instead. Young Robert failed and quit swimming altogether. Older Robert Moses got exactly what he wanted, presumably as he always does. Caro questions how a person can have that kind of power in a democracy.

I

Influences and Early Career

Much of the early book is more about filling out the personalities of the major authorities and institutions that shaped Robert Moses’ early life. We meet his grandmother, and his very driven (and public-service minded) mother, we hear of his entrepreneurial father selling off his real estate holdings to move the family from New Haven to New York City. Robert Moses grows up in luxury and comfort, attends Yale and then Oxford, and receives a Ph.D. from Columbia in Political Science. We see his early awkward attempts of grappling with power and politics in the field, and we see his false starts as an idealistic public servant.

The author reads off snippets of the young Moses’ college essays. It might be unfair, seeing as how his beliefs were probably not uncommon in his cohort at his time. The sense of noblesse oblige is palpable. Much of it doesn’t age well… it’s condescending, legitimately racist stuff. He is skeptical that the various colored people under British colonial rule are capable of ruling themselves. He believes that America could learn from the British model in which the best educated and best heeled [he’s only really referring to three universities, by the way] are filtered directly into government service to run the nation’s institutions. But Robert Moses is not just a conservative elitist though, he’s also a meritocrat. Like many coming of age at the turn of the 20th century, he is influenced by Taylorism and begins his career in the late Tammany Hall era, during a Progressive wave.

Robert Moses starts out as an idealistic Jedi-Rationalist, who believed that intelligent men can reason their way to smart and efficient government. He works with a municipal research group that scores some progressive victories against Tammany Hall. He’s brilliant, and unfortunately he knows that too well. As Caro writes it, this did not help him in his early years, and Moses felt that much of his work in his twenties was beneath his station. He marries, has two daughters. His mother sends them allowance and they live relatively simply- high class, low income. He loses jobs, finds new ones. He’s a proud workaholic.

Now crossing into his early 30’s, Moses crafts proposals to standardize New York City’s patronage-ridden hiring and promotion practices. He fails, naturally. It was an uphill battle anyway, and though he is incredibly knowledgeable he does humiliate himself with his political naiveté, scaring people with talk about “efficiency” and trying to reason about fairness instead of appealing to people’s self-interest. He allows himself to take the stand- he was once President of the Oxford Union! – and tries to rally the people with facts. If anything, his presentation probably hurt him. Still, he gets the attention of an advisor of then-governor Al Smith named Belle Moskowitz, which begins a mentorship that allows Moses to hone is craft in practical politics.

Author Robert Caro spends some time giving a biography of the Irish-Catholic Progressive Governor and Would-Be Presidential Candidate Al Smith, and honestly it made me wish that he had written a fuller book on him, too, because he’s a great character that I knew next-to-nothing about. Al Smith was Robert Moses’ opposite in many ways- not a college man at all, grew up in tenement housing as a young jokester and loudmouth who entered politics initially as a way to get gainful employment (as opposed to out of some patrician sense of duty). He was a hard worker who kept his auto-didacticism to himself, trying to teach himself to read bills as a Tammany man in his thirties (when Tammany men didn’t necessarily need to read bills at all) until he learned the ins-and-outs of politics as it is practiced. He is described as extremely well-liked and eventually very effective, as his self-taught ability to really understand legislation led to his discovery of “where the bodies are buried” (my words, not his). In time, he would become a reformer from the inside of the machine.

(Independent-Republican Progressive) Robert Moses gets a management role in (Democratic Progressive) Governor Al Smith’s government reorganization scheme, which is largely a success. Despite [or, well, probably because of] this, Al Smith is defeated in his re-election bid. Smith invites Belle Moskowitz and Robert Moses to his private home to plot how to retake the Governor’s mansion in another two years. The chapter ends electrically, with Robert Moses confiding to his friend, “Al Smith listens to me.”

The two-year interim period has Robert Moses working with reformer Robert Spencer Childs, and also learning to fight dirty during Al Smith’s next campaign. Al Smith and his posse retake the state. After demurring on many positions that Al offers him, Robert Moses eventually says yes to one- they determine to create the Long Island State Park Commission, and Robert Moses is named its first President.

