Book Review: The Power Broker

summary

As has been stated many times, Robert Caro has written a tome that will show you in minute detail how a man manipulated the law, people, and money to obtain, use, and abuse power in quest to reshape NYC. It is absorbing, thrilling, informative, and much more. Read this book.

This is a review I have been meaning to post about The Power Broker, an excellent biography on Robert Moses by Robert Caro. I'll likely update it in the future as well.


Read this book. As has been stated many times, Robert Caro has written a tome that is absorbing, thrilling, informative, and much more. It will show you in minute detail how a man manipulated the law, people, and money to obtain, use, and abuse power, which essentially boils down to getting others to do what you want.

While there were facets of Moses's life that I wish Caro went into more detail about, this book is more about how a single man can acquire and keep an unelected office for a large period of time. And in this manner, it nicely complements Caro's LBJ biography, which is about a man who stays in elected office for much of his working life. And so I'll compare and contrast between the two throughout this review, even if The Power Broker is more zeros in on Moses the man compared to the panoramic focus on the people and times surrounding LBJ in The Years of Lyndon Johnson.

There are interesting parallels between LBJ and Robert Moses. Their penchant for secrecy, their tendency to surround themselves with yes-men, their larger than life personas (complimented by their physical appearances), their use of great social skills (throwing parties, etc.) to augment their political power, a knack for getting sick during rough patches in their lives (e.g. LBJ during first House and second Senate race, Moses during the Second Central Park and other fights), and others. It almost raises the question of whether Caro purposely chooses men who amassed power with similar personalities or if this was a common trait of powerful men at the time. As Caro has only really written at great length about these two men, there is not enough data to disassociate his manner of analyzing powerful men from their actual personalities.

In The Years of Lyndon Johnson Caro follows LBJ chronologically, rarely skipping forward or back in time for extended periods. However, Caro has the tendency to skip around at times in this book. While the skips are normally a transition from a focus on one aspect of Moses's life to another, it sometimes hinders the reader's ability to place all the events in order. For example, while Moses was completing the Niagara dam, he was also fighting the revelations about his Title I dealings that Cook and other reporters were revealing. In addition, during this time he was evicting people, under Title I, to help produce his Cross Bronx Expressway. But these overlapping events during his life are not always easy to put together chronologically, in stark contrast to the classic story arc that the LBJ biographies follow.

However, this might be due more to the source material than a fault of the book itself. Without a doubt the story of LBJ seems more tailored to a vast, expansive novel and one that is easier to follow. Perhaps because Moses held power in a specific arena—as opposed to LBJ's dabbling in Texas and Washington while serving in the House, Senate, Vice Presidency, and Presidency along with assorted business dealings on the side—his story is necessarily more complicated, because he had more time to build up a parallel series of organizations that were under his control.

Robert_Moses_with_Battery_Bridge_model

Moreover, perhaps because Moses had so much time to amass power, and because his time in power was uninterrupted rather than the series of ups and downs that LBJ experienced, the people who helped shape his life seem more transient than in that of LBJ. For in LBJ's life we have Herman Brown, Sam Rayburn, Alvin J. Wirtz, Charles Marsh, Richard Russel, and others. And these men stayed constant throughout his rise to power and once he had obtained it, kept him there. For Moses the men seem more transient, perhaps because he had less of a need for father figures (besides perhaps Al Smith) who could help him on his path. We have Al Smith, La Guardia, Tom Shanahan, Sid Shapiro, and others. But many of these figures were his frenemies, under his control, or did his bidding, in one manner or another. Several of these figures, most notably Al Smith, are given the mini-biographies that so aided making Brown, Rayburn, Stevenson, and others come to life in The Years of Lyndon Johnson. While one would wish for more of them, given the length of the book as it stands, something had to be cut.

The fight over the Brooklyn-Battery Bridge was particularly interesting, especially as it reveals how Moses's power worked so well because it was hidden from public view. And this seems a general theme throughout Moses's life that contrasts somewhat with LBJ's. Both men acquired the knack for amassing information and using it when they knew the other side might not have the same access, allowing them to spin their own version of the truth. Both would use repetition of a claim to make it true, something Caro goes into much greater detail in LBJ's life, such as his run for the Senate against Coke Stevenson.

Both Moses and LBJ were obsessed with the details. This is clear in Moses micro-managing of projects and ability to find all the little details in legislation, laws, and proceedings to get what he wanted. Caro does a great job at showing the extensive layers of dealings, legal traps, and other methods Moses used to maintain power in addition to his attention to detail with regards to social dealings that helped him extend his hold on power.

It is a clear example of how the portrayal of a man's legacy can affect both the story and the view of the man. While LBJ may have been a crook—corrupt, bullying, and greedy—his story was too much of a Horatio Alger tale. His acts of good (e.g. ramming through Civil Rights legislation) most likely outweighed the problems he caused, likely because his good deeds aligned with his ability to amass power. While Moses undoubtedly improved NYC in some ways, the portrayal of his ultimate legacy is one of great public works that have left NYC saddles with infrastructure problems that will take decades, if not centuries, to reverse themselves.

As a side note, it is interesting that FDR is a sort of villain in The Power Broker and a father figure, hero in The Years of Lyndon Johnson. Seems a reading of FDR's path to power (pun intended) is in order.

Lastly, both biographies will expand how you view human interactions. Standing in a room, you will be conscious of who has power and who doesn't. You'll begin to understand why they have power and many times it comes back to who has more resources, connections, and information. While this might not be a way to travel through life, it can be useful and is perhaps one of the greatest takeaways each book can offer.

Perhaps is not fair to judge The Power Broker against The Years of Lyndon Johnson. The former is a critical, extensively detailed analysis of how a single man obtained power, consolidated it through clever legal and other maneuverings, and used it to shape a city. The latter is a sweeping tale of a man obsessed with power who often failings and with a cast of characters as mythologized as the main character himself. But as a piece of investigative journalism, it is hard to find anything better. More biographies should be held to this standard.

-biafra

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