Reading Log: The Power Broker

Reading Log: The Power Broker

I am nearly halfway through my sojourn through Robert Caro's The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York. It is strongly in contention for the greatest book ever written. I've decided to write a few notes as I go. Very normal.

I've learned about Moses's patron Alfred E. Smith, his feuds with FDR, his frenemy Fiorello Laguardia, and the building of his great works.

Alfred E. Smith did not graduate high school and rose to become the Governor of New York and one of the most powerful politicians of his time.

Smith spent his youth in the Fourth Ward, a wilderness of tenements stretching away from the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge. (113)
... Al would not get to see the father who liked to put his little boy on his knee during family excursions to the beer gardens along the Bowery, regale him with stories and let him sneak sips of his beer. (114)

Honestly, who writes like this? It's impossible not have crystal clear imagery of every line.

Moses never forgot Smith's backing.

Smith was always "Governor" to Moses. He never addressed him - either in letters or in speech - as anything but "governor." And this was a fact more significant with Robert Moses than it would be other men. Moses would, during the forty years after Smith left Albany, serve under five other Governors. He never addressed them - in letters or in speech - except by their first names. He never called any one of them "Governor." For Robert Moses, there would always be only one Governor. (259)

I love this so much. Caro, in addition to being the greatest biographer of all time is also the greatest research journalist. You know he makes the above assertion after having read every Moses letter and speech in existence and after cross checking this fact through hundreds of interviews.

As a symbol of his esteem for Smith, Moses built the Central Park Zoo and gave Smith keys to it, which Smith used often in retirement.

... Moses informed Smith that the night superintendency carried with it certain privileges. He gave Smith a master key which unlocked the animal houses and told the Governor that the zoo caretakers had been instructed that he was to be allowed to enter them whenever he wanted, day or night. And until the end of his life, Smith would delight in this privilege. (382)

FDR and Moses were men of the same generation in New York with aspirations for power and as such they came into conflict. FDR's ambitions included the White House and to get there from the Governorship, he needed Moses to deliver public works that he could take credit for.

Moses' cleverness in writing laws cementing himself in power helped explain Roosevelt's initial decision not to try to take that power away. But a large part of the explanation for Roosevelt's subsequent willingness to increase Moses' power was not cleverness but accomplishment, the record of what Moses had done with the power he had given himself. For the accomplishment and the potential for more accomplishment had very strong political connotations indeed. (307)

Laguardia, the namesake of the airport I've visited most, also receives ample attention in this great book. Specifically, how Moses came to dominate New York's greatest mayor:

"I heard Moses give La Guardia the devil over the telephone." Describing that telephone conversation, Moses gives a wonderful imitation of the La Guardia snarl: "He said, 'Yeahhhh, I hear you got a fancy lawyer.' I said, 'Yeahhhh, and he's gonna kick the shit out of you. You better leave him alone.'" And, as it turned out, L Guardia never had the investigation perused. (448)

And then there are the chronicles of his works. From the creation of Jones Beach to the Triborough bridge, each tale is epic. Perhaps the most exciting is the creation of the Westside Highway, over which I have driven hundreds of times. Caro uses a sort of count down technique describing each major funding milestone:

There was $95,500,000 to go. (530)
There was $91,500,000 to go. (530)
And there was $91,400,000 to go. (529)

and so on. It's a remarkable section of the book.

And then there are the chronicles of his vindictiveness.

"Father wanted to make an agreement with him - he didn't want to have to go to the lawyers - but Moses wanted to take twenty acres from us. The Whole farm was only eighty, eighty five acres. The twenty acres was the choice of the whole farm. It had been woodland; we had worked hard to get it cleared off. We had just gotten it cleared, and it was just about ready to begin making money for us. It was right in the middle of the farm; if he took it, all our rows would be cut in half - how could you plow? And he was offering us $1,200 - the same price he was offering for bad land on the edges of other farms. That wasn't fair. But when we tried to explain that to him, he wouldn't even listen to us. Father asked him to go on the north boundary line instead. Father said if he'd take from the boundary and not from the middle, he'd give it to the state for nothing. But Moses said no." (183)

And then there is the telling of his racism.

Robert Moses spent millions of dollars enlarging Riverside Park through landfill, but he did not spend a dime for that purpose between 125th and 155th streets. He added 132 acres to the parts of the park most likely to be used by white people - but not one acre to the parts of the park most likely to be used by black people. (557)

This book is a work of majesty to be savored.