 

II

Achieving and Using Power

Caro spends some time introducing the reader/listener to the robber barons who owned vast tracts of Long Island. Caro describes a few of their estates, their extravagance and sheer expanse. He spends a little time talking about how some of them achieved their incredible means. He also paints a picture of the lower working class of New York City want to leave the city in their newly-affordable cars on weekends, to have a picnic or go to the beach and get away from work and city noise and grime. The wealthy Long Islanders are not too keen on that. The waterfront property was all blocked.

Robert Moses, prior to being named President of the Long Island State Park Commission, was a trusted advisor precisely because no one had his attention to detail or singleminded focus. He crafts legislation for his public authority that allows him the power of “appropriation”, which was unanimously approved because appropriation was used in legislation at the time to refer to finances; however, the much older bill referenced in Moses’ legislation defined appropriation in a much broader way. He would use it as a tool to threaten to seize property directly from the wealthy Long Islanders whose land he wanted to make into public parks, and routes for the lower working classes of New York to access them.

Even though this legislation secretly gave Moses sweeping powers (and also gave himself a six-year term, three time longer than a Governor’s, against the advice of Moses himself when he was a young reformer!) he still found a way to totally break this law. He seized property without first negotiating with these wealthy (and educated, and legally armed-to-the-teeth) citizens, and they attempted to appeal to the Governor and take Moses’ State Park Commission to court.

This episode shows how drastically Moses has changed in his approach. Not in that he overstepped- we’ve seen episodes where he’s done that already- but in how he has learned his political lessons from experience. He was very clever in his public relations, such that most people were more aware that ‘wealthy people were trying to stop the construction of public parks’ than that a government official is unfairly seizing their land. Moses delayed the court case – which would undoubtedly find them guilty – as much as he could, while he and Al Smith’s administration worked to win in the court of public opinion. He acted as though the delays were happenstance, and that they would obviously come out favorably. He rushed the State Parkway construction so that people could see and believe what the benefit to them would be once it was finished. Deer Range State Park opened before Moses’ appeals were all thrown out.

Al Smith, for his part, tried to broker a peace between Moses’ public authority and the wealthy citizens, but as Caro retells the story of what happened there, the landowners’ honest and open concern about “riff raff” swarming their lands did not do much to soften tenement-born Governor Smith’s heart.

As the story is told, the wealthy citizens were legally in the right, but they were in the patrician state of mind of  a much younger Robert Moses, “technically correct” but out of touch with their audience in the working masses of the city, and unable to draw much sympathy. Even the more ‘objective’ newspapers of the day leaned very favorable to the proposed government public park, turning a blind eye to the unambiguous illegalities going on beneath that. The combatants failed to demonize Robert Moses, instead giving him the aura of being a friend of working New York.

It’s a curious episode. Maybe a familiar one, too, though. Many of you might be drawing parallels here, to whenever an ostensibly good cause is achieved by messy, undemocratic means. The question comes easily to mind whether it’s worth it that corruption and ambition can achieve great changes that are sometimes positive.

Moses discovered more dark arts still. He could get highways built by appealing to those who would vote on the bill- if they knew where highways were going to be built, they could predict what land would become extremely valuable by being near exit ramps, for example.

Eventually, legal loop-de-loops convoluted the case and no fees were ultimately dropped onto Moses at all. Excellent press, personal appeals to self-interest, and the government’s bottomless pile of money to defend itself against even wealthy citizens won the day.

Lessons drawn:

“Once you sink that first stake, they’ll never make you pull it up.”: “If ends justified means, and if the important think in any project were to get it started, then any means in getting it started were justified.” Underestimating costs and misleading purposes “might be the only way to get a project started” especially because of the vastness of Moses’ projects. Once it’s a sunk cost, the government has to pay. They could not accuse him of misleading them because it would diminish their authority as knowledgeable government leaders.

Power, specifically the power that came with the money he could dispose of as a state official, sheltered him from repercussions of any infractions he did actually commit. No one denied that he broke the law in his land seizures. Justice delayed became justice denied. As long as he had public power, he could use public funds to delay justice. “He gloried in the knowledge. He busted and bust about it.”

Moses: “Nothing I’ve ever done have been tinged with legality.”

More later, hopefully next week.

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