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Roman Mars: This is the 99% Invisible breakdown of the Power Broker. I’m Roman Mars.
Elliott Kalan: And I’m Elliott Kalan.
Roman Mars: Welcome to our first official episode, breaking down the 1974 Pulitzer Prize winning book, The Power Broker by our hero, Robert Caro. Robert Caro happens to be our special guest for this episode, and you do not get more special than that. I’m still pinching myself. So, on today’s show, Elliott and I are going to cover the introduction plus parts one and two of the book, discussing the major story beats and themes. And then we’ll bring the great Robert Caro to the stage. We had an absolute blast talking with him. It was perfect. But right now, let’s dive into the introduction. So, Elliot, how does this big, badass, beautiful biography of master builder Robert Moses begin?
Elliott Kalan: This book starts the way any amazing mammoth, classic work of municipal analysis starts–with a quote from Sophocles, one of the greatest of the Greek tragedians. It opens with this quote: “One must wait until the evening to see how splendid the day has been,” which is in many ways, Caro’s thesis possibly for the entire book–that you cannot judge the events of the moment until you know the consequences later. You can’t really know if something is right or wrong until you know the consequences. And the consequence of this quote is that I honestly cannot find the source of this quote in the original work of Sophocles. I’ve traced it back to a speech Richard Nixon gave in 1971 where he quotes Sophocles, and I’m not sure where that came from. So, I’m very curious if Robert Caro–who we know is a seasoned archival researcher–went back to Greece and was going through the Sophocles papers at Athens U. But it’s something that I haven’t been able to find. But what it also signals to me is that this book is operating on a kind of a literary level, as well as a historical research level, which is very exciting to me. And we begin, in a very, almost Hollywood way some might say after that quote–with two parallel experiences in Robert Moses’ life. Robert Caro does the thing where he starts with a scene–a telling scene–from Moses’ youth that will then reflect on his life later on.
Roman Mars: Yes. And it’s this scene that actually you will find later on in the story many, many times. And it’s the scene of Robert Moses trying to get his way and getting upset and then resigning. And the first example of this is when he’s a kid at Yale and he’s on the swim team and he’s trying to get more money for the swim team. And he tells the captain of the swim team, Ed Richards, about this plan to approach the swim team donor, Ogden Mills Reid, directly.
Elliott Kalan: Which is the perfect name for a Yale swim team donor. Ogden Mills Reid. Everything about that name says to me, “This guy is donating money to the Yale swim team.” Yeah.
Roman Mars: And he tells Captain Richards that he wants to, you know, get more money for the Minors Sports Association. And he’s like, “This would be great for the team.” Captain Ed Richards is horrified by this.
Elliott Kalan: He does not like the idea of going to their top donor and essentially deliberately misleading him, even if he never finds out. Even if the money is still going to the team in some way, this scheme is not up to the standards of a Yale man, the honor of a Yale man, and the dignity of a Yale man. And so, he says no to the scheme. And Roman, what does Moses do in response?
Roman Mars: Well, Moses does what he’s going to do many, many times over the course of his life. He threatens to resign if he doesn’t get his way. And what’s fantastic about this moment, unlike almost every other moment in Robert Moses’ life, is Ed Richards goes, “Okay, sure. Yeah. That’s fine. I accept your resignation.”
Elliott Kalan: It’s the Yale swim team. All right. They go for it. “Just get out of here.” For most people, they would learn the lesson, “I guess threatening to resign from something did not get me what I want. I’m not going to do that again.” But Moses–he’s learned a different lesson from it because 45 years later, Mayor Robert Wagner is being sworn in. And we’re going to spend a lot of time with Robert F. Wagner later in this book. He shows up a lot. He’s being sworn in as mayor of New York, and he is pledged to the good government activists–the civic reformers–that he will not reappoint Robert Moses, who at this point has been in government in New York City for decades. He won’t reappoint him to the post of a seat on the City Planning Commission, which is one of many seats he holds. And he’s been using that seat to approve his own parks projects. And the reformers are like, “This is a conflict. You shouldn’t let him do this.” And Wagner says, “You’re right. I’m not going to do it.” And instead of saying to Moses, “I’m not giving you the seat,” he just kind of doesn’t swear him into that post on Inauguration Day. And Moses recognizes this and gets very mad and threatens to resign. And Wagner has no choice but to reappoint him to that post on the City Planning Commission. So, here’s the thing. As a young man, he threatens to resign, his bluff gets called, and he loses. As a middle-aged man–older man–he threatens to resign, and he gets everything he wants. Roman, what’s the difference between these two scenarios?
Roman Mars: The difference is because in one case he has no power and in the other case–the second case–he has all the power. He’s the power broker.
Elliott Kalan: He’s literally the broker of power. He makes or breaks power. I associate the phrase “power broker” so much with this book that it becomes a phrase I don’t even think about the meaning of anymore. And what it means is he’s someone who possesses power and can control who else gets power. He can control where power flows from one place to another. And the rest of the introduction after that is Robert Caro– I’m going to put it into wrestling terms. When you’ve got a new fighter and you want to make the audience like them, you got to “put them over.” That’s what they say. You’ve got to show the audience why they’re worth supporting. Sometimes that means letting them defeat a more seasoned fighter. Sometimes that means, you know, they’ve got some kind of new move that is really exciting. You’ve got to put them over. And the rest of this introduction is very much Robert Caro putting over Robert Moses as possibly the most important person in the civilization of the last couple hundred years in a few ways. He talks a lot about Moses’ personal impact on New York. And he has these lists of all of the things he’s built–the expressways he built, the parkways he’s built, all the mayors and governors he served under, the colossal amounts of money that he spent… And I wonder if you feel like we should read any of these lists.
