Breaking Down The Power Broker with Conan O’Brien

Roman Mars: New immune supporting Emergen-C Crystals brings you the goodness of Emergen-C in a fun, new, popping experience. There is no water needed so it’s super convenient. Just throw it back in your mouth. Feel the pop, hear the fizz, and taste the delicious natural fruit flavors. Emergen-C Crystals, Orange Vitality, and Strawberry Burst flavors for ages nine and up have 500 milligrams of vitamin C per stick pack. Look for Emergen-C Crystals wherever you shop. These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. This podcast is brought to you by Squarespace. Want to increase revenue this holiday season? Squarespace’s Courses feature gives you the tools you need to create and sell your own online course. I might even do one for podcasting. That’d be a pretty good idea. You can start with a layout that fits your brand, upload video lessons to teach skills, and tailor your course with the built-in Fluid Engine Editor. Create content, then add a paywall, and set the price. Charge for a one-time fee or sell subscriptions. Head to to save 10% off your first purchase of a website or domain. This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars. In 1974, two very significant things happened (if you are a fan of 99% Invisible). Number one is that I was born. And number two, The Power Broker by Robert Caro was published. I learned about The Power Broker when I first started to cover cities and infrastructure on the radio. This massive book that’s about 1,200 pages long is the most important and complete explanation of how cities are formed, how neighborhoods are destroyed, bridges are erected, roads are laid down, parks are designed, fortunes are made, lives are ruined, and power is amassed. It is the biography of Robert Moses, a man who is said to have built more structures and moved more earth than anyone in human history. And he did it all without ever holding elected office. Outside of New York City, Robert Moses wasn’t exceptionally well known. Inside of New York, he was mostly uncriticized by the media and was simply the man who built all those nice parks. But Robert Caro’s book, The Power Broker, which is subtitled Robert Moses and the Fall of New York, changed all that. It is a tour de force of journalism, history, and biography. I also think it is really fun to read and is strongly in contention for the best book ever written. The problem is, as I mentioned, it is 1,200 pages long. As bestselling and as influential as it is, I wouldn’t be surprised if you had an unopened copy sitting on your bookshelf right now. But that is a crime because this book needs to be read or at least discussed at length on a podcast. So, we’re going to spend 2024 reading it together. We’re going to study it. We’re going to break it down. We’re going to exalt in the genius of the author, Robert Caro. We’re going to shake our fists in the sky at Robert Moses. It is going to be amazing. And as I was discussing this idea with my friend, Elliott Kalan–who is the co-host of the pioneering and very funny Flop House podcast and former head writer of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart–his eyes lit up. And he said, “If there’s any way for me to be involved, I would love to help.” And later that day, he texted me a picture of the title page of his copy of The Power Broker that was signed by Robert Caro himself. 

Elliott Kalan: He was a guest on The Daily Show when I was working there, and he signed it. And he said, “To Elliott, another member of the writing profession. –Robert Caro. And it was the greatest compliment I’ve ever received in my life. Just thinking about it, I’m almost crying. The first time I read it, it was just that I could even pretend to be a writer like Robert Caro–it was amazing. It was like a dream come true. Yeah. 

Roman Mars: And so, from my point of view, there’s two really big reasons to read this book, The Power Broker. And one is that it’s about Robert Moses–who is a person that probably most people wouldn’t know if it wasn’t for Robert Caro–who shaped the 20th century in so many ways. And the other is Robert Caro, himself, the writer. So, let’s start with Robert Caro. Why did getting that note from him make you cry? 

Elliott Kalan: And it did make me cry. I said, “Almost made me cry.” But it was true. Robert Caro represents to me and, I think, to a lot of the people who read him this amazing synthesis of the greatest researcher who ever lived. He has his facts down, and he will not stop until he has found out every single piece of information that’s possible to find out about a subject. He will talk to everybody. You will talk to him multiple times. He will read every page in the archives. But combined with that is you read his books, and it’s not just information, but the books are beautiful. They’re beautifully written. He’s a writer who manages to combine this intense, factual, rigorousness with a real sense of poetry and beauty and evocative writing that’s hard to find. 

Roman Mars: So, Elliott and I are going to co-host this deep dive into The Power Broker. And I just want to say that we do not expect you to have read or know anything about the book at this point. We just want to convince you to take this journey with us. And we’ll make it so that you can enjoy it and listen, even if you don’t read it. But it’s really worth it if you do. And in addition to Elliott, we’re going to have many fun guests in this book club with us that you’re going to meet along the way. But first, I want to talk about the origin of this book and how Robert Caro first got the idea of writing about this man, Robert Moses. 

