"The Power Broker" pulls back the curtain on how things get done in America.
This is the greatest book I have ever read. Robert Moses’ ascent from a marginalized Yale undergraduate to the supreme power broker in New York is a nearly unbelievable story, but Robert Caro does a masterful job of tracing his rise and subsequent reign. What sets this biography apart is how meticulously Caro investigated the concrete steps Moses took to acquire and wield power. Caro sharply sketches portraits of Moses’ many accomplices, adversaries, and victims to fill in the context of each of his maneuvers. Over more than 1,200 pages, Caro reveals Moses’ ruthlessness and genius for “getting things done.”
Nearly every major highway, bridge, park, and housing project in New York City (and many in New York) was constructed under the reign of Robert Moses. For decades - the critical decades for the buildout of NYC - Moses held nearly total control over all construction activities in America’s largest city. His Triborough Bridge Authority was essentially an independent “4th branch” of government with its own revenues, territory, and security force. One of his most potent tools was the pile of toll money from his Authorities that allowed him to to distribute vast amounts of money in secret and with no oversight. He wielded his power by distributing over 27 billion dollars (in 1968 dollars!) worth of funds to an empire of construction contractors, politicians, insurance agents, lawyers, and banks. And ultimately, only the Rockefeller family was powerful enough to displace him from his throne.
Moses deeply understood how government works. He had a genius for expanding the power of previously unimportant posts - indeed, his career was launched from the backwaters of the Long Island State Park Commission. He created and profoundly increased the power of the Triborough Bridge Authority in a single brilliant stroke by realizing that if he wrote powers into his (unintendedly) renewable bond covenants, his powers would be guaranteed by the Constitution's protection of contracts.
He was also a master deceiver. “The best bill drafter in Albany” often accumulated power by sneaking in seemingly innocuous language into bills he crafted. The legislators voting on these proposals didn’t realize until too late that they had granted Moses yet more power. As I read about this trickery, I was reminded of the Yale professor Charles Hill’s assertion that civilization collapses when “words lose their meaning.” Although (remarkably) he was “money-honest” himself, behind the scenes he was the center of all money corruption in the city. Yet, Moses managed to maintain a pristine public image for nearly his entire career.
As I was reading, I often wondered how Moses got away with so much. Part of it was his preparation. His first decade of failure gave him plenty of time to dream up grand plans for laying out parks and highways across New York. His early defeats forced him to understand how the mechanisms of government work. Then, when Belle Moskowitz plucked him from obscurity and gave him his first position of power with Governor Al Smith, he already had a plan in place and could move at a breakneck pace.
This preparation was essential for his exploitation of a critical dynamic. Public officials were on tight re-election cycles and needed to be able to point to concrete accomplishments so that they could get re-elected. Moses was the ultimate technocrat and could deliver complex projects on time. His price was that politicians couldn’t make any modifications to his plans - they had to either take them or leave them. And Moses regularly presented initial costs as far below what they actually were. When he came back and asked for more money, politicians were left with two options: 1) refuse his request and leave a project unfinished - thus appearing not only to be wasting money but also to be negligent in their initial assessment or 2) pony up the cash. They almost always chose door #2. And to worsen their predicament, they couldn’t turn Moses down because he was one of the only people who get get things done quickly. When they resisted, a flood of angry phone calls deluged their offices.
This was because behind Moses’ power was the insidious fact that his projects were often in everyone’s interest except the public’s. Contractors wanted contracts. Local politicians wanted jobs in their neighborhoods. Insurance brokers wanted premiums. Legislators wanted concrete accomplishments to point to. PR firms wanted retainers. Banks wanted deposits and bond investment opportunities. All of these parties worked together to extract vast sums of money in taxes and tolls from the public and line their own pockets.
Of course, it helped that many of Moses’ projects were extremely popular with the public. Caro argues that the popularity of parks as a civic issue (alongside motherhood and apple pie) really made Moses’ early career and allowed him to accumulate vast amounts of power under the protective glow of the verdant and wildly popular parks.
But the public was never allowed to understand the financial and political manipulations that went on behind the scenes. One of the most disturbing aspects of the entire Robert Moses story is the profound and systemic failure of New York’s press. Not only did they consistently fail to verify any of his facts or figures, but they unquestioningly published Moses’ editorials and supported him for years without ever bothering to do the investigative legwork that was their duty. It was only the work of a few dogged investigative journalists at a second-rate paper that finally brought many of Moses’ abuses to light - and even then, only after he had been in power for decades.
To be fair, Moses was a genius at "Getting Things Done." He bestowed upon the people of New York hundreds of parks and playgrounds. He built arterial transportation networks where no one else could have managed to build anything. Caro laments that there were missed opportunities for mass transit, but it’s unclear that those opportunities would have ever existed without Moses - and then NYC might be in an even worse place today. In addition, Moses trained an entire generation of highway builders in the United States. Throughout the book, Caro notes how Moses was dedicated to the recruitment, training, and development of talent within his organization. And although he was a tyrant, he seemed to run a remarkably meritocratic (at least for whites) organization. Thousands of people got their first real chance at success by working with Moses and many of them found great purpose and satisfaction in their work.
Yet Moses’ successes had sown the seeds of his destruction. The man who built his career on parks was undone by a half-acre bit of Central Park and a squadron of Park Ave moms. He also got tripped up by his military-style organizational structure. Moses demanded absolute loyalty from his men, but in return he gave them unconditional support in public. This let him run a very tight organization, but opened him up to trouble when his subordinates publicly committed to untenable positions (as in the Shakespeare-in-the-park debacle). But Moses arrogance was ultimately responsible for his own downfall. Trying to bully Governor Nelson Rockefeller, he used his classic technique of threatening to resign. Rockefeller called his bluff and suddenly Moses wasn’t irreplaceable anymore. And so the man who even FDR couldn’t remove from power ended up removing himself.
Towards the end, Moses seemed to be making lots of bad decisions - most notably the disastrous World’s Fair. Early on in his career, he was walking to work for an hour each day and had plenty of time for planning and introspection, laying the foundation for his future success. Caro argues that by the end, Moses was so busy running his empire that he no longer had time for reflection. Perhaps a cautionary tale for high-level executives today.
I struggle to decide how I feel about Robert Moses. After all, he was a master of the art of “Getting Things Done.” And as he himself said, “You can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs” - there are always going to be winners and losers in big, ambitious projects. I have trouble swallowing his refusal to build mass transit - it seems as though he willfully disregarded the public good so that he could maintain power (although maybe the advent of self-driving cars will vindicate him). But to me, the toughest thing to get around is his outright arrogance, mean-spiritedness, and racism. Moses not only was so arrogant as to be unelectable, but he completely screwed over his brother (who ended up dying in poverty because Moses blocked him from getting jobs and hijacked his inheritance). Caro also does a thorough job of documenting Moses’ contempt for non-whites.
Robert Caro put in an insane amount of meticulous research into these 1,200 pages and ended up with perhaps the world's greatest textbook on how to acquire power and get things done in government. He conducted 522 interviews (with fascinating notes on each listed in the back of the book) and read an absurd number of books. As he says in the Selected Bibliography, “A bibliography for this book would be another book in itself, and an exercise in pedantry to boot.” But while this book is crammed with details, Caro keeps the pace moving along and paints brief but vivid portraits of the many characters that Robert Moses coerced, deceived, and manipulated. “The Power Broker” absolutely deserved the Pulitzer and as one critic said, it is a “majestic, even Shakespearean, drama about the interplay of power and personality.”
Caro believes that the movers-and-shakers of the world are driven by power, money, and sex. He’s probably right. But having gotten this inside look at the world of power and what it does to people, I’m not sure I want anything to do with it. Power is a zero-sum game and I think smart people shouldn’t play zero-sum games. Or maybe that’s naive. Someone is going to wield power - maybe it’s better to have a brilliant technocrat?
My favorite quotes and comments below:
Wait Until the Evening
The whole life of Robert Moses, in fact, has been a drama of the interplay of power and personality.
And when he argued for his ideas before the Good Government organization for which he worked and before the Board of Estimate, he was very careful always to have his facts ready, never to exaggerate them and always to draw from them logical conclusions, for he believed that Truth and Logic would prevail.
When the curtain rose on the next act of Moses’ life, idealism was gone from the stage. In its place was an understanding that ideas - dreams - were useless without power to transform them into reality. Moses spent the rest of his life amassing power, bringing to the task imagination, iron will and determination. And he was successful.
With a single exception, the East River Drive, Robert Moses built every one of those roads. He built the Major Deegan Expressway, the Van Wyck Expressway, the Sheridan Expressway and the Bruckner Expressway. He built the Gowanus Expressway, the Prospect Expressway, the Whitestone Expressway, the Clearview Expressway and the Throgs Neck Expressway. He built the Cross-Bronx Expressway, the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, the Nassau Expressway, the Staten Island Expressway and the Long Island Expressway. He built the Harlem River Drive and the West Side Highway…. Those bridges are the Triborough, the Verrazano, the Throgs Neck, the Marine, the Henry Hudson, the Cross-Bay and the Bronx-Whitestone. Robert Moses built every one of those bridges.
And no enumeration of the beaches, parks, apartment houses, bridges, and roads that Robert Moses himself built in New York does more than suggest the immensity of the man’s physical influence upon the city. For the seven years between 1946 and 1953, the seven years of plenty in public construction in the city, seven years marked by the most intensive such construction in its history, no public improvement of any type - not school or sewer, library or pier, hospital or catch basin - was built by any city agency, even those which Robert Moses did not directly control, unless Robert Moses approved its design and location. To clear the land for these improvements, he evicted the city’s people, not thousands of them or tens of thousands, but hundreds of thousands, from their homes and tore the homes down.
In terms of true building - personal conception and construction - Robert Moses was unique in America… Including, in fact, only those public works that he personally conceived and completed, from first vision to ribbon cutting - Robert Moses built public works costing, in 1968 dollars, twenty-seven billion dollars. In terms of personal conception and completion, no other public official in the history of the United States built public works costing an amount even close to that figure… He was America’s greatest builder.
When, in 1956, sufficient funds to gridiron America with expressways were insured by the passage of the Interstate Highway Act, an act in whose drafting Moses played a crucial if hidden role, it was to New York that the engineers of a score of state highway departments came, to learn the secrets of the Master. The greatest secret was how to remove people from the expressways’ paths - and Robert Moses taught them his method of dealing with people… Robert Moses’ influence on the development of the expressway system in the United States was greater than that of any other single individual.
The man who was for thirty years his bitterest critic, Lewis Mumford, says: “In the twentieth century, the influence of Robert Moses on the cities of America was greater than that of any other person.”
