The Power Broker - Robert Caro | 1974steemCreated with Sketch.

in review •  2 months ago

From an unelected bureaucrat who served for forty years, an epic.

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Published 1974 by Knopf.

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I fear that if I were to ever become rich and famous that a biography of equal talent to Robert Caro would attempt to biograph me. Caro possesses a unique, powerful and singular ability to not merely tell his subject's life compellingly, but to bring his subject's times and surroundings to life. (One day, I will write an essay called "The Psychogeographies of Robert Caro.")

He possesses an ability to dive deep into his subject's psychology and mind, the way their brain works (my fancy way of putting it is "the manner by which they function") and to explain that. He understands his subjects better than those subjects understood themselves, better than anyone else would've or could've understood those subjects. More, he will present to you the facts, he will present to you all the facts, but he does have points he wishes to make and judgments he wishes to pass.

Compare Caro (83, born 1935) to McCullough (85), easily the best biographers of their generation and guaranteed to go down as some of the greatest biographers to ever live. They are both astonishingly talented prosewriters, they are both singularly accomplished writers.

They have utterly different methods of approaching their subjects. McCullough has no judgments he wishes to pass, but he generally assumes the best of his subject, glossing over their flaws, and presenting their life story. His masterpiece, Truman, has likely done a great deal to rehabilitate the actual Truman's reputation. John Adams is recognized by everyone as a great biography, and to everyone whose name and place of birth doesn't rhyme with my own, it is his masterpiece.

McCullough has written on a variety of subjects - there's also his book covering fifteen years of Theodore Roosevelt's life, or 1776, or The Wright Brothers. McCullough's prose is silky smooth, genuinely pleasurable to read. He says himself that his approach is to read it aloud to his wife and to have his wife read it aloud to him. In a documentary about typewriters, he said, talking about people saying "computers will make your writing faster" that he does not want to go faster, he if anything wishes to go slower, and that he goes through five to six drafts of his books - these are 600+ pages, I remind you - on that typewriter.

Caro is a totally different beast. He has a set of clear fascinations and he has pursued them in every book, and his fascination is with power. Power, it seems, particularly in the context of American democracy. How it is acquired, how it used, how it is wielded, and, most importantly, who is acquiring, using, and wielding that power. Robert Moses, unelected bureaucrat who came to hold over a half-dozen different positions and whose ability to Get Things Done made the mayors of New York City - and Governor Alfred E. Smith - more reliant upon him then he upon them.

Lyndon Johnson, who came from possibly the poorest background of any American President and rose from Congressional Secretary to Congressman to Senator to Majority Leader to Vice-President to President and, with only one exception, managed to find within those positions an immense amount of power. In his fourth volume of The Years of Lyndon Johnson, The Passage to Power, Robert Caro makes a telling statement, which I shall paraphrase as I can not remember the exact form of words: "It is a known cliche that power always corrupts. What is said less often, but is just as true, is that power reveals."

Power reveals. This is the clue in the line, and it is this thread that Caro so often pursues. The acquiring of that power is just as interesting, but ultimately, what Caro wants to know is what power reveals.

Caro is not nearly so prolific a writer as McCullough. (This is speaking comparatively.) Besides The Power Broker, he has written four volumes of The Years of Lyndon Johnson. A fifth has been in the works for years and, Caro says, will remain in the works for years. He presents the facts, glossing over nothing - and he presents, however implicitly, what he feels and thinks about his subject. Moses and Johnson are deeply complex psychologies, more so, I daresay, than Truman or Adams were, and Caro explores that in-depth, how it shapes the way they behave and act.

His prose is just as good as McCullough's, but in a completely different way. He is lengthier, wordier, paragraphs spanning half-pages and longer, commas upon commas. Reams and hordes of commas. It is, perhaps, clunky. And yet it is immaculate. I wouldn't change a word of it. He's an utterly compelling and unique writer, and he is clearly someone who thinks about his prose. (Indeed, there was an award for literary excellence in the writing of history named after him, presented by the Horace Mann School.)

Which is all to say: I'm thankful that I will almost certainly not go into politics. If I am ever of high enough profile that biographies are written of me, there is no way that they'll possibly match Caro. It is this ability to dive so deep that makes him my favorite biographer at the present time. And now... ah, yes, this is supposed to be a book review.


