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The Power Broker

I recently finished The Power Broker by Robert Caro. It remains in my mind of of the greatest books of all time. If you love history, New York, politics, or the idea of power you will no doubt enjoy this one as much as I did.
The Power Broker

There are not enough superlatives

I recently finished The Power Broker by Robert Caro. It remains in my mind one of the greatest books of all time. If you love history, New York, politics, or the idea of power you will no doubt enjoy this one as much as I did.

What follows are the excerpts that I recorded as I read and in some cases a note of commentary. Previously I've published notable lines from the book here and here. These excerpts blew me away and it is important for me to have them close to hand.

On the inequitable distribution of parks in New York City:

Robert Moses built 255 playgrounds in New York City during the 1930's. He built one playground in Harlem. An overspill from Harlem had created Negro ghettos in two other areas of the city: Brooklyn's Stuyvesant Heights, the nucleus of the great slum that would become known as Bedford-Stuyvesant, and South Jamaica. Robert Moses built one playground in Stuyvesant Heights. He built no playgrounds in South Jamaica. (510)
Recalls Assistant Corporation Counsel Chanler, who handled the case for Moses and drew up the final stipulation: "I spoke to Moses about it. He said they had to be evicted at once. I said, "Why?" "He said, 'Because they were rude to me.'" (507)

On the destruction of the Sunset Park Neighborhood:

"A slum! That wasn't a slum!" says Cathy Cadorine, who lived in Sunset Park. "That was a very nice neighborhood. It was poor, but clean poor." (520)

Moses thought in terms of cars, not people.

As Exton and Weinberg had been thinking about the alternatives, moreover, they had come to realize that their route had certain other advantages, not so obvious but, perhaps, even more important. It was difficult for them to define these advantages, because in the early 1930's there was almost no literature to draw upon; it would not be for more than a decade, in fact, that terms to explain what they were thinking would come into common coinage - like "ecology" and "environment" and "human scale." (543)

Cinematic sentences. I know this stretch of highway.

In their place were the things he had seen only in his mind then, "The great highway that went uptown along the water" and the lush park beside it. From the river, the massive retaining walls trimmed with granite and marble, set with loopholes and embrasures, stretching for miles along the water, rising one behind the other up to Riverside Drive, were battlements, a fortification protecting the great city behind it. The loom from Riverside Drive behind the battlements not only of sheer brick wall of apartment houses but of turrets and watchtowers of mansions that resembled medieval castles (the central facade of Charles M. Schwab's, which occupied the square block between Seventy-third and Seventy-fourth streets, was reminiscent of the chateau of Chenonceaux, the wings of the castles of Blois and Azay-le-Rideau); the presence behind the battlements of the columns and cannons of the Soldiers' and Sailors' Monument, erected to honor warriors of a civil war, and, farther north, of the massive granite sepulcher of the great general who had led them; the image, life-sized in the distance, of a girl warrior out of the fifteenth century, the bronze mount of the Maid of Orléans rearing at Ninety-third Street from a pedestal set with fragments from Rheims Cathedral, where she waited trial and death; the upthrust spires out of the thirteenth century, the spires of Riverside Church that were modeled on the Cathedral at Chartres; the stark outline atop a bluff to the north of the simple square watchtower of the medieval monastery of St. Michel de Cuxa that was now called the Cloisters - these only made more complete the effect for which Moses had been striving: that of a wall built to guard a city as walls had guarded cities during the Middle Ages, specifically the German cities whose walls, along with those of the medieval fortress-castles of the Raubritter, or "robber barons," had lined the Rhine and fired Moses' imagination, when as a romantic young student, he had so often cruised that river. (552-553)

On the fate of Robert Moses' older brother, Paul Moses:

Those stairs were very hard for Paul, particularly at the end of a long day trudging around Manhattan as a salesman. In his late seventies, he would be stricken by a serious illness. Thereafter climbing those stairs would be very hard indeed. Any apartment in an elevator building would have been a blessing to him. His brother was creating tens of thousands of such apartments: low-income, middle-income. He gave out such apartments as favors to innumerable persons. Any politician with a relative who wanted one had only to ask; Robert Moses would provide. But he wouldn't provide one for his own brother. Paul Moses was to struggle up those stairs until 1967, when, at the age of eighty, he died. (596)

We've reached the Martin Scorsese turning point.

