The Power Broker (Book Review)

The first thing everyone notices about Robert Caro's Pulitzer Prize winning book The Power Broker is its size. My edition came in at 1,162 pages (plus notes). It is a tome in the truest sense. The book is so large that it would often grow heavy in my hands, forcing me to frequently change my reading position. The word count varies depending on the source, but the audiobook is an astounding 66 hours and 8 minutes long. Caro is so known for his exhaustive detail that the adverb Caro-esque is applied to other authors who dive deeply into their subjects. Despite many dense books under my belt, this was an intimidating read to take on. I'm almost positive I've never read a book of this length. That said, with the Connecticut lockdown in place I had plenty of free time on my hands. So, I figured, now or never. 

The Power Broker covers the rise and fall of Robert Moses, one of the most influential government employees of the 20th century. I say government employee, rather than politician, because he was never elected. Instead, he rose from a modest position in the Long Island Parks Commission to become arguably the most powerful person in New York State, including the mayor of New York City and the governor. His rise to power occurred over 44 years, and at his peak, he held 12 different government positions. For decades he built dozens of parks, hundreds of playgrounds, and countless miles of highway in and around New York City. 

The root of his power during the second half of his career came from the Triborough Bridge Authority. Originally intended to finance one bridge, The authority became a gargantuan publically owned corporation, with its own yacht, police force, island, and most importantly, revenue stream. With access to hundreds of millions of dollars from the toll booths set up around the city, Robert Moses could control the infrastructure that the city built for decades. As Caro writes in the introduction, "Would New York have been a better place to live if Robert Moses had never built anything?... It is possible to say only it would have been a different city."

Although this book highlights many of Moses' achievements, it permanently damaged his reputation and legacy. Caro, through his unmatchable 522 interviews, seven with Robert Moses himself, revealed far more than a "master builder" who was incorruptible and only had the interests of the city at heart. Throughout The Power Broker, we get a full picture of a far more nuanced man. 

The two sides to Moses' character call to mind Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde. On one hand, Moses was a genius. Although many men can dream big, Moses was the rare person who can see beyond the dream and deal with the problems that will occur in reality. He had the ability to understand departmental politics and navigate government bureaucracy, the intelligence to solve deal-breaking obstacles and minor inconveniences. As even his most begrudging adversaries admit, he got it done.

Throughout the book, his colleagues are astounded by not only his ability to work 16 hour days, but also his ability to make others excel at their own work. As one former aide put it, Moses made everyone he worked with better. If Moses was the head of a project, there was a guarantee the results would be excellent. 

Contrast with that the dark side of Moses' personality. After he gained unchallengeable power as the head of the Triborough Bridge Authority, his orders were to go unquestioned. His first set of highly capable assistants moved on to other projects, and subservient yes-men were brought in to replace them. "Moses Men" flocked around him and supplicated to their master, terrified of displeasing him or letting him down. Yes, he built. But for who? He was not interested in helping those below him, only those that "deserved" his help. At a time when most Americans did not own a car, he spent literally billions of dollars building parkways around New York. He refused at all times to contribute anything to public transportation, and intentionally built bridges so low buses could not travel on his roads. Public pools and parks were mostly kept in white neighborhoods, and he looked disparagingly at minorities of every stripe. 

Caro's book does a magnificent job showing these two sides of Robert Moses. More than in any other book, I learned how government, and how power, operates. Reading about great politicians, I've always wondered how they got things done. Usually, a short paragraph will explain that a president or governor engaged in political horse-trading or "applied pressure" to those that disagreed. This is the first book that actually reveals what those tricks were; how politicians cajole, deceive, and at times lie their way to power. I learned more about the true nature of politics from this book than any other. 

Although a magnificent work, The Power Broker does have a few flaws. Caro, of course, goes into too much detail. Many times, I felt that while the details of a specific project were interesting, an explanation of a few paragraphs instead of a dozen pages would have sufficed. I also would have liked to know more about Moses' personal life, although based on what the author says this was one area that was often obscured by an uncooperative subject. 

My final recommendation is this. Pick up the book, and read the introduction. This 21-page summary could be a stand-alone article and is a great primer of Robert Moses. If after finishing this first chapter, you wish to put the book down, do so. But, if you want to know how Moses accomplished his goals, how he outmaneuvered great leaders like New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller, and even the Franklin Roosevelt; how he built a power base unlike any other in American history, turn to the next page. You won't regret it. 

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  • Well said.  Moses may have rivaled J Edgar Hoover as the most powerful American of the 20th century.

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