(I will say, however, that McCullough and Caro do share one trait: their acknowledged masterpieces [John Adams and The Years of Lyndon Johnson] were both initially not what they were planning to write. McCullough initially was going to write a dual biography of Adams and Jefferson and then became more and more drawn to Adams. Caro was only able to get a contract for The Power Broker through his agent getting a two-book contract, one for it and one for a biography of Fiorello La Guardia. But after completing The Power Broker, he had covered much of La Guardia's mayorship of New York and didn't want to retread old ground. With Moses, he realized, he wasn't interested in writing a biography per se so much as writing about political power, and he had a similar "flash" with LBJ as he'd had with Moses. He ended up going to his publisher's office and finding that they, too, wanted him to do a biography of LBJ, and they, too, wanted it in multiple volumes.)


Having read all of The Years of Lyndon Johnson and adored it, I naturally felt that I had to read Robert Caro's other book, The Power Broker. (Similar to Paul Auster, except I haven't actually read The New York Trilogy yet.) And it truly is a masterpiece. From the forty-four years in power of Robert Moses, an unelected bureaucrat, Caro crafts a unique and unparalleled epic.

He takes the story from Bella Moses' mother, to Bella herself to Robert who inherited so many of his character traits from Bella. His unimpeachable arrogance, "burning up with ideas," his obsession to achieve visible, physical accomplishment - his evolution from an idealist reformer into a cynical embodiment of the establishment.

It's an incredible story. It's also a long one and it may sometimes try the reader's patience. For my part I've been reading since December 23rd last year and I've taken occasional breaks to read other books - Ronson's The Men Who Stare at Goats, Woodward's Fear, Bronski's Queer History of the United States - and only just, finally, finished it.

The Power Broker is divided into seven parts, each of which comprises a varying nr. of chapters, of varying lengths. It is largely in the reading of Part IV, The Use of Power, that my breaks were made. With V, The Love of Power, and VI, The Lust for Power, it picks up again and let us say that by the time I'd reach VII, The Loss of Power, I could not put it down. (Me and the bed finally made our nightly acquaintance well over an hour past midnight.)

Over the course of this book you will realize that much of city planning, and highway design, and the problems of mass transportation that our cities struggle with - if the blame can not be wholly laid upon Moses' shoulders it can partially, because Moses made no room for buses or subways and indeed deliberately designed his parkways, highways, and expressways so that its bridges were too low for buses to make it through - deliberately. Eleven feet low. The cost, according to longtime Moses aid Sid Shapiro, to fix this would've been somewhere in the realm of $750,000, and there were 204 such bridges too low for buses. The total cost, according to my calculator, to do so would be $153,000,000.

Certain chapters are particularly thrilling. 21, The Candidate, tells of Moses' 1934 run for Governor under the Republican ticket and it is one of the funniest chapters, largely because of the sheer incompetence - on a grand, grand scale - of the way in which Moses conducts his campaign.

26, Two Brothers, tells of Moses' brother Paul, with whom he shared many, many character traits - but where Bob would bend to his mother, Paul never did, and that meant that where Bob had a leg up into public service, Paul never did.

34, Moses and the Mayors, speaks of Moses' relationships with three post-war mayors of New York City; O'Dwyer, Impellitteri (nicknamed Impy), and Wagner. This chapter probably makes it clearest how much New York's mayors had to rely on Moses to get things done. Excuse me: to Get Things Done.

It emerges that Moses is an intelligent, deeply intelligent man, but also one of extreme arrogance. Once in power, he could not, would not, hear outside voices, and he was not afraid to utilize that power. As a public official overseeing highways, and with his talent to Get Things Done - to build and to finish his parks, roads, and bridges - he was able to create a tangible, physical, visible record of accomplishment that an incumbent Mayor could run on for re-election. This made him indispensable and it made his threat of resignation a powerful one and ensured he, nine point nine times out of ten, got his way.

Equally, though, Moses thought of himself as superior. He disliked those who were ethnically different from him - I will warn readers that Robert Caro wrote this book during the late 60s and 70s, and so does not use the present-day Black, African-American, or Person of Color terminology and instead uses Negro, which I understand to have been the correct term for the time he was writing - be they black, Jewish, or poor.

He wanted to help the poor, yes, but his viewpoint was deeply, distinctly, and intrinsically that of the paternalist, that of the father who knows best for the ignorant children. He didn't take into account the people or the communities that he destroyed - and he displaced hundreds of thousands to build his roads. (Compare to Paul, who actually spoke with those who were poor and working-class and so could understand them and what they genuinely needed.)

