At nearly pages of text not including endnotes and the index Robert Caro s The Power Broker is a big book And despite its uniformly excellent quality its Pulitzer Prize is well deserve
At nearly 1,200 pages of text (not including endnotes and the index), Robert Caro’s The Power Broker is a big book. And despite its uniformly excellent quality – its Pulitzer Prize is well deserved – I felt every single one of those pages. This book came to dominate my reading time, to the extent that I started using my reading time to do other things, like watching erotic thrillers on Netflix streaming video. Like I said, it’s not a bad book. Actually, it’s a great book. Therefore, as I plodded along, I started to question why it was taking me so long to read this damn thing. The answer, I think, lies in Caro’s subject: Robert Moses. Before I picked up The Power Broker, I’d never heard of the man. Unless you are a New Yorker or an urban planning student, I’m guessing you haven’t heard of him either. So who was Robert Moses? I can tell you what he wasn’t. Moses wasn’t a president or a governor or a mayor. In fact, he was never elected to any office whatsoever. He wasn’t a general or a soldier or a happy-go-lucky mercenary. He never explored an unexplored region or climbed a mountain or mapped a river or wrestled a shark. He never held his breath for more than a minute or made a name as an outlaw in Peru. He was not a poor man who became rich or a rich man who became poor. He did not invent a fitness routine that is guaranteed to get you ripped in 90 days with a full money-back guarantee. He did not commit the crime of the century or the crime of the month or even jaywalk. He never ran away to join the circus. He did not win the Boston Marathon, the Super Bowl, or the World Cup. To put it another way, the words “action packed” are not applicable to the life of Robert Moses. Instead, Robert Moses was known for building parks and expressways. He was known as the man who shaped and (according to Caro) destroyed (at least for a time) New York City. But he wasn’t a builder or an architect or an engineer. Rather, Robert Moses was that most fascinating species of men: a bureaucrat.That’s right. Robert Caro’s The Power Broker is a 1,200 page tome on the life of the ultimate bureaucrat. You want red tape? You want zoning rules? You want arcane statutes? You want to learn everything you need to know about the semi-public, semi-private nature of City Authorities? Brother, read this book! If you are a normal person, you’ve already stopped reading already. But that’s not my intent. Because The Power Broker is more than Robert Moses. It’s the story of a city.Still, Caro begins and ends with the man. So who was the man? The best way to describe Moses, I’ve decided, is in recipe form: How to Bake a Robert Moses (Serves 8 million)1. 2 cups of Lesley Knope from NBC’s hit show Parks and Recreation: Like that show’s hero, Moses loved parks and the Parks Department. He was also, like Knope, a tireless worker and master bureaucratic infighter; 2. A pinch of David Duke: Though Moses loved parks, he hated Puerto Ricans and blacks, and intentionally made his roads unusable for busses;3. Two tablespoons of Sim City: Moses spent ridiculous amounts of money on ridiculously extravagant public works projects, to the detriment of things like schools and hospitals. It’s just like when you play Sim City and you start out by building a stadium, the Statue of Liberty, and the Hollywood sign, and then realize you have no money left to build any houses; 4. One teaspoon of the Grinch from The Grinch Who Stole Christmas before his heart grew two sizes; 5. A dash of Homer Simpson from the episode "Trash of the Titans" ("The garbage man can, Marge. The garbage man can"); 6. One gallon of piss, vinegar, and old motor oil;7. Mix in a blender;8. Allow him to remain in power for over 40 years. Robert Moses did not begin life as a massive douche bag. Rather, as Caro shows us, young Bob Moses was a reformer and an idealist. He was a man who had big dreams and who wanted to help people. Born into modest wealth, he attended Yale and Oxford and studied city planning. When he returned to New York City from overseas, he took a job trying to reform the City’s patronage system. Though he made little money and had little power, he was tireless and undaunted and dedicated. All in all, he seemed a good sort. The kind out to change the world for the better. That all ends around page 200. Moses’ talents were recognized by Belle Moskowitz, an advisor to eventual New York Governor Al Smith. Moses goes to Albany where he attains a talent for drafting legislation. He uses that talent to craft laws creating Commissions with extremely powerful Commissioners. And then he got himself appointed to those Commissions. The rest…is a very long book. Suffice it to say, the title of this book says it all. As he’s shown with his triumphant volumes on Lyndon Johnson, Caro is an author obsessed with the attainment and use of power. He structures the The Power Broke like a three act play, highlighting Moses’ rise to power, his exercise of power, and his loss of power. I’d like to explain what that all means in more specific terms, but frankly, I can’t. Explaining the career of Robert Moses literally takes 1,200 pages. In the simplest terms, Moses used his various Commissionerships, imbued with authority that he wrote into the laws himself, to undertake massive public projects, such as Jones Beach and the Long Island Expressways. In the beginning, these projects were hugely popular with the public. With the populace and the