The Power Broker by Robert Caro, Pt. I

The story of how Robert Moses ruled over New York City for nearly half a century

Hey everyone,
Greetings from Washington, D.C.!

I’m excited to be back from the newsletter’s short summer break. I spent the last month having conversations with many of you about the kind of pieces you would like me to write. I intend on incorporating this feedback as the newsletter moves forward. Most importantly, I took the time to recharge and rest.

And if you missed Snapshots over the last few Sundays, I’ve got a long piece below to make up from it. Let’s get into it:

When you think of New York City, there are certain names that come to mind. Of course, contemporary names like Bloomberg, Trump, and de Blasio are among them. But there are also older names. Names like La Guardia and Roosevelt. Like Vanderbilt and Kennedy. Amongst those names there is one name that is often forgotten in the popular imagination. A name which did as much, if not more, than those other names to shape the modern city and state of New York.

That name is Robert Moses.

Robert Moses never held any elected office — in fact, his one run for Governor of New York State in 1934 was a rare low point in his career. But this master of the art of political power ended up requiring no office at all. The story of The Power Broker is the story of how an unelected bureaucrat became the most influential man in post-WW1 New York and remained so for 4 decades.

Robert Caro, the author of The Power Broker, was a reporter at local newspaper Newsday when he was assigned to cover the proposal for a bridge in the state legislature. Everyone seemed to think that the bridge was a terrible idea and that the proposal would not pass. When Caro wrote about the bridge, he wrote that it was unlikely that it would get built.

A few weeks later, the proposal came to a vote and was promptly passed. “What happened?,” Caro asked around. “Robert Moses was up here yesterday,” said one of his friends. Thinking back to that moment, Caro writes in his memoir Working:

Underlying every one of my stories was the traditional belief that you’re in a democracy and the power in a democracy comes from being elected. Yet here was a man, Robert Moses, who had never been elected to anything, and he had enough power to turn a whole state government in one day. And he’s had this power for more than forty years, and you, Bob Caro, who are supposed to be writing about political power and explaining it, you have no idea where he got this power.

Soon after, when Caro was a Nieman fellow at Harvard, he took some classes in urban planning. In these classes, professors would explain why bridges and highways were built where they are built using a combination of factors like population density, traffic patterns, elevation of grades, etc. During one of these lecture, Caro thought to himself:

No that’s not why highways get built where they get built. They get built there because Robert Moses wants them there!

To get a sense of Robert Moses’ accomplishments, it is safe to say that it would be tough to walk a mile in New York City without interacting with one of his projects. Whether it’s one of his bridges or one of his parks or one of his tunnels, if you’re in New York City, you’re a tourist in a landscape painting whose chief painter is Robert Moses.

But despite all his knack for getting things done, there was one problem. One big problem. While he would always get things done, he would only do so if they were done his way. And his way was not always the right way. His racism and quest for increasing his personal power in service of his dreams became increasingly important factors in his decision-making. And they would continue to be important factors — often the only factors — when it came to Robert Moses’ decision-making until the scion of one of America’s wealthiest families became the Mayor of New York City.

But that is a story for the next part of the story. For now, here’s the story of Robert Moses the reformer, the idealist, the builder, and the power broker.

The silver-spooned reformer

Moses’ mother was the key figure in his early life. A philanthropist, she educated the large swaths of Jewish immigrants flowing into New York City with a paternalistic attitude. In some sense, she wanted to civilize immigrant Jews so that their behavior would not reflect poorly on assimilated Jews — immigrants a few generations ago themselves — who were familiar with the ways of American life.

Robert Moses would adopt these paternalistic attitude and contempt for people who station in life was below his — the attitude that says “I know better than these uneducated men and women that I am supposed to be helping.” And he would cast these paternalistic attitudes in concrete in his pursuit of increasing his personal power. For one example, his bridges that lead to his beaches would have low clearances so that buses — filled with the city’s poor — could not enjoy access those beaches.