Elliott Kalan: When Robert Caro was first a reporter in the 1960s for Newsday, Robert Moses was still this monumental, towering figure in New York City politics. He was the man behind the parks. He’s the man who builds parks. He builds bridges. He builds roads. And he wants to build this enormous bridge across the Long Island Sound that’s been called the Oyster Bay Rye Bridge because at this point–like someone who is constantly trying to challenge themself–he just wants to build bigger and bigger bridges regardless of where they’re going and who’s going to take them. It’s just for the purity of the bridge itself, which in a way is kind of beautiful, but which is terrible for the people who live in Long Island. And Robert Caro is a journalist at Newsday, and he is doing a series of stories about this bridge. He talks to people about it, and all of them tell him, “This is a bad idea for a bridge. It’s too big. It’s not necessary. It’s going to disrupt probably tidal patterns and things like that. That’s how big the pillars are in the piers that are going to hold it up.” And Robert Caro starts writing articles about it. And he goes, “I think I’m really making a difference. I’m really making a change here.” And he goes to the meeting where the approval is going to be voted on to move forward with this bridge. And he goes there–and not a problem at all. The bridge sails through the approval process so fast. And Robert Caro starts to realize, as he learns more about municipal governance, “Oh, this bridge is not being built there because of engineering needs, demographic needs, planning needs. It’s being built there because Robert Moses wants it built there. And he has enough power that he can say, ‘I want this here, even if it flies in the face of all observable reality.’ And then it ends up there.” And Robert Caro says, “How did this guy get this power?” The thing about Robert Moses is he was never elected to public office. Democratically, according to our system, no one should have this power, but he certainly should not have it. The one time he ran for office and he runs for governor, he loses in a landslide because he is such an unlikable person to so many people. But somehow Rob Moses has this power. And so, Robert Caro says, “I’m going to write a book about this.” He tells his wife, Ina, “It will take me nine months. I’m going to write a book about Robert Moses.” A year later, he’s like, “I’m just scratching the surface of the research process.” And it takes him seven years to write this book. During that time, his wife sells their house, and they move to an apartment so that he can continue working on it. They’re living really hand-to-mouth. And this is the shortest, I think, he’s ever spent on a book, which is seven years. Then after this is a success, he goes on to write about Lyndon Johnson. He writes these huge books, and that’s the work of his life for the past 40-some-odd years. Yeah. And so, the one shame thing about Robert Caro is that he is the greatest of these writers. And the flipside of him being so great and so thorough with it is that he will end up writing about two people for his entire life. But that’s how he gets into this thing. He notices that Robert Moses has this power. How did he get it when he shouldn’t have it? And that is the question that leads him to this book. And it takes him 1,100 pages to answer it. And to be honest, it’s hard for me to think it would take less than that. Like, they are 1,100 well-used pages. 

Roman Mars: Yeah. It really is stunning as a work because I came into this sort of interested in cities and how they’re made, not necessarily thinking too much about the character of Robert Moses. But it is a real Shakespearian Greek myth, kind of, you know, hero and tragedy and fall. Like, it really has all these beats as a story that are beyond just, you know, me wanting to understand how cities are made. 

Elliott Kalan: Yeah. Robert Caro manages to take the act of construction and the act of road planning and the effect it has on people and how much of it stems from the personality of this one man and really blows it up into this epic proportion because these are epic things. The point he’s making throughout the book is that Robert Moses is literally reshaping the actual landscape of New York City and much of New York State. He’s physically building more and putting more earth into movement than any other human being has in the history of the world. And all behind the very innocuous title of Parks Commissioner and Construction Coordinator. And it’s because while this epic story is mirrored by this very Machiavellian behind the scenes story of the man who can work the law and knows how to write laws and how to fix them so that he can do things and acquire power without people knowing it–that he can work behind the scenes… I should mention the bridge that Robert Caro saw get passed through the approval process was never actually built because the planning of that bridge managed to thankfully coincide with the Shakespearean fall of Robert Moses from the heights that he had attained. So, if you want to go drive across the Oyster Bay Bridge–all six miles of this suspension bridge–you’re not going to be able to do it. I’m sorry. It’s not going to happen. 

Roman Mars: So, this book, The Power Broker, has been around for 50 years. And it is a very fun book. It is actually really lovely to read. You understand and learn so much. The chapters are just… There’s almost whiplash between the chapters sometimes. Like, Robert Caro will be talking about how this one road was built and how much it took to raise all the money for it. And then the next chapter is about him and his dastardly relationship with his brother. 

Elliott Kalan: And it’s a whiplash, but also Robert Caro has this amazing sense of “Oh, I’ve got a lot of facts about road building right now. I don’t know if I’m ready for more facts about road building. Okay. Here’s a chapter about Robert Moses and his brother. Oh, you know what? This chapter was really dense with his relationship with the different mayors. Okay. Let me give you a chapter about how lavishly he would entertain his guests at Jones Beach as if he was an emperor.” And you read that chapter, and you’re like, “This is fun. This is, like, Great Gatsby kind of wealth porn.” But then Robert Caro is like, “You enjoyed that chapter, didn’t you? Here’s a chapter about how an entire neighborhood was destroyed and they tried everything they could to stop it and they couldn’t stop it and it’s heartbreaking.” There’s such a masterful kind of flow to it. And there’s funny parts to it. And Robert Caro’s the master of ending a chapter with a one sentence paragraph that’s like, “But Robert Moses had an idea.” And that’s the end of the chapter. And you’re like, “Now I need to read the next chapter.” Like, it’s rare that you read a really weighty, really respectable tome about municipal governance that has so much suspense built into it–has so many cliffhangers. 