The largest urban constructions ever undertaken, greater than anything else before or since, of greater size, of greater scope, of greater immensity and greater monetary cost, for a population greater than any similar project that had been built before or since, the largest urban constructions ever undertaken by man, city, state, or nation, and when the man responsible - and, to a greater extent then most people, you can lay it upon one man's shoulders, because he personally conceived of and approved of hundreds of such projects...

...the largest urban constructions ever, ever: he left the city starved of public housing. He ghettoized it. He displaced hundreds of thousands. His roads did not relieve problems of congestion, they worsened them. His monuments and parks were built for the wealthy. He prevented the city from tackling the problem of a unified, singular, rational, logical plan to cope with its enormous quantity of people until, by the time it could, it was far, far too late.


He turns from a reformer figure into an establishment figure, no matter how much his image said he was not, into a politician of politicians, even as his public image was that of the unimpeachable public servant. Insulated and isolated from the everyday people who use his roads, he builds roads. When bridges get jammed, new bridges get built. When the new bridges end up as jammed as the old ones were - and then, very quickly, are, as those new bridges had not been built at all - his solution was to build more bridges, because he did not know, refused to know, of "latent demand," called, in those days, traffic generation.

"Traffic generation," to use the term of the era, refers to that unique propensity for new roads to, very quickly, go up - and beyond - capacity very shortly after they are built. It's a catch-call term referring to various interconnected effects which have the net effect of, as described, filling new roads to, and beyond, capacity. To clogging, to jamming, whatever you might like to call it. So the question becomes, where did these new drivers come from? How is that new roads to not relieve that congestion at all but become congested themselves?

The fact is, building new roads doesn't relieve traffic congestion, it increases it.

1stly: these new roads create more capacity for drivers. Those who previously might have been taking public transportation systems will instead choose to take these new roads. Why?

2ndly: these new roads may reach, more directly, the eventual destination of the driver, and they may be faster.

3rdly: why take a public bus when you can drive your own car?

The result of this, for Moses, was a spiral in which roads become congested, new roads were build, those roads became congested without relieving the clogging of the roads they'd been built to relieve, and so, with all roads clogged, more roads were built. This was a spiral that had its roots in the 30s and continued into the 40s and afterward, a spiral that Moses acknowledged not through funding mass transit but through a plan for a vast, sprawling network of more roads, two hundred new miles of them.

Because Moses was the "master builder" for New York City, America's largest city and a model for them all, and because he, unique among so many public officials, Got Things Done, he was taken as the model - this before latent demand was understood, before it could be grasped - and, even after planners began to grasp "traffic generation," Moses still was the model, because he Got Things Done. I'll quote from Caro directly...

Watching Moses open the Triborough Bridge to ease congestion on the Queensborough Bridge, open the Bronx-Whitestone Bridge to ease congestion on the Triborough Bridge and then watching traffic counts on all three bridges mount until all three were as congested as one had been before, planners could hardly avoid the conclusion that "traffic generation" was no longer a theory but a proven fact: the more highways were built to alleviate congestion, the more automobiles would pour into them and congest them and this force the building of more highways – which would generate more traffic and become congested in their turn in an ever-widening spiral that contained the most awesome implications for the future of New York and of all urban areas.

(Bold and italics added.)

Even so, even with this, Caro doesn't quite say that New York City would have been better without Moses:

Would New York have been a batter place to live if Robert Moses had never built anything? [...] Robert Moses may have been the democratic processes of the city to his own ends to build public works; left to themselves, these processes proved unequal to the building required. The problem of constructing large-scale public works in a crowded urban setting, where such works impinge on the lives of or displace thousands of voters, is one which democracy has not yet solved.

[...] It is impossible to say that New York would have been a better city if Robert Moses had never lived.

It is possible to say only that it would have been a different city.


Robert Caro wrote The Power Broker in the late 60s and early 70s, publishing it in 1974. New York City had a population of almost eight million in 1970. To paraphrase from Caro, New York City had (from his book, has; I will repeat again that it was written decades ago) a reputation as an unmanageable, ungovernable city, and because that governance and management was largely upon the mayor, no mayor could hope to manage or govern it, only to stay afloat. No mayor had left a lasting physical mark on New York City; the shoreline of New York City was different before Moses came to power.

