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!
If Robert Moses had not taken a house at Babylon, Long Island, the history of New York City might have been very different. Going from the city to Babylon and back again, Moses began to think about public parks and beaches, about diversions for the worthy middle classes of the city. After all, the age of the automobile was in its bright morning; and no one then living could have foreseen its terrible evening. Like most right-minded men of the day, Moses thought that anyone who owned a car ought to have a nearby park or beach to go to; those without cars were obviously not worth while and ought to stay home. As the automobile was the labarum in whose sign Moses would conquer, so the idea of mass transit was to be the perennial dragon to be slain whenever it threatened to invade any of his demesnes. Meanwhile, Long Island was full of empty beaches, promising sand bars, unspoiled woods. How to appropriate all this natural beauty for the use of the car owners?
Until 1923, the parks of New York State were run by sleepy patroons who simply wanted to conserve wild life for future generations. The patroons did not mind responsible campers and hikers wandering about their woods and lakes but they certainly did not want great highways to crisscross the wilderness or tons of cement to be poured over meadows in order to make shuffle boards, restaurants, comfort stations for millions of visitors; nor did they think that every natural stream or pond ought to be rearranged by someone with a degree in civil engineering.
Unhappily for the patroons, Moses now had a Dream. He went to work to realize it. Exercising his formidable art, he drafted A State Park Plan for New York. Parks would be used for recreation as well as conservation. Parks would be reorganized into one system. The presidency of the Long Island State Park Commission would go to Moses; term of office: six years, longer than the governor’s term. There are those who think that this bill was Moses’s greatest masterpiece, even more compelling than the bill that set up the Triborough Authority. Certainly Moses displayed in its drafting a new maturity, as well as a mastery of every type of ambiguity. But I leave to Mr. Caro the task of being Walter Pater to this Gioconda. Enough to say that the principal joker in the bill was the use of an unrepealed 1884 law that gave the state the right to “appropriate” land “by simply walking on it and telling the owner he no longer owned it.” This was power.
Jones Beach and other parks were connected with highways to the city and transformed into playgrounds. In the process a lot of people were “remorselessly” kicked off their land. But there are people and people. At first Moses wanted to put a parkway through the North Shore Long Island estates of such nobles as Stimson, Winthrop, Mills, and Otto Kahn. The lords objected and so, partly because Mr. Kahn was on good terms with Moses and partly because the other nobles owned the Republican party which controlled the state legislature, the parkway was diverted to a stretch of land inhabited by farmers who had no clout. The farmers were driven from their land.
Although Moses was always a profound conservative who only seemed to be liberal because he had a Dream about parks and highways, he was not above using the press to blast the “rich golfers” who stood athwart the people’s right of way. Early on, Moses demonstrated a genius for publicity. Knowing that the New York press thrives on personal attacks, he gave them plenty. He also enjoyed the full support of The New York Times because he had managed to persuade one Iphigene Sulzberger that he was as interested in conservation as she was. For decades, with the connivance of the press, Moses was able to slander as “pinkos” and “Commies” his many enemies. Also, the corrupter of others was careful to keep dossiers on those he had corrupted. But then to realize his Dream of an America covered with highways and of wildernesses tamed to resemble fun fairs, Moses was remorseless since you cannot, he would observe, make an omelette with unbroken eggs (a line much used in those days by supporters of Hitler and Mussolini). He also liked to crow: “Nothing I have ever done has been tinged with legality.”
The perfect public servant made only one serious error during this period. In 1934 he was Republican candidate for governor of New York against the incumbent Herbert Lehman. During the campaign Moses’s contempt for all of the people all of the time was so open, so pure, so unremitting that he made Coriolanus seem like Hubert Humphrey. Even the docile press which had worked so hard to create a liberal image for Moses was appalled by the virulence of his ad hominem attacks on Governor Lehman—a decent man with whom Moses had always had good relations.