Roman Mars: The thing about it is I read some of the book out loud to my wife, and it’s really readable. Like, it just kind of rolls off the tongue really well. It’s not this relentlessly chronological slog of, like, “Okay, we have to get to this bridge and get to this bridge to get to this bridge.” It really is about how Robert Moses developed as this kind of political reformer–this progressive, anti-politician, sort of meritocracy-focused… 

Elliott Kalan: This guy who went into public service for all the right reasons because he saw a need that people had for better ways to get around, especially better ways to relax and enjoy their lives in a city setting. And you watch him amass the power he needs to make that dream possible. And Robert Caro calls it a dream many times and then realizes, “Actually, I kind of like the amassing power part. And I like the making the dream possible part–and going too far.” The only moment it doesn’t have is the moment in every rock and roll movie where someone goes, “You’ve changed, man. It used to be about the music.” But that’s the kind of arc that Robert Moses is going on. There’s just so much in it. There’s a character in the novel The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins, who carries around Robinson Crusoe with him everywhere. And he says, “This is my Bible. Whenever I need advice or I need something, I turn to a page in Robinson Crusoe, and there’s something right there for me.” And that’s how I feel about The Power Broker–that if I had trouble with something in my life, I feel like I could open up The Power Broker to a random page, and I’d find something on there that would be where I’d be like, “This applies. This helps me get through what I’m getting through right now.”

Roman Mars: I’ve read it once before. And you’ve read it once before. We’re reading it again for the project of this podcast. 

Elliott Kalan: Which thank you, Roman, for asking me to be part of this because for years I said, “I’m going to reread The Power Broker someday. But when am I going to get around to it?” And then this came along, and I was like, “Yeah! Now I am justified in spending the limited amount of time God put me on this earth rereading the longest book, I think, I’ve ever read.”

Roman Mars: So, this is our 99% Invisible project for this next year. And starting on January 19th and monthly, we’re going to sort of cover about 100 pages per month and get through the whole book. And we’re going to talk about, you know, what happened in the book–kind of recap it. We’re gonna do some deep dives into some of the things we find most interesting in those chapters–maybe not the most important thing–just something to pick apart that’s fun for us. And we’re going to interview some celebrities who are fans of Robert Caro, fans of Robert Moses, or, you know, interested in Robert Moses, I guess, more than fans of Robert Moses.

Elliott Kalan: Fans in the same way that someone really likes the Joker or Dr. Doom or something like that.

Roman Mars: And including our first guest for this inaugural episode–this introductory episode–a one Conan O’Brien, who… It’s sort of amazing how he’s aligned himself with Robert Caro. There was a whole New York Times article from a few years ago about how much he was a fan of Robert Caro, which is kind of an amazing thing to exist–that there would just be an article about his own fandom. 

Elliott Kalan: One of the first times I remember reading about Robert Caro was in an article about Conan O’Brien from 20 some odd years ago. You could tell he’s supposed to be talking to somebody about being the host of a late-night television show. But the article opens with him talking about Master of the Senate, which at the time, I think, was the most recent Lyndon Johnson book in the series. And you can tell that he is just so genuinely excited about this that he must have brought it up probably 30 times. But they put it in once in the article. But they’re like, “Well, we got to cover this because it’s such a part of him.” He’s been such a real Carohead–just such a real Caro diehard for years. 

Roman Mars: Yeah. It’s fun to watch him be such an enthusiastic fan. And so, he was the only guest that we had in mind for our first episode. So, after the break, Elliott and I are going to talk to Conan O’Brien. What’s more important–making sure you’re set for the day or planning for tomorrow? You can actually do both at the same time with annuity and life insurance solutions from Lincoln Financial, you’re not just taking care of you and your family’s future, you’re also helping yourself out today. Lincoln’s annuities offer options to not only provide you with your guaranteed retirement income for life, but to help protect you from everyday market volatility. And their life insurance policies not only provide your family with a death benefit, but some can even give you immediate access to funds in case of an emergency. Go to and get started now to learn how to plan, protect, and retire. 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Make sure they know that you heard about GiveWell from 99% Invisible to get your donation matched. Again that’s to donate or find out more. We’re going to spend the whole year digging into The Power Broker. But first, let’s talk about the guy who wrote it. In addition to The Power Broker, Robert Caro has written a memoir about his writing and four biographies of President Lyndon Johnson with a fifth and final book on the way–each volume taking on a different portion of LBJ’s life with significant digressions on the soil composition of the Texas Hill Country where Johnson grew up and the entire history and function of the U.S. Senate. As a biographer, there is no one like him. And as such, Robert Caro has a fervent and dedicated fan base, including Conan O’Brien. So, you created Conan O’Brien Needs a Friend, I’m told, basically as an elaborate front to get Robert Caro to talk to you. Why is he so special? 