Roman Mars: I was just about to, like, look that up here. “Robert Moses built every one of those roads. He built the Major Deegan Expressway, the Van Wyck Expressway, the Sheridan Expressway, and the Bruckner Expressway. He built the Gowanus Expressway, the Prospect Expressway, the Whitestone Expressway, the Clearview Expressway, and the Throgs Neck Expressway. He built the Cross Bronx Expressway, the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, the Nassau Expressway, the Staten Island Expressway, and the Long Island Expressway. He built the Harlem River drive and the West Side Highway.”
Elliott Kalan: It seems like it would be kind of numbing in a way to just have these long lists of roads because then the Parkway Road comes up a couple pages later and it’s even longer. But there’s something–there’s this building rhythm and momentum to it–that’s very hypnotic. And Robert Caro has talked about how his inspiration for this was in The Iliad, where they’re listing where all the different places are that the different soldiers came from–the warriors came from. And he’s like, “Well, if Homer can do it, why can’t I do it?” which, I think, is amazing to me. That’s the ambition that he’s got there. He goes on from there to talk about the tribal authority–the center of Moses power–this government, public authority. Public authority is something we’ll talk about in great depth in the several episodes from now that is kind of not exactly a public government thing–not exactly a private corporation. This was his personal fiefdom that he ruled like a little king, like a little city within a city. And the often-dirty means he used to control those outside his authority, from bribery to blackmail–it’s amazing.
Roman Mars: It was also run on nickels because he makes a point that his coin is nickels because those are the fees that people throw into the little basket to cross his various bridges.
Elliott Kalan: Especially that Triborough Bridge. It’s this toll bridge that connects three different boroughs, hence the name “Triborough.” It’s all there. The name doesn’t lie to you. And those tolls add up so much. And it becomes his own private source of wealth that the city cannot touch because this is an authority. This is a special kind of organization. And Caro talks about how Robert Moses withheld the knowledge of how he wielded power and how much power he had from the public, and especially how wasteful and corrupt the use of that power was. The public did not know for many, many years. Maybe that’s Robert Caro giving himself a little tip of the hat that he’s revealing all this stuff now–how Moses was able to do these things because, to the public at large, he was just the man who built the parks. You can’t not like parks. He’s a park guy, you know? And finally, the introduction rounds out with Caro talking about a subject that’s going to become a very big part of what we talk about, which is the people that Moses dispossessed for his projects. New York is a big city that has a kind of relatively small amount of space that is the center of essentially Manhattan, the Bronx, other parts of Brooklyn, and Queens. And it’s so packed tight, even by the time Moses is working, that in order to build something big, you have to make thousands of people move. You’ve got to remove them. And the way Moses did that was not by giving each of them $1 million and being like, “You’re rich. You did it.” You know, the way he did that was by forcing them out in increasingly underhanded and in sometimes cruel ways.
Roman Mars: Exactly. Exactly.
Elliott Kalan: And finally, not only was he dispossessing people without the means to fight him from their homes, but the public structures that he was creating were better when they were in the rich neighborhoods than the poor neighborhoods. Caro goes into this. And quoting Caro, “He built parks and playgrounds with a lavish hand, but they were parks and playgrounds for the rich and the comfortable. Recreational facilities for the poor he doled out like a miser.” It’s a subject that Caro is saying has a lot of grade to it–that it’s hard to judge the good or bad of it. “You can’t judge how well the day has been to get to the evening and see how splendid it was,” as Sophocles maybe said. I think that’s how he said it. Caro really speaks in almost Dickensian terms at times, which I really love. And he ends by saying, “It’s not possible to know if New York would have been a better city without Robert Moses.” He ends the introduction saying, “It is possible to say only that it would have been a different city.” And I feel like this introduction is such a bold thesis statement for the book that we are about to read, where it’s like, “This guy–he’s a monster and a messiah.” And his impact is so big that there’s no way of knowing how New York would have been different without him. We just know it would have been different. And if you’re me, then you’re like, “Oh, I got to read this book.”
Roman Mars: Yeah. And he’s making the case for why this book is so very long.
Elliott Kalan: Yes. It’s a good point.
Roman Mars: What Sophocles doesn’t mention is that the end of the day is going to be at the end of 2024 when we’ve read this whole thing.
Elliott Kalan: “One must wait until the end of the year to see how splendid the book has been.” But he is not going to compromise to make sure it is quick for you to read or light enough for you to take to the beach. You just gotta meet him halfway on this one.
Roman Mars: That’s right. And so, he sets the table for why this is so important because, you know, Robert Caro is a real New Yorker–born and raised. He has that great New York accent that we love. But he is writing this gigantic book. It is not just for New Yorkers. It’s meant for the world at large. Although I think it has special resonance and meaning for people who’ve spent time in New York. I’ve never lived in New York. I’ve been there a few times. I love it. But I get so much out of this book that, I think, applies to all kinds of cities and how things are built. But he’s making this broader case for why this particular character is almost mythical and worthy of this type of examination.
