For my April goal, my task was to finish the book “The Power Broker”, by Robert Caro, a 1100+ page book about the life of Robert Moses, one of the most notable power brokers in history. Robert Moses, at the peak of his life, had a near infinite amount of money at his disposal and the dependence of some of the most prominent public officials in New York. Even his secretaries were paid more than the Mayors of the city he served. While never elected by the public to any of his positions, he still managed to dominate other politicians with his seemingly innocuous titles, such as “Park Commissioner” and “Triborough Bridge Authority”. Below, I list some key points that I learned while reading:
Power trumps idealism and Compromise is Key – At the beginning of his career, Robert Moses was an idealist who sought to never compromise his values. He was outspoken and always the first to criticize the corruption and bloat that took place within the State of New York’s government. This idealism however, did not land him far. When Tammany Hall politicians caught wind of his criticisms, they pulled the strings necessary to fire him from his job. Through this experience, Moses learned the value of power. By not compromising his ideals, none of his proposals became reality, and by not having the power to defend against Tammany Hall, he was a sitting duck to their retaliation.
Small sentences in laws have large consequences – Named “The Best Bill Drafter in Albany”, one of Moses best and early moves was the insertion of the phrase “right to appropriate real estate for the building of parks” in an early bill defining his rights as a Park Commissioner. The word appropriation was seldom used, but legally, it meant the right to seize land from private authorities using eminent domain. However, because none of the legislature knew exactly what this meant, and it seemed innocuous enough, the bill was passed. Taking advantage of this new right, Robert Moses started seizing land from private citizens in order to build parkways. Since he was legally allowed to do so, Moses essentially had the right to any property he wanted, provided he had the legal power to back it up, and it could justifiably be used to build a park.
Definition of power, and the dependencies of others – after reading the book, I have revised my own viewpoint of the word power. Power is the ability to get things done, and the dependency of other people due to your ability to get things done. Robert Moses had many people dependent upon him. Parks were a very huge talking point for the public. The public was extremely appreciative of Moses’ ability to build lush and luxurious parks. This made him near impervious to politicians who depended on voters to maintain office. Any politician who fired Moses would be committing career suicide, to Moses’ vast public appeal.
Moses also built the Triborough bridge, one of the most travelled bridges at the time. The bridge also had a toll of 10 cents, which added up to Moses’ Triborough Authority collecting millions of dollars. Because the Triborough bridge was a public works, and also insanely profitable, bankers were very keen on buying bonds from Moses. Moses had sole discretion in deciding where these bonds would go, and due to this influence, he could persuade bankers to use their financial influence on others.
Moses was also known as a master builder for his public works projects. Construction union leaders were dependent on these large scale projects in order to give their union base steady and dependable jobs. Because of this dependency, unions were dependent on Moses, allowing Moses to obtain a direct influence over the working class in New York City.
Moses had a large and interwoven network of people who needed him for their own self-interest. Because of these dependencies, he held a huge amount of sway over others. In the end, his downfall was catalyzed by Governor Nelson Rockefeller, who Moses held no power over due to Nelson’s own connections and access to money. One of the most important things in terms of keeping power, is to keep others dependent on you.
Have the ability to admit when you’re wrong – One of the greatest strength and weakness of Moses was that he was a stubborn individual. However, this same stubbornness that allowed him to rise to his position, was also his downfall. By the end of his career, he surrounded himself with people who would agree on his every word. When Moses was building highways to stem traffic congestion, a lower-level engineer realized that the highway would not be nearly enough to meet the demands of the people, and that rapid transit was a necessity in order for the congestion problem to be dealt with. However, Moses refused to admit his current plans were wrong, and this led to a congested highway, and an unhappy public. Moments like these in Moses’ life added up to a general disdain from the public, which set off a domino effect that led to his downfall.