Conan O’Brien: Well, first of all, everything I’ve done in show business is an elaborate long con to achieve some of my life goals. Meeting Mr. T was one of them, and I achieved that way back in the late ’90s. But yeah, I always wanted to talk to Robert Caro. I’m a history buff. And so, Robert Caro–clearly the preeminent historian of our times. And I have a very good friend and college roommate named Eric Rife. Shoutout to Eric, who I still see all the time. And he and I were in college together when the first Caro book on Johnson came out. And we started reading those books as they came out. And we sort of–if you can imagine… Back 15 years ago, if you can imagine 12-year-old girls waiting in line for the next Harry Potter book–that’s how we were about Caro. And we would have long animated discussions about Lyndon Johnson and sometimes to the point where we would be in a restaurant. I mean, to this day, we could be talking about Lyndon Johnson in a restaurant. And my friend Eric is very loud. And also, he comes from the same part of Pennsylvania that Jimmy Stewart is from. So, he actually sounds a bit like Jimmy Stewart. And so, we’ll be in a restaurant–a nice restaurant–and we start talking about Johnson. And Eric will get very animated, and then I’ll get animated. But Eric’s louder than I am, and I’m the one on television and on radio. And he’ll start shouting, “What he understood about Lyndon Johnson–! You gotta understand!”  And, you know, people think that it’s a scene from, you know, It’s A Wonderful Life, where he’s screaming at Clarence. So, we both get very excited about the work of Robert Caro. And I think it all boils down to my core religion–even though I was raised Catholic–is that God is in the details. I feel that way about comedy. I feel that way about work and craft in general. And Robert Caro is the patron saint of doing the work, taking the time, having the patience, and believing that God is in the details. And that’s reflected so powerfully in his work that I think that’s why he resonates for me. 

Roman Mars: I find it really fascinating that people are obsessed with this process. And you’ve expressed being obsessed with his process. And I think that part of that is because in the void of the decade between books, we fill our imaginations with him and a single lightbulb and file folders and stuff like this. And even his book that talks about writing is called Working. It’s all about a work ethic. What about that is really fascinating to you?

Conan O’Brien: Well, I like to contrast Robert Caro with the times that we’re in now. If you think about it, everything’s so quick. Everything feels so temporary. I mean, the internet didn’t exist when Robert Caro started–clearly–The Power Broker but then on to his Lyndon Johnson books. And now we live in this world where everything’s so ephemeral and fast. Series come and go. Television comes and goes. Entertainment–almost like a magician that has flash powder–things explode and there’s a big spark and we all go, “Whoa!” And–puff–and then it’s gone. And while this is all happening, you contrast it with this man who has dedicated his whole life essentially to writing about these two people and really most of his life writing about one man and doing it his way, without compromise, very quietly, in a very small office. I haven’t been there, but I imagine it’s not huge. And cranking away on a Smith Corona typewriter that was built in 1969. And he has this dedication to what he’s doing that almost feels like it’s akin to Egyptians building a pyramid. You know, most people that were working on a pyramid never even lived to see it half built, let alone completed. What this man’s doing doesn’t feel like it’s part of the late 20th and early 21st century. It’s completely out of time. You know, Robert Caro and his work makes me feel trivial the way looking at a mesa in a desert makes me feel trivial. You know? I just look at it, and I go, “Oh, my God, this thing is so much bigger than me. And it’s made of granite.” Robert Caro is the closest thing to, like, a geological formation. His work–his body of work–feels like we’re watching this eruption of lava and moving of tectonic plates that’s going to build something. And it’s going to last as long as civilization lasts, which is at least another 40 years. 

Elliott Kalan: Yeah, I often think of Robert Caro less as a writer and more as, like, a Merlin type character–someone who goes off into the top of a tower or sits on a mountain somewhere and is so incredibly focused and concentrated on the universe around him that he’s working with, that he gains a greater knowledge of it and occasionally comes down from the mountain and is like, “Here you go. Here’s my latest insights.” And then he goes back up to the mountain and people go, “Mr. Caro! Mr. Caro, when can we have more of this?” And he’s like, “It takes time. It takes time. And it takes concentration–more than you’re capable of.” And then he goes back up into the mists of his office on Central Park West, I guess. 

Conan O’Brien: Right. And, you know, he has such respect for the work he’s doing that he wears a blazer and a tie. He’s not working with anybody. 

Elliott Kalan: He’s by himself–all day.

Conan O’Brien: He’s by himself. You know, I would be probably just wearing boardshorts, no underwear, totally commando, shirtless… And I’d be, you know, yelling into an ancient Dictaphone just for fun. And the TV would be on in the background, and I’d be making popcorn. But this guy is dressed as if he’s going into the Oval Office for a meeting. And he has his process. He writes out in longhand. Then he writes on the typewriter. And it’s got to be triple space. And he does a lot of thinking before he writes. And you think about this world we’re in now where we pick up our phones and we blast out these screeds and thoughts and, you know, various musings with our thumbs while we’re driving and balancing a coffee in our lap. 