Triborough had its own fleets, of yachts and motorcars and trucks, and its own uniformed army - “Bridge and Tunnel Officers” who guarded its toll booths, revolver-carrying Long Island Parkway Police who patrolled its suburban parks and roads - responsible to no discipline but that of Robert Moses. To command the army, under Moses, it had its own generals and admirals, senior officers of the United States Army and Navy who, upon retirement, took service under its banner. It had its own constitution: the covenants, unalterable by city, state or federal government, of its bond resolutions. It governed by its own laws: the Rules and Regulations that it promulgated to regulate conduct within its dominions. And, most significantly, it had its own source of revenue: the quarters and dimes that poured in a silver stream into the toll booths at which it collected tribute.
On the occasion of Paul Screvane’s appointment as city representative to Moses’ 1964-65 World’s Fair, Mayor Wagner said to him: “Paul, my experience with Moses has taught me one lesson, and I’ll tell it to you. I would never let him do anything for me in any way, shape or form. I’d never ask him - or permit him - to do anything of a personal nature for me because - and I’ve seen it time and time again - a day will come when Bob will reach back in his file and throw this in your face, quietly if that will make you go along with him, publicly otherwise. And if he has to, he will destroy you with it."
For a twenty-year period that did not end until 1968, Moses was given by the State Department of Public Works a secret veto power over the awarding of all state contracts for public works in the New York metropolitan area. No engineer who had ever forcefully and openly disagreed with a Moses opinion ever received even one of the thousands of contracts involved.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the most bitter enemy that Moses ever made in public life, attempted as President to exact vengeance for humiliations previously received at Moses’ hands. But although he made his move at the very zenith of his own popularity and prestige, the President found himself forced to retreat by a storm of acclaim for Moses.
The vast majority of the public accepted the legend as fact… if, however, they had been able to see the records and open the mouths, they would have learned that the legend was a gigantic hoax. Prudent, efficient, economical? So incredibly wasteful was Moses of the money he tolled from the public in quarters and dimes that on a single bridge alone he paid $40,000,000 more in interest than he had to. Authority projects cost the taxpayers nothing? Covert “loans” made to authorities by the state - loans designed never to be repaid - ran into the hundreds of millions of dollars. The cost of city-purchased land on which authority facilities were built ran into the hundreds of millions. The cost of taxpayer-financed toll roads leading to authority facilities ran into the billions. And the loss in tax revenue because authority-controlled land was removed from the tax rolls drained the city year after year.
Corruption before Moses had been unorganized, based on a multitude of selfish, private ends. Moses’ genius for organizing it and focusing it at a central source gave it a new force so powerful that it bent the entire city government off the democratic bias. He had used the power of money to undermine the democratic processes of the largest city in the world, to plan and build its parks, bridges, highways and housing projects on the basis of his whim alone.
By building his highways, Moses flooded the city with cars. By systematically starving the subways and the suburban commuter railroads, he swelled that flood to city-destroying dimensions… he insured that that flood would continue for generations if not centuries, that the New York metropolitan area would be - perhaps forever - an area in which transportation… would be an irritating, life-consuming concern for its 14,000,000 residents.
The problem of constructing large-scale public works in a crowded urban setting… is one which democracy has not yet solved.
Line of Succession
[Emanuel and Bella Moses] settled down in 83 Dwight Street [New Haven, CT].
Many years later, Robert Moses would say, “I didn’t like New York at all. It was too big; the crowds, the noise and the confusion were terrible. I wanted to go back to New Haven, to go to Yale and to become Governor of Connecticut.
“The relationship between Mother and Father was simple,” Paul Moses would recall. “Father did what Mother directed.”
In later decades, when Robert Moses was famous almost as much for his personality as for his achievements, observers would marvel at the depth and degree of his outspokenness, stubbornness, aggressiveness, and arrogance… But relatives and friends of the Moses family never wondered. Whatever it was that made Robert Moses the way he was, they knew, whatever the quality that had shaped an unusual - in some ways unique - personality, the quality was one that they had watched being passed, like a family heirloom, from Robert Moses’ grandmother to his mother to him. “Robert Moses,” these people would say, “is Bella Moses’ son.”
Robert Moses at Yale
On June 11, 1908, Moses was able to announce the formation of the Yale University Minor Sports Association. [In opposition to famous football coach Walter Camp]
[No secret society]
Home Away from Home
Taking up debating, he became the first American ever to be elected president of the august Oxford Union, that hardiest of debating clubs.
Oxford in 1911 sponsored a World Congress on Race Problems to examine the question - along with the broader question of general discrimination by Great Britain against colored people… Previous speakers had pleaded for equality, for fraternity, for “immediate brotherhood.” Moses’ point of view was somewhat different. Immediate brotherhood, he said flatly, was “not practical.” The “subject peoples” of the British Empire were simply not ready for self-government yet. Furthermore, he didn’t see any time in the future when they would be.
Merit, “open competition,” Moses said again and again, should be the sole basis of appointment and promotion in public life.
“My conclusions on this difficult question of democracy versus education in the civil service are these: In a sense it is a cruel thing to set up class distinctions - even if they only be intellectual… But where does our sympathy lead us? Can the state repair the defects of heredity or of early education? Can it endow the average individual with the intelligence, acuteness and cultivation which economic exigencies have denied him?... There should be no social bar to promotion from the lowest to the highest place - but let us not fool ourselves. When we have made every possible provision for the encouragement of early promise, when we have prepared every child as far as possible for its suitable vocation, the subordinate employees of the government… who are fit to rise above the ranks will be few and far between”
One of the major demands of Progressivism was one that he himself had called for in his Ph.D.
thesis: removal of the spoils system from the federal civil service.
Within a few months, however, the students began to notice another quality in Moses, a quality which became more apparent almost day by day. Blazing behind the big gray eyes, they now saw, was a furious impatience.
Age of Optimism
There were, in 1914, 50,000 city employees and this meant 50,000 men and women who owed their paychecks… not to merit but to the ward boss. Patronage was the coinage of power in New York City. And reforms of the civil service such as Moses was to propose were therefore daggers thrust at the heart of Tammany Hall.
By the spring of 1915, he was able to begin writing the Detailed Report on the Rating of the Efficiency of Civil Service Employees, Excepting Members of the Uniformed Forces in the Police and Fire Services and in the Lower Ranks of the Street Cleaning Service.
Every morning - early - Moses would get a call from a young lawyer named George Gove, who lived nearby… together, the two young men would walk down Broadway all the way to the Flatiron Building… and then Moses would continue alone to the Municipal Building, some six miles south of Ninety-fifth Street.
There was again no open opposition, nothing that Moses’ supporters could seize on as evidence of Tammany opposition to reform; instead, there was again stalling and obfuscation and confusion - and, for Bob Moses, defeat.
The net result of all his work was nothing… But Moses had failed in his calculations to give certain factors due weight. He had not sufficiently taken into account greed. He had not sufficiently taken into account self-interest. And, most of all, he had not sufficiently taken into account the need for power. Science, knowledge, logic and brilliance might be useful tools but they didn’t build highways or civil service systems. Power built highways and civil service systems.
Belle altered the pattern. Instead of loudly denouncing conditions at the academies, she quietly checked incorporation certificates to learn the names of their owners - and found that they included both Tammany leaders and community pillars. Instead of giving the names to the newspapers, which would have brought headlines but not results, since all her ammunition would have been used up, she went to the leaders and pillars and told them she would keep their names secret if they saw to it that regulatory legislation was passed - and strictly enforced. It was.
Bob Moses was never to learn why, of all the brilliant, dedicated reformers she knew, Belle Moskowitz had picked him for the first official job she had had it in her power to dispense.
Moses was not only obeying Mrs. Moskowitz but also obviously studying the lessons that she was teaching, and studying them hard.
[Re. politicians in Albany] It was easier to ask Moses than to try to find out the answer themselves. Because Moses always knew. “He thought fast and he answered quickly”... “He seemed to know the makeup of every department in the state and what its powers were and exactly which sections of law it got those powers from. And he almost seemed to know it all by heart.”
Change in Major
Under Belle Moskowitz’s tutelage, Bob Moses had changed from an uncompromising idealist to a man willing to deal with practical considerations; now the alteration had become more drastic. Under her tutelage, he had been learning the politicians’ way; now he almost seemed to have joined their ranks. More, he was openly scornful of men who hadn’t, of men who still worried about the Truth when what counted was votes. He was openly scornful of reformers whose first concern was accuracy, who were willing to devote their lives to fighting for principle and who wanted to make that fight without compromise or surrender of any part of the ideals with which they had started it. Bob Moses was scornful, in short, of what he had been.
The Taste of Power
“What do you want, then?” Smith asked. “Nothing,” Moses replied. Over and over during 1923 and the beginning of 1924, as Smith watched Moses driving himself in his service, he asked Moses what he wanted. Over and over again, Moses said, “Nothing.” And then, one day, there was something. The something was parks.
And time had another dimension now. Assembly lines, mass-production techniques - the whole new technology that would make it possible, by 1929, for sixty-nine workers to produce as much as one hundred had in 1920 - had given it as a gift to the American working man. Before World War I, a seventy-hour factory week had been common; in 1920, the average was sixty hours; in 1929, just before the Crash, it would be forty-eight.
[Re. robber barons] Their creed was summed up in two quotes: Commodore Vanderbilt’s “Law? What do I care for law? Hain’t I got the power?” and J. P. Morgan’s “I owe the public nothing.”
… He combined them in a report, A State Park Plan for New York, which he wrote himself and issued in the name of the New York State Association. The report was a seminal document in the history of parks in America… the $15,000,000 bond issue, he said, must specifically authorize the Legislature “to provide for permanent improvements as well as the acquisition of land…” “Conservation” - the previous park ideal - had to be combined with “recreation,” he said. Furthermore, he said, “permanent improvements” did not mean only improvements within parks; it also meant means to get to them - “parkways and boulevard connections between state parks and between state parks and neighboring centers of population.”
Mark Antony, shrewd politician, knew the potency of parks as an issue… it was not the revelation that Caesar had left each Roman citizen… seventy-five drachmas that sealed Antony’s victory over the citizens’ emotions but rather his revelation that “... he hath left you all his walks, His private arbors and new-planted orchards, On this side Tiber; he hath left them you, And to your heirs for ever; common pleasures, To Walk abroad and recreate yourselves.”
The Best Bill Drafter in Albany
F Trubee Davison, the son of Morgan partner Henry P. Davison of Glen Cove, had been sent by the barons of the North Shore of Long Island to the State Assembly in 1923, just one year after his graduation from Yale… Moses asked Davison to introduce the bills that would establish a State Council of Parks and a Long Island State Park Commission.