Elliott Kalan: Yes. And the case that New York is such an important city–such an influential city–that what Moses does in New York resonates with other cities around the world and becomes a key that other cities can look to, like something they can follow. And, yeah, there’s more to this than just interest for New Yorkers. And Roman, I apologize that when you said you never lived in New York, my knee jerk reaction is to lose a certain amount of respect for you. So, I apologize that that’s my immediate thing because as someone… I grew up in New Jersey, but I lived in New York for quite some time. There is a special resonance to reading this book and thinking to yourself as you’re reading it, “Oh, that’s why I have to deal with this problem. That’s why this thing is inconvenient. That’s why I can’t do this bit of traveling through the city that would make it so much easier. It’s because this man stood in the way of it.” And it’s exciting to a person with a rich New York history to read it. But I think you’re right that you don’t have to know New York well. You don’t have to live here for it to be exciting–the same way you don’t have to live in ancient Greece to read Sophocles and be like, “This is really profound. I should start my book with a quote from this guy.”
Roman Mars: This guy’s really on to something. Yeah, it’s big. And he makes a bold case for it to be big and worthy of its bigness. And that I actually really love about the beginning of the story.
Elliott Kalan: Yes.
Roman Mars: And as a piece of rhetoric, these two back-to-back stories of him resigning and getting different results is so great. Like it’s just a genius move on Caro’s part. And you will find this scene shows up a lot where he resigns. And different mayors have different takes on this and how Robert Moses is working them versus how the mayors are working him. And it’s hilarious. And this is one of those things that when you see this and you read the whole thing, it kind of has this quality of, like, witnessing this through the lens of modern history and you’re just like, “Can’t just one of these guys just accept his resignation?”
Elliott Kalan: Yeah.
Roman Mars: “Just move on.” It’s painful to watch.
Elliott Kalan: The head of the Yale swimming team could do it. Why can’t the governor or the mayor or President Roosevelt do it?
Roman Mars: Exactly.
Elliott Kalan: Like, what? And that so strikes to the point that Robert Caro is making about power. Power is not rational in that way. You know, power is almost directly opposed to the ideal of how a democracy functions because these elected officials cannot control this guy. And yet they totally should be able to. And yet, you’re wondering how is it possible? And–spoiler alert–eventually he does fall out of power. He’s not still running the New York City parks as a 150-year-old man. But Caro ends up making this case for how difficult it was to remove him and how almost cosmically aligned things needed to be for him to eventually be removed from power. There was basically one man who could do it. And the only reason he could do it–and this you will see eventually is Governor Rockefeller–is because Governor Rockefeller happens to be a member of the richest family in the world, who runs the most powerful bank in the world. So, he doesn’t really care that much about how much power the parks have. But the whole time you’re reading it, you’re like, “Mayor Wagner, just, like, go ahead and do it. Do right though the heavens fall. Let’s see what happens.”
Roman Mars: You feel that same way when the second impeachment of Trump happens. All the Republicans are really mad because, you know, an insurrection happened and they were scared and they hated feeling that way. And the impeachment–the second impeachment–happens, and you’re like, “This is your time. This is your time. Take a stand. I know it’s going to hurt. I know it’s going to hurt, but just do it now. Just take care of it.” And you have this feeling over and over again in this book where you’re just like, “Hey. Jimmy Walker–anybody–why don’t you just, like, accept and move on and no one will get too upset for longer than a couple of weeks and it’ll be okay?”
Elliott Kalan: “Or even if they do, maybe you don’t win reelection. And then–okay–do something else.” So often it comes down to “I can’t fire Moses because he’s the only one who can bring in the money for construction that will create the jobs that I need to get reelected.” And so, Caro’s creating this case study of how democracy functions poorly.
Roman Mars: That’s right. And he does that by setting the scene about what the world was like, what politics was like, and what the city was like, you know, starting all the way back to when Moses was born–even before Moses even arrives on these shores.
Elliott Kalan: It sounds like such a perfect segue to getting into Part One.
Roman Mars: Let’s talk about Chapter One, Part One: The Line of Succession. So, what’s the Moses backstory? Where does Moses come from?
Elliott Kalan: So, Moses comes from what to me is a very interesting backstory. He is the child of German Jews who immigrated in the 1830s/1840s to escape anti-Semitism in Germany. And these are not Jews who have the experience that, say, my ancestors had of fleeing from Russian pogroms and arriving here poor and having to work their way up through the Lower East Side and things like that. That’s very much a story of my family and Jews like me. But his family came over earlier. And these are the German Jews that would eventually become known as “Our Crowd.” And there’s a book about them called Our Crowd that’s really great. While I was reading this book, I realized, “Wait a minute, Caro’s using that book as a source, and I’ve read that book.” And I went to his notes and I saw that he used that book and I ran to my bookshelf to make sure I had read that book. And I was like, “This is amazing.” It was very exciting to me to be like, “I read a book that he used as a source!” But his family–they end up as real estate millionaires in New York, Robert Moses grows up with money. His grandmother, Rosalie Cohen, Caro focuses on very much because she’s this haughty, brilliant, iron-willed matriarch of the family. She has a daughter, Bella Cohen, who is very educated, also very haughty, and very iron willed, who marries a department store owner named Emmanuel Moses. And Caro keeps bringing up, in the early days at least, that Robert Moses is Bella Cohen’s son and Rosalie Cohen’s grandson, and he carries their traits. The family originally starts in New Haven, Connecticut, and Bob is a well-off suburban kid, growing up in a big house. And then his family relocates to New York City. And Robert Moses does not like that. He really misses Connecticut–the quiet and the greenery. And he will try to replicate that to a certain extent in New York City.