Elliott Kalan: And if you’re me, shouting at children in the backseat at the same time you’re doing those things. 

Conan O’Brien: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Or if you’re me, shouting at children through the window–just children on the street. “Why aren’t you older? You seem too young to exist!”

Roman Mars: “Here’s a 1,200-page book! Read this book! Grow up a little!”

Elliott Kalan: Just hurling copies of it at the kids. 

Conan O’Brien: Yeah, I’ve made a device that I load up this little catapult thing in my car. And it has about 15 Power Brokers loaded into it. And when I see kids–I want to say under 12–on the side of the street, just loitering, I fire a Power Broker at them, which if you’ve weighed that book recently… I kill half these kids accidentally. 

Roman Mars: You have to do it then because they’re still, you know, impressionable clay. You can still turn them into a human being. 

Conan O’Brien: Also, they can take a hit. You fire… I mean, usually– Yeah, they heal. They’ll get over it. And they’ll never walk right again. But they’ll know–damn it–they’ll read that book. But then I just admire… I have so much admiration for his process. And I’m always trying get this sense of what is it about this guy that I, like, want to try and emulate. And obviously, there’s so many ways I can’t emulate him. But what I can emulate is it’s important. The importance of your work–taking your work seriously, even if it’s very silly work–and respecting the people who might see it or appreciated it enough to try and put a little detail into it or a little thought or feel how this is going to come across… It’s funny because when I finally did get to meet him and talk to him, there’s a real sweetness about him. It’s his enthusiasm. So many of us are pleased with so much less. But he’s a little like Ahab. He has that same kind of “Nope, I’m going to keep going and I’m going to keep going and I’m going to keep going until I literally cannot stop.” And you see him in his books… I mean, the story about “I still don’t have it. I still don’t have the full sense of Lyndon Johnson’s relationship with his dad as a young man…” So, you know, he’s talked to Lyndon Johnson’s brother, Sam Houston, many times. And he’s saying he’s just told all these stories, and he’s got it all. And he’s like, “Nope! I got to go back. I got to go back. I got to go back.” And then finally, he gets this brother to say, you know, “Yeah, those are all stories I told–wasn’t really what happened.” And then he gets him to go back into that room where they used to sit and have dinner. And he pushes him and pushes him and pushes him and finally gets the brother to relive that moment between Lyndon Johnson and his father. And suddenly it’s not this folksy, bullshit, tall, Texas tale. It’s real. And any of us–even if we consider ourselves perfectionists or people who care about our work–we would have signed off long ago. We would’ve said, like, “You know, we’ve got a pretty good book here. I mean, this is a pretty good book. I think we’re good. And I really do want to go to Aruba because I bought the tickets. So, I think I can submit this.” And no. He needs to keep going back and keep going back and keep going back. And I keep thinking about that old television classic, Columbo. You know, Peter Falk as Columbo just kept coming back. He’s talked to the bad guy 35 times. And then he’s like, “Just one more thing. There’s just one thing I want to ask you. It’s kind of confusing.” And I think of that as Robert Caro has got a trench coat and he’s already talked to, you know, Governor Connally 75 times or he’s already talked to Sam Houston or he’s already talked to the Texas oil guy 500 times. And then the guy’s getting dressed for the day and he wants to go out and he’s got a tennis match he’s supposed to play and he opens the door and there’s Robert Caro in a trench coat. “You know, there’s one thing that kind of bothers me just a little bit.” “Well, what is it, Caro?” You know? “I’m just curious. You said… But, you know, I looked into it, and they didn’t have a Buick’s dealership in Fort Worth at the time.” “Okay! Okay! It wasn’t a Buick dealership. It was a Pontiac! Augh!” You know, and then he’s got his chapter. But there will not be another like him. And he’s on the planet right now. 

Elliott Kalan: He’s working right now. I think about that sometimes. I’ll go, “I’m doing whatever dumb podcasting or whatever thing I’m doing. Robert Caro sitting in his office right now while I’m doing this, working so hard–doing something so amazing.” There’s a story in The Power Broker where Robert Moses’s mom reads a newspaper article that says he’s been fined for breaking the law. And she says, “Oh, he’s never made a dollar in his life, and now we’re going to have to pay for this, too.” And his editor is like, “Well, how do you know she said that?” And he’s like, “Oh, well, I talked to the guy who delivered the newspaper to her at the camp she was staying at–the summer camp she’s staying at.” “Well, how did you talk to him?” “Well, I talked to everybody I could find who worked that summer camp.” As if that was just “Well, why wouldn’t you? Why wouldn’t you talk to every single person who ever worked at the place Robert Moses’s parents used to spend their summers.” Like, it’s astounding. It’s astounding. 

Conan O’Brien: You know, you gave me an idea, which is we should all get together and try and convince him to do this. But there should be a Robert Caro Cam in his office. And it’s set up in the corner of his office. And it won’t bother him because, you know, he’s… But basically, for people like us, we can–at any time that he’s in his office, from 8:00 in the morning until 6:00 at night–see him sitting there looking at his Smith Corona or maybe typing and then looking through some papers and then it’s time for him to walk up through Central Park South back to his apartment. 