Robert Moses and the Creation of the Machine
[Thomas A. McWhinney was a corrupt guy that got a huge financial windfall from knowing the route of the Meadowbrook Causeway to Jones Beach. Pg. 209]
But no sooner had they given Moses $170,000 for Southern State right-of-way, confident that that amount would allow him to purchase no more than a mile or two, than the Nassau County Board of Supervisors, now suddenly, and mysteriously enthusiastic over Moses’ projects, purchased additional miles and presented them to the Long Island Park Commission as a gift. Playing on the greed of real estate developers who owned land in the parkway’s path, Moses persuaded them to donate right-of-way so that the rest of their property could be opened to development. Suddenly awakened to the fact that the New York City watershed property could be used as right-of-way, Hewitt and Hutchinson realized with a shock that the land for the Southern State was almost all in Moses’ hands - all the way out to that magic point where it would trigger the start of work on the Northern State.
[After Al Smith buttered up Hewitt and Hutchinson] “You see,” Moses would say, “in so many cases, things come down to personalities, to the human factor. And they loved the Governor.”
Robert Moses had also learned from the Taylor Estate fight, his first use of power, lessons that would govern his behavior for the rest of his life. One, hammered home in his consciousness by the results of his accommodation with G. Wilbur Doughty, was that the simplest method of accomplishing his aims was to use the power he possessed in all its manifestations, even those that as recently as a year previously he had shrunk from using… the simplicity - combined with the feeling of accomplishment - might well have made Moses ask himself if it really made any difference whether he worked with Tom McWhinney… Another lesson Moses learned was that, in the eyes of the public, the end, if not justifying the means, at least made them unimportant. Al Smith had succeeded in blurring in the public's mind the legal technicalities of the fight - by focusing the public’s mind on the end of the fight: parks. The value of parks as an issue was another lesson. As long as you were fighting for parks, you could hardly help being a hero… Once you did something physically, it was very hard for even a judge to undo it. If judges, who had to submit themselves to the decision of the electorate only infrequently, were thus hogtied by the physical beginning of a project, how much more so would be public officials who had to stand for re-election year by year?... once you physically began a project, there would always be some way found of obtaining the money to compete it. “Once you sink that first stake,” he would often say. “They’ll never make you pull it up.”
These lessons had other implications. If ends justified means, and if the important thing in building a project was to get it started, then any means that got it started were justified. Furnishing misleading information about it was justified; so was underestimating its costs… But what if you didn’t tell the officials how much the projects would cost? What if you let the legislators know about only a fraction of what you knew would by the project's’ ultimate expense? Once they had authorized that small initial expenditure and you had spent it, they would not be able to avoid giving you the rest when you asked for it. How could they? If they refused to give you the rest of the money, what they had given you would be wasted, and that would make them look bad in they eyes of the public. And if they said you had misled them, well, they were not supposed to be misled. If they had been misled, that would mean that they hadn’t investigated the projects thoroughly, and had therefore been derelict in their own duty. The possibilities for a polite but effective form of political blackmail were endless.
Another lesson Moses learned from his first use of power was the latitude given him by its possession. In the Taylor Estate fight, Moses had broken the law… But what had happened to him as a result? He had been fined six cents… the power that came with the money he could dispose of as a state official insulated him from the law’s retribution. He had been able to employ lawyers numerous enough and clever enough to utilize the technicalities of the law to frustrate the intent of the law, to throw enough sand into the machinery of justice to slow its gears sufficiently so that they could not mesh and produce the conclusion which its spirit demanded. And, Moses must have realized… as long as he had public power, as long as he was representing the state, he would have the means of employing as many lawyers as needed, of delaying, and thereby denying, justice to his opponents, of shielding himself from its punishments. If there was one law for the poor, who have neither money nor influence, and another law for the rich, who have both, there is still a third law for the public official with real power, who has more of both.
“Hours didn’t mean anything to him,” Latham says, “Days of the week didn’t mean anything to him. You worked when there was work to be done, that was all.”
“Mr. Moses was no lawyer, but he had a great knowledge and grasp of the law,” Junkamen would say. “He was not an engineer, but he had a great knowledge of engineering. He knew politics, he knew statesmanship - he was an altogether brilliant man. If you were working with him, you just had to learn from him - if only through osmosis.” One of the commission’s engineers rhapsodizes: “I don’t think there was a man who came into daily contact with him who wasn’t inspired to do better work than he had thought he was capable of doing.”
[Re. the Babylon Town Jones Beach cession] Wrote Cooper: “The verdict was nothing short of a crime and the method by which it was obtained is scandalous.” Moses issued a statement, too. He called the referendum results “a vote of confidence in the Park Commission.”
[Re. Jones Beach and the other Long Island parks] In the history of public works in America, it is probably that never had so much been built so fast.
Perhaps the most remarkable characteristic of these parks and parkways that were becoming physical realities in 1928 was that they were, for the most part, the parks and parkways he had proposed in the New York State Association park reports he had written in 1922 and 1923. They were located in the places he had proposed, and the details of their development - down to the facades of their bathhouses and how many lockers and parking spaces each would have - followed the plans Moses had made for them.
[Re. Ansley Wilcox and the Niagara Commission] It is impossible to avoid the conclusion that Moses had determined to hound from the state park organization a group of elderly men whose only crime was their refusal to allow him to exercise unbridled power in that organization and to remove them from control of the park they loved.
Parks had never been a source of power before. Since the traditional function of park commissions had been to preserve the land in its natural state, the later developments - construction contracts, jobs - that made parks a source of power had never been a significant consideration. Parks were a source of power now, but the old park men didn’t want power… Politicians failed to grasp the new reality until too late. By the time they finally realized… that a new organ of state government was being created that would dispense yearly millions of dollars in construction contracts and thousands of jobs, Moses had the state park system too firmly in his control for it to be pried loose. He would remain president of the Long Island State Park Commission and chairman of the State Parks Council until 1962, and during the thirty-eight years of his reign over state parks these parks would, even as his activities expanded into other fields, be a constant source of power that he could use to expand his influence in those fields. In politics, power vacuums are always filled. And the power vacuum in parks was filled by Robert Moses… Whether or not he so intended, he turned parks, the symbol of man’s quest for serenity and peace, into a source of power.
Smith won a fourth term - the first Governor to do so since De Witt Clinton a century before - and he credited a large part of his 257,000-vote plurality to the parks issue.
[Re. Governor Al Smith] Parks were, unlike improvements in teachers’ salaries or other highly praised but unmeasurable accomplishments of his administration, an accomplishment that he could see, an accomplishment whose visible, concrete existence could prove to him that he had indeed done something for his people… So many of the things that made him most satisfied with his administration had been the result of Moses’ work.
[Moses] knew how much he owed Smith for the realization of his dreams. “We could have done nothing without him,” he would say. He knew how much he owed Smith for rescuing him from a life of obscurity and failure. “Most of what little I know of the practice of government I learned from this remarkable Gamaliel,” Moses would write.
Curator of Cauliflowers
When the constitutional amendments establishing the executive budget system and the four-year gubernatorial term proposed in the Reconstruction Commission report were repassed, approved in referendum and signed into law… the report written in Moses’ apartment became, substantially unchanged, the administrative machinery of the State of New York.
Franklin D. Roosevelt, as President, was to say that “practically all the things we’ve done in the federal government are like things Al Smith did as Governor of New York.”
“New York is the great classic of the reorganization movement.” In that classic, Robert Moses played the leading role. Most of Moses’ achievements were highly visible achievements - monuments of concrete and steel - which may be expected to endure in the public consciousness for as long as they stand. But his achievement in reshaping the machinery by which New York State’s millions of inhabitants are governed to make it substantially more responsive to the changing and growing needs of those millions is an episode all but lost to history. And it may be that this achievement is at least the equal of any of the others.
Almost every day, sometimes twice a day, no matter how busy he was, Moses would swim… And no matter where he swam, when he emerged from the water his dripping face was always fresh, smiling and happy.
He had a gift for picking them out of the throng of draftsmen, engineers and architects at Belmont Lake. “Time and again,” one of his top executives recalls, “RM would ask the name of some lower-echelon guy - ‘Who was that guy you sent in with the bath house plans last week?’ - that kind of thing. And when you told him, he’d say, ‘Why don’t you try giving him a little more responsibility and see how he handles it.’ Well, it was amazing. The man he picked out might be some guy you yourself had hardly noticed. And RM certainly hadn’t had any time to watch the guy at any length at all. But it seemed like every time, he was right; when you gave the guy more responsibility, he was ready to handle it, and you could start moving him up through the organization.”
Once they had proven themselves to him, Moses took pains with their training. They were, most of them, engineers and architects, and he was constantly distressed with their weakness in the use of the English language. So he taught them to write. Like a high-school English teacher, he gave them reports to write and letters to draft for his signature and then he corrected the reports and letters and had the authors redo them - sometimes over and over again… Their purpose was to get public projects built, he would tell them, and to get them built they had to know how to persuade people of their worth - and the key to persuading people was to keep their arguments simple… “The first thing you’ve got to learn,” he said, “is that no one is interested in plans. No one is interested in details. The first thing you’ve got to learn is to keep your presentations simple.”
In rewarding his men financially, Moses was hampered by civil service limits on pay and promotion schedules, but his ingenuity found a hundred ways around those strictures. If a man wasn’t making what Moses thought he should be, he would put the man’s wife on the payroll in some job that required no work… The rewards Moses offered his men were not only power and money. If they gave him loyalty, he returned it manyfold. Moses might criticize his men himself, but if an outsider tried it - even if the outsider was right, and Moses privately told his aide so - Moses would publicly defend him without qualification. And the most valued reward - the thread that bound his men most closely to him - was still more intangible. “We were caught up in his sense of purpose,” Latham explained. “He made you feel that what we were doing together was tremendously important for the public, for the welfare of people.”... Men who worked for him had the satisfaction not only of seeing their plans turned into steel and concrete, but also of seeing the transformation take place so rapidly that the fulfillment was all the more satisfying. Moses’ men feared him, but they also admired and respected him - many of them seemed to love him.
Moses’ contribution to the Smith campaign was twofold. First, his accomplishments provided the ammunition for the most successful of Smith’s speeches, which concentrated on his record as Governor. Second, while Smith was campaigning, Moses ran the state for him… While Smith was campaigning, Moses ran New York. And the measure of his success in the job was that there wasn’t a single Republican charge of laxness in that period.
The Mother of Accommodation
By accepting Otto Kahn’s $10,000, Moses had presented his opponents with a weapon which they used to club him - and New York State - into submission. But, by illegally appropriating the Taylor Estate, he had presented many of the same opponents in that battle with an equally dangerous weapon.
Part of the explanation for Moses’ increased power was simply the breadth and depth of his knowledge of the government at whose head Roosevelt, with little preparation, suddenly had found himself. No one knew the vast administrative machinery the Governor was supposed to run better than this man the Governor hated. To a considerable extent, the machinery was his machinery… When discussing a point of law with some young state agency counsel, Moses liked to let the lawyer painstakingly explain the legal ramifications involved and then say dryly: “I know. I wrote the law.” This store of knowledge, coupled with an intelligence capable of drawing upon it with computer-like rapidity, constituted a political weapon which no Governor could afford to let rust in his arsenal.