Suddenly his friend the governor was “a miserable, snivelling type of man…contemptible.” Moses also charged that Lehman “created most of the state deficit.” Actually, Lehman had reduced the deficit to almost zero. But then Moses has always had a Hitlerian capacity for the lie so big that it knocks the truth out of the victim who knows that his denial will never be played as big in the press as the lie itself. Then Moses called Lehman “a liar”—a word, one politician remarked, never before used in a gubernatorial campaign. Eventually, the Mutual Broadcasting System refused to broadcast Moses’s speeches unless the Republican party insured the network against libel. Moses’s defeat was so thorough that he never again offered himself to the public except in controlled interviews conducted by admiring journalists. Soon he was a hero again with his parks, highways, beaches. Was he not incorruptible?
From time to time Mr. Caro feels that he ought to explain why Moses is what he is and his narrative is occasionally marred by vulgar Freudianisms in the Leon Edel manner. This is a pity because the chief interest of biography is not why men do what they do, which can never be known unless one turns novelist the way Freud did when he wrote Leonardo, but what they do. One does not want a theory explaining Moses’s celebrated vindictiveness when examples of that vindictiveness are a matter of interesting record. For instance, after a run-in with Mayor Jimmy Walker, Moses tore down the Casino in Central Park because Walker had patronized it; yet the building itself was a charming relic of the previous century and the people’s property. Prematurely, he razed a yacht club because the members “were rude to me.” Shades of Richard Nixon! Petty revenge was certainly behind his desire to remove the Battery’s most famous landmark—the Aquarium in the old fort known as Castle Garden. Fortunately Eleanor Roosevelt got her husband the president to save the fort itself through a Byzantine process involving the War Department.
This was FDR’s only victory over Moses. The two men despised each other; they were also somewhat alike. As an admiring biographer of the president wrote, sadly, FDR had “a capacity for vindictiveness which could be described as petty.” When an earlier move against Moses failed, Roosevelt was criticized for pettiness by a friend. The great man’s response was plaintive: “Isn’t the president of the United States entitled to one personal grudge?”
In 1939 the Triborough Bridge was opened and the Moses empire was at its zenith. The bridge was—and is—a huge money maker. Money from those toll booths goes to an Authority and the Authority (as adapted by Robert Moses) is the supreme example of his dark art. The Authority is responsible to no one except those who hold its bonds. As a result, with Triborough money, Moses was now in a position to reward directly those who helped him and damage those who hurt him.
Mr. Caro quotes one city official as saying of Moses, “He gave everybody involved in the political set-up in this city whatever it was that they wanted.” Tammany, Republicans, reformers, Fusionists…it made no difference. Either they were paid off through their law and insurance offices, their public relations and building firms, or they were attacked through the press, and hounded from office like Stanley Isaacs, the honest borough president of Manhattan.
Moses’s achievement, according to Mr. Caro, “was to replace graft with benefits that could be derived with legality from a public works project.” After all, the Authority had every right to hire someone’s uncle to be a PR consultant just as the Authority was able to spend $500,000 a year on insurance premiums, a windfall for the insurers because, according to Moses’s aid George Spargo, the Authority never filed or collected a claim during its first eighteen years. All perfectly legal, and all perfectly corrupt. But who was to know? The books of the Authority could only be audited after a complaint by those who held the bonds of the Authority, and the trustee for those bondholders was the Chase Manhattan Bank, the Rockefeller family’s cosa nostra. Since the Authority was a great success, the bank was not curious about its inner workings.
From Triborough headquarters on Randall’s Island, Moses presided over city and state. By the time the Second World War ended, he was uniquely powerful because the city, as usual, was broke and the only money available for building was either from the federal government or from the Triborough Authority, whose millions Moses could spend as he pleased—and it pleased him to cover as much of Manhattan as possible with cement while providing himself with a lavish way of life that included private yachts and a court theater at Jones Beach where his very own minstrel Guy Lombardo made a lot of money grinding out the sweetest music this side of coins clinking in toll booths. Why steal money to have a sumptuous life when you can openly use the public money to live gorgeously? Yet during all these years the press, led by the ineffable New York Times, praised Moses for his incorruptibility.
