Monday, March 02, 2015

Book Report: The Power Broker

Robert Caro's The Power Broker is a bitch to carry around. It was first published in 1974, and its scale, at 1162 pages (not counting the acknowledgments, bibliography, notes, and index) and more than four pounds, is best suited for transport in a 1974 Cadillac Eldorado. Which is ironic, because that big old road beast was precisely the kind of car that Robert Moses built his roads for. You can just imagine informed New Yorkers carrying this behemoth on the New York subway in the 70s and 80s, and maybe still today, as the book is not published in any electronic formats.

But the book is very much worth the reader's effort. This is a work of monumental importance, reflecting the kind of research effort on the part of Caro that typifies a deserving Pulitzer winner. The Power Broker took years to research, but the prose isn't the pale prose of the research library, it is the energetic prose of the journalist. The narrative flows in a way that makes complete sense. A thousand pages of rote detail about every Moses public works project would be difficult to stomach and unnecessary; but a narrative that tracks the gradual shift in Moses' approach to public works, his accumulation of power and the ways in which he used that power, is itself powerful.  Moses started as the consummate progressive reformer, he wound up his career more than forty years later as the consummate grafter and politician. He made grand plans, subject to few whims other than his own, and then he made those plans come to life with an effectiveness seldom seen in public affairs, then or now. With an effectiveness that shared much in common with his beloved bulldozer.

Moses spent forty years defining the New York landscape. He opened some of the finest public beaches then known to man, incorporating whimsical architectural details into beautiful bathhouses built to fit in with the dunes on which they sit. In the process, he grossly underestimated the costs; knowing full well politicians would never appropriate the full amount he needed, he proposed getting the job done for much less than he knew it would cost, betting that no politician would ever not grant his requests to finish a half-built project. For decades, this tactic of 'putting a stake in the ground' helped Moses to build some of the most iconic public works in all of human history.

Of course his roads tore the heart out of communities, his slum clearance projects forced proud families to poverty, and created as many slums as they cleared. Where a block or two shift in a Moses route might have saved much heartbreak, he was unwilling to even consider the slightest change. Because he controlled massive amounts of toll booth revenue, and the subsequent bond authority garnered from those liquid assets, his power was virtually untouchable, he couched no compromise, feared no politician. But while the stories twists and turns are anything but formulaic, the product of his downfall: the unnecessarily ruthless exercise of his own power, becomes increasingly predictable. 

As a reader of much serious historical non-fiction, I must say that it strikes me as unique that Caro does seem to have it out for Moses from the very beginning, indeed one cannot help but think that the book has an anti-Moses vendetta at its very heart. Generally speaking, works of in-depth research don't have such clear author bias, perhaps especially in a field such as biography, where one hopes to strike a balance of presentation. Moses was certainly no saint, and Caro leaves no stone unturned to prove his motives were base virtually from word one. The conclusion drives the narrative, not the other way round, but perhaps in this case it could be no other way. 

But there are profoundly meaningful (and modern) lessons to be learned in this 40 year old book about a man born more than a century ago. It is the tale of what happens when elected politicians aren't paying attention to the laws they write and how entrusting too many of the various levers of power to one person is always an incredibly bad idea; it is a tale of how effective the politics of personal destruction can be when used by a master. Most importantly in my view, particularly in today's environment of politically tailored news outlets, it is a loud warning as to what happens when the media doesn't do the kind of independent research required to get at the heart of stories about public issues, when they just regurgitate the press releases from whatever side they happen to be in the can for.          

There are a few books that I consider required reading for anyone interested in United States politics, even generally. The Power Broker joins that list immediately. Every American Politics 101 student in college should be required to read it front to back, and any American who votes should likewise, Hell any American citizen ought to do our society a favor and run to your local used bookstore, and buy a copy of The Power Broker. The book draws conclusions not in hypothesis, but in stone, in concrete.

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