For the vast majority of his career, Moses could count on his reputation and the weight of it. But when it came to turning just a half-acre of Central Park land into a parking lot, the news picked up upon it: Moms vs. Moses. Moses lost. When he fought against Shakespeare in the Park, a free program, this, too, he lost - and, Caro suggests, it was a battle he hadn't wanted to fight in the first place and had only fought because he and his organization had a reputation for defending relentlessly its own.

The Power Broker helped to kill Moses' reputation. At the time of its publishing, New York was - as it had long been - on the edge of bankruptcy; ridden and wracked by crime, on the verge of chaos, a city that had been declining for over a decade. It avoided bankruptcy in 1975 only through a federal loan and through federal scrutiny. What was true in 1974 is no longer true in 2019.

It has been forty-five years since The Power Broker was published, and since then, recently, the reputation of Robert Moses has undergone something of a rehabilitation, or, at least, a re-scrutinizing, a re-assessment, a re-appraisal. Since the death of Robert Moses, there has been no clear successor in New York City or anywhere else in America who was able to build.

Democracy, it seems, still hasn't solved the problem of large-scale urban construction.

New York today is, if anything, a city on the rise, and so it is now argued that where Moses' certainly was flawed, his projects had less to do with the temporary fall of New York and more with its rise from that fall. But Caro probably would argue that New York was correcting the problems Moses' had created - the complete and utter failure, apathy, and hostility, to provision for mass transit systems. In 2007, a book Robert Moses and the Modern City was published, described as having a revisionist theme.

The jury, you could say, is still out. But Caro's book has dominated the image of Moses and of his particular (peculiar) ideas of city planning in New York. It was, and is, required reading for city planners and politicians alike. No city planner now, no public official, could become as powerful as Bob Moses was today. Much of this reinterpretation focuses on Moses' ability to Get Things Done - even if, many times, they were the wrong things.

But to me this kind of reinterpretation focuses on the wrong thing, the Getting Things Done, when Caro's criticism is not that Moses built but that what he built didn't adequately service the city, or its people, and in fact impaired the city, the people within it, and especially the poor and working class within it. Moses didn't merely impair the city that way, he impaired all urban planning in America, because he was so influential, because the Things that he Got Done were, often, the wrong things that needed doing.

If the lesson taken from The Power Broker is "don't build," it's the wrong lesson to take. Build, but build considerately, build with human concerns in mind, build with an awareness of community, of humanity.


It is, perhaps, a sign of Caro's talent as a writer that, when Moses is finally out of power - after displacing over half a million, after leaving the trains in shambles, after building bridges and highways that lacked the space for buses to get through, after affairs with other women (he married again less than a month after his first wife died), after so badly messing up the World's Fair - he still manages to elicit some small sympathy from me.

Out of power, with no position, no authority, his reputation on its way to ruins, out of the insularity and isolation of Triborough, his limos, his power, at last he can see the City again. His mind never declined and his body remained in extraordinary health for his age. He still retained his sharpness, his indelible and unbelievable energy. And now: he had little, and often no, outlet.

A grandson he adored - killed, by accident.

But only so far. Only in the death of a family member, in energy without outlet. As I said: small sympathy.

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A literal masterpiece.

Even at 1162 pages of the book, and over 1,300 pages total, this is not the full manuscript Caro had presented to his publisher. The original manuscript was over a million words and Caro has said that there are passages and chapters he wish he could have left in. Maybe one day the original manuscript will be published as a two-volume work. "Author's Preferred Text," or something like that.

I'll say it again: a literal masterpiece. I would recommend this to anyone and everyone with the faintest sliver of interest about politics, city planning, New York City (and/or its history), Robert Moses, urban development, or, for that matter, biography - because The Power Broker raised standards for research and for the quality of prose in biography - to read this. I repeat: it's a masterpiece, a genuine masterpiece, one of the finest biographies, not only that but one of the finest books, ever written.

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Fascinating. It was a long review, but how else can a long book like this be reviewed. You took your time to even compare the author ith other historiams and that aside made the review even more interesting.
I have some of the texts you mentioned, but have not read them yet (long waiting list, Adams, Johnson), i did read Paul Auster's New York Trilogy back in 2001.
I think that any biography of any politician, even the minor players, if well told and connected to other issues and personalities going on at their time, is a must read.

hi @terry93d
your review of this book and your knowledge of the author are impressive. You are so detailed and precise, that we almost no longer need to read the book! but your style, so passionate, is engaging and causes the reader to read !! Congratulations and Thanks for sharing with us!

Hi terry93d,

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