newspapers behind him, Moses felt comfortable taking bigger risks and funding bigger projects. And no one could stop him. Due to the staggered terms of these various posts, Moses found himself able to leverage his authority in such a way that he outlasted dozens of mayors and governors, none of whom could afford to anger him. From the 1920s to 1968, Moses reigned supreme as the shaper of New York City. His vision of New York City became the vision of New York City. He drove expressways through neighborhoods; he built bridges and roads rather than subways; he ran the Triborough Authority like an emperor, chauffeured about in a black limousine. He wasn’t a crook and he never used his power to enrich himself. For him, the power was the juice (of course, that didn’t stop him from wrongfully enriching hundreds and thousands of others at the taxpayers’ expense, but that’s just semantics). Moses was a tyrant of the worst sort: a petty tyrant, a dictator in miniature. He never killed anyone or raped anyone or started a war or kicked a bunny. Yet he still managed to be an absolutely reprehensible human being. He was arrogant and rude and myopic; he destroyed careers and lives and homes without a second thought. Some of the things he did and tried to do are all the more awful because they are so small and petty. He may have been a man who wanted to rise to great heights, but he never hesitated to stoop to slug-level, just to show that he could. I suppose part of the trouble I had with this book is that I had to spend so much time with Moses. Unlike Caro’s other biographical subject, Lyndon Johnson, Moses never used his power for a greater good. He had no Great Society. Instead, Moses becomes a worse human with each turn of the page. In the beginning, at least, as State Park Commissioner, Moses actually worked for the common man, breaking the grip on Long Island of the wealthy estate owners. As time went on, however, Moses lost all compassion for the common man; lost all compassion whatsoever. He seemed to exercise power only for the sake of power. He did things because he had it in his mind to do them. The story is enlivened a bit by the historical personages in Moses’ orbit. Caro is a master of context; his descriptions of supporting characters have as much life as that of the lead actor. Here, we get to meet the canny Belle Moskowitz, the good-hearted Al Smith, the snobbish Franklin Roosevelt and the tough little flower, Fiorello La Guardia. Caro is talented enough to bring real insight to even those, such as accidental mayor Vincent Impellitteri, who are barely given any space. To be sure, Caro’s achievement and Moses’ “achievements” need to be separated. I don’t want to give the impression that I didn’t like The Power Broker simply because Robert Moses was an enormous ass. That’s not the case. To the contrary, The Power Broker may be the best one-volume biography I’ve ever read. There are so many superlatives, I don’t know where to begin. Let’s start with the fundamentals: the quality of the writing. Caro is a great writer. I don’t know how to put it better than that. He writes with elegance, he writes with clarity, and he structures his sentences and his paragraphs in such a way as to heighten the dramatic effect. Caro packs in so much detail, without confusing the reader, that I got exhausted imagining the effort it took to maintain this style. His writing is helped by his sensitivity; he manages to find and inject humanity into his subjects. No matter how awful Moses seemed at times, Caro always found the essentials of the man beneath the layers of jerkiness. I also loved Caro’s literary set-pieces. In most books, if there’s a problem to be solved by the protagonist, the author would simply say: “here’s the problem.” Caro is too imaginative for that. He does an amazing job describing the paradigm in which Robert Moses created his public works. For instance, early in the book, Caro is describing Moses’ attempts to create public beaches on Long Island, even though Long Island was under the stranglehold of rich estate holders who didn’t want the hoi polloi anywhere near them. In order to describe the difficulties of a middle class family attempting to get to a Long Island beach in the 1930s, Caro writes this incredible section in which he takes you – the reader – into an imaginary car, and drives you every mile of that trip. As the families drove, they could see on either side of them, through gates set in stone walls or through the openings in wooden fences, the beautiful meadows they had come for, stretching endlessly and emptily to the cool trees beyond. But the meadows and trees were not for them. The gates would be locked and men carrying shotguns and holding fierce dogs on straining leashes would point eastward, telling the families there were parks open to them “farther along.” There was no shade on Northern Boulevard and the children became cranky early. In desperation, ignoring the NO TRESPASSING – PRIVATE PROPERTY signs that lined the road, fathers would turn onto the narrow strip of grass between the boulevard and the wall paralleling it and, despite the dust and the fumes from the passing cars, would try to picnic there. But there guards were vigilant and it was never long until the fathers had to tell the kids to get back into the car. Later, in Oyster Bay Town and Huntington, they would come to parks, tiny but nonetheless parks, but as they approached them they would see policemen at their entrances and the policemen would wave them on, explaining that they were reserved for township residents. There were, the policemen