Robert Moses and the Use and Abuse of Power


There are certain books I believe most every American should read (or at least every literate American). Foremost in my recommended list, due to the racial tensions today, is Taylor Branch’s three-volume biography/cultural history of Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement (Parting the Waters, Pillar of Fire and At Canaan’s Edge).

Another that may have recurring relevance in yet another presidential election year is The Nightingale’s Song. It tells the stories of five Naval Academy graduates in the 1960s who served in Vietnam, including former presidential candidate John McCain and possible candidate for the 2016 Democratic nomination James Webb (along with Oliver North, John Poindexter and Bud McFarlane). My quick tag description is that it offers a flipside to the domestic story of the ’60s.

As long as people these days keep talking about what it is supposed to say (and not), I’d suggest The Bible (I am rereading it in the “Good News for Modern Man” Anglicized version for 1966). And by the same token, The Koran would be another, given the effects of Islam on international and domestic affairs (I read excerpts from it in college).

I just finished another: Robert A. Caro’s The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York, his 1974 biography of the master builder behind many New York City highways, bridges, tunnels. housing projects and parks as well as the United Nations Building and Lincoln Center, as well as numerous New York State parks plus power-generating dams on the Niagara River. I’m hardly the only one who rates it highly. It won a Pulitzer Prize, and President Barack Obama said, “I think about Robert Caro and reading The Power Broker back when I was 22 years old and just being mesmerized, and I”m sure it helped to shape how I think about politics,” on awarding Caro a National Humanities Medal (his two published volumes of a biography of Lyndon Johnson and likely the third to come are also essential).

For nearly half a century, Moses was the most powerful man in the city and state of New York, spending some $27 billion on what’s likely the largest public works programs spearheaded by one man. Multiple governors and mayors would not only defer to Moses but were reluctant to even try to defy him.

A reformer in his youth, when Moses entered government under colorful Gov. Al Smith in the 1920s, he was changed by power as he learned how to not only work its levers but control them. Over time his initially positive ambition to build parks on Long Island and parkways to offer New York City residents access to greenery, the seashore and recreation changed. He became an arrogant autocrat who craved more and more and more power for its own sake, insensitive to and scornful of the masses he initially sought to help as well as city and state politicians and in time the media that helped build his reputation and myth.

By the 1940s he operated as a potentate with his own wealthy kingdom, the Triborough Bridge Authority, with its staff of yes-men called “Moses Men,” a fleet of limousines and a yacht at his beck and call, and eventually hundreds of millions in fiscal resources. He discovered how money was the key to power, and assiduously built a system answerable to no one else.

For all his notable achievements – and as a New Yorker I delighted in Jones Beach (which Moses used as his personal playground) and loved driving the scenic West Side Highway along the Hudson River in Manhattan, to name but two – but in time his more and larger highways only spurred greater congestion (ironically Moses never learned to drive and had little use for public transportation), and his housing projects created more slums. Though in no way corrupt himself, his system for gaining and holding power led to a cronyism that spawned corruption by others that in time helped lead to Moses’ downfall in the 1960s.

The book’s subtitle I surmise alludes in part to how his Cross Bronx Expressway destroyed solid and thriving neighborhoods across that borough that led to an urban wasteland. Packed solid with facts and figures, and a hefty 1,162 pages in paperback, The Power Broker largely reads like a beautifully written novel. And offers what may well be the most potent American morality tale about how one larger-than-life man can accomplish great things – time and again as I read it, Julius Caesar came to mind –yet his lust for power becomes not just his downfall but in some ways that of the city he loved and too many of the people within it he originally wished to serve and help.

Rob Patterson is a music and entertainment writer in Austin, Texas. Email

From The Progressive Populist, May 15, 2015

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