Roman Mars: A lot of this–where he comes from–sort of shows his preference later on for, like, having what are parkways, which essentially are roads with greenery on either side of them, and recreating this environment inside of the densest city in the world.
Elliott Kalan: He is essentially a suburban kid from the late 19th century who is trying very hard to recapture that feeling, like you’re saying, inside the densest built city in the entire United States in the 20th century. And Caro will bring us to this point where he’s saying Moses has these ideas of what driving is–that driving is something you do when you’re rich for pleasure down a quiet, tree lined street. And by the time that Moses has his highest power, that’s not what driving is anymore. Driving is how you get to work. And it sucks.
Roman Mars: Yeah. And we’ll talk about this more later. But, like, Robert Moses never drove a car. He always had a driver. And so, he makes the world for people like him. And knowing where he came from and knowing that he, you know, always came from wealth– Even though, you know, later on, he doesn’t have a lot of money because he dedicates himself to public service, he has that background and that safety net that he could always get money if he needed to. Like, he really didn’t, like, let go of his upbringing in any meaningful way. He’s a person of privilege even if he doesn’t have a lot of cash on hand.
Elliott Kalan: Yes, and that is instilled in him from youth as well as this kind of tradition of public service in the family. His mother is very involved in immigrant assimilation, the idea that the newer Jewish immigrants coming in–it’s up to the older Jewish immigrants to help them assimilate to America. And she becomes very involved with public service. But she wants to be in charge of the things that she’s involved with. The Moseses do not join committees and then go, “Oh, you need someone to organize the bake sale? I’ll do that.” The Moseses get involved, and they say, “We’re having a bake sale. Here’s the date. You’re going to get the stuff.” And so, his mother makes a huge impression on young Bob–“Moses,” as they call him–and he decides he’s going to go into public service after college. But first he’s going to go to college. That means it’s time for Chapter Two with the title Robert Moses at Yale, which sounds the most like it’s the next episode in the Robert Moses film series coming out in the 1930s.
Roman Mars: That’s right. That’s right. And his Yale career–it’s worth writing about, but it isn’t especially notable. He’s a pretty well-liked guy. He likes a lot of things. He likes poetry. He likes, you know, hanging out with folks. He’s still an idealist and keeps up with that. You know, he has this one incident where he’s suggesting to do something underhanded to get more money for the Yale swimming team and that bites him in the ass. But, otherwise, you know, like, he seems like he’s neither a hero nor a villain at Yale.
Elliott Kalan: In many ways, he is a non-entity at Yale. And that is partly because he’s young when he gets there–he’s 17–and partly because he’s Jewish. And so even though he’s not a religious Jew, he never really identifies as Jewish. He doesn’t practice at all. He doesn’t go to synagogue. I don’t think he ever gets bar mitzvahed. He is still an outsider there. And so, the one thing that’s really pertinent from his time at Yale–otherwise we can skip over it… I was going to read some of his poetry, but I guess we don’t need to do that. That’s fine. It’s a long book. He learns how to kind of create power centers for himself outside of the mainstream of power at the place. He’s never going to play on the football team, so he gets involved with the minor sports at the school and organizes this minor sports association. He finds ways to create these power platforms for himself out of things that other people did not think had any power in them at all–were worth cultivating at all. And that’s something that he’s going to take with him for the rest of his life.
Roman Mars: Right. That’s absolutely true. That’s so astute. And then he takes this to Oxford, where he studies. And this is where he gets a lot of his, you know, nonsense, white man’s burden type of sense of himself.
Elliott Kalan: He is so enamored of the wealthy, aristocratic way of life at Oxford. He goes in for two years to study, and he just loves it. He loves being there. He loves that if you’re rich, it means you wear kind of ratty, old clothes because who cares? You’re rich. It doesn’t matter what you dress like. And he travels all over the place. He makes rich friends. He goes to Egypt, which is an astounding distance for someone to be traveling at this time, which is the early 1900s. And he just really likes all this. And he loves the idea of elites being in charge of the government. And he writes his entire PhD about it. It’s called The Civil Service of Great Britain. And he examines how the British civil service works and how it’s so class based and only university men with college educations–which means that they’re in the upper class because this is not a time of great scholarship applications in the British community–only they end up in the upper level of government positions. And he says it. He says that the only people capable of using the government properly–the only people who will solve problems of the government–are people with university educations, which means that they are privileged people from a wealthy background. Otherwise, they are unfit for these positions. His entire PhD thesis is “Rich people should run the government, which is just so funny to me because it’s the exact opposite of what you expect a progressive college kid to be writing.
Roman Mars: We’re going to take a quick break. And when we come back, we’ll dive into Part Two: The Reformer.
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Roman Mars: This brings us into the next part, The Reformer. So, the most generous interpretation of his elitism is that the normal day-to-day politics of working-class people in places like New York is extremely corrupt. You know?
Elliott Kalan: Yes.
