74 pages 2 hours read

Robert A. Caro

The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York

Nonfiction | Biography | Adult | Published in 1974

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Summary and Study Guide

Overview

The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York is a 1974 biography of American urban planner Robert Moses, written by journalist Robert Caro. The book charts the rise of Moses in the New York political system, illustrating how he came to shape the city according to his own designs. The book was widely praised by critics and won a Pulitzer Prize in 1975, though Moses and his associates disagreed with several points of Caro’s portrayal. Caro went on to write an influential multivolume biography of Lyndon B. Johnson, and he was awarded several prizes to acknowledge his broader literary impact including the 2010 National Humanities Medal, the 2012 Norman Mailer Prize, and the 2016 National Book Award.

This guide is written using the 2019 Bodley Head edition of The Power Broker.

Summary

Caro begins the life story of Robert Moses with an anecdote about his time at Yale. A star swimmer, Moses announced his intention to convince an alumnus to donate to the school’s general fund using less-than-ethical techniques. The team captain ordered him not to, and Moses told the captain he would quit the team if he was not allowed to do so. The captain accepted his resignation, and Moses never swam for Yale again. Forty-five years later, Robert F. Wagner was being sworn in as mayor of New York City and giving his appointees their oath of office. Moses expected to be named to three positions, but due to activist work against his influence and power, he was only sworn in for two. Angry, Moses privately told the mayor that if he did not get the third appointment, he would resign. The mayor gave in, granting the third position.

Moses inherited his idealism and arrogance from his grandmother and mother. Caro characterizes Moses’s early life and career as idealistic and driven by a passion for improving New York City, particularly civic service. His zeal for reform, however, made him political enemies. At the age of 30, he was pushed out of his job. Caro argues that this taught Moses that dreams and idealism are worthless without power, and so Moses spent the rest of his life amassing power. Caro then details the many ways that Moses transformed New York City in the 20th century.

Moses attended Yale University and then entered into government service. Initially thwarted by corrupt officials who did not wish him to succeed in his reforms, Moses worked for New York Governor Al Smith and developed a better understanding of how power works. Moses ran for governor of New York in 1934 but lost the election. He accepted a job with the city government and successfully designed and built beautiful public works such as parks and bridges in Long Island. His works were notably on schedule and on budget because he brokered deals and overlooked inconvenient laws and regulations. He quickly gained a reputation as a man who could handle huge, complex projects and get them done. In the atmosphere of the Great Depression, these projects were considered vital for the state and country’s recovery. As a result, he gained immense influence.

Moses used this influence to build a power base. After failing to be elected to any government position, he organized divisions within the government to be reliant on him, engineering ways to maintain his hold. For example, by law, the government authorities created to fund and build bridges only existed as long as the bonds issued to fund them remained unpaid. Moses established a system of endlessly refinancing the bonds to keep the division in existence indefinitely, meaning no politician could fire him. Through a succession of governors and mayors, Moses was a near-permanent official who held, at one point, 12 separate official roles with the city government.

Moses established the Triborough Bridge Authority, which became his main base of power. Triborough was funded by a vast array of tolls and taxes, which were collected by Moses’s personal army of government workers. Since the city was constantly near broke, only Moses—through the use of Triborough funds—had the capital needed to make the vast investments in public infrastructure that the voter base demanded. However, Moses refused to accept anyone’s vision other than his own. His projects—as immense and visionary as they were—typically limited access for poor people and people of color. Likewise, his refusal to invest in mass transit instead of highways condemned New York City to decades of pollution and congestion.

In the 1960s, Moses’s influence began to wane. Several public defeats centered around Central Park tarnished his reputation. Additionally, increased scrutiny of his involvement in slum clearance and public housing also helped diminish the popular image that he carefully constructed over many years. His involvement with the World’s Fair in 1964 was also a fiasco, as the Fair never generated the economic boom he predicted. As such, his management of the Fair’s finances came under fire.

With Moses weakened, Governor Nelson Rockefeller—through his family connections to the Chase Manhattan Bank—was able to oust Moses from the Triborough Bridge Authority. In doing so, he removed Moses from power at last. Moses was sent into forced retirement and became a sad and bitter figure as he watched the vast city he once shaped move ahead without him.

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