Elliott Kalan: I don’t know what the subscription rate is for that. I pay monthly for it. My children have to yell at me to get off of it. As it is, my kids are always annoyed that I’m talking The Power Broker anyway. 

Conan O’Brien: Right. 

Elliott Kalan: And carrying around with me like it’s, like, a totem. But that’s such a fantastic idea. And we can point the camera so that you can’t see his bulletin board with his notes on it because he’s very private about those–doesn’t want anyone to see those.

Conan O’Brien: We would respect his privacy. We would angle it. He would sign off. Believe me. This is a man that would sign off on the shot. Yeah. And then there would just be a couple of thousand nerds all across the world who’d be watching. Of course, in other parts of the world, you’d have to get up at 3:00 in the morning to watch an older gentleman think while looking at a typewriter. 

Elliott Kalan: If you miss it, people put the setlists up–what he did and what time he ate a sandwich at his desk. 

Conan O’Brien: Right. I don’t know if you’ve ever checked out the Book of Kells. If you go to Dublin and go to– I think it’s Trinity University. And they have the Book of Kells. And you think about the Middle Ages, and you think about the Dark Ages and monks that decided, “Okay, the world has gone insane. The world’s gone absolutely mad. So, we’re going to retreat into these little monasteries. And we can get some food. And we can get enough wood and coal to keep ourselves warm. And we’re going to wall it off because there’s just madness out there. There is Visigoths and Huns and horribleness and disease. And we’re going to slowly illuminate a Bible. And we’re going to put so much work and care and artistry and craftsmanship into making these beautiful books and transcribing some of the wisdom that maybe is currently being lost, you know, from Athens–from ancient Athens–or from Rome. And no one’s ever going to know our names and we’re going to do this and we’re all going to die anonymously. But we’re going to have faith that somehow this stuff is going to live on.” And that’s the same feeling I get. It’s the belief that things are more important than you and that they can outlive you and that your work matters. And those are sort of, I think, essential, almost philosophical, or religious ideas. It’s faith based, which is “I’m going to devote my whole life to something. It doesn’t seem that sexy to anybody else. I will write about basically this civil servant. And then I’ll write about, you know, Lyndon Johnson.” When those books first started to come out, I remember thinking, “Lyndon Johnson?

Roman Mars: Yeah, it’s not the first president you’d think of.

Conan O’Brien: It’s not Kennedy. It’s not Lincoln. It’s not. Washington. It’s not, you know… “Lyndon Johnson? Huh… Lyndon Johnson.” And then you start to read, and you understand. 

Roman Mars: I think that’s dead on. And I think that–as you pinpoint his sort of monastic egolessness–is both what’s appealing to the work. But also, it truly affects the work. Like, if I moved to the Texas Hill Country to understand the early days of Lyndon Johnson, my book would be about me moving to the Hill Country to learn more about Lyndon Johnson. But that egolessness really makes the journalism truly different. Like, he is not part of the new journalism movement. You don’t know until working that he talked to Robert Moses seven times. He kind of hints at it like, “As said to the author.” And he’ll just call himself “the author” in his books. There’s something about that that I think that his sort of humility and his role in this as the person who brings this stuff together–but it’s not the center of the story–is one of the things that make it so magical. 

Conan O’Brien: Yeah. As you say, it’s very non-21st century to remove yourself completely from the story. It just doesn’t happen anymore. And how many documentaries have we all seen where the documentarian sort of becomes part of the story? And that’s very much in vogue. And authors are part of it. And ourselves and our egos are included. And we get high-fives and praise for that. 

Roman Mars: I think one of the most remarkable things about The Power Broker is you’re about 400 or 500 pages into this and you’re thinking, “Hey, this Robert Moses guy is pretty good. He gets a lot of stuff done.”

Elliott Kalan: “Pretty amazing. Very talented. A visionary.” Yeah. 

Roman Mars: And he just doesn’t put his thumb on the scale in any certain ways, even though when, you know, I’ve heard him talk to you and I’ve heard him speak–Robert Caro–he has opinions.

Conan O’Brien: Oh, yeah!

Roman Mars: So, it’s just fascinating to me that he really puts you in there with the moment. There is, you know, some view from the future to show, like, what has happened or what will happen. That’s why I think he’s sui generis. I mean, he just has this ability just to sort of divorce himself from that and let the facts speak for itself. 

