Nobody knew where this power was coming from

Monday, January 29th, 2018

I’ve been meaning to read The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York (or listen to the audiobook) for some time. That book was published in 1974. Since then, Robert Caro has been working on his five-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson. The 82-year-old Caro is working on the fifth volume now:

Between January and July of 1965, he’s passed the Voting Rights Act, Medicare, Medicaid, Head Start, twelve different education bills, a liberalized immigration law and much of the War on Poverty. What he’s done is a great drama of legislative genius, almost without precedent. The Voting Rights Act: I wonder if we’d have it today — and what we have is still significant, even after the 2014 Supreme Court decision to strike down Section 5 — if there hadn’t been a Lyndon Johnson to seize that moment.

And at the same time that he was passing this legislation, he was secretly planning to escalate the Vietnam War.

It’s fascinating. I don’t know if I can write it well enough. But it’s almost unbelievable. You can see these great ambitions, which Johnson is on the way to realizing, get swallowed up by Vietnam. You can follow it almost minute by minute.

I don’t know if “a great drama of legislative genius” is how I’d describe it, but I take his point. He doesn’t regard his books as biographies, by the way:

I’ve never had the slightest interest in writing a book to tell the life of a great man. I started The Power Broker because I realized that there was this man, Robert Moses, who had all this power and he had shaped New York for forty-four years. And nobody knew where this power was coming from, and neither did I. I regarded the book as a study of power in cities.

After I finished that, I wanted to do national power. I felt I could learn about how power worked on a national level by studying Lyndon Johnson. Rightly or wrongly, I regard all these books as studies in political power, not biography.


  1. Charles W Abbott says:

    Great book.

    It was assigned reading in a course called “Bureaucratic Politics” taught by Prof. Doug Madsen at Iowa. We had an edited volume of relatively turgid (yet demanding and important) scholarly papers, and in theory we were supposed to read that whole book. I don’t know if many of the students managed it.

    My favorite part (which I go back and read repeatedly) is how Al Smith got his start in the Tammany machine.

    It has various sociological insights. For example, Bob Moses’ mother was one of the society women who, as an educated and assimilated society woman of German-Jewish background, volunteered in a settlement house to help Americanize the Russian-Jewish immigrant hordes.

  2. I read it in high school having found it in a Goodwill next to a copy of Welch’s unintentionally hilarious The Politician.

    My favorite part was how Moses, “best bill drafter in Albany,” took advantage of the fact that few read the bills before passing them to insert specific clauses he used much later to build and consolidate his own power in office.

  3. Charles W. Abbott says:

    Apparently Al Smith eventually became a good legislator through endless hours of poring over legislation in endless detail. He had good social skills and was a fun person to be around, a bit of a prankster as Caro tells the story.

    The topic of what makes a good legislator reminds me of a quote attributed to Wilberforce. To paraphrase freely, …It is exceptionally rare for anyone to be highly effective in Parliament unless they are first elected to that body before they are thirty years old.

    Wilberforce’s point being that the craft of skilled government takes a life to learn, and unless you start young the odds are strongly stacked against you.

    Offhand that quote eludes me online. It is quoted in a book called The Politician, a how-to book at least a hundred years old, which exists as a slim paperback.

  4. Charles W. Abbott says:

    As I recall, one of Robert Moses’ many secret weapons was specializing in the intricacies of law regarding self-administering transportation authorities. In New York City’s case this became the Port Authority. The Port Authority built bridges, and bridges collected tolls, and tolls went to the Port Authority.

    He started from a “Parks Department” and ended controlling a self-financing transportation empire.

    It takes zeal or determination to read every page of that book, but many people would benefit from skimming it for the high points, to get the big picture.

    A punchline is that Moses was never elected to public office but shaped the New York metro area far more than most elected politicians during a career that lasted decades.

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