Roosevelt had learned the truth of a saying of Al Smith’s: “If Bob Moses says it’s constitutional, it’s constitutional.”
Moses was fond of repeating at this time a quote often used in Albany. “You can get an awful lot of good done in the world if you’re willing to let someone else take the credit for it.”
Underlying Moses’ strikingly strict policing for cleanliness in his parks was, Frances Perkins realized with “shock,” deep distaste for the public that was using them… “He loves the public but not the people”... Now he began taking measures to limit use of his parks. He had restricted the use of state parks by poor and lower-middle-class families in the first place, by limiting access to the parks by rapid transit; he had vetoed the Long Island Rail Road’s proposed construction of a branch spur to Jones Beach for this reason. Now he began to limit access by buses; he instructed Shapiro to build the bridges across his new parkways low - too low for buses to pass… For Negroes, whom he considered inherently “dirty,” there were further measures. Buses needed permits to enter state parks; buses chartered by Negro groups found it very difficult to obtain permits, particularly to Moses’ beloved Jones Beach; most were shunted to parks many miles further out on Long Island.
To Power in the City
There were now seven separate governmental agencies concerned with parks and major roads in the New York metropolitan area. They were the Long Island State Park Commission, the New York State Council of Parks, the Jones Beach State Park Authority, the Bethpage State Park Authority, the New York City Park Department, the Triborough Bridge Authority and the Marine Parkway Authority. Robert Moses was in charge of all of them.
[Re. employment under Moses] “When you got inside, nobody asked you how much money you had in the bank or what was the maiden name of your great-grandmother,” on architect recalls. “All they asked you was: ‘What are your qualifications?’”
He had always insisted that he was not Jewish. He did everything he could to make his feelings clear: he sent his daughters to an Episcopalian school, made disparaging remarks about qualities he felt characterized Jews and, when he learned that the editors of the Jewish Encyclopedia were planning to include his biography in its pages, threatened to sue them for libel if they did.
Within a matter of days, he had attained a novel - and perhaps unique - distinction: he was the first - and perhaps the only - candidate in the history of New York State on whom a radio network demanded nonstop libel insurance.
The year in which Robert Moses headed the Republican ticket was, in other words, the only election in a fifty-year span in which the GOP lost both houses. He lost upstate communities that no Republican candidate for any office had ever lost before.
Why did Robert Moses, previously so talented at public relations, antagonize the public during the episode in his career in which he most needed its support? In part, because his success in public relations had been due primarily to his masterful utilization of a single public relations technique: identifying himself with a popular cause. This technique was especially advantageous to him because his philosophy - that accomplishment, Getting Things Done, is the only thing that matters, that the end justifies any means, however ruthless - might not be universally popular... he continually urged reports, under the guise of modesty, to “stick to the parks and playgrounds and bridges, and don’t write about me.”
It wasn’t just that Robert Moses didn’t want to listen to the public. It was that he couldn’t listen, couldn’t - even for the sake of the power he coveted - try to make people feel that he understood and sympathized with them… For not only could Robert Moses not help showing his contempt for others, he seemed actually to take pleasure in showing this contempt - a deep, genuine pleasure, a pleasure whose intensity leads to the suspicion that, in a way, he needed to display his superiority, with a need so great that he simply could not dissemble it.... Such an explanation also helps to illuminate Moses’ otherwise almost inexplicable treatment of the press.
Order Number 129
At the conclusion of his gubernatorial campaign, Moses’ stock of public confidence had never been lower. But at the conclusion of the Triborough Bridge fight, just four months later, it had never been higher. By placing Moses in a position where he was in fact the opponent of bureaucrats and politicians that he had for so long claimed to be, Franklin Roosevelt had allowed him to screw his halo back on. And so firmly did Moses screw it back on - without ever again making the mistake of running for public office - that in the public’s eyes the last of the glow would not fade for almost thirty years.
In the Saddle
Windels suggested that La Guardia print a pad of forms reading: “I, Robert Moses, do hereby resign as ____ effective ____” and simply hand one to Moses whenever the commissioner threatened to resign. The technique worked.
Other political considerations which deterred the Mayor from interfering with Moses in the fields he had carved out for his own were… Moses’ ability to complete public works fast enough to provide a record of accomplishment for an elected official to run on in the next election; his ability to build public works without scandal; his willingness to serve as a lightning rod to draw off opposition from the elected official - most of all, perhaps, his matchless knowledge of government… But you give a problem to Moses and overnight he’s back in front of you - with a solution, all worked out to the last details… He had solutions and no one else had solutions. A mayor needs a Robert Moses.
If a commissioner still resisted, Moses used the public rather than the private smear. “Mr. Moses told me… that he was able to control the press of New York City, so as to hold me up to such obloquy that I would not be able to stand it,” W. Kingsland Macy had testified a decade before.
Shortly thereafter, the “old hack” and “red-tape boy” quietly resigned, one of a score of minor officials publicly ridiculed and humiliated by Moses - and driven out of public service - for no other reason than that they had tried to make him obey the law.
If Robert Moses was a pioneer in the fields of parks and highways, he was also a pioneer in McCarthyism, twenty years before McCarthy.
“He was just a natural bully. So whenever he tried something, I’d pretend to lose my temper. And after a while, he didn’t try any more.”
The broad powers possessed by the Board of Estimate, the upper house of the city’s bicameral legislature, would normally have made ignoring it impossible. But many of those powers rested on the power of the purse and the purse that was financing in most of Moses’ projects was not the Board’s but the federal government’s. And the power that remained to the Board he offset with the techniques - stake driving, whipsawing, wedge driving, deception - that he had learned and mastered during a decade of building public works on Long Island.
He deceived the Board constantly… He hardly bothered to conceal the technique… but because the Board had left itself open to political blackmail by approving earlier fund request without adequately checking them, it was helpless to deny him later requests and thereby allow him to charge that it had wasted the public’s money by building only part of a project. Moreover, since the Board’s membership was continually changing, just as one borough president or Comptroller learned never to trust Moses’ figures, he would lose an election and the man who took over his seat would have to begin the learning process anew. And, most important, while the Board may have distrusted Moses’ figures, its lack of adequate engineering assistance prevented it from coming up with any on its own.
If Moses was indulging his enjoyment at hurting people not in order to help him with his aims but simply because he liked hurting, the indulgence nonetheless helped him achieve his aims. As Judge Jacob Lutsky puts it, “If you know that every time you get in a guy’s way, he’s going to kick you in the balls, you make pretty damn sure you don’t get in his way - right?”
[Re. African Americans and Puerto Ricans near Thomas Jefferson Pool deterred by Robert Moses] The fact that they didn’t use their neighborhood pool - and the explanation for this fact - was never once mentioned by any newspaper.
The financing of the West Side Improvement was a supreme example, perhaps the supreme example of the practical side of Robert Moses’ genius… The catalyst that finally brought the West Side Improvement to fruition wasn’t Washington's largesse but Moses’ genius for turning a dream into reality, for accomplishment, for Getting It Done.
[Exton and Weinberg’s] ideas of the proper location didn’t matter; only the bankers’ ideas mattered because it was the bankers who had to put up the money for the bridge. Moses could not, in fact, allow any discussion of the bridge location at all, because discussion generates controversy, and controversy frightens away the timid, and no one is more timid than a banker where his money is concerned.
...the total cost of the West Side Improvement (including the elevated highway) was at least $180,000,000 and perhaps as high as $218,000,000, an immense figure in Depression dollars. (The famous Boulder Dam, always cited as an example of spectacular New Deal expenditures, cost $76,000,000.) But New York's press did not attempt to analyze the cost, accepting, instead, Moses’ $24,000,000 figure.
The West Side Improvement had had two purposes: to reclaim Manhattan’s waterfront for its people, and to alleviate Manhattan’s traffic congestion. It was to achieve these purposes that Robert Moses spent an incredibly large sum of money. But despite that expenditure - all but inconceivable in terms of urban spending of that era - the first of the two purposes was achieved only in part. The West Side Improvement did create a park, but while it was a great park, it was not nearly as great as it could have been; instead of reclaiming the waterfront for Manhattan’s people, the West Side Improvement deprived them of it. And the second of the two purposes was not achieved at all.
The media, whose amplification of his statements without analysis or correction played so vital a role in making the public susceptible to the blandishments of his policies, carried out the same effective if unintentional propaganda for his personality.
Columnist Westbrook Pegler dubbed Moses’ technique of driving stakes without legal authorization and then defying anyone to do anything about them, the “Oops, Sorry” technique.
In the introduction to the Park Department’s 1940 brochure - Six Years of Park Progress - he wrote, “We owe much to the press, without whose constant interest and publicity it would be impossible to explain our program and to obtain public support for it.”
Robert Moses, at the age of forty-one, had no income at all except what his mother gave him.
[Robert Moses] took away from a brother who was poor while he was well off, who was walking the streets with holes in his shoes and sleeping in a Salvation Army lodging house, who was almost literally starving for want of a few dollars, $750.90.
[Re. “Robert Moses: Builder for Democracy”] In this 339-page book on the life of Robert Moses, there is not the faintest hint that he had a brother and sister.
His wife ran his home, and his life, to such an extent that, describing their relationship, many friends use the phrase: “she mothered him.”
“RM never went anywhere without Mary, and he consulted her on everything,” Sid Shapiro says. “And boy was she sharp!” Attorney Morris Ernst, who with his wife saw a lot of the Moseses when the two couples were young, says: “Mary gave Bob an awful lot when he was first starting out. Don’t forget, she had been the confidential secretary to a Governor. Her political know-how was really quite significant in helping him accomplish his early objectives.”
By the 1930’s, Robert Moses’ affairs were openly gossiped about in New York political and society circles.
His only real difference of opinion with the Tunnel Authority was over who should control it. And this difference made the 1936 Tunnel Authority fight a watershed in Robert Moses’ life. Always before, Moses had conceived a public work, and then had sought the power to bring it into reality. In the Tunnel Authority fight, someone else conceived the public work. Moses sought the power to take it over. Before, his motivation had always been the work - the project, the achievement, the dream. Now the motivation was power.
Of all the remarkable qualities of Robert Moses’ matchless mind, one of the most striking was its ability to take an institution with little or no power, and, seemingly with little or no potential for more power (at Yale, an unprestigious literary magazine; in state government, the Long Island State Park Commission) and to transform it into an institution with immense power, power insulated from and hence on a par with the power of the forces that had originally created it. And now the mind of Robert Moses had begun focusing on the institution know as the “public authority.”