Conan O’Brien: Well, it’s interesting, too, because you think about in all entertainment–I mean, look at movies–one of the first notes that any studio would give any screenwriter or anyone making any kind of entertainment today is “You’ve got to let us know who the bad guy is right away.” You know what I mean? “We need to know five minutes into the first act of Die Hard. We need to know that Hans Gruber is a bad guy, and you need to tell us that.” Whereas Caro is willing to let the whole thing unfold. And he is writing about human beings, so he understands that it’s not his job to tell us whether someone’s good or whether someone’s bad. He’s just going to let it all unfold. And as his big favorite thesis is–which he’s talked about many times–there was the old saying that “power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely.” And he said, “Well, no power doesn’t corrupt.” In his opinion, power reveals you. And so, as Robert Moses begins his career and doesn’t have the power, we can’t see it yet. But as time goes on and he gets more and more and more power, that’s when we start to really see things go further and further off the rails. But he lets you figure that out. He has faith that you, the reader, will see what you need to see. 

Elliott Kalan: Once you read it and read Robert Caro’s work in general, it feels like joining the Freemasons or some sort of a, like, cult or something like that, where suddenly if someone finds out that you read his work, they get very excited about it, and they want to talk to you about it. I remember reading The Power Broker for the first time, when I was a young man–20 years ago–and being on the subway in New York, reading it, and having guys just kind of shuffle up to me and go “Reading The Power Broker, huh?”

Conan O’Brien: Yeah. 

Elliott Kalan: “Enjoy it. Enjoy it.” And then walking away.

Conan O’Brien: It’s basically our fight club, you know? 

Elliott Kalan: Yeah, yeah, yeah. 

Conan O’Brien: I don’t. want to fight you–either of you guys–in a basement. I mean, I sort of do. I think I’d do okay. I’m pretty tall. I work out. But, yeah, there is a, you want to say, fraternal order. But I don’t think it’s obviously gender based. It’s like we’re part of this “Oh, right. You get it now too.”

Elliott Kalan: It’s like being in the Matrix. It’s like being the Matrix and Morpheus shows up and hands you The Power Broker and is like, “Read this. You’ll understand a lot more.”

Conan O’Brien: And then it’s a very different movie because then you’re just watching Keanu Reeves read…

Elliott Kalan: For hours. Yeah. 

Conan O’Brien: For nine months. And occasionally stopping and going, “Whoa…”

Elliott Kalan: Instead of saying, “I know kung fu,” he goes, “I know municipal bylaws now.” And he looks at his hands like, “Did I do that? Did I write these laws?”

Conan O’Brien: Right. And all of his enemies have just drifted off. He doesn’t even have to fight them. They’re just like, “Are you still reading that? When are we gonna…?”

Elliott Kalan: “It’s really good. You gotta…”

Conan O’Brien: “Mr. Anderson. Are you still reading that, Mr. Anderson?” “Yeah. Yeah, I’m actually– They’re building the Taconic.” “Mr. Anderson. I’m going to be leaving now. I’m retiring.” “You’re retiring?” “Yes. I’m 65 now.” That’s also… The interesting thing about that book is that it’s so comically big that you can’t walk around with it in a nonchalant way. They should build a Babybjörn that’s just for The Power Broker–something that’s made by a Swiss company that just holds a Robert Caro book against your chest where it can hear your heart beating. 

Elliott Kalan: To feel safe. Yeah. 

Conan O’Brien: Yeah. And it can feel safe. And, you know, it doesn’t throw your back out because you can’t hold… You can’t say, “I’m going to hold it with my right hand” because–no–then your right side of your body weighs 60 pounds more than your left. So, there should be– I mean, Robert Caro could make a killing if he made a deal with a Swiss company that makes a little carrier for his books, you know? Man, I hope– Is he going to listen to this? No, he’s not going to listen to this. He doesn’t have time.

Elliott Kalan: He’s too busy working. I would say he’d listen to it on his walk, but he doesn’t use the device on his walk. He just thinks about what he’s going to write that day. 

Roman Mars: I would love to talk to him at the end of this process. 

Conan O’Brien: I’m surprised more people don’t bug him when he’s, like, walking to the office. I don’t want to put that out there. But, you know, just…

Elliott Kalan: I think the only people who know that he does it are the same people who are like, “I got to read that next book. I don’t want anything to distract him.”

Conan O’Brien: “I don’t want to distract him.” Yeah. 

Elliott Kalan: “I can’t take a moment of his time” because what if as he’s walking along, he’s thinking of… Or he’s written the last line of the last book. What if he was thinking of the last sentences that go up to that and then I go up and say, “Mr. Caro! Oh, I’d love to talk to you”? And he forgets what those last sentences were. And he says, “Well, you know what? To make sure I had the right idea, I better read every page of the Lyndon Johnson Library again.” And then you’ll go, “No! He was almost there!”

Conan O’Brien: Maybe someday the three of us can meet up and shadow Caro as he walks through the park on his way to work. 

Elliott Kalan: Oh, amazing. Yeah. 

Conan O’Brien: No! It would not be amazing! It would be wrong! 

Elliott Kalan: “Three men were arrested in Central Park today for stalking America’s greatest biographer.”

Conan O’Brien: “More Caro stalkers have been caught today.” Yeah. “Another Caro stalker has been arrested.” 

Elliott Kalan: “We got another couple of them. Get the paddy wagon.”

Conan O’Brien: “There’s one paddy wagon for just that squad.” 