At one time or another most of the mayors and governors Moses dealt with wanted to get rid of him; none dared. Moses was a god to the press and a master to the legislature. Finally, he alone had the money with which to create those public works that mayors must be able to point to with pride just before election time. To keep the irascible Mayor LaGuardia happy, Moses built dozens of playgrounds and swimming pools (there was a pool near Harlem) so that the mayor could dash about greeting the kiddies and bragging. It was heady stuff. In time, however, the overreacher overreaches, and one now begins to read Mr. Caro’s text like a Greek tragedy, aware rather earlier than was usual at the Dionysos Theater of the hero’s Tragic Flaw. Never having known just how Moses fell from power, I was glad that I could read the last sections of the book like a mystery novel: who would get him? and what would be the murder weapon?
The building of the Cross-Bronx Expressway might be the point where Moses found himself at the three roads, to maintain the classical analogy. He was then all-conquering and all-spending: after the Second World War he built more than $2 billion worth of roads within the city. To do this, he expropriated thousands of buildings, not all of them slums, and evicted tens of thousands of people who were left to fend for themselves. Moses’s elevated highways shadowed and blighted whole neighborhoods. The inner city began to rot, die. But no one could stop Moses for he had yet another Dream: exodus from the city to the suburbs but only by car, for there were to be no busses or trains on his expressways—just more and more highways for more and more cars, creating more and more traffic jams, while the once thriving railroads that had served the city went bankrupt, lingering on as derelict ghosts of what had been, fifty years before, a splendid mass transit system.
In 1952 East Tremont was a lower-middle-class Jewish neighborhood in the Bronx, reasonably content and homogenous. Moses wanted his Cross-Bronx Expressway to go straight through the most populous part of East Tremont, razing 159 buildings and evicting 1,530 families. Alarmed, the people of this non-slum organized to save their homes. They prepared maps that showed how easy it would be to build an alternative route which would involve tearing down no more than six buildings. Except for the World-Telegram and the Post, the press ignored the matter. At first the politicians were responsive; but then, one by one, they succumbed to pressure and the community was duly destroyed. But Moses was now hated by the powerless millions who neither read nor are written about by The New York Times.
By the late Fifties, however, even the newspaper of record was concerned about the lack of mass transport. City planners wanted Moses to put at the center of his expressways what Mr. Caro unhappily refers to as “a subway running at ground level.” This would have made the city more escapable for the poor as well as for the car owners. It was also proposed that a train on the Van Wyck Expressway would get travelers from Pennsylvania Station to the airport at Idlewild in sixteen minutes. But Moses refused to listen. Criticism became more intense as the traffic jams increased. The city became more desperate and congested. Moses’s answer: build more roads. When told that “the automobiles required to transport the equivalent of one trainload of commuters use about four acres of parking space in Manhattan,” Moses spoke of huge skyscrapers filled with cars; he even built one but it was not practical at the price.
For Moses Long Island was now the promised land for the deserving middle class. “Figure out what sort of people you want to attract into Nassau County,” he admonished. “By that I mean people of what standards, what income levels and what capacity to contribute to the source of local government…. Nassau should always be largely residential and recreational.” This is as unmistakable an appeal as any ever made by Nixon-Agnew to the not-so-silent bigots of the heartland.
But now the master of corruption was growing insolent and careless from too much victory. A non-slum neighborhood on the West Side was marked for destruction by the Mayor’s Slum Clearance Committee, chaired by Moses. The condemned six square blocks comprised 338 buildings worth $15 million. For $1 million the city sold the entire neighborhood to a group headed by Samuel Caspert, “a Democratic clubhouse figure” who was required to raze the area by 1954 in order to create something called Manhattantown. But politician Caspert and his friends were in no hurry. By October, 1954, 280 buildings were still standing, and the tenants were paying rents to the Caspert cabal. The Senate Banking and Currency Committee thought this odd and began hearings. But Moses’s perennial mouthpiece, the famed judge and friend of presidents Sam Rosenman, skillfully protected the Caspert gang and the scandal blew over.
