The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York
“When coming up from Richmond by the night train, Mr. Laurence Oliphant, myself, and many more, arrived at Acquia Creek about one o’clock; the passage thence to Washington takes four hours; and as we were much fatigued, and had only these four hours for rest, we begged that the key of our berths might be given to us at once. “I’ll attend to you when I’m through,” was the only answer we could get; and we waited—a train of ladies, young folks, gentlemen—until the man had arranged his affairs, and smoked his pipe, more than an hour. Yet not one word was said, except by Mr. Oliphant and myself. The man was in office; excuse enough in American eyes for doing as he pleased. This is the kind of circle in which they reason; take away his office, and the man is as good as we are; all men are free and equal; add office to equality, and he rises above our heads. More than once I have ventured to tell my friends that this habit of deferring to law and lawful authority, good in itself, has gone with them into extremes, and would lead them, should they let it grow, into the frame of mind for yielding to the usurpation of any bold despot who may assail their liberties, like Caesar, in the name of law and order!”
This little sermon occurs in a book called New America published in 1867 by an Englishman named William Hepworth Dixon. Since Mr. Dixon was a journalist of absolutely no distinction, one must take very seriously what he says because he only records the obvious. After a year among us it was plain to him that in the name of law and order Americans are quite capable of building themselves a prison and calling it Happy Acres or Freedom Park and to reach this paradise all you have to do is take your first left at the Major Deegan Expressway out of New York; then your second right just past Hawthorne Circle and so on up the Taconic State Parkway to where the Caesarian spirit of Robert Moses will lead you into the promised land.
For thirty or forty years I have seen the name Robert Moses on the front pages of newspapers or attached to articles in that graveyard of American prose the Sunday New York Times Magazine section. But I never had a clear idea just who he was because I never got past that forbiddingly dull title Park Commissioner. I associated him with New York City and I lived upstate. I now realize what a lot I have missed, thanks to someone called Robert A. Caro whose life of Moses has not only taken me a month to read (there are 1,246 pages) but not once—uniquely—did I find myself glumly rifling the pages still to be read at the back.
To begin at the beginning: The United States has always been …