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 a corrupt society. Periodically, “good” citizens band together and elect to office political opportunists who are presented to the public as non-politicians. Briefly, things appear to be clean. But of course bribes are still given; taken. Nothing ever changes nor is there ever going to be any change until we summon up the courage to ask ourselves a simple if potentially dangerous question: is the man who gives a bribe as guilty as the man who takes a bribe?
For decades Vice President-designate Nelson Rockefeller has used his family’s money to buy and maintain the Republican party of the state of New York while his predecessor but one, Spiro Agnew, was busy taking money from various magnates who wanted favors done—men who differ from the Rockefellers only in degree. Yet the Agnews are thought to be deeply wicked (if found out) while no sign of Cain ever attaches itself to their corrupters. It is a curious double standard—rather like those laws that put the hooker in jail for selling her ass while letting the john go free with a wink. But then we are a godly people and, as Scripture hath it, it is better to give than to receive. Blessed then are the Kennedys and the Rockefellers who buy directly or indirectly the votes of the poor and the loyalty of their leaders in order that public office might be won, and personal vanity hugely served.
“The fact is New York politics were always dishonest—long before my time.” So testified Boss Tweed a hundred years ago. “There never was a time when you couldn’t buy the Board of Aldermen. A politician in coming forward takes things as they are. This population is too hopelessly split up into races and factions to govern it under universal suffrage, except by the bribery of patronage, or corruption.” This is elegantly put. As far as we know, Robert Moses did not take money for himself like Tweed or Agnew. He was more ambitious than that. Wanting power, Moses used the people’s money to buy, as it were, the Board of Aldermen over and over again for forty-four years during which time, if Mr. Caro is to be believed, he was, without peer, the fount of corruption in the state.
Mr. Caro starts his long story briskly. At Yale Moses was eager to raise money for the undergraduate Minor Sports Association. To get money, Moses planned to go to an alumnus interested only in the swimming team and con him into thinking that his contribution would go not to the association but to the swimmers. The captain of the team demurred. “I think that’s a little bit tricky, Bob. I think that’s a little bit smooth. I don’t like that at all.” Furious, Moses threatened to resign from the team. The resignation was promptly accepted. There, in ovo, was the future career: the high-minded ends (at least in Moses’s own mind) as represented by the Minor Sports Association; the dishonest means to attain those ends; the fury at being crossed; the threat of resignation which, in this instance, to his amazement, was accepted. For decades that threat of resignation brought presidents, governors, and mayors to their knees until Nelson Rockefeller turned him out—by which time Moses was approaching eighty and no longer the killer he had been.
Robert Moses came from a well-to-do German Jewish family, very much at home in turn-of-the-century New York City. Apparently mother and grandmother were arrogant, intelligent, domineering women. I think Mr. Caro goes on a bit too much about how like grandmother and mother Moses is. Yet it is interesting to learn that his mother abandoned Judaism for Ethical Culture and that her son was never circumcised or bar-mitzvahed. Later he was to deny that he was a Jew at all.
From Yale Moses went to Oxford where he succumbed entirely to the ruling-class ethos of that glamorous place. For young Moses the ruling class of Edwardian England was the most enlightened the world had ever known, and its benign but firm ordering of the lower orders at home and the lesser breeds abroad ought, he believed, to be somehow transported to our own notoriously untidy, inefficient, and corrupt land. Moses’s PhD thesis The Civil Service of Great Britain reveals its author as non-liberal, to say the least. Fearful that ignorant workers might organize unions and behave irresponsibly, he sternly proposed “the remorseless exercise of the executive power of suppression and dismissal to solve this problem.”
Moses returned to New York, wanting to do good. He saw himself as a proto-mandarin whose education, energy, and intelligence made him peculiarly suited to regulate the lives of those less fortunate. But pre-1917 New York was still the New York of Boss Tweed. The unworldly Moses did not realize that if you want to build a new slum for the teeming masses or create a playground for the not-so-teeming but deserving middle classes you must first buy the Board of Aldermen. Now this is never a difficult thing to do. In fact, these amiable men will give you as much money as you want to do almost anything you want to do (assuming that the loot is on hand) if you in turn will give them a slice of that very same money.
In the old days this was done in a straightforward way: the tin box full of cash (although one fairly recent mayor eccentrically insisted on money being delivered to him at Gracie Mansion in pillow cases). But as the years passed and the IRS began to cast an ever-lengthening shadow across the land, politicians became wary. They set up law offices (sometimes in the back bedroom of a relative’s house) where “legal fees” from the city or the builder could be collected. Or they became associated with public relations firms; “fees” from the city or the contractors would then be laundered for personal use in much the same way that a now famous contribution to Nixon’s re-election campaign surfaced as a pair of diamond earrings dangling from the pretty ears of the First Criminal’s moll.
Robert Moses’s early years as a reformer in New York City were not happy. He joined something called the Bureau of Municipal Research, an instrument for reform—neither the first nor the last. He annoyed his fellow reformers with his imperious ways; his formidable intelligence; his impatience. Then at the end of 1918, the goddess from the machine descended to earth and put him on the path to power. The name of the goddess was Belle Moskowitz. Although a reformer, Belle was a superb politician who had early on seen the virtues of one Al Smith, a Tammany vulgarian whom everyone misunderstood and, more seriously, underestimated. Belle brought Moses and Smith together. They were made for each other. And rose together.
The writing of legislation is perhaps the highest art form the United States has yet achieved, even more original and compelling than the television commercial. In tortured language, legislators rob the people of their tax money in order to enrich themselves and their friends. As an assemblyman from the city, Al Smith had become a power at Albany by the unusual expedient of reading all the bills that were introduced. Lacking education but not shrewdness, Smith very soon figured out who was getting the cash and why. An honest man (relatively speaking), Smith used his knowledge of bill-drafting to gain power over the other legislators; also, from time to time, he was able to blackmail them into occasionally doing something for the ridiculous masses who had elected them.
As a result of these gratuitous acts of kindness, Smith became governor of New York. In the process, governor’s aide Robert Moses became a positive Leonardo of bill-drafting. One of his earliest masterpieces (equal to the Virgin with St. Anne and St. John or the Turtle Oil Cosmetic two-minute TV spot) was the State Reconstruction Commission. Masterfully, Moses rearranged the structure of the state, giving his friend Smith more power than any governor had ever before exercised. Moses also saw to it that he himself got full credit for this masterwork even though there were many apprentices in his atelier and at least one other master—the future historian Charles A. Beard whom Moses later accused of plagiarizing his material when, in fact, Beard was using his own unacknowledged material from the commission report. Artists!