shouted, parks open “further along…”Later in the book, when Moses is trying to plow under a neighborhood for one of his expressways, Caro tries to show you what that meant for the people who lived in the bulldozer’s path. Instead of giving you cold hard facts – the number of people, the number of apartments, the basic demographics – Caro devotes an entire chapter to one square mile slated to be destroyed. He interviews the residents, describes their lives, and tells the story of their ill-fated fight against Moses. This case study is an incredibly effective way to personalize the stakes between Moses the Builder and the People. This dovetails with my next point: Caro can explain anything. And he can explain it in an interesting way, making you care about stuff you never thought you’d be interested in. In Master of the Senate, Caro managed to find riveting drama in the parliamentary tactics of the US Senate. Here, he does the same thing with bureaucratic enabling laws and public authorities. He imbues this arcane field with as much excitement as is possible (it’s not much, but it’s not boring), and is careful and methodical in relating the complex interactions that gave Moses his power. Finally, Caro is a great researcher. He conducted hundreds of interviews, including hard-to-get face-time with Moses himself. This was no small thing, especially in 1975, when this book was published. At that time, Moses was still alive, and his cronies, the Moses Men, were a tight-lipped group. Indeed, while The Power Broker is a historical artifact, at the time it was published, it was just as much an exposé as a traditional biography. It was Caro who helped strip away the Moses myth and show how much destruction he’d wrought (I wasn’t alive to see New York in the 70s, after Moses strangled it with concrete and steel. Judging it solely based on the film The Warriors, it wasn’t a great place). One of the problems I had with The Power Broker is that Caro didn’t have enough room. He crammed all his research into this one-volume work, instead of giving the story space to breathe (as he’s doing with Lyndon Johnson); as such, there’s a lot of scrimping of certain aspects of Moses’ life. For instance, the farther along you get, the less you hear about his family life, such as it was (I, for one, would’ve enjoyed more elaboration on the string of mistresses Moses kept). The other problem I noticed, which was a bit more serious, is the constant time shifting. Caro doesn’t take a strictly chronological approach to Moses’ life. Instead, he looks for the stories within the story. For example, Caro will devote an entire chapter to a single public works project, while excluding reference to all the other things going on at that time. This can be a good thing for the reader, as it adds these dramatic mini-narratives within the book’s overall arc. However, the result is that you might move forward several decades within a single chapter, only to be thrust back in time when a new chapter begins. There were long sections of The Power Broker when I wasn’t quite sure what decade I was supposed to be in. Caro attempts to remedy this situation with a chapter devoted to Moses’ relations with various New York mayors, but this only muddied things up. I finally had to go to Wikipedia and print off a list of mayors, so I could keep the succession straight (for the record, as it pertains to Moses, it goes: Walker, McKee, O’Brien, La Guardia, O’Dwyer, Impellitteri, Wagner, and Lindsay). Caro’s decision to structure the book like this – event-based rather than chronology-based – leads to The Power Broker’s most surprising elision: that of Jane Jacobs. Jacobs, the author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities, was an activist who, in the words of Caro himself, became the only person to ever beat Robert Moses, when she helped stop his Lower Manhattan Expressway. Caro devoted an entire chapter to this battle royal. Unfortunately, due to space limitations, it was removed from the book by the editor. Thus, due to Caro’s compartmentalization of events, there is not a single mention of Jacobs in 1,200 pages!I spent much of The Power Broker loathing the petty brutishness of Robert Moses. Part of the reason I wanted the Jane Jacobs chapter reinstalled was because I wanted to see Moses get his butt kicked. That never happens in this book. Caro writes that Moses lost his power, but I don’t see it that way. Moses never got beat; he simply got old. And it’s a testament to Caro’s skills and fairness that by the end, as Moses saw his name start to fade, you actually feel a bit of sympathy for the guy. Like all great builders, Moses strove for immortality. However, by the end of his own life, he must have realized that he’d written his name upon the sand. Most people today don’t know him, and I’m fine with that, because it would have pissed Moses off. So just forget I ever mentioned him. Bestseller The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York Author Robert A. Caro are Books One of the most acclaimed books of our time, winner of both the Pulitzer and the Francis Parkman prizes, The Power Broker tells the hidden story behind the shaping and mis shaping of twentieth century New York city and state and makes public what few have known that Robert Moses was, for almost half a century, the single most powerful man of our time in New York, theOne of the most acclaimed books of our time, winner of both the Pulitzer and the Francis Parkman prizes, The Power Broker tells the hidden story behind the shaping and mis shaping of twentieth century New York city and state and