Studying at Yale for his undergraduate degree, he went to Oxford for a master’s degree. At Oxford, he wrote a thesis that would foreshadow his dictatorial style of management. He believed that all governments should be modeled on the British system with the upper crust of policy-making jobs reserved for the elite, aristocratic class while the supporting underbelly of clerical positions should be open to everyone. Of course, this would be anathema to the meritocracy-loving Yankies across the pond, but Moses firmly believed that it would be the most efficient way to structure governments.

Coming back to New York City, he first completed a PhD at Columbia University and then dove into the reform politics of New York state. He joined the Municipal Civil Service Commission in 1914. At the Commission, he wrote a re-organization report for how the bureaucracy of New York state should operate.

It was the work of an idealist. The report outlined how jobs should not be given on the basis of patronage, but on the basis of ability. And ability should not defined on the basis of individual discretion, but should be standardized across the board. And the report went further — promotions within the bureaucratic hierarchy should not be decided by your connection to the right people, but on the basis of open examinations.

The work was doomed to fail. For there has never been a more corrupt state government than Tammany Hall of New York State in the early 1900s. And jobs were the most important carrot that Tammany politicians had when convincing key figures across the state to support them. While the report did get gain some credence in reform circles, it was dismissed by all serious observers.

Robert Moses’ report on the re-organization of New York State’s bureaucratic machine had the same fate as most government reports — they gathered dust at the top of bookshelves in old government offices as the Tammany machine kept humming along.

“Executive support”

After his stint at the Municipal Civil Service Commission and his inability to make an impact there, Robert Moses did a post-mortem on his experience. Amongst the items he highlighted was something he called lack of “executive support.”

This “executive support” which Moses was describing could be more aptly — and simply — called power. At the Municipal Civil Service Commission, Robert Moses had no power at all.

This feeling was new to Bob Moses. He had grown up with a silver-spoon. But while his silver-spoon had gotten him into the halls of Yale and the spires of Oxford, in the reform era of the New York politics, he didn’t need pedigree. What he needed was something much colder.

He needed power.

Robert Moses would get that power. And he would get it through an unexpected source.

If there was a man who had the opposite composition from Robert Moses as Alfred Emanuel Smith, New York state could not have produced it. Al Smith came from the Lower East Side of Manhattan. His education was completed not at Yale or Oxford or Columbia, but at the Fulton Fish Market where he worked night shifts to make sure that his family could make ends meet.

And if executive support was what Robert Moses wanted, he was never to find a shortage of it during Alfred E. Smith’s rein as Governor of the New York State from 1923 to 1928.

The Playbook for Power

Under Smith, Moses started to write the playbook for the acquisition and use of personal power that he would perfect over the next 4 decades. That playbook looked something like this:

  • Create independent institutions with broad authority which bypass typical authorization requirements using “executive support”: The first examples of this were the Long Island State Park Commission and the State Council of Parks which gave their respective heads — Moses, for both institutions — of the bodies legal jurisdiction over anything even tangentially related to their intended purposes. Did the State Council of Parks have full control over parks in the state? That makes sense. But it also had dominion over any structure which in its entirely or partly fell under the physical space of the park. So the State Council of Parks had equal power over a set of park swings and a bridge whose one access lane happened to skirt the edge of the park. The only person he needed to convince to give him this power? The Governor. And the Governor was happy to oblige as long as he got the credit for getting things done.

  • Start projects before they are approved: This is the classic “ask for forgiveness, not permission” tactic applied to public works by Moses. If Moses started building a bridge, a park, a tunnel, or any public work before it was authorized, even a legal judgment in opposition to it forced officials to tear down what was already built. And which official — or even judge — wanted to be a destroyer?

  • Underplay how much your projects are going to cost: By sharing not just conservative estimates but estimates which he knew to be wrong, he would build half of a bridge and then ask for more money. Were officials really going to leave a half-built bridge unfinished? Even though money was scarce for state of New York in the 1930s and 1940s, Robert Moses’ projects would never not be build for lack of money.