But Moses' personality made him particularly susceptible to the addiction of power. And now he had been a mainliner for years. And while he had always before sought power only for the sake of his dreams, now, for the first time, he began to seek power for power's own sake, as an end in and for itself. (607)

How Moses used the ability to issue bonds off toll revenue and the right to contract in perpetuity to greatly expand his power.

Before Moses, the public authority had been a mere instrument of the city, a body established by the city's duly constituted, elected officials to carry out one of their decisions. His public authorities had been set up to do what they wanted done. Now his authorities would do what he wanted done. (630)

Moses learned to not rely to heavily on public approval.

"That's a slender reed to lean on," Al Smith had said. Now Robert Moses had something more solid: the firm, precise, unbreakable covenants of the bond resolutions. (631)

To La Guardia's objections to a Moses power play,

Moses' reply was more succinct. "I think you had better read the agreements and contracts," he wrote. (635)

The history of revolutionary New York

Those streets had seen despair. One morning the harbor that had been empty the night before was a forest of masts: the British fleet had arrived – 130 ships bearing 31,000 redcoat and Hessian soldiers, veterans of a hundred battles; soon the hills of Staten Island were white with their tents. After the raw and ragged Continentals had been routed at the Battle of Long Island, and driven off Manhattan Island (Washington, watching from across the river, wept as the Hessians bayoneted the wounded at the last outpost at Fort Washington), the only troops that walked those streets until the end of the war seven years later were troops wearing the red coats of the oppressor. But those streets had seen triumph, too. At the end of the war, Washington returned. "The troops just leaving us were equipped as if for show, and with their scarlet uniforms and burnished arms, made a brilliant display," wrote one woman. "The troops that marched in, on the contrary, were ill-clad and weather-beaten, and made a forlorn appearance. But then they were our troops." It was in those streets – at Fraunces Tavern at Pearl and Broad – that their leader, having just refused a crown, took farewell of his weeping officers, weeping himself as he did so and then walking silently to the barge waiting at Whitehall Ferry. And it was to those streets that George Washington returned six years later – in a barge rowed by thirteen ships' captains clad in white uniforms – to step ashore at Murray's Wharf at the foot of Wall Street as women threw flowers at him (he "read his history in a nation's eyes," wrote one) and be sworn in on the balcony of Federal Hall at the corner of Wall and Broad. And it was through those streets – the streets of the first capital of the new Republic – that there walked the three men – Hamilton, Jay and Madison – who together were "Publius," author of the eighty-five great essays urging ratification of the controversial new Constitution. (648-649)

The significance of the aquarium

Lafayette was only one of a hundred heroes for whom the old fort and Battery Park were the setting for the spectacles honoring them in triumph or in death. Troops were drawn up in the park by the thousands to greet Dewey after he defeated the Spaniards at Manila (the astrakhan busbies of cavalry hussars shook in the sea breeze), Pershing after he defeated the Germans in France, and TR after he returned from safari (conspicuous among the regiments out in full dress to greet the ex-President were a handful of men in khaki and campaign hats: the Rough Riders). (652)

Moses defeated, but for the last time

If the reformers had looked at the Battle of the Battery Crossing in a broader perspective, however, they would have been holding not a "Victory Luncheon" but a wake. For in such a perspective – the significance of the battle in the history of New York City – the key point about the fight and its significance for the city's future was not that the President had stepped in and stopped Robert Moses from building a project that might have irreparably damaged the city. The key point was that it had taken the President to stop him. (677)

The chapter titled Revenge starts with the following:

In victory, Robert Moses had proven himself savage. In defeat, he was to prove himself more savage still. He couldn't hurt Franklin Roosevelt or his wife, but the reformers who had brought Eleanor and Franklin into the Battle of the Battery Crossing and had thus engineered his defeat were vulnerable because they loved the old fort in Battery Park and the Aquarium it housed. He set out to tear the fort down, to raze it to the ground, to destroy every trace that it had ever existed. (678)

On Moses' lust for power.

Al Smith's close friend John A. Coleman, the multimillionaire "Pope of Wall Street" who came out of the Lower East Side with limited education but unlimited shrewdness, said: "Some men aren't satisfied unless they have caviar. Moses would have been happy with a ham sandwich – and power."(688)

How Moses used his power to get more power.

The Robert Moses of 1945 was not the foe of the practical politician but the essence of that peculiar animal. He was the complete realist. Willing, in order to accomplish his purposes – purposes which in 1945 revolved around the retention and acquisition of power – to throw onto the table any chip he held, he had, in the election of 1945, with a chance to obtain more power than he had ever possessed before, thrown onto the table the most valuable of all his chips: his name. (701)

Moses' preferred title.