In 1956 came the battle of the Tavern-on-the-Green. Moses wanted to expand the Tavern’s parking lot, removing in the process a bosky dell beloved of the affluent mothers of Central Park West. As usual, Moses won: at least, before the injunctions arrived, the trees were bulldozed. But the Westsiders stopped the parking lot, giving Moses a good deal of bad personal publicity in the process. Since the New York press is geared almost entirely to personalities, the real issue was ignored except by the World Telegram, whose reporters saw fit to investigate Moses’s connection with the manager of the Tavern-on-the-Green. During a four-year period the Tavern’s gross income was $1,786,000 of which, thanks to Moses, the city got only $9,000 for the rental of a building that was city property. In exchange for this gift to the manager, Moses was able to use the Tavern as a private dining room.
But now two paladins appear on the scene, the journalists Gene Gleason and Fred Cook. They began a series of exposés in the World-Telegram. Who was giving whose money to whom and for what? Eventually even The New York Times got interested in the corruption of the city, the exploitation of the poor, the lunatic set of priorities that had for decades put cars before people.
Pressure was put on Wagner to fire Moses. But Wagner could do nothing for, as Mr. Caro puts it, “the whole Democratic machine, the leaders of all five county organizations, on which Wagner depended, were on Moses’s payroll.” Those coins from the toll booths of the Triborough had bought the city’s government.
In the end Moses was brought down not by the press or the reformers but by the true owner of the American republic, the family Rockefeller as personified by Nelson, who had begun his quest for the presidency in 1958 by spending a lot of the family’s money to become New York’s governor. Moses now confronted an arrogance equal to his own; a remorselessness quite as complete; and resources that were infinite. The two were bound to be enemies. After all, Rockefeller supported mass transit; liked to build things to celebrate himself; fancied parks; wanted no trouble or competition from the likes of Moses.
After a spat, on November 28, 1962, Moses sent the governor one of his many letters of resignation…carefully hedged with “tentatives” and “perhapses.” With indecent briskness, Rocky accepted “with regret” Moses’s resignation from the Long Island State Park Commission. The governor then turned over the job to one of his brothers. Moses had a final brief orgy in the press; on the front page of the ever-loyal New York Times, he attacked the governor for nepotism. But, uncharacteristically, Moses ignored Machiavelli—he had struck at a prince and not killed him. This was unwise. But perhaps Moses had deluded himself that he was as great a lord. Was he not still head of the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority as well as creator of the World’s Fair? No matter. The roof had begun to fall in.
Moses was never as interested in the New York World’s Fair of 1964-65 as he was in the park that would succeed the fair. In setting up the fair, he managed, as usual, to offend a great many people, among them the representatives of the various European governments who decided to have nothing to do with the rude Mr. Moses. The result was a World’s Fair without the world’s involvement, and a series of breath-taking financial scandals that Mr. Caro has recorded with more than usual detail. All told, Moses had about $1 billion to play with while putting together the fair; and $1 billion can buy all sorts of loyalties and power in the land. The fair itself lost money.
By 1965 the Moses empire had shrunk to the Triborough Authority. The new mayor, John Lindsay, decided to get rid of Moses five years before the end of Moses’s term. In a final bravura performance at Albany, Moses handed the mayor his beautiful head. Moses remained. But the end was near.
The sovereign at Albany desperately needed money to build things. The treasury of the Authority contained $110 million in cash and securities to which was added each year another $30 million. Rockefeller proposed to merge the Triborough with his own creature, the MTA (Metropolitan Commuter Transportation Authority). It should be noted that for all of Rockefeller’s antagonism to Moses the man he has never ceased to emulate Moses the power broker. According to Mr. Caro, “Rockefeller had created several giant ‘public authorities’ that were bastards of the genre because their revenue bonds would be paid off not out of their own revenues but out of the general revenues of the state.”