  • Get behind a cause that the public loves: Among the many reasons for Moses’ strength was the fact that the media — including the illustrious New York Times — adored him. They adored him because he was for a cause that everyone loved which was the cause of building parks and beaches and bridges and housing.

To this deck of winning cards, Robert Moses would later a trump card — the institution called the public authority. In some ways, public authorities were simply an extension of his independent institutions card. But they could also sell their own bonds to bankers and other financial institutions and individuals giving them a source of independent revenue. If money was not a big concern for Moses before, once he mastered the art of public authorities, it would not be a concern for him at all.

Over the course of his life, Moses would lead many such public authorities. But in his crown jewels of these institutions, there would only be one koh-i-noor — the Triborough Bridge Authority. As the head of Triborough, he would command vast sums of money collected through tolls on its bridges in a debt-stricken New York State. So when it came to the financing of public works in the state and city of New York, Robert Moses was completely independent.

Taking on Governor Roosevelt (and winning)

And he exercised this independence.

During the time of Robert Moses’ hold on the reins of public opinion and public works in the state of New York, there was another master of public opinion in the state. And this master of public opinion would rein in the sentiment not just of the state, but of the country. In fact, he would rein in the sentiment of not just the country, but of the whole world.

That man was Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

On paper, FDR and Robert Moses were similar men. Raised in aristocracies and educated at elite institutions, both men seemed destined for greatness.

But the similarities ended on paper. And where the similarities ended, animosity began.

There was little actual reason for the animosity. If there was, it has been lost to history. The current understanding is that it can most concisely be explained by the famous Highlander quote:

There can only be one.

And while the fights between Bob Moses and Roosevelt were to become the stuff of political legend, the battles were mostly one-sided. For Robert Moses consistently out-dictatored the person who was — during his time as the 32nd President of the United States — to be called “The American Dictator.”

There was a reason why the fights were one-sided. For though Robert Moses needed FDR’s cooperation when FDR was Governor of New York State, FDR needed Robert Moses more. Despite any personal charm they might have, any public official needs to get re-elected. And to get re-elected, they need a record of things done during their administration.

A record of things done. Not planned. Not started. But done. And no one was better at getting things done than Robert Moses.

And so Roosevelt would not be able touch Robert Moses as the Governor of New York State. To do that, he would have to ascend to the highest office in the country.

The city and its considerations

Most of Moses’ early creations were focused on New York State. But that was to change as he got increasingly involved in the creation of public works in New York City.

And as Moses moved towards the city, he should have realized that the considerations were different. On Long Island, space was not a consideration. In New York City, space was the consideration. And the poorer the neighborhood, the less underutilized space they had so space was even more of a consideration. To figure out how to best use the free space the size of a building lot in a poor neighborhood, Robert Moses could have listened to the occupants of these neighborhoods. These occupants lived lives which were very different from his own experience. That experience was an experience of a coddled childhood and even adulthood — Moses’ mother gave him an allowance well after he was married, into his mid-30s.

And while Robert Moses the idealist would have listened to the opinions of the occupants of these poor neighborhoods, Robert Moses the builder did not care much for the beneficiaries of his projects. Because for all the other beneficiaries of Robert Moses’ projects, there was one beneficiary who always seemed to benefit more than others — Robert Moses himself.

Each bridge, each parkway, each park, each beach, each public work poured in concrete created the foundation not just of the work itself, but of Robert Moses’ iron grip over the state and city governments of New York.

Everything in a project was a source of power.

Insurance contracts for a bridge he was building? Wouldn’t it be convenient if those contracts went to a key politician’s son-in-law’s insurance company?

Landscaping contracts for a park he was building? Wouldn’t it be convenient if those contracts went to a regional player’s landscaping company whose support Moses needed for another project?

Labor contracts for a tunnel? Wouldn’t it be convenient if those contracts went to a labor union which was opposing one of Moses’ works and would drop those opposition for a cut of the wages?