O'Dwyer would remain in his job for less than five years. Moses would remain in his job – signing his letters "Robert Moses, Coordinator"; he preferred that Orwellian title to "Commissioner" – for more than twenty years. (707)


Costikyan, upon descending from his unique vantage point, was to report: "The magnet which attracts corrupters... the natural locus of corruption is always where the discretionary power resides." In New York City, in the postwar era, the discretionary power resided principally in Robert Moses, and like filings to a magnet – or, more precisely, like flies to a sugar bowl – the corrupters, the men who possessed influence over the city's political or governmental apparatus and who were willing to sell that influence for money, were attracted to Moses, and to the seemingly bottomless sugar bowl for which he possessed the only spoon. And Moses did not send them away disappointed. "Free from political considerations"? Political considerations were in fact the basis – often the only basis – on which Moses spooned out his millions. With the power to distribute those millions according to any criteria he chose, during the entire postwar era he chose mainly a single criterion: how much influence an individual had, and how willing that individual was to use that influence on his behalf. (717-718)
He was buying men's influence – and for each dollar he spent, he made sure he received in return full value. (721)
In terms of money, the terms in which corruption is usually measured, Robert Moses was not himself corrupt. He was, in fact, as uninterested in obtaining payoffs for himself as any public servant who ever lived. In the politician's phrase, he was "money honest." (722)


Shanahan's nostrils twitched to a single aroma: the smell of money. (722)

Moses dominates

Moses studied human nature in his district, and acted accordin'. His constituents – the De Sapios and Shanahans and Steinguts – wanted the rich Christmas baskets of "honest graft." Moses handed them baskets. Using the vast wealth of his public authorities, he made himself the ward boss of the highest precincts, bankroller of the inner circle, dancing master of hte Four Hundred of politics. And he held his district for thirty years. (727)

Do not let Moses do you any favors

Paul, my experience with Moses has taught me one lesson, and I'll tell you. I would never let him do anything for me in any way, shape or form. I'd never ask him – or permit him – to do anything of a personal nature for me because – and I've seen it time and time again – a day will come when Bob will reach back in his file and throw this in your face, quietly if that will make you go along with him, publicly otherwise. And if he has to, he will destroy you with it. (728)
I would say about someone, 'I don't think he'll go along,' and Bob would say, 'Well, goddammit, he'd better go along! If he doesn't go along, I'll destroy the son of a bitch!' And he'd call for a file, and he would begin to quote chapter and verse. And sure enough [when the vote came], the fellow would go along. (728)
They had accepted a favor from him perhaps once; he had a hold over them forever. (728)
A politician who had never accepted a favor from Moses knew that this did not grant him immunity from such an attack. He knew that Moses' bloodhounds were sniffing, always sniffing, around City Hall and the files in the Municipal Building, and he could be sure that up at Randall's Island there was a file with his name on it – and who knew what might be in it? (728)

Moses' power

Moses' generosity to banks had to be paid for out of the pockets of motorists, of course. If bondholders received tens of millions of dollars extra in interest, drivers would have to pay tens of millions of dollars extra in tolls. (733)
Several astute observers were to comment that it was through the telephone that power is exercised in New York. Men who felt the impact of Robert Moses' power often described it in terms of the telephone. (742)
Supposedly the servant of these elected representatives of the sovereign people of the city, Robert Moses was in reality their master. (751)
He was the supreme power broker. (754)

His limousine.

If he created an empire, he roamed it in imperial style. His car, the most luxurious Detroit could provide (the richness of its leather upholstery gave on guest the feeling that he was not in a motor vehicle but the library of a fine men's club, an illusion reinforced by the placement of the limousine's side windows so far forward that occupants of its deep rear seat could see out only by leaning forward... (812)

Moses the host.

A day as Robert Moses' guest at Jones Beach was a day to remember. (821)

Tenure and breadth of power

Other men hold real power – shaping power, executive authority – for four years, or eight, or twelve. Robert Moses held shaping power over the New York metropolitan region for forty-four years. (828)

Moses never drove.

Robert Moses had never, aside from a few driving lessons thirty years before, driven a car. He didn't know what driving was. His chauffeured limousine was an office, to him a peculiarly pleasant office, in fact, since in it he was away from secretaries and the telephone and in its upholstered confines he could bury himself in work without interruption. (834)

Engineering feats.