makes public what few have known that Robert Moses was, for almost half a century, the single most powerful man of our time in New York, the shaper not only of the city s politics but of its physical structure and the problems of urban decline that plague us today.In revealing how Moses did it how he developed his public authorities into a political machine that was virtually a fourth branch of government, one that could bring to their knees Governors and Mayors from La Guardia to Lindsay by mobilizing banks, contractors, labor unions, insurance firms, even the press and the Church, into an irresistible economic force Robert Caro reveals how power works in all the cities of the United States Moses built an empire and lived like an emperor He personally conceived and completed public works costing 27 billion dollars the greatest builder America and probably the world has ever known Without ever having been elected to office, he dominated the men who were even his most bitter enemy, Franklin D Roosevelt, could not control him until he finally encountered, in Nelson Rockefeller, the only man whose power and ruthlessness in wielding it equalled his own.. He s the author of The Power Broker 1974 , for which he won the 1975 Pulitzer Prize It s a biography of Robert Moses, an urban planner and leading builder of New York City President Obama said that he read the biography when he was 22 years old and that the book mesmerized him Obama said, I m sure it helped to shape how I think about politics Caro has also written four biographies on Lyndon Johnson, including The Path to Power 1982 , Means of Ascent 1990 , and Master of the Senate 2002 , and The Passage of Power 2012 , which won the National Book Critics Circle Award He s at work on a fifth and final volume about Lyndon Johnson, which he says will take him a few years still.From American Public Media. Bestseller Ebook The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York This is definitely the greatest book that I have ever read.Midway through adolescence, I began wondering a bit which life event would finally make me feel like an adult. Of course I had the usual teenaged hypotheses, and acted accordingly to test some of them out. Getting drunk? Having sex? Driving a car? Going to college? None of these things did make me feel grownup; in many instances, their effect was the opposite. I had a brief thrilling moment of maturity when I voted for the first time at age eighteen, but election returns in the years since (in particular the 2004 presidential race) dulled the sophisticated glamour of the ballot box, forcing me to admit that an ability to vote does not indicate the presence of intellectual maturity... The first time I got a job with benefits and sat through a presentation explaining the HMO plan, life insurance, and “401K,” I did feel old in a certain kind of way, but there was a sense of the absurd to it, as if I were in drag as an adult, staggering around in my mother’s too-big high heels and smudgy lipstick in a silly effort to look like a grown woman.For the past few years I’ve had the sense of wearing an oversized grownup life that wasn’t actually mine, while that magical rite of passage into adulthood continued to elude me. Maybe when I have children things will click into place, I’ve mused, listening to Talking Heads with one ear and sort of doubting it.... Part of this might be generational; if thirty is the new twenty, it’s no wonder that I get that Lost Boys feeling, and shrug confusedly when overnight company makes fun of my teddy bear.I’m pleased to announce that thanks to the glory of Robert Caro, this stage is basically behind me. Having finally finished The Power Broker, I feel much more like a grownup, and believe it or not, I’m pretty into that.When I was a little kid, I felt that the adults around me had a thick, rich, complicated understanding of the way the world worked. They knew things – facts, history – and they understood processes and people and the way something like a bond measure or a public authority worked. It was this understanding – which they had, and I didn’t – that made me a child, and them adults. Grownups had an infrastructure of information, truth, and insight that I lacked. As I grew older, I was dismayed to discover that grownups really didn’t know a fraction of what I gave them credit for, and that most of the people ostensibly running the world had no clue how it operated, and my intense disillusionment caused me to lose sight of that adulthood theory for awhile.But reading this book made me feel like a grownup because it helped me to understand the way the world works as I never had before. This book is about power. It is about politics. It is a history of New York City and New York State. It is an explanation of how public works projects are built. It is about money: public money, private money, and the vast and nasty grey areas where they overlap. This book is about democracy, and the lack thereof. It is about social policy, and economics, and our government, and the press. This book is about urban planning, housing, transportation, and about how a few individuals’ decisions can affect the lives of the masses. It helped explain traffic in the park, and the projects in Brownsville, and a billion other mysteries of New York City life that I'd wondered about. The Power Broker is about ideals, talent, and institutional racism. It is about inequality. It is about genius. It is about hubris. It is the best goddamn book I have ever read in my entire life, hands down, seriously.Please do not think that it took me five months to read