The Stone City

Words Made to Last

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

The Builder

Mr. Caro's vast biography, The Power Broker, is subtitled "Robert Moses and the Fall of New York." It casts Mr. Moses's career as an arc away from idealism into corruption; his main part headings show this clearly.

The first part of the book, describing Mr. Moses's college career -- he was a brilliant and omnivorous learner, an idealist almost untouched by practicality, and a terrible poet -- and early work for New York's good government organizations, is listless and manages, I think, to miss a large point. Mr. Caro notes (truthfully, I assume) that Mr. Moses in later life spoke little about his early, idealistically driven, and unsuccessful ventures; but he assumes the older Moses was silent because of the unflattering contrast with his newer, pragmatic (or corrupt) style. It is equally possible, and fits better with what I understand of people, that the older Moses was silent out of embarrassment for his earlier willful ignorance, for his having made unnecessary mistakes due to feckless arrogance and haste.

The next three hundred pages or so ("The Rise to Power" and most of "The Use of Power") are simply gripping. Mr. Moses was rescued from having to work for a living by Governor Al Smith and his political advisor, Belle Moskowitz; he led the rewriting of New York's constitution, which Mr. Smith championed into law; and he found something he wanted to do in the reconstituted government: parks. In the process, he first offended and then accomodated New York's resident powers, the robber barons along Long Island's North Shore. He fought his corner with an incredible variety of (often illegal) tactics, which Mr. Caro manages to describe in detail without losing the drive of his narrative. "After you fought Robert Moses," said opposing attorney and later power broker Kingsland Macy, "fighting anybody else was easy."

Mr. Moses's devotion to Mr. Smith is evoked with poignant descriptions of his tireless maneuvering in support of the latter's doomed attempt at the 1932 Democratic Presidential nomination, and his creation of the Central Park Zoo as a gift to his now-powerless patron (who was given a passkey). Mr. Caro has managed to fuse a variety of sources and firsthand recollections into a clear and compelling narrative.

The turning point of Mr. Moses's career was his creation, using all his bill-drafting skills, of the Triborough Bridge Authority, a brilliant Trojan Horse which created, with the power of the State behind it, a monopoly corporation which the State could not control. "The authority shall have power from time to time to refund any bonds by the issuance of new bonds, whether the bonds to be refunded have or have not matured, and may issue bonds partly to refund bonds then outstanding and partly for any other corporate purpose." This gave the Authority power to roll its debt forward -- thus ensuring that it would not have to cease operation because all bonds had been paid off -- and to use any new money to start new projects. Triborough became immortal.

Mr. Caro makes a case that this change, which gave Mr. Moses power independent of the wishes of the voting public, was a key step on his march into corruption. Some of his evidence is strong; at other times, just when it should be strongest, it is strangely lacking. The key chapter is "One Mile", where Mr. Caro focuses on the decision to build a section of the Cross-Bronx Expressway through the apartments of East Tremont, rather than along the north edge of Crotona Park. He gives a valid description of the terrible plight of those families caught in the path of the demolition; but he also blames the choice of route for degradation of the uncondemned remainder of the neighborhood (which would have been affected regardless of the route) and for landlords' unwillingness to repair and refurbish (largely driven by rent control). Finally, he cannot come up with any satisfactory means for passing judgement on the route, and reverts to circular reasoning: whatever Mr. Moses's motives might have been, he says, the fact that they were Mr. Moses's alone (QED) shows that they cannot have been the result of a good decision-making process (QED).

In "The Loss of Power", Mr. Caro describes Mr. Moses's overthrow by then-Governor Nelson Rockefeller. The Governor is portrayed as a competing visionary, with some suggestion that he saw more clearly the need for public transportation; however, the facts poking up through this veneer seem to show that he was just a wealthier, younger, and less scrupulous power-seeker than Mr. Moses himself. Mr. Rockefeller did rely on his personal fortune to gain political power; he did install his brother in powerful posts vacated by Mr. Moses; and he did overspend the state budget and then overspend the bonds issued to cover the deficit. In this and in the acerbic depiction of the ruinous Mayor John Lindsay, Mr. Caro's book foretells the budget crisis which had not, at the time of publication, arrived.

Mr. Moses was overly loyal to his subordinates and delegates, two of whom -- the corrupt financier Mike Shanahan, who largely oversaw Mr. Moses's disastrous involvement with Title I housing projects, and the functionary Stuart "Mustache" Constable, who helped squander his popularity -- were instrumental in the eventual loss of Triborough's protective veneer of fawning media coverage. There is a clear villain in Mr. Caro's book: the New York press, and especially the New York Times, which for decades invested in the narrative of Robert Moses as a fearless and effective champion of the people, and substituted that narrative for any diligence, however minimal, on whatever press releases Mr. Moses sent them. At no point in his rise or fall was any of the press (with the possible exception of the Post) interested in truth or objectivity; they simply switched from one narrative to another. And at no time was the Times interested even in reporting events of interest; it did favors for the friend of its publisher, and later barked from the back of the pack of attackers only to protect its own reputation. Even now this is a chilling reminder of the press's powerful incentives against reporting unexpected truths, favorable or otherwise, about any famous figure.

The Power Broker is huge (1100 pages) and sometimes rambling; but it is all worth reading, and the incredible adventure of Mr. Moses's rise to power is the best biographical narrative I have ever read. It will change the way you think about your workplace, your city, your highways, and especially your newspaper.