The Warp on the Loom
The legislature had placed public authorities under civil service, of course, but the power of the Civil Service Commissions to enforce their edicts rested, as Moses had learned from the bitter experience of his youth, on the power to disapprove salary payments - on the commission's control of the purses out of which the municipal and state agencies drew their “personal service” funds. It rested on the power of money. Let him have the money - let him keep control of the authorities’ revenues - and he, this man who had mastered the intricacies of civil service as well as any man who ever lived, would be able to devise a hundred ways to manipulate Civil Service Commission ruling to his own ends. He would be able to attract to his service the men his sharp eyes had picked out of the herd, to hire and fire them as he pleased, to provide them with material rewards huge enough to make them under his driving and his demands and to guarantee their absolute loyalty.
He had glimpsed in the institution called “public authority” a potentiality for power whose implications no one else - no one in City Hall or the Albany Statehouse for certain and, so far as research can determine, no one else anywhere in the United States - had noticed but that were exciting and frightening and immense. Authorities could issue bonds… If Robert Moses could write the powers which had been vested in him into the bond contracts of his authorities, make those powers part of the agreements under which investors purchased the bonds, those powers would be his for as long as the authorities should remain in existence and he should control them. If he could keep the authorities in existence indefinitely and could keep his place at their head, he would hold those powers indefinitely - quite conceivably, until he died. Those powers might have been given him by the Legislature and the Governor at the request of the Mayor and City Council, but if he embodied those powers in bonds, neither Legislature, Governor, Mayor nor City Council would ever be able to take them back… Moses was in effect, whether or not he taught in such terms, proposing to create, within a democratic society based on a division of powers among three branches of government, a new, fourth branch, a branch that would, moreover, in significant respects, be independent of the other three.
He had to conceal his purposes from everyone.
Not at its beginning and not in the portion labeled “Existence,” but long, legalistic pages later, buried deep within the act, in a subdivision of Section Nine, a subdivision and a section that ostensibly had nothing to do with “Existence,” there was a new sentence: 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…. With that sentence in there, he had power to issue forty-year bonds and every thirty-nine years he could call them in and issue new bonds, for another forty years. La Guardia had thought that authorities… would be temporary creations that would build something and then turn it over to the city and go out of existence as soon as it was paid off. But with that gimmick in there, it would never be paid off.
The act that Moses was so carefully drafting would mean that the Triborough Authority would have the right to construct highways throughout the city in many respects exactly as if it were the city government itself.
Legislation can be amended or repealed… but a contract cannot be amended or repealed by anyone except the parties to it.
He didn’t even need public opinion any more. “That’s a slender reed to lean on,” Al Smith had said. Now Robert Moses had something more solid: the firm, precise, unbreakable covenants of the bond resolutions. Robert Moses still had all his old, immense, popularity. But were he, one day, to lose that popularity, the loss would no longer be nearly as disastrous as it would have been in the past. For no one - not the people, not the people’s elected representatives, not the people’s courts - could change those covenants.
Moses methods - the methods with which he swayed politicians to his side - required secrecy. An authority gave him secrecy, for unlike the records of conventional governmental agencies, which were public, subject always to inspection, an authority’s records were corporate records, as private as those of a private corporation.
Once on the [Randall’s] island, visitors were subject not to the city’s laws but to Triborough’s - Authority rules and regulations enforced by Triborough’s Bridge and Tunnel Officers. Moses’ decision to build his main office there was, intentionally or not, symbolic of his independence of the city.
[La Guardia] might attempt to make the public understand that public authorities had been given too much power. But the Mayor was only to well aware of the futility of attempting to explain the technicalities of bond resolution contracts to an electorate that idolized the Man Who Got Things Done.
Moses knew it, too. After reading the bond agreements and contracts, La Guardia dropped all further discussion of the authorities' powers. Moses never raised the matter again. But thereafter he treated La Guardia not as his superior but as an equal. In the areas of transportation and recreation, Robert Moses, who had never been elected by the people of the city to any office, was henceforth to have at least as much of a voice in determining the city's future as any official the people had elected - including the Mayor.
And When the Last Law Was Down…
If the reformers had looked at the Battle of the Battery Crossing in a broader perspective, however, they would have been holding not a “Victory Luncheon” but a wake. For in such a perspective - the significance of the battle in the history of New York City - the key point about the fight… was not that the President had stepped in and stopped Robert Moses from building a project that might have irreparably damaged the city. The key point was that it had taken the President to stop him.
For nine years, Robert Moses had been seeking control of the Tunnel Authority. Now he had control… every modern water crossing within the city’s borders, not only those above the water but those beneath it, not only every bridge but every tunnel constructed within the city’s borders for the use of motor vehicles since 1909, was now under the control of authorities that he controlled. More important, all new water crossings would also be under his control.
Robert Moses, whose aim was not economic but political power but whose power would have to rest not on political but on economic factors, had understood that competition was a threat to his aims. He head schemed for ten years to remove that threat, to obtain over all modern water crossing within New York - the water crossings that were a key to all automobile transportation within the city - an absolute monopoly. And now he had that monopoly. Henceforth, for the remaining quarter of a century in which he would be in power, no motorist would be able to use a modern bridge or tunnel in New York City without paying his authorities tribute.
The stakes involved were vast. They included not only control of the two largest public works projects in America but also the right to build and control a public work that would be far larger than either: the Narrows Crossing. They included the right to award contracts… with all the immense patronage and power that such a right conferred, and also the right to dispose of the immense annual revenues these three projects and the Queens-midtown Tunnel would generate, revenues that by 1968 would be running more than $30,000,000 per year. They included the capitalization power of this annual $30,000,000 - to build more public works that would generate more cash: capitalization power that by 1968 would amount to half a billion dollars more... The significance of the battle went far beyond economics. For at stake also was the issue of whether control of revenue-producing water crossings in the city would in effect be turned over to a single individual, of whether one man would be given a monopoly over all toll receipts paid by motor vehicles in a great city largely dependent upon motor transportation. For concentrating economic power in motor transportation within the city in one man would give that an a voice in all transportation policies within the city at least equal to that of the city itself. But the city itself never was given an opportunity to learn the battle’s significance, or to watch it unfold. All during 1942, 1943, and 1944, while Moses and Singstad were maneuvering with RFC officials or La Guardia, while Moses was smearing Singstad and the Tunnel Authority was clearing him, not a single story on the maneuvering appeared in any newspaper.
Leading out the Regiment
The phrase also empowered Moses to negotiate with federal and state officials, learn their position and present that position - or his representation of that position - to city officials, to be, in other words, the sole broker between the city and the governments on which the city was relying for desperately needed funds. Moses’ representations were not always strictly accurate.
The roads that the Bureau approved, roads that would play so large a role in determining the city's destiny, therefore, were Moses’ roads; the city officials supposedly responsible for the city’s destiny had only two alternatives: to accept the roads offered to them or to turn them down - along with the tens of millions of dollars involved. It was a position ideal for the whipsaw - and Moses used that technique unmercifully.
Housing, Moses took over by indirection. Faced, as soon as he took office, with an immediate need for competent housing administrators, the harried new Mayor found Moses ready with recommendations. Before the Mayor realized what he was doing, he had filled three of the five places on the City Housing Authority board - and many top Authority staff positions - with men loyal not to him but to his Construction Coordinator. Despite his lack of the slightest formal connection with the Housing Authority, Moses controlled it absolutely for a decade.
In 1948, Moses had a visit from a Yale classmate who wanted to discuss details of a new type of federal slum clearance program… it was United States Senator Robert A. Taft. Months before Congress approved the Federal Housing act of 1949 - months before the public had even heard the phrase “urban renewal” - Moses had persuaded O’Dwyer to appoint a Mayor’s Slum Clearance Committee (Robert Moses, chairman). Through that committee he controlled urban renewal in New York - by far the largest program in any city in America - for a decade, controlled it absolutely.
He had taken measures to minimize the threat to his purposes posed by key officials who were not Moses Men: some of these officials would have been astonished to learn - most of them never did - that their secretaries were on Moses’ payroll as well as the state’s.
In an arrangement at least tacitly approved by three Governors - an arrangement lasting for at least seventeen years after the war - “Moses had the say,” McMorran says, “over who got the contracts on all New York City [area] jobs.” And not just on contracts. Moses had the say - absolute authority - to divide not only who should design and build all highways in the metropolitan area, but which highways would be built, when they would be built and where they would be built. The state had in effect turned over to him - intact and complete - all its authority over the construction of arterial highways in and around New York City.
Al Smith, as always, phrased it best. Strolling through a law school library one day, the Governor noticed a student poring intently over his books. “there, “ he said with a smile, “is a young man studying how to take a bribe and call it a fee.” By the Twenties, most honest graft was being worked through “fees,” mostly through legal fees (more politicians belong to the legal than any other profession), but also through the real estate brokers’ fees called “commissions.” the insurance brokers’ fees called “premiums” and the public relations fees called “retainers.”
He had the money partly because his control of the City Housing Authority gave him control over close to a billion and a quarter dollars in federal and state funds dispensed through that agency, partly because his control of the State Department of Public Works gave him control over another billion and a quarter dollars in federal and state funds dispensed through that agency, and partly because his control of the Mayor’s Slum Clearance Committee gave him control of a billion dollars more dispensed through that agency… but mainly he had the money to pay it because of his control of an agency that was largely beyond the control of any government, federal, state, or city: the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority.
The income he received from bond sales, combined with other Authority income, meant that Robert Moses had available to spend on public works within New York City during the first fifteen years after World War II, more than three quarters of a billion dollars additional… but a greater part of the significance of Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority revenue - vast in itself - was the secrecy in which its spending could be cloaked… therefore it was safer to take money from Moses than from the city. A politician or public official could accept a legal fee or an insurance premium from Triborough with assurance that no reporter or reformer would ever be able to discover that he had done so… any Comptroller seeking to pry open Triborough’s books would be asking for the money to do so from the very men whose names were in those books.
No one could disprove Moses’ reputation without first opening Triborough’s books, and no one could open Triborough’s books without first disproving Moses’ reputation.
Costikyan, upon descending from his unique vantage point [Tammany Hall chair], was to report: “The magnet which attracts corrupters… the natural locus of corruption is always where the discretionary power resides.”
“Free from political considerations”? Political considerations were in fact the basis - often the only basis - on which Moses spooned out his millions. With the power to distribute those millions according to any criteria he chose, during the entire postwar era he chose mainly a single criterion: how much influence an individual had, and how willing that individual was to use that influence on his behalf.
In 1954, almost twenty years after some of these policies had been written, Spargo could say, “To my knowledge the Authority has spent millions of dollars on premiums and has never filed or collected a claim.”