Roman Mars: If you had one sort of, like, you know, speak-to-the-audience sentence of why they should read The Power Broker with us this year, what would you say? 

Conan O’Brien: Hmm. Well, I would say you should read The Power Broker because you will save so much money on your satellite or streaming service. You will be enveloped by this incredible story. And by the time you’re done reading it– Really, an amazing story about how power works and what one person can do to completely change the face of an American city. And I’m telling you, it’s riveting, and it’s powerful. And when you’re done, you’ll realize that you didn’t watch The Golden Bachelor or any of these other shows that are robbing you of your life essence. And you’ll have saved some money and some valuable time, and you’ll be a better person. 

Roman Mars: Perfect. Thanks for helping us kick it off. It really means a lot to us.

Conan O’Brien: Oh, yeah! No, I’m glad. This was a labor of love for me, so I’m happy to do it–happy to chat with you guys–and I’ll be listening. This is a cool idea. So, I’m on board! Guys, I’m going to go scream at people who work for me not because they did anything wrong but because I can. 

Elliott Kalan: Power Broker really did rub off on you. Yeah. Yeah. 

Roman Mars: The Robert Moses way. Yeah. 

Conan O’Brien: All right, guys. Good luck with this!

Elliott Kalan: Oh, thank you so much. Appreciate it.

Roman Mars: Thank you so much. So, there you have it. If you have a copy of The Power Broker, pull it off the shelf. If you don’t, put it on your holiday wish list. We’re going to spend 2024 reading it together and talking about it with some of our favorite people. These will be extra, monthly, bonus episodes of 99% Invisible. And we’ll cover about 100 pages at a time, getting us all the way through December of 2024. The first proper episode drops on January 19th and will cover the introduction plus Parts One and Two. It’s up to you if you want to read it first, if you want to read it after, or just listen along. There is no wrong way to be a part of our little podcast book club. The 99% Invisible Breakdown of The Power Broker is produced by Isabel Angell. Fact-checking by Graham Hacia. Music by Swan Real. Mixed by Dara Hirsch. 99% Invisible’s Executive Producer is Kathy Tu. Our Senior Editor is Delaney Hall. Kurt Kohlstedt is the Digital Director. The rest of the team includes Chris Berube, Jayson De Leon, Emmet FitzGerald, Martín Gonzalez, Christopher Johnson. Vivian Le, Lasha Madan, Jeyca Maldonado-Medina, Kelly Prime, Gabriella Gladney, Joe Rosenberg, Sarah Baik, and me. Roman Mars. We are part of the Stitcher and SiriusXM podcast family, now headquartered six blocks north in the Pandora Building… in beautiful… uptown… Oakland, California–home of the Oakland Roots Soccer Club, of which I am a proud community owner. As other professional teams leave, the Oakland Roots are Oakland first–always. You can visit us on all the usual social media sites, but the best place on the internet is the place you can listen to every past episode of 99PI. And that is

Conan O’Brien: Crazy, thick accent. Couldn’t get over that it’s one of the thickest New York accents I’ve ever heard. 

Elliott Kalan: I’ve always found it very adorable that his wife is named Ina and he calls her “Iner.” This guy is brilliant. He’s an amazing writer. He’s such a penetrating thinker. He cannot pronounce his wife’s name properly. 

Northwestern Mutual: Becoming your strongest financial self? Good plan. Northwestern Mutual’s guide to good financial planning can help you balance spending and saving, set goals, and start creating the life you want to be living. Get it today at The Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company, Milwaukee, Wisconsin. 

  1. Lisa

    Thank you for hosting this read-a-long and podcast series! My mom, born in 1939 in Brooklyn and raised there, (so, way before it was hipster- creator- ville) knew about Robert Caro. She knew about the corruption around him, but was so grateful for all the parks. She was in the parks almost every weekend until she was 21. When she moved to California in 1967, she found all the parks (yay for CA State Parks!) and learned the names of all the trees. Now, wherever I live, I find the parks and learn the trees…

  2. Anna Pace

    This is fantastic! I have worked in urban planning, specifically transit planning, for 40 years. During my education and through my career I read the Power Broker 3 times and each time gained new insights about cities, growth and governance. You articulated the importance of this book brilliantly. I will definitely be listening and participating with you.

  3. Susan Sheridan Tucker

    I am so excited by your new project! I’ve been a fan of Robert Caro’s for well over 30 years. I read the Power Broker as part of my master’s degree in Urban Planning. I’m a native New Yorker and it forever changed the way I viewed the city I love. Your first episode brought back a flood of memories.

    A funny story…after the release of his first Johnson book, a fellow city planner I worked with and also a huge fan, was frustrated by the lag time between the first and second volume. Robert Caro’s home phone number used to be listed. On a whim, he called it. Robert answered and graciously acknowledged his frustration and thanked him for his readership. Remarkable writer and a genuinely likeable person. Kudos to you for sharing this great work with your listeners. We are in for a treat. (My copy is quite weathered. I split my version in two so I could reasonably carry and read on the subway.) Really looking foward to listening to more.

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