Roman Mars: And in, in a way, his kind of, you know, like, “Let’s deal with political ideals and meritocracy and history and build political alliances and goals for society based off of these things” is a reaction to a very nonidealized and literal sense of politics of New York in the 1900s. Like, there is no, like, “Democrats necessarily believe this, and Republicans necessarily believe that.” It really is about what jobs can you give this little section of your ward and what you can get out of it. And he’s trying to sort of graft, you know, purpose and meaning and higher ideals on top of that.
Elliott Kalan: Yes. There’s a way that I like to describe government before the Progressive Era. And I would like to call it “sloppy.” It was just super sloppy. And I think people think of progressivism now, and they think of women’s rights or civil rights or things like workers’ rights–things like that. But a big aspect of the progressive movement at this point was what they would call scientific management–making government professional–because before it was just super sloppy and super unprofessional. This is a period when a lot of the president’s job is still to have meetings all day with people who want jobs, who are like, “I supported you in the last election. Give me a job. Make me the postmaster of Jawbone City, Kansas Territory.” And the president’s like, “All right, here you go.” “Hey, my cousin needs a job. Get him a job.” “All right, I’ll do that.” That’s, like, 60% to 70% to 80% of the president’s day. Things are so sloppy, and there’s very little of a sense of civil service or professional bureaucracy. There’s a little bit of that in the federal government, thanks to the Pendleton Act that Chester A. Arthur signed into law. But especially in the city government, there’s none of that. And when we get to Chapter Five–the next chapter–I’d love to read an extract where Caro talks about this slightly. But this period in history–you’re right–it was all about who can control the jobs in the government. And by doing that, get money into the pockets of their own voters. Some of that money gets kicked back to the head of the party. And that person will–because they have a job now that they owe to you–vote for you in the next election. And the Democrats are slightly more racist than the Republicans. The Republicans are slightly more business and rich person-focused than the Democrats. But otherwise, that’s about it. It’s really these two parties that are just fighting for money and power with, like you’re saying, very little ideology. We’re so used to the idea of an ideologically based party system that it can seem shocking to read about America in the late 19th-early 20th century and be like, “Well, why were they even in parties? They didn’t stand for anything. Like, maybe they disagreed on the tariff–how high the tariff should go–on imported goods. But why even bother?” At a certain point, it’s like the Giants versus the Jets or something like that. It just matters what part of New Jersey we’re born in–whether you’re an Eagles fan or a Giants fan. It’s just “Well, everyone I know supports this, so I’m going to support it, too.” It’s a funny way to look at it. So, this idea of progressivism is just like, “Can we make this a little professional? Can we have a reason for why we’re doing things?” So, let’s move on to Chapter Four, which is called Burning. And Caro has a number of these chapter titles that are gerunds. He has Burning, Driving, Changing throughout the book, and I love the way he structures them. So, New York–it’s early 1900s. It’s this hotbed of this idea of “We’re going to reform the government to make it function–to make it a real thing that actually does stuff. We’ve been able to get by for about almost 150 years winging it. Let’s try to put a firm foundation on this.” And Moses is 25 now, and he gets a position through his mom’s connections as a student at this place called the Training School of the Bureau of Municipal Research. And it’s basically a think tank in a lot of ways. And the idea is “We’re going to bring management techniques to government.” One of the things they introduce is line-item budgets–that literally the government would have a budget where they itemize how much things are spent and how much money is spent on each thing, which you’re like, “Did they not have that before?”
Roman Mars: Nope. They did not.
Elliott Kalan: The department would just say, “Give us this amount of money.” And then they would dole it out as necessary. And then next year they’d say, “Give us more money.” And everyone said, “Okay, I guess they need it for things.” And it’s also a lot harder to hide corruption if you have to itemize how much you’re paying. But Moses–he’s been a student for a while now. He went to Yale. He went to Oxford. He no longer wants to be a student at this Municipal research school. He’s impatient. He’s ambitious. He hates doing the kind of legwork he has to do. And he has these big dreams. And this is where his vision starts coming in–his idea for what the city could be. He spends hours and hours walking through the city, imagining in his mind how you could build a road here or a park here. There’s train tracks that are just open right here that people get killed on. You could cover that up. You could put a park there. He has these huge ambitions for reshaping the city. And one of the people he talks to a lot is this woman that he becomes friendly with, who eventually becomes the Labor Secretary of the United States, Frances Perkins. And she talks about how he’s just kind of burning up with these ideas. He’s obsessed with them–these plans for changing the city that seem impossible for a 25-year-old guy who’s essentially, like, an intern, I guess, at a think tank.
Roman Mars: That’s right. But what’s funny is that in this moment, he has this almost complete vision of the West Side Highway and parks all along it. And he expresses that to Frances Perkins. And I think he even expresses it to his future wife, Mary Louise Sims.
Elliott Kalan: Who at the time is a secretary at the Bureau when they start dating.
Roman Mars: That’s right. And, you know, it’s funny to know, again, who Robert Moses is in really fundamental ways. He tries to be the biggest fish possible in any sized pond that he can possibly dominate. He has this vision of a suburban style parkway landscape that is perfect for someone like him. He has all these things that are already set into place. And what he doesn’t have is any ability to get any of it done. But those visions are there, and they’re pretty fully formed. It’s kind of amazing.