Anyone wondering why Moses’ fellow Triborough Authority commissioners proved so complaisant might perhaps find a clue to part of the answer by looking at Triborough’s insurance premiums. The family of Charles G. Meyer, Triborough commissioner from 1945 to 1950, was the largest stockholder in the Home Insurance Company, a major recipient of premiums from the Moses empire. George V. McLaughlin, Triborough commissioner from 1934 to 1965, was a director and major stockholder of the Equitable Life Assurance Society, another major recipient.
Moses’ fees did not come free… the price was not demanded outright… he did not ask them directly for support of any kind. Asking would have placed both him and them in violation of the law and of various codes of ethics. And he neither performed himself - nor asked anyone else to perform - any illegal act… Moreover, no evidence has been found of specific fees being given for specific favors. Moses did not operate by demanding direct quid pro quo’s. Rather, it was a case of being on his team or not being on his team.
In terms of money, the terms in which corruption is usually measured, Robert Moses was not himself corrupt. He was, in fact, as uninterested in obtaining payoffs for himself as any public servant who ever lived. In the politicians’ phrase, he was “money honest.” But in terms of power, Robert Moses was corrupt. Coveting it, he used money to get it. And because he had so much money and so much freedom in spending it, within the city he became the locus of corruption: money corruption.
If little publicity attended Shanahan’s rise in banking, less attended his rise in politics. For years, there was scarcely a mention of his name in the political stories in New York newspapers; there is no mention at all in the supposedly definitive history of Tammany Hall. But Shanahan was, for more than a decade, Tammany’s money man, the individual who, more than any other, greased the wheels of the machine. He was the hub of political payoffs and influence peddling in New York, the center of all those elements in the city’s government that lay hidden and festering beneath its facade. And for most of that time, he was Robert Moses’ closest associate in that government.
Moses put his vast reserves of money and power at Shanahan’s disposal; Shanahan put his vast reserves of influence at Moses’. The banker was interested in who got Housing Authority and urban renewal contracts; unconcerned with the aims and principles of government, he wasn’t interested in where Housing Authority and urban renewal projects were located, why they were located there or how they were built: the factors that Moses was interested in. The banker ran the Housing Authority for Moses.
“There’s only one way to hold a district.” explained George Washington Plunkitt, who held his for thirty years. “You must study human nature and act accordin’.”... Using the vast wealth of his public authorities, [Moses] made himself the ward boss of the highest precincts, bankroller of the inner circle, dancing master of the Four Hundred of politics. And he held his district for thirty years.
No one could dwell long in the inner circles of New York politics without knowing about Moses’ files, the dossiers he had compiled on the men with whom he had to deal… Politicians who had accepted favors from Moses knew that the documentation of those favors was in his dossiers - and they knew that Moses would use that documentation to destroy them if they ever refused to go along with his wishes. They had accepted a favor from him perhaps once; he had a hold over them forever.
As Lazarus puts it, “He didn't want anyone who had been on the inside with him to talk about the way he operated. This way, he was buying their silence to the grave.”
The acceptance of these - and other - favors puts politicians in the banks’ debt. Banks are very good at collecting debts. They collect them with interest. And they collect politicians’ debts with interest: the public interest. Decade after decade, what banks wanted from Albany or City Hall, banks got.
Revenue bonds - the key to his authorities’ existence and power - were the key to the alliance. Banks needed authority bonds. Forbidden by federal law from putting the money deposited with them by the public into any but the very safest instruments… and with a drastically insufficient supply of “good, high-grade paper” into which to put it… The demand for Triborough’s bonds was far greater than the supply.
Moses wanted banks to be so anxious to purchase Triborough bonds that they would use all of their immense power to force elected officials to give his public works proposals the approval that would result in their issuance.
The Municipal Forum of New York is a group of extremely conservative municipal finance and bond analysts who generally accord guests no more than perfunctory applause. Whenever Robert moses appeared before the Forum, its members, those hard-eyed men of finance, stood as one for an ovation.
Moses’ generosity to the banks had to be paid for out of the pockets of motorists, of course… Moses wasn’t concerned with the cost to the public. His concern was to enlist in his cause the banks who could use their power to push behind-the-scenes political leaders… into approving a public work that they might otherwise not have approved. Open bidding would have defeated this purpose. Banks would not push hard for a public work if they knew that after it was approved they would have to bid against other banks for its bonds - and might not get them at all. Banks would only push hard if they knew before the work was approved that they would profit from it.
William O’Dwyer, who tried to buck its power once, found out just how much it had, and later commented bitterly: “There’s a dictator in New York City, and I’ll tell you who it is. It’s the Chase Manhattan Bank.”... During the postwar quarter century, the Chase Manhattan Bank was very probably the single most powerful financial institution on the face of the earth. And the Chase Manhattan Bank was selected by Moses as the trustee of Triborough’s bonds and hence was the single largest recipient of the lucrative service fees connected with them.
Chase’s assets in 1974 were thirty billion dollars… And now this power - the power of the greatest pool of liquid capital in the civilized world - was at the service of Robert Moses. He had a friend at Chase Manhattan, and the friend was its president; “No one will ever be able to thank you adequately for the contributions you have made to the city,” David Rockefeller wrote him. He had a friend at virtually every major financial institution in New York. Says one observer of the New York political scene: “Whenever Moses made a proposal - and I mean over a period of years and years and years - you could invariably be sure that behind the scenes, the banks would be pushing for that proposal. Pushing hard.”
Benefit. On a Moses job, it wasn’t just fringe. There was little or no double- and triple-pay overtime to be made on city-, state-, or federal-financed projects, but Moses not only liked overtime as an institution, since to this driven man the paying of overtime mean that his projects were being built faster, but, wanting all the political help the unions could give, he wanted to maximize their eagerness for his proposals to be approved. With plenty of money to spend and no necessity to account for how he spent it, he loaded his workers down with overtime. The power of Van Arsdale and Brennan and the construction unions was therefore at his command.
Asked the secret of Moses’ success, Lehman and Wagner adviser Julius Caius Caesar Edelstein replied: “My own theory? He was single-minded in his purpose, undeviating, merciless to those who opposed him - and he bought off everyone who might trip him up. He believed in buying, acquiring, by paying the most…” “Moses happened to be in the philosophy of replacing graft,” says machine insider Charles Rodriguez. So little understood was Moses’ importance to Tammany Hall that a 364-page history of the organization published in 1967 mentioned his name only twice, and then only in passing. But he had centralized in his person and his projects most of the sources of money on which Tammany depended on for its very existence. Personally “money honest,” he was interested rather in power and accomplishment. But power and accomplishment meant Getting Things Done - and Getting Things Done in New York meant playing ball, paying the price, the money price. He played - and he paid. He gave the machine - the greedy, voracious machine - everything it wanted.
His alliance with the Archdiocese of New York, which spoke so effectively for and to the Irish-Catholic voters who were, for decades, Tammany’s most steadfast supporters, was ideologically snug, natural, even had he not come to power through Al Smith… The relationship between Church, Irish-Catholic contractors and the Irish-Catholic building trades unions had traditionally been close and directed toward pressuring the city for more public works, which provided simultaneously jobs for Catholic parishioners and, through the contractors’ religious contributions, funds for Catholic parishes and charities. Moreover, the Archdiocese, perhaps the largest owner of real estate in the city, constantly needed favors from its government. Moses saw that it got these favors. Moses, in his rebuilding of the city, was continually needing its cooperation. The Archdiocese gave it to him. Sometimes he and the Church swapped pieces of land as casually as if they were playing Monopoly.
[Re. shady dealing with Macy’s dept store] To his astonishment, Barnes realized that Moses was planning to use powers and funds of a public authority ostensibly set up to aid transportation to condemn a score of buildings, evict the tenants, and turn it over, complete with Authority-financed parking facilities right in the store, to a private business.
When an official - commissioner, borough president, mayor - attempted to stand in the way of a major Moses public works proposal, the calls would pour in by the dozen… “It got so all Moses had to do was push that button,” says one official. “Each of these groups - bankers, union people, whatever - all had their own interests at heart, but Moses succeeded in combining all these interests behind his own aims. He gave everybody involved in the political setup in this city whatever it was that they wanted. Therefore they all had their own interest in seeing him succeed. The pressure that interest all added up to was a pressure that no one in the system could stand against, because it came from the system itself.”
As Fred J. Cook points out: The machine might be totally corrupt, but it had its fingers on the pulse of the block and ward and, when the pulse beat stepped up to an angry tempo, it heeded the warning - or ignored it at its peril.
What Moses was doing, of course, was creating a new system - one that revolved around him, that substituted his public works for the traditional means by which political machines existed and grew fat. Whether the politicians with whom he was dealing understood this or not is doubtful. “But,” Rodriguez says, “they knew it was an advantage.” They may have simply seen it as a “package.” But they knew it was an attractive package.
There was, of course, a price on the package: if you wanted it, you had to take it as is. You couldn’t ask for alterations… He would allow no analysis of community feelings, of planning considerations - no discussion of alternate routes based on such considerations.
What happened when a borough president sought to raise such considerations is described by an official who spent many years working for one who occasionally did. “All Moses had to do was push a button and the phone calls and telegrams would pour in: You were holding up work, you were holding up progress. ‘We need jobs - do you have any other jobs to offer us? Have you got a better idea for solving the transportation problem? Where is the money gonna come from? You’re holding up progress.’ Let me tell you - until you’ve sat on the other end of those phone calls for a while, you have no idea how hard it is to stand in the way of ‘progress.’”
On paper… the Board of Estimate possessed many powers over public authorities. But in reality a single power - the power of money - could render all those powers meaningless. And thanks to his public authorities, Robert Moses had the money. A borough president, searching desperately for a means of obtaining large-scale public works for his borough, could find only one way: to cooperate with Moses. He had no choice in the matter. Supposedly the servant of these elected representatives of the sovereign people of the city, Robert Moses was in reality their master.
But Robert Moses was not responsible to the public. Its votes had not put him in office, and its votes could not remove him from office. He despised its opinion. The considerations that he took into account were the considerations that mattered to him personally: the project, in and for itself; the engineering considerations that would Get It Done the fastest and cheapest way; and the considerations - economic considerations, whether the economics of honest graft, or of bonds, or of paychecks to union men - that mattered to the forces he was using to impose his will on the city. By giving the leaders of these economic forces - the bankers, the union leaders, the politicians - what they wanted, he did not have to give the people what they wanted. The old system, imperfect as it was, was responsive to the public. The new system - Moses’ system - was not. Robert Moses, who replaced corruption in New York City, was worse than corruption for the democratic processes.
During Moses’ reign over public works in New York - a thirty-four-year reign that not only was significantly long in a city that had, after all, existed as a consolidated entity in its present governmental form only since 1898, but also occurred at the most crucial point of time in the city’s history, the decades during which its vast open spaces were filling up and being shaped on a significant scale - it was not the shouts of the people but the whispers of banks, labor unions, insurance companies, big construction combines, big business and, of course, the Retainer Regiment that determined what public works would be built in New York.