It cost at least as much – and possibly more – to move the building than it would have cost to demolish it, and in later years, Moses was quite frank about why he had decided to move it. "I moved it because everybody said you couldn't do it," he would tell the author. (846)

Great works are not compatible with Democracy.

It is no coincidence that, as Raymond Moley puts it, "from the pyramids of Egypt, the rebuilding of Rome after Nero's fire, to the creation of the great medieval cathedrals... all great public works have been somehow associated with autocratic power." (847)
Democracy had not solved the problem of building large-scale urban public works, so Moses solved it by ignoring democracy. (848)

Moses' love of power

He had the power to do so – to ignore override the procedures democratic government establishes to govern the planning of public works. Was it mostly dictators who had built great urban public works of the past? In road-building in and around New York, he had a dictator's powers. And he used them. He enjoyed using them – for using them gave him what was his greatest pleasure: the imposition of his will on other people. (848)
He didn't just feel that he had to swing a meat ax. He loved to swing it. (849)

Moses being coy.

And why did Henry Epstein change his mind, and, at the very last moment, betray the neighborhood which had counted on him for support? Years later – Epstein long dead now, his widow not even knowing what the author was talking about when he raised the subject of her late husband's change of mind – Robert Moses, sitting in a octtage he had rented at Oak Beach, staring out the big window from which one could see the Robert Moses Causeway and Robert Moses State Park, would be asked that question. Charm flooded away from that window. Dressed in the L. L. Bean corduroys, a larger size now to cover the ample paunch, and an old button down plaid shirt, the papers that signified completed work already piled high by his armchair although it was only 9:30 A.M., a big cabin cruiser waiting down the Ocean Parkway at the Captree Basin for an afternoon's fishing, he was the easy and gracious host. The powerful face – still so young at eighty – was relaxed. Oh, that's not important, he said easily. Let's talk about something else. (875)

Moses stinging wit.

What has New York done about street congestion? Bless your little journalistic hears – a hell of a lot. (895)

No mass transit.

No crystal ball was needed, therefore, to foretell the end result of Moses' immense new highway construction proposal, coupled as it was with lack of any provision whatsoever for mass transit: it could not possibly accomplish its aim, the alleviation of congestion. It could only make congestion, already intolerable, progressively worse. His program was self-defeating. It was doomed to failure before it began. It just didn't make sense. (898)
Build rapid transit lines in the middle of highways, and there wouldn't be any adjacent buildings. The nearest buildings would be cushioned from the trains' impact by a good hundred feet of space – and in the case of expressways depressed in open cuts, by their location below ground level as well. Highways caused noise and dirt and objections, too, of course, but the highways were going to be built anyway; trains on their center amlls would add to such inconveniences only minimally. (903)
Reserve those three miles of right-of-way now, and it would be possible in future years for the city to solve the enormous problem of congestion on the Van Wyck Expressway – and a host of other transportation problems – quickly, simply, and cheaply. Fail to reserve it now, and those problems might never be solved. (907)

Why did Moses hate mass transit?

His thinking had been shaped in an era in which a highway was an unqualified boon to the public, in which roads were, like automobiles, sources of relaxation and pleasure. Changing realities could have changed his thinking, but he was utterly insulated from reality by the sycophancy of his yes men; by his power, which, independent as it was of official or public opinion – of, in fact, any opinion but his own – made it unnecessary for him to take any opinion but his own into account; by, most of all, his personality, the personality that made it not only unnecessary but impossible for him to conceive that he might have been wrong; the personality that needed applause, thereby reinforcing the tendency to repeat the simplistic formula that had won him applause before; the personality that made it possible for him to relate to the class of people that owned automobiles and that was repelled by the class of people that did not own automobiles; the personality whose vast creative energies were fired by the vision of cleanliness, order, openness, sweep – such as the clean, open sweep of a highway – and were repelled by dirt and noise, such as the dirt and noise he associated with trains; the personality that made him not only want but need monuments that saw in highways – and their adjunct, suspension bridges ("the most permanent structures built by man") – the structures that would have a clean, clear ineradicable mark on history; the personality that, driven now by the lust for power, made him anxious to build more revenue- (and power-) producing bridges and parking lots (and highways to encourage their use) and that made him either indifferent or antagonistic to subways and railroads which would compete with his toll facilities not only for users but for city construction funds. He was insulated from experience. Most of the millions who used his roads were now using them primarily not for weekend pleasure trips but back and forth to work twice a day, five days a week, and driving was therefore no longer a pleasure but a chore; but for Moses, comfortable in the richly upholstered, air-conditioned, soundproofed rear seat of his big limousine, driving was still as pleasurable as it had always been. Robert Moses, who had never had to drive in a single traffic jam, really believed that his transportation policies would work. (908-909)


He had read Satius. He knew that, "in gratitude for the benefits bestowed upon the by" the construction of the Domitian Way, the Senate and the people of Rome had raised a triumphal arch to Domitian. He knew that Via Appia had brought immortality to its builder, the blind Censor Appius Claudius, who, when public funds to build the road ran out, had advanced the difference from his private fortune. Democracies raised no triumphal arches to road builders. (909)

Incredible writing.