this book because it was dense or slow! This was a savoring, rather than a trudging, situation. Robert Caro is an incredibly engaging writer. One thing that happened to me early on from reading this was that I lost my taste for trashy celebrity gossip. Who CARES about Britney’s breakdown or, for that matter, Spitzer’s prostitute peccadilloes when I could be reading about the shocking intricacies of Robert Moses’ 1925 legislative consolidation and reorganization of New York State’s administrative structure? This book gave me chills – CHILLS! – on nearly every page with descriptions of arcane political maneuvering and fiscal policy so riveting that I lost my previous interest in reading about sex and drugs. Let’s face it: sex and drugs are pretty boring. Political graft, mechanics of influence, the workings of government: now that’s the hot stuff, when it’s presented in an accessible and digestible form. Nothing in the world is more fascinating than power, and Robert Caro writes about power better than anyone I’ve come across. There are no dry chapters in this book; there’s barely a dull page. It is infinitely more readable than Us magazine, and not much more difficult.Of course The Power Broker is many things, among them a biography. While any one portrait of New York power icons from Al Smith to Nelson Rockefeller is more than worth the price of admission, this book is primarily about Robert Moses. Caro understands and explains the relationship between individual personalities and systems. One of his main theses is that Moses achieved the unchecked and unparalleled levels of power he did because he figured out how to reshape or create systems around himself. The Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority would not have existed without Robert Moses, and Robert Moses would not have been what he was, or accomplished what he did, without the brilliance he had for shaping the very structure of government into conduits for his own purposes. To explain this, Caro needs to convey a profound understanding not only of how these systems worked, but of who this man was. He does so, and the result goes beyond Shakespearean: it is Epic. The Power Broker is the story George Lucas was trying to tell about Anakin Skywalker’s transformation to Darth Vader, only George Lucas is no Robert Caro, and The Power Broker succeeds wildly in the places where Star Wars was just a hack job (of course, Caro wasn’t handicapped by Hadyn Christensen, which does indirectly raise the burning question: WHO’S OPTIONED THIS???).Robert Moses was an incredible genius. He was also an incredible asshole. Robert Moses was probably one of the biggest assholes who ever lived, or at least, who ever got free reign to redesign a major modern American city to his fancy. One of the innumerable triumphs of this book is that while it certainly does demonize Moses to a great extent, it doesn't seem to do so unjustifiably, and it never strips him of his humanity. Caro conveys a deep respect and empathy for his brilliant subject, even as he also expresses horror, disgust, and rage as he describes Moses’ forty-four-year unelected reign of power.I know it’s a mistake to do this review right after finishing, and I’m a bit grossed out that I could write something so gushingly uncritical; that’s unlike me, and it’s possible that later I’ll think of some complaints…. I might not, though. I really do think that this is the best book I’ve ever read, and I wish there were some way that I could adopt Robert and Ina Caro as my grandparents, and that I could go over to their house for Sunday dinner and then take walks together in Central Park. Right at this moment I believe that Robert Caro is the smartest person in the world, and I’m not in the least bit resentful that I’m going to have to devote the rest of my life to reading his LBJ doorstoppers; in fact, I welcome it (though I’m not in a huge hurry to start).Oh, I’m sure this book has flaws like any other. My main problem with it was that it was too short. Caro did not go into nearly enough detail about a large number of issues that I’d expected to learn about. For instance, there was little more than offhand mentions of Moses’ upstate projects; I was surprised that there was virtually nothing in here about Niagara Falls. There was also almost nothing on Shea Stadium, and while they did keep coming up, I never felt adequately informed about Moses’ plans for the three crosstown expressways, and the successful opposition to them. How real a prospect were these, and what did the public fight look like? I wasn’t so clear on that. While it’s possible that Caro had nothing interesting to say about these projects, it’s more likely that he had to draw the line somewhere, and 1162 pages was that place. I mean, otherwise he probably could’ve gone on forever…. There’s a lot to say.I definitely recommend that anyone who reads this book do as I did, and divide it with an exacto knife into four duct-tape bound commuter volumes. It’s fun to draw your own Power Broker covers on your personalized editions, and a good excuse to pull out those crayons which, as a bona fide adult, you so rarely use!It occurs to me that I’ve babbled on forever but still haven’t explained at all what this book is about. If you think you might want to read it but you’re not sure, check out this article by Robert Caro:http://www.robertmosesnyc.com/citysha...It has those stupid New Yorker dots, which the book thankfully does not, but otherwise is kind of like a miniaturized version of The Power Broker and gives a much better sense than I just did of what it’s all about.