Book review: The Power Broker

A photo of my Harley and I taken by my friend Katie.
I’ve been chipping away at this one for a while, but I finally finished The Power Broker by Robert A. Caro a few weeks ago and have no reservations about calling it one of the most enjoyable works of non-fiction I’ve ever read.

Caro is known for his deeply researched and extensively thorough character examinations of historic figures of power in American history, the other notable example being his four part volume on the life and works of the thirty-sixth President, Lyndon B Johnson.
The cover of The Power Broker.
The cover of The Power Broker.
The Power Broker, published in 1974, documents the life and accomplishments of Robert Moses, an individual most would be remiss to name outside of those living in New York State who might only know him by the name of the State Park or Parkway which bear his name.

At the time of the book’s publishing, New York City was in the midst of a decades long slide into a worsening state of urban decay, in large part due to the public works projects that had been organized and carried out by Moses and the organizations under his control.

Of the many positions he held over the course of his decades of public service, at the height of his power Moses was at various points in charge of the Long Island State Park Commission, the New York State Council of Parks, the New York City Department of Parks, the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority, the New York City Planning Commission, the New York State Power Authority, and the New York's World Fair.

These positions, in aggregate, allowed him to control the construction of bridges, roads, public works, and all manner infrastructure throughout the state of New York to such a degree that he was largely immune to outside political influence.

Having grown up in New York and having traveled upon roads and visited parks and beaches which only came into being as the result of Moses’s imagination and hand, I found the book appealing in some ways on a personal level. That aside, a story which at surface level might strike some as mundane is gradually revealed to be one that is instead deeply fascinating. This is due in no small part to the extraordinary lengths Caro went to compile primary and secondary sources for his research.

Moses’s long list of accomplishments are varied, but at the height of his power he largely controlled public policy and the distribution of public works inside and around New York City and New York State in a manner that would make it practical to describe him as being more powerful than both the Mayor of New York City and the Governor of New York State. It really wasn’t until decades after he withdrew himself from the public eye that journalists and the public began to truly understand how powerful a man he had been and the extent to which he had operated with independence and immunity from any governing or controlling body.

Aside from the works he envisioned and enacted, the book also details to an extent that borders on the comedic the many enemies he fostered across his many decades of public service, chief of which was Franklin Roosevelt both during his time as Governor of New York and later as President of the United States.

Having known next to nothing about Moses when I started the book, I continually found myself surprised both by the actions he undertook to realize his ambitions and by the sheer amount he was able to accomplish as he continued to amass political, financial, and legal power throughout the first half of the twentieth century.

In a philosophical sense, the book documents the well known and often-told story of an idealistic and ambitious young man slowly abandoning those ideals as he ages and adds to his power and influence. In other ways however, one cannot help but feel sympathy toward Moses as he grows old.

Despite the accurate portrayal of Moses as cruel to both his political adversaries and even to members of his own immediate family, as well as the racism inherent in his many public works, I found myself deeply sad as I finished reading the book’s closing chapters as Moses’s power slowly evaporated and he eventually found himself in a decaying body and lacking power, but still as full of ideas and ambition as the man he had been in his youth.

If you had to sum up Moses in a single statement, you couldn't do much better than to look to an excerpt from a letter he wrote to a friend in 1924:

If the ends don't justify the means, then what does?

I really can’t recommend this book enough and would caution anyone who picks it up that you’re in for a long ride as the book runs 1,344 pages and 66 hours on audio. I’m hoping to start Caro’s series on Johnson later this year, so expect a follow-up review sometime in early 2020.
A photo of my Harley and I taken by my friend Katie.