Elliott Kalan: Yeah. It’s astounding how realized they are in his head and how detailed they are. And the only thing I can really compare it to–this is more limits of my frame of reference than anything else–is, in the movie The Fabelmans, the way that the young Steven Spielberg character knows how cinema works. And he knows the stories he wants to tell as a teenager. And it’s so formed in his idea–the things that he could do if only he had the access to the resources. These are the things he could do with movies if he could work with real actors instead of his idiot friends and he had actual special effects and stuff like that instead of just firecrackers. Robert Moses is walking around–he’s like, “I can see how it would work if I can just get the resources.” But at this point, he’s a nobody. And he’s a nobody who also pisses people off. It’s not like he’s a nobody who’s making friends and rising through the ranks. He’s a nobody who’s constantly burning bridges. But he has this first big chance because–thanks to his time studying the civil service in England–he is the only person at the bureau who has any understanding of how civil services work. Like, he’s just the only one who’s done the research. And so, in 1914, he gets hired to work for this new municipal civil service commission. This is under the boy mayor, John Purroy Mitchel, who wasn’t really a boy. He was, like, 34. But in New York politics, that’s a boy. John Purroy Mitchel–the thing that’s amazed me is there’s a memorial to him right on the wall of Central Park, I think it is. But he was so young that when he lost reelection, he enlisted in World War I and died in a training accident in World War I at 38. He wasn’t even 40 yet. He was young enough to be mayor that the army accepted him when he enlisted. Whereas can you imagine… De Blasio’s not– If he enlisted, they’d be like, “Forget it. You’re too old!” And he’s going to work under the president of the commission who is a man named Henry Moskowitz, who’s a longtime activist. He was a founder of the NAACP. But more importantly for us, he is the husband of a woman named Belle Moskowitz, who will become a major figure in Robert Moses’ life. But the point is, finally, Moses has the chance to make real change. He is working for a government commission on how to reform the civil service. And he is the only person, seemingly in the United States, who has a detailed enough understanding of the civil service that he can try to put anything real in action. And so, this is his chance to make an impact.
Roman Mars: And what he does is goes after this kind of Tammany machine of patronage, where you are given jobs and opportunities based on who you know and who you voted for. And he really wants to professionalize this service and make it so that it’s about passing tests and knowing what you’re doing and having standard salaries that have to be justified.
Elliott Kalan: All that fun stuff. Rules and regulations. I’d love to read the section… Something that Roman and I talked a lot about before recording is Robert Caro kind of takes it so for granted that the audience knows what Tammany Hall is. He doesn’t really define it too thoroughly. And this is the closest he gets to defining it. “Tammany”–it’s called that because they meet at a place called “Tammany Hall.” It’s the same way that we say “Washington,” but we mean the government. You know, we don’t mean the city of Washington or the person. But in this section, he talks about how difficult this can be for Moses. It’s the closest he comes to really defining Tammany. I’m going to read it, and then our producer can feel free to cut it afterwards. And then you’ll never hear any of this, listener. “The wheels of the Tammany war machine might be greased with money, but the machine was pulled by men, the men who voted Democratic themselves, the men who rounded up newly arrived immigrants and brought them in to be registered democratic, the men who during election campaigns rang doorbells and distributed literature to those immigrants and their own friends and neighbors and on Election Day shepherded them to the polls to vote Democratic. And the most succulent of the carrots that lured these men forward, that kept their shoulders braced against the ropes that pulled the Tammany machine, was the carrot of jobs, jobs for themselves, jobs for their wives, jobs for their sons. The only source of jobs on the scale required was the city itself. So, the jobs Tammany had to control in order to control the city were the city’s jobs, positions as policemen, firemen, sanitation workers, court clerks, process servers, building inspectors, secretaries, clerks. There were in 1914, 50,000 city employees, and this meant 50,000 men and women who owed their paychecks and whose families owe the food and shelter those paychecks bought not to merit but to the ward boss. Patronage was the coinage of power in New York City. And reforms of the civil service, such as Moses was to propose, were therefore daggers thrust at the heart of Tammany Hall. Tammany understood this well, and Tammany knew how to defend itself. It always had.” I love a list. I love a Caro list. He’s got to list all those jobs. And the only raw note in there for me that doesn’t quite work is the idea of succulent carrots. But I know what he means. Just, like, the carrot and the stick. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a succulent carrot.
Roman Mars: No. No, but maybe they grow them different in the Upper West Side.
Elliott Kalan: New York carrots were known for their excellent, juicy quality. That’s why they call it the Big Carrot. That’s what it’s famous for. But so, power is jobs. This is something that will be a theme throughout the book. Power comes to those who can hand out jobs because there’s money in jobs and there’s votes in jobs. And it’s something that I feel like is very easy to underestimate in today’s politics because we’ve got so many other things that are distracting us. But when people are like, “Ugh. Voters only vote with their pocketbook. They don’t vote for their ideals.” And it’s like, “Well, because in the system we live in, unfortunately, you need money to pay your bills and to stay alive. And we need jobs to do that.” You know, it’s a very basic thing.
Roman Mars: And when you talk about him being a reformer and you talk about something that might seem to modern ears pretty innocuous with, like, professionalizing the civil service, it is an extreme threat to the foundation of politics in the city. And so, he kind of does this rather… I don’t know. Maybe this is just his upbringing and him thinking he’s better than everyone else and him being reinforced with that. But he really does take it upon himself to kind of standardize the types of jobs, the rules for getting them, breaking down into these 16 categories of jobs, dividing them into specific jobs, and dividing those into different functions… They’re graded.