The silver stream of quarters and dimes and nickels on which Moses power was based was flowing faster and faster. (920)

The state of subways and LIRR.

Subway walls were covered with verbal filth; the scenery amid which the New Yorker traveled around his city was a vast mosaic of FUCK and SUCK and COCK and CUNT. (933)
When Robert Moses came to power in New York in 1934, the city's mass transportation system was probably the best in the world. When he left power in 1968, it was quite possibly the worst.
With money, you could buy almost anything in mid-twentieth-century New York. But you couldn't buy a decent trip to and from work. (933)
Getting a seat was not total victory. Getting an end seat was what counted. Many of th e LIRR seats had been designed for three people – but they had been designed half a century before, when people were smaller. There wasn't enough room for three people. (936)
"Of all the things I hated about the Long Island Rail Road," says one woman, "the worst was sitting in the middle on those seats." (936)
There comes a time, H. L. Mencken said, when every normal man is tempted "to spit on his hands, haul up the black flag and begin slitting throats." (937)
Long Islanders' lives were cushioned – approximately twenty-two hours out of every twenty-four – by all the material wonders the twentieth century could provide. For those other two hours – two hours that could with accuracy have been called "Robert Moses' Two Hours," for he had made them what they were – they lived like nineteenth-century Russian peasants. (937)
But even the initial, ultraconservative figures had remarkable implications. Robert Moses was planning to spend $500,000,000 for an expressway that would increase the one-way automobile-carrying capacity of Long Island by a maximum of 4,500 automobiles or buses per hour – during the two-hour peak period, by a total of 9,000 automobiles or buses. For $20,000,000 — one twenty-fifth of that cost – he could reduce the automobile-carrying capacity needed by 6,500 automobiles and 400 buses. He could do as much for Long Island by spending $20,000,000 as by spending $500,000,000 – if he spent it on rapid transit. (947)

I drove under these bridges countless times.

I knew right then what the old son of a gun had done. He had built the bridges so low that buses couldn't use the parkways! (951)

My favorite character archetype is the used up man of violence.

Did Lindsay think he had the ability to outsmart Robert Moses? Robert Moses had outsmarted La Guardia. From the very same post from which Lindsay was trying to remove him, a President of the United States, at the peak of his popularity and power, dedicated to his destruction, had tried to remove him – and that President had failed. These rash young men thought he was only Robert Moses of the World's Fair and Title I; he was also Robert Moses of Timber Point and Jones Beach and Hither Hills, of the Northern State Parkway and the Triborough Bridge and the Cross-Bronx Expressway and the Bay Ridge Approach. He was Moses of Massena, Moses of the Niagra Frontier. This was their first real battle; he came to it scarred with the wounds of a hundred battles – battles he had won. LINDSAY MAPS PLANS TO SLASH MOSES' POWER, the headlines read. Moses sat in his lair up on Randall's Island and grinned – the grin of the old lion. (1119)

How he fell

What was necessary to remove Moses from power was a unique, singular concatenation of circumstances: that the Governor of New York be the one man uniquely beyond the reach of normal political influences, and that the trustee for Triborough's bonds be a bank run by the Governor's brother. (1141)

The fear of his subordinates

When the author drove him down to meet Adam Carp, Moses told him to park in an area marked "No Thoroughfare." After he left, the author was sitting there jotting down notes when a Long Island State Park Commission patrolman loomed in his window. "Don't you see the sign?" he asked with the usual LISPC arrogance. "Well, you see, I drove Mr. Moses down...," the author began. "Oh," the cop said, straightening, and started to walk away without a word. Then he returned. "Thanks for telling me," he said. "I'd be out of work and my children would be starving." (1155)

The end.

Down in the audience, the ministers of the empire of Moses glanced at one another and nodded their heads. RM was right as usual, they whispered. Couldn't people see what he had done? Why weren't they grateful? (1162)