Robert Moses the idealist would have hated this dispensing of patronage. But that was no longer an issue — that Robert Moses no longer existed. Hating patronage? When it came to anything related to public works in the city or state of New York, Robert Moses was now the patron saint of patronage.

Taking on President Roosevelt (and losing)

With this absolute hold on power, Robert Moses would develop some blindspots. One of these blindspots was his old nemesis, Franklin Roosevelt.

Moses’ animosity with Roosevelt would not stop once the latter was in the White House. If anything, the stakes got higher and the elbows got sharper.

In some sense, FDR’s Second New Deal through the Works Progress Administration enabled many of Robert Moses’ projects. New York State and New York City were too poor to pay for his ambitious, large scale projects. And Moses had not stumbled upon the public authorities trump card which were to give him immense financial resources. So the federal government financed many of his projects.

But this would not be unnoticed by Roosevelt and he was anxious to get back.

He got that opportunity when it came to the question of building a crossing from Battery Park in Manhattan to Brooklyn in 1939. Robert Moses wanted to build a bridge. Everyone else wanted to build a tunnel. A tunnel would be better since it retain the beauty of Battery Park and the Financial District by keeping traffic underground, said engineers.

But Robert Moses no longer needed to concern himself with the opinions of engineers. Only he — through his command of the massive toll-based war chest that was the Triborough Bridge Authority — had the money to build anything. A bridge he wanted to build and a bridge he was going to build. Reformers who did not want to see their beloved neighbor destroyed appealed to higher authorities, but no one in the state could help them. Robert Moses had absolute power over the construction of public works in the state.

In a last ditch effort, one reformer sent a letter to the President of the United States.

And if “executive support” from the state government had given Moses absolute power, the Executive at the head of the federal government showed Moses how deep the tentacles of his power could reach.

Since the approved bridge that would connect Battery Park to Brooklyn passed over the East River which served as an entrance to the Brooklyn Navy Yard, Moses needed permission from the War Department.

Well, the commander-in-chief of the country was the de facto head of the War Department! And these permissions — which Moses and others treated as inevitable and mere bureaucracy — were never given. In its rejection, the War Department cited that an enemy could bomb the proposed bridge and block critical access to the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Moses responded that there were other bridges on the East River which could also be bombed to block to the navy yard.

Sound as that argument may have been, the War Department and Roosevelt did have to listen to it — just like Robert Moses had not listened to others in his proposal of the bridge. He had finally gotten a taste of his medicine.

And that taste lasted for a long time. He regarded it as his greatest defeat and even after the tunnel that was built would be incorporated into his empire, he would say that “a bridge would have cost half as much, you know, carry twice the amount of traffic, could be built in half the time…”

Corruptio optimi pessima

While the reformers of New York State would rejoin in how the President had stopped Robert Moses, a little perspective would have dampened their mood. Yes it was true that the President of the United States had stopped Robert Moses, but it was also true that the President of the United States was needed to stop Robert Moses. The reformers and aristocratic class of New York State had no power and no voice in the creation and operations of public works in the state anymore.

And if Robert Moses was swift in victory, in defeat, he was swifter still.

Unable to touch a President at the zenith of his popularity, he first subsumed the tunnel building authority under the Triborough empire giving him a monopoly on almost all transportation infrastructure in the state. Then, he ensured that none of the reformer associated with the opposition of his bridge ever got a government contract in any construction in the state of New York. Some of these opposition leaders were experts in their fields. Barring them from engaging in construction meant the state lost irreplaceable process knowledge.

But none of this mattered to Robert Moses. What mattered — the only thing that mattered — was the acquisition and use of power towards the achievement of his dreams. Those dreams revolved around the creation of public works at an unprecedented scale in the way in his image.

Were the means to this end unsavory? Maybe. Probably.

But as Robert Moses would say, “If the ends don’t justify the means, what does?”

Until next Sunday,