Elliott Kalan: And it even has “personality” as one of the categories where you can grade someone. He prints up these cards that you’re supposed to use to grade someone on every aspect of their job and give them a number so that you can then average it out and say, “Okay, this person scored this much. They deserve a raise.” “This person scored so low we should fire them.” In a weird way, he’s trying to do what algorithms do now in corporations. But you have to do it with pencil and paper on these cards that get specially printed for it. And it is… If you’re a dog catcher and you’ve been working as a dog catcher for a long time, you’re making a pretty good amount of money because you’re connected politically. And this guy comes in and he says, “Everyone who does the dog catching job–you’re all going to get paid the same amount. And then every year we’re going to judge you and see if you deserve to keep the job or get a raise.” That’s a threat to you because you didn’t get the dog catching job because you were, like, super excited about catching dogs. Like, you got it because it’s a safe job that you can make money in. And all you have to do is kick back a little to your ward boss and to the aldermen, and they can be like, “Yeah, okay, you keep being a dog catcher. If you want to catch dogs, go for it. All that matters to me is that you vote. I don’t really care if you do the job.” And this is a huge threat to you, the corrupt dog catcher listener.
Roman Mars: But even they probably don’t view themselves as corrupt–this dog catcher. This is just the way things are done. Like, you’re part of the machine. You’ve done your part. You’ve done a decent enough job. You showed up enough that nobody complains too much.
Elliott Kalan: You’re not throwing dogs at people. You’re not hurting anybody.
Roman Mars: You’re not throwing dogs. You’re catching them.
Elliott Kalan: Exactly. And this is the way it’s worked for 50 years-60 years. You know, this is how your parents did things. This is maybe how your grandparents did things. And it’s very similar to, I feel like, a lot of things that are going on now where things that should be uncontroversial–people get up in arms about them because it means a change and it means “Wait, but those aren’t the rules I was taught things are going to operate by. And now you’re telling me there are new rules I’m gonna have to learn?” It’s a big change. And–Tammany Hall–they try to fight them first. They release a newspaper article attacking Moses’ PhD thesis, which Moses ignores. Seems like most of the city ignores it. But it kind of plants a seed in Moses’ mind that the press is something that you can use to get out information that might hurt your opponents, which is something that he’s going to be very on top of later in life.
Roman Mars: Very good at.
Elliott Kalan: This period of life really feels like he is becoming the punching bag for the techniques that he is later going to hone to knife edge perfection in his own, you know, rampage for power later on in life. Along the way, he also gets married to Mary, the secretary from the bureau. And she’s pregnant. And they do not have very much money, except for the fact that he has rich parents that kind of float them whenever necessary. It seems like at this point, Moses is riding high. But we’ve all seen VH1 Behind the Music or E! True Hollywood story. That doesn’t mean someone’s in for a fall. He is refusing to compromise on the system. Like I said, they already printed out all those grading papers. And Caro uses those as a symbol of the hopes for this program. There are boxes of these grading cards that will be printed out. And Tammany Hall mobilizes all the people who are going to be affected by this. And they are a potent political force. This is tens of thousands of New Yorkers. And the boy mayor wants to get reelected. He doesn’t want to lose those votes. So, he does not at the last minute give his backing to the civil service reform system, and it just dies. And Moses spends the next three years trying to push for this until eventually Mitchel loses reelection. By 1918, there’s a new mayor. He’s a Tammany man. He fires Moses. And those printed papers–they end up being used as scrap paper, I think, just for people to do work on. Moses has gone big, and he will also have to go home.
Roman Mars: But his first big attempt at reshaping the world in the way that he thinks it should be–it is completely annihilated.
Elliott Kalan: It’s a total failure.
Roman Mars: He gets nowhere with it. And this is a moment where you’re describing the things that he wants and the world that he’s up against. And you pretty much are on Robert Moses’ side here.
Elliott Kalan: He feels very much like the guy who is not a nice guy–not someone you want to hang out with. Although everyone who meets him is won over by him. He’s very charismatic. And he’s very jovial. And he can charm you in person if you’re one on one. But he’s someone who is uncompromising, and he will not give. And he won’t bend to the reality of the Tammany control of the city government. And the lesson he could take from this is “In the future, you know what? I’ve got to get allies on my side. I’ve got to compromise. I’ve got to temper my ideals so that I can get some things done, even if I can’t get all things done.” And instead, he takes the opposite lesson, which is, like, “I need power if I will crush my foes!”
Roman Mars: And to just give an example, he starts college at 17. We followed him, some of his youth, and then Yale and then Oxford. And by the time he’s failing here, he’s almost 30 years old. When you’re talking about boy mayors and lots of things people do in 30 under 30 lists, he’s really not feeling like he is going to be the powerbroker that he’s about to become.