During most of his reign… the city’s people had no real voice at all in determining the city’s future. He and he alone… decided what public works would be built, when they would be built and to what design they would be built. He was the supreme power broker.
Moses and the Mayors
Isaacs and other liberals were also distressed by Moses’ airport-financing scheme. Noting that, to offset the lack of other revenues, Moses had suggested that the proposed Airport Authority be allowed to pay interest rates almost 50 percent higher than the Port Authority - or the city - would have to pay, they assailed his scheme as a “giveaway” to bankers. And they knew whose money it was that was being given away: the city’s people’s.
**O’Dwyer himself never went to Albany… The city’s mayor transacted the city's business entirely through a broker: Robert Moses. **
[Re. asking Rockefellers for gift to build United Nations in NYC] But O’Dwyer had no entree to the Rockefeller from whom at that time, a gift of the necessary dimensions would have to come - John D. Rockefeller, Jr., John D. Rockefeller who had spent long days riding over the route of the Palisades Interstate Parkway with Robert Moses, John D. Rockefeller who had worked closely with Robert Moses in the construction of the Cloisters and children’s playgrounds in Fort Tryon Park, John D. Rockefeller who had, with Moses’ cooperation, worked out a land exchange with the city to help along the building of additions to Rockefeller Institute, John D. Rockefeller whose admiration for Robert Moses was well known.
[Re. UN in NYC] A key factor in the acceptance had been O’Dwyer’s promise of housing, and, thanks to Moses, O’Dwyer was able to keep that promise.
[Re. UN in NYC] Letters from key figures in the negotiations revealed deep appreciation of the role Moses had played - and of the personal qualities that had made him perhaps uniquely qualified to play it.
Title I of the Housing Act of 1949 extended the power of eminent domain… so drastically that governments could now condemn land and turn it over to individuals - for them to build on it projects agreeable to government…. Here was power new in the annals of democracy. And in New York, that power would be exercised by Robert Moses.
Within weeks of Impellitteri’s inauguration, Lazarus was noting in his diary that “Robert Moses is actually running this town today. There’s no important act Impellitteri takes or does that he doesn’t consult Mr. Moses.”
During the Impellitteri administration, $498,000,000 was poured into the city for highway and housing construction by the state and federal governments. Every cent of this money was spent under Moses’ command.
The public never knew the extent of Moses’ influence. One can search through the daily issues of the city’s nine remaining daily newspapers - issues crammed, day after day, with “inside dope” on City Hall - without finding a single accurate analysis of that influence.
And Moses’ forty months of absolute power enabled him to shape the city for far longer than forty months… protected in general by civil service, the appointees would remain in their key, sensitive posts as new mayors sat in City Hall, knowing that mayors come and go, but that Moses remained - and that, therefore, in conflicts between Moses and a mayor, it was in their interest to give their loyalty to the former.
The result of Moses’ policies was, for Impellitteri, defeat. The result of Moses’ policies was, for Moses, more power.
… his painful realization that Moses’ near-monopoly on the engineering and architectural talent experienced in tenant relocation, slum clearing and construction on the immense scale required made it difficult to find qualified replacements…. (Analyzing in later years the sources of Moses’ power, Moscow would say that one “stemmed simply from the fact that his enterprises developed people.”)
The passion that fired that man - who in 1948 celebrated his sixtieth birthday - was the passion that had fired that man at thirty: the passion for tangible, physical accomplishment, and for the power which that accomplishment produced. And if age had not slaked his appetite for power and achievement, neither had it slaked his appetite for the means to power and achievement: work. No strictly rational explanation could account for the voraciousness of that appetite In his early days of power, he had sloughed off all hobbies and relaxations save simming. Now, twenty-five years later, he still had no other hobbies or relaxations.
It had “always been his ambition to write cheap pulp stuff,” Moses Man Arnold Vollmer recalls; in the mid-1950’s, short on cash as usual, he announced to aides that he was going to write “a trashy piece of pulp” that he was sure would sell. Ironically, when he finished it - a reportedly sex-filled novel titled From Palms to Pines - and sent it to various publishing houses under a pseudonym, not one would publish it. He had, however, managed to write a full-length novel while simultaneously holding down eight full-time executive jobs.
Says reporter Joe Kahn: “He used to crack jokes; he had a great pride in his sense of humor, and these guys would watch him, waiting for their cue, and laugh. It was a regular Greek chorus, like a choral group - they nodded when he wanted them to nod, they laughed when he wanted them to laugh. Watching them, you got disgusted with your fellow man.”
[Re. Jones Beach Marine Theater] Endless rows of empty seats glared blankly down - on a vast, expensive production and a small select audience. The crowds of actors, sometime seemingly outnumbering the audience, seemed to be performing almost exclusively for the guests of the man on whose stage they were performing.
Moses’ Yale class came up every year for twenty years, in a fleet of limousines leaving from the Yale Club in the morning… at Yale, he had been an outsider. Now, says Clark, “the class revolved around him.”
For the large public works… the celebrations were on a scale seldom witnessed in a democracy. The invited guests numbered not in the hundreds but in the thousands…
Hospitality has always been a potent political weapon. Moses used it like a master. Coupled with his overpowering personality, a buffet often did as much for a proposal as a bribe.
It was more difficult still to disagree when most if not all of the other guests agreed: there was a strategy as well as ego in Moses’ stacking his luncheons with a claque of yesing assistance; he may have felt that their presence heightened his stature but he also knew that their presence created an atmosphere in which the dissenter felt acutely that he was representing a distinctly minority view.
He would present a problem and his proposed solution to it, and then call on various of his engineers to present facts and figures supporting his arguments. Then he would say, with an easy, charming smile, “Well, since we’re all agreed about this…,” and move on to the next item. “Well, maybe everyone there didn’t agree,” Orton says. “But in that setting, who could get up and start arguing? This was an exercise of power by assumption or inference. And it was damned effective.”
The working lifespan of the elemental force that was Robert Moses defied comparison with the working lifespan of other men… Other men hold real power - shaping power, executive authority - for four years, or eight, or twelve. Robert Moses held shaping power over the New York metropolitan region for forty-four years.
Other great builders left their mark on physical New York. But the achievement of even the greatest - a Zeckendorf or a Helmsley or a Winston or a Lefrak, the Rockefellers of Rockefeller Center - is dwarfed by the achievement of Robert Moses… To compare the works of Robert Moses to the works of man, one has to compare them not to the works of individual men but to the combined total work of an era… He was, for the greatest city in the Western world, the city shaper, the only city shaper… In the shaping of New York, Robert Moses was comparable only to some elemental force of nature.
As he was above rules, he was above the law. He had always felt himself above it, ignored its spirit whenever possible, but now there was a new depth to this feeling, a new intensity to this particular manifestation of arrogance.
Did detractors liken him to Hitler? He had another comparison in mind. Sometime around 1949, visitors first noticed in his office a bust of Abraham Lincoln, and talks with his aides soon made it apparent why he had selected it. “To me,” Sid Shapiro would say at every opportunity, “Mr. Moses is a lot like Abraham Lincoln - a philosopher and a doer.”
Robert Moses had never, since he had first come to power, allowed himself any time for reflection, for thought… attempting an overview of Moses’ career, it is difficult not to ascribe some of the credit for the stroke of genius that led him to see the potential for parks in the New York City watershed properties to the fact that the railroad not only carried him past those properties but trapped him on it for two hours and more a day so that he had to think about them… In the years since… he undertook… so much work that quiet, reflective thought was a luxury in which he could quite literally indulge almost never.
The Meat Ax
These were roads like no other roads in history, for these were roads through a city… the 1,500 Royal Road of Persia… the three “silk roads,” the longest roads ever built… the post roads with which Genghis Khan tied together the vast Mongol empire; the twenty-nine military highways of Rome… were roads through open country. Their builders may have had to contend with mountains and marshes, with the snow of the Alps and the heat of deserts, but they did not have to evict from their homes tens of thousands of protesting voters, demolish those homes, tunnel under or cut across subways and elevated railroads, sewers and water mains and gas mains and telephone and electric conduits and cables, all of which, providing a city with essential services, had to be kept in operation during construction.
[Re. the Cross-Bronx Expressway] In the face of such difficulties, moving a river five hundred feet, a job required where the expressway crossed the Bronx River, was a feat so insignificant that in the speeches Clark made… he hardly bothered to mention it.
None of Moses’ previous feats of urban construction - immense though they had been - compared with the roads he was planning now; as is demonstrated by the cost. Highways had always cost millions of dollars. In the whole world, only a handful had cost as much as $10,000,000. These new highways would cost $10,000,000 per mile. One mile, the most expensive mile of road ever built, cost $40,000,000…. The total cost of the roads Robert built within the borders of New York City after World War II was over two billion dollars.
No suspension bridge anywhere in the world would be as long (or expensive) as the Verrazano-Narrows bridge; it would be the longest such bridge ever built, its towers so far apart that in designing them allowance had to be made for the curvature of the earth: their tops are one and five eighths inches further apart than their bases.
It is no coincidence that, as Raymond Moley puts it, “from the pyramids of Egypt, the rebuilding of Rome after Nero’s fire, to the creation of the great medieval cathedrals… all great public works have been somehow associated with autocratic power.” It was no accident that most of the world’s great roads - ancient and modern alike - had been associated with totalitarian regimes, that it took a great Khan to build the great roads of Asia, a Darius to build the Royal Road across Asia Minor, a Hitler and a Mussolini to build the Autobahnen and the autostrade of Europe, that during the four hundred years in which Rome was a republic it built relatively few major roads, its broad highways beginning to march across the known earth only after the decrees calling for their construction began to be sent forth from the Capitol by a Caesar rather than a Senate.
Democracy had not solved the problem of building large-scale urban public works, so Moses solved it by ignoring democracy.
Once, in a speech, he said: “You can draw any kind of picture you like on a clean slate and indulge your every whim in the wilderness in laying out a New Delhi, Canberra, or Brasilia, but when you operate in an overbuilt metropolis, you have to hack your way with a meat ax.” The metaphor, like most Moses metaphors, was vivid. But it was incomplete. It expressed his philosophy, but it was not philosophy but feelings that dictated Moses’ actions. He didn’t just feel that he had to swing a meat ax. He loved to swing it.
[Re. terrible NYC traffic] The only remedy that could check that vicious spiral was the coordination of new highways with new mass transit facilities - and not only was New York’s Coordinator [Moses] not planning any such facilities himself; his monopolization of construction funds and his hold over the city’s government were making it impossible for anyone else to plan them either.
By building transportation facilities for the suburbs, he was insuring that no transportation facilities would be built for the ghettos. Therefore, planners saw, in the transportation field, the portion of the public helped by the use of public resources would not be the portion of the public that needed help most.