Recently (September 2) Time Magazine wrote an affectionate story on Vice President-designate Rockefeller. With a wry editorial smile, Time concedes that “Rockefeller was an expensive governor…as the budget kept rising, from $2 billion when he took office to $8.6 when he left, he devised a novel way of paying for his programs. Rather than going to balky state legislatures or to the voters, who might turn him down, he set up a host of quasi-independent agencies—the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the Urban Development Corporation, the Housing Finance Agency—that issued bonds on their own initiative and repaid them with fees collected from users of the facilities that were constructed. ‘The greatest system ever invented!’ he exclaimed.” Next to the sales tax, it is the greatest—until the taxpayer gets the bill. But long before that day of reckoning the governor moved on—and is now moving up. Terrific! Dubonnet on the rocks. Venezuela. Happy. Attica. Hiya, fella!
Preparing for the showdown with Rockefeller, Moses did what might have been the most useful work of his career. He sat down and figured out what Rockefeller’s various Authorities would eventually cost the state. The figures were staggering. For instance, the MTA’s bond issue for $2.5 billion would eventually cost the taxpayers $1 billion in interest. But Moses’s addition and multiplication were never published. The Rockefeller machine had begun to move against him. In 1967, Rockefeller arranged for Chase Manhattan (headed by his brother David) to blow the whistle on the Triborough Authority. The bank wanted a look at the Authority’s books, a dangerous business if things were not in order, but necessary if the bonds were to be retired preparatory to merger. Thomas E. Dewey was hired as the bank’s counsel.
Mr. Caro seems to think that if Moses had put up a fight, he might have staved off—or delayed—the merger with MTA. Certainly had he the public interest at heart, Moses ought to have revealed his arithmetic to a grateful nation. But, somehow, Moses was conned. He made no demur to the merger, and Chase Manhattan dropped its suit against the Authority. The merger went through and Moses found himself on the new payroll as a nonconsulted consultant, with a car and driver. And that was the end of the line.
Last August 27, Moses released a 3,500 word attack on Mr. Caro’s book through a public relations outfit named Edward V. O’Brien. So suspicious has Mr. Caro made me of PR firms that I want to know which O’Brien is Edward V. (the one on page 1,089 of The Power Broker?) and has he ever done any work for the city or the Triborough? For old times’ sake The New York Times gave fair space to Moses’s attack. According to the King Lear of Jones Beach, Mr. Caro’s book contains “hundreds of careless errors. Many charges are downright lies.” But Moses does not mention any errors or lies except to deny that he ever had an affair with ex-Representative Ruth Pratt. Here I think Moses is on strong ground. The biographer of a living person ought never to address himself to the private life of his subject—particularly if the subject is someone like Moses whose public life is not only fascinating in itself but continues to affect us all. I did not enjoy reading about Moses’s alcoholic wife or about the feud with his only brother Paul (whom Moses refers to, curiously, as “a brother of mine, now dead,” as if there were hundreds of brothers to choose from and Mr. Caro, maliciously, picked the wrong one to interview).
Moses does confess that he may have been a bit rough at times in his career, again quoting his favorite cliché about eggs and omelettes. He also says that he personally favors mass transit but argues, disingenuously, that he did nothing about it because he was never in charge of mass transit—as if that was the point to his lifelong obstruction. He is still a lover of the automobile: “We live in a motorized civilization.” Energy crisis, unlivable cities, pollution—none of these things has altered his proud Dream. But rather than make the obvious point that a man of eighty-six is now out of date, one ought instead to regard with a degree of awe his stamina and his continuing remorseless brilliance.
Finally, in looking back over all that Robert Moses has done to the world we live in and, more important, the way that he did it by early mastering the twin arts of publicity and of corruption, one sees in the design of his career a perfect blueprint for that inevitable figure, perhaps even now standing in the wings of the Republic, rehearsing to himself such phrases as “law and order,” “renewal and reform,” “sacrifice and triumph,” the first popularly elected dictator of the United States.