Point of No Return
By 1952, with 120,000,000 vehicles per year using Triborough’s facilities, the Authority's annual revenues stood at $28,300,000 - an increase of 453% over prewar levels… after paying all bills and interest, the Authority's surplus for 1953 alone was $21,000,000.
The two authorities had it in their power in 1955 to make it possible for the people of the New York metropolitan region to travel around that region quickly, cheaply and pleasantly… Instead, as a result of Robert Moses’ Joint Program… spent their money on facilities for the automobile.
When Robert Moses came to power in New York in 1934, the city’s mass transportation system was probably the best in the world. When he left power in 1968, it was quite possibly the worst.
There comes a time, H.L. Mencken said, when every normal man is tempted “to spit on his hands, haul up the black flag and begin slitting throats.”
The transportation network built by Robert Moses after World War II ranks with the greatest feats of urban construction in recorded history… Possibly it is history’s greatest feat of urban construction. The longest tunnel in the Western Hemisphere, the longest suspension bridge in the world, the largest and most complex traffic interchanges ever built - these were all merely segments of that achievement… No city in America had more than half as many miles of such highways as New York. But nothing about his roads was as awesome as the congestion on them.
“I sat there looking at that goddamned drawing - I’ll never forget it.” Koppelman says. “And I realized that the old son of a gun had made sure that buses would never be able to use his goddamned parkways.” [low bridges]
Rumors and Report of Rumors
But the public was not educated or aroused, because the only medium through which it could be educated or aroused - its press - was not interested. The liberals wanted the press to get the facts behind Title I, but the press made no move to get them.
Of the city’s daily newspapers, only the Post devoted any substantial space to the relocation facts so laboriously uncovered…. The ammunition had been stacked up, ready for is use, by others. But the press did not use it. The fate of poor people had never been news in New York City; it still was not news.
Tavern in the Town
Thirty years before, Robert Moses had leapt onto the front pages in a single bound - in stories that portrayed him as a fighter for parks, as a faithful, selfless public servant, a servant whose only interest lay in serving, as a hero. This portrait, painted in an instant, had survived for thirty years and had hardened into an image that had withstood, without so much as a crack, a dozen explosions that would have shattered the image of the ordinary public figure. Now, in a single day, over a single dispute - a dispute over a hollow in the ground and a few trees - that image had been cracked… But for the first time he had been portrayed to the public at large not as a defender but as a destroyer of parks and as an official interested not in serving the people but in imposing his wishes upon them. The image would ever be whole again. Tuesday, April 24, 1956, the day that Robert Moses sent his troops into Central Park, was Robert Moses’ Black Tuesday. For on it, he lost his most cherished asset: his reputation.
The arrangement with Schleiffer was a typical Moses arrangement… He favored it… because by giving the concessionaires huge profits he was in a position to ask them to throw huge parties, the lavish dinners and receptions that were an integral part of his way of power.
Investigative reporters quickly become aware of a phenomenon of their profession: information so hard to come by when they are preparing to write their first story in a new field suddenly becomes plentiful as soon as that first story has appeared in print. Every city agency has its malcontents and its idealists and its malcontent-idealists… who have been just waiting, for years, for the appearance of some forum in which their feelings can be expressed.
Gleason and Cook decided that the only way to keep it going was to share their hard-dug material - to give it to a competitor.
And just in case their interest might slacken, Haddad and Gleason, while ostensibly - for the benefit of their bosses - fiercely competing for new exclusives, were actually dividing them up, one and one.
Mustache and the Bard
None of the political commandments ingrained in Robert Moses by his Gamaliel had been ingrained more deeply than the rule stating that an executive gives subordinates absolute loyalty and support, and Moses’ belief in this particular commandment was reinforced by the iron bands of his personality.
Although rehearsals began immediately, there was time remaining for only one production instead of three, but that production, Julius Caesar, was hailed as a triumph, with theater critics taking care to remind their readers whom it was a triumph over. [Hilarious that Papp decided to put on a production about a dictator after defeating Moses.]
Whatever the reason it ended the way it did, his fight with Robert Moses was one of the best things that ever happened to Joe Papp… “It was the greatest publicity the Festival could have had” [Shakespeare in the park]
Occurring at a time when Moses’ reputation was trembling in the balance, it helped tip that balance against him, not only be again demonstrating his contempt for the public but by demonstrating… his dominance over the Mayor… his exemption from the normal democratic process.
Off to the Fair
[Re. Triborough records] The moment when the two reporters flipped open the first one was historic; Robert Moses had been in public office for thirty-five years, and this was the first time that any reporter had gotten a look at his files.
“That was the one that did it,” Kahn says. “Pokrass was the guy that crumbled him. When organized crime got into the picture, that blew the lid off.” Frank Costello was a name that, to the average newspaper reader, threw off reverberations as powerful in one context as Robert Moses did in another.
Following the trail left by those overlooked documents in Moses’ files, the hard-riding reporters had come at last upon the secret that would destroy the heart of the Moses legend: the fact that this man who supposedly scorned politicians had allowed the top echelon of New York’s politicians to reap fortunes from his Title I program.
Of all the factors that had kept Moses’ popularity intact for thirty-five years, none was more important than the support of the newspaper [the New York Times] whose principal stockholder felt “there has never been as great a public servant.” During the first months of 1959, despite all the Title I exposes by other papers, he had continued to enjoy that support.
But fighting the press is a battle that no public official can win, for the battleground is not just of the press’s choosing - it is the press.
[Re. Wagner reappointing Moses] Had the press access to records more revealing than those of the Slum Clearance Committee - Triborough’s records - they might have understood this; it would have been difficult not to had they known that the whole Democratic machine, the leaders of all five county organizations, on which Wagner depended, were on Moses’ payroll…
Seventy-one years old, Robert Moses, the Robert Moses whom the press persisted in describing as “independently wealthy,” was, so far as cash was concerned, all but penniless. Accepting the World’s Fair presidency would change that.
“New money buys things; old money calls notes.” In politics in the Empire State, the Rockefellers held enough notes to achieve any aim; their power was as close to an absolute as had ever existed in New York.
[Nelson Rockefeller] was, in fact, a builder on Moses’ scale. His arrogance was also on the Moses scale… He was a threat to Robert Moses far more dangerous than any that had previously existed in Albany… Rockefeller would, moreover, be an opponent - the only opponent Moses had met, since he conceived and gained the powers of the public authority - on whom there was no handhold.
This time, however, the ultimate weapon misfired. After thirty years of issuing that defiant challenge, he had issued it to a man who would take him up on it. On the day after he received Robert Moses’ resignation, Nelson Rockefeller accepted it… “This is a decision which I accept with regret.”
And not only had he lost control of his first great dream, he had lost a huge hunk of his power. His power had been derived partly from popularity and mostly from money - money that he had sole discretion to spend… But the money came from his network of four public authorities. Now, at a stroke, three of them were gone.
For decades, Governors had dreaded what would happen if they had to be the one to fire Bob Moses. Now one Governor had fired Bob Moses. And nothing had happened.
The Great Fair
Rereading Isaiah, he came across “Give unto them beauty for ashes” - after that, his dream had a slogan. He would turn what may well have been the ugliest part of New York City into its most beautiful.
He was moving into a new field, one in which he possessed no expertise - and he was allowing himself no time to acquire any. Nor would he hire himself any.
In a dozen such incidents, Moses created controversy where none was necessary, handing reporters fuel, fuel he had made them anxious to use.
The only one of Moses’ aids with enough guts (and money - to tell the Boss the unpleasant truths was George Spargo, then chairman of the Fair’s finance committee. Spargo had been working for Moses for thirty years and was closer to Moses than any other aide… Spargo was Moses’ favorite. When Spargo told Moses the truth about the Fair’s finances, Moses fired him on the spot.
The methods he had employed in building and running the World’s Fair were not new. He had been using them for forty years. The only thing different was that this time the world had seen them.
The Last Stand
Once he had had so much… More important than the size of the pie had been the fact that it was divided into so many pieces… A Governor contemplating removing him from those under his control would have to reckon with the fact that, because Moses’ authority chairmanships had staggered six-year terms, he could do even that only over a period of years. And he had to reckon with the fact that, not only during those years but thereafter, Moses would still be holding many powerful city posts, that “you'd have to fight him on so many different fronts.” Moses had been able to prop up each post with others, to use each as leverage to make the others more powerful than they would otherwise have been.
The contracts had appointed a bondholders’ trustee. And the trustee was the Chase Manhattan Bank, and the Chase Manhattan was the only large bank in the United States still controlled by a single family. The Governor’s.
By the time Moses finished figuring, Duryea says, “he had some numbers that were devastating.” The implications were enormous. “If he had ever gone screaming to the public…,” Duryea says. Moses not only possessed devastating numbers; he could devastate with them… he could well wreck Rockefellers grand conception. [Re. Rockefeller’s $2 billion bond issue for transportation]
Of the circumstance surrounding the final removal of Robert Moses from power, the key one - the resolution of the suit against the merger that, if successful, could have kept him in power - remains shrouded in mystery. Two things are clear. One: that, in the opinion of almost every legal expert… if the suit had been prosecuted vigorously, it would have been successful - the merger would have been voided… Two: that the suit was not prosecuted vigorously. Why the suit was not prosecuted vigorously is not known.
Following passage of the referendum, the suit was resumed, but all through December and January, intensive negotiations were being carried out between representatives of Governor Nelson Rockefeller and those of his brother David, Chase Manhattan’s president and absolute boss. And the suit was finally settled not in court, open or closed, but in the Governor’s Fifty-fifth Street townhouse, shortly after 9 A.M., February 9, 1968, at a fifty-minute meeting attended by the two brothers, each attended by one aide, Dewey for David and Ronan for Nelson. At this meeting, a three-page stipulation previously drawn up by attorneys for both sides was signed by Nelson Rockefeller on behalf of the State of New York and David Rockefeller on behalf of the Chase Manhattan Bank. Following the meeting, the stipulation was taken to the chambers of the judge who would have been sitting on the case had there been a case - State Supreme Court Justice William C. Hecht, Jr. - and sealed, not to be seen by any outsider or newspaperman. Under the stipulation, the Governor’s family’s bank dropped all opposition to the Governor’s transportation merger, the merger under which the Triborough board - Robert Moses, chairman - was supplanted by the MTA board - Dr. William J. Ronan, chairman. The point that Moses always believed would keep him in power, therefore, was not contested - even by Moses.
What was necessary to remove Moses from power was a unique, singular concatenation of circumstances: that the Governor of New York be the one man uniquely beyond the reach of normal political influences, and that the trustee for Triborough’s bonds be a bank run by the Governor’s brother.
And now, having used his name, having gotten everything out of him that he could, the Governor threw him away.