Elliott Kalan: Yeah. As he’s about to turn 30, he’s a has-been already. You know, he feels like a failure. And he has a series of kind of crappy jobs that he feels are beneath him–a man of his intelligence, his abilities, and his knowledge–because everywhere he’s gone, people have said, “I may not like Bob Moses, but he’s brilliant. And he works harder than anybody else. Like, he just never stops working.” And it feels like the system–this corrupt system–has defeated him unfairly. I’m sure he’s got a huge chip on his shoulder. He’s got a Triborough Bridge-sized chip on his shoulder about this system. And it feels like there is no chance of him getting back to the government. And there’s a new governor who’s just gotten to the statehouse, Governor Al Smith, who is uneducated, did not go to college, was a former fishmonger–he grew up working at the Fulton Fish Market–just a classic, textbook machine politician, just a backslapping, Irish, kind of, like, boy from the 4th Ward… And he seems like the antithesis of everything that Moses is calling for in his PhD thesis. This is government in the hands of the most populist sort of person you can get. It seems like that is the final nail in the coffin of Moses’ government hopes. But then we get to the last sentence of the chapter. Caro says, “And then one day, Bob Moses got a call from Henry Moskowitz’s wife, Belle.” And that is where Part Two ends! On a cliffhanger! Belle Moskowitz? What’s she going to do? Governor Al Smith? He got kind of an interesting build up in the last few paragraphs for someone we haven’t met before. I wonder if he’s going to come back. Spoiler alert. These are two major people in Bob Moses’ life who will provide him with the ladder that he will climb to get to this high power and will provide him with the practical education and politics that he didn’t get at college. It’s time for the college boy to get his hands dirty and learn a thing or two about the real world.
Roman Mars: Like, if you were the Terminator going back in time to try to eliminate–
Elliott Kalan: I love this analogy already. I don’t know where it’s coming from, but I like it.
Roman Mars: To try to eliminate Robert Moses from becoming Robert Moses. You could go after Bella Cohen, his mother. But really, the person you should go after is Belle Moskowitz because she is the person who makes it so he transitions from this true failure into a political powerhouse. And so, it’s so cool that Robert Caro ends the chapter here with Belle Moskowitz because she’s extremely important. But we will learn all about Belle Moskowitz and Al Smith. There’s a great, very lengthy digression about Al Smith–a nice biography of him and who he was as a man. But all in the context of this is Part Three: The Rise to Power. This is where Robert Moses learns these skills that become his superpower because he becomes a person who can read, write, and sort of push through legislation to get what he wants. He becomes extremely skilled at this.
Elliott Kalan: Robert Moses is no longer the guy who comes up with a plan and then watches it die. He’s going to make the things that he dreams become a reality. And that means–that’s right, Roman–we’re going to Long Island!
Roman Mars: The longest and greatest island of all. So, we’ll get there on the next episode when we cover Part Three of The Power Broker–that’s called The Rise to Power–which encompasses Chapters Six through Ten. But don’t go anywhere because for the remainder of this episode, we’re going to talk with the man, the myth, the legend, the reason we’re all here, the one, and the only Robert Caro after this.
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Roman Mars: We are back. I cannot tell you how excited Elliott and I were to see Robert Caro in his perfect office up here in that little zoom window. It was so great. I can’t wait for you to hear the discussion. But first, I don’t know how to talk about spoilers here because the introduction to the book is pretty much one big spoiler. But just know that we’re going to talk about things in this conversation–a few aspects of The Power Broker that we haven’t yet read together. So given that, let’s get into it. So, the first question I have for you is that when you started writing The Power Broker, what kind of book did you think you were writing when you started it? Who were you writing it for?
Robert Caro: It changed as I started to do the book. But, you know, my first idea about Robert Moses–it came in stages. When I was a reporter on Newsday, you know, you used to type, “Robert Moses City Park Commission.” And it sort of goes through your mind: “What does that have to do with the fact that he’s building the Long Island Expressway 80 miles out on to Long Island? It’s not even in New York. And it’s not a park. Who is this guy?” But you just didn’t really think about it. Then I became what was known as a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University and, for the first time, really… Because when you’re a newspaper man, you don’t have a lot of time to think. They gave you a little office, and I used to sit and think about it. And I used to think, “Exactly who is this guy? I’m supposed to be writing about political power. This guy has never been elected to anything, and he’s doing whatever he wants in New York–building roads, bridges, displacing tens of thousands of people.” So, I thought that was my first idea for the book. So, I wrote a proposal. I only knew one editor in the world at the time, and I sent him the proposal. And he gave me an advance of $5,000. And I started the book. As I was doing the book, I realized it had to be about different things than I had thought. I mean, you learn as you go along, it sounds like you know what you’re doing, but the fact is, you just find out stuff as you’re going.
Roman Mars: I mean, did you know that there would be an audience for it? And what was your expectation of your audience’s knowledge of Robert Moses?
Robert Caro: Oh… You know, all I heard for all those years was nobody’s going to read a book on Robert Moses. You know, I had this very small advance. The editor I had at the time–not Bob Gottlieb, but an editor before him–used to cheer me up by saying, “You know, you have to be prepared for a very small printing. Nobody’s going to read a book about Robert Moses.” I really believe that it wasn’t going to have a big audience. But what happened as I was going–I said, “You know, I really… People ought to know this stuff. I got to try to write a book that has a bigger audience.” And I was trying to figure out how to do that–how to make people understand what I thought, anyway, was important about Robert Moses. And I kept thinking of devices that I could do that with.
Roman Mars: Oh. So, describe those devices.
Robert Caro: You know, he was building all these highways. He built 627 miles of expressways and parkways, and he built a lot of it right through New York City–right across communities and neighborhoods. And when you started to think about that and you started to see what his methods were– You know what his methods were. He’d take the community that was in the path of a road–like the Tremont area in the Bronx, which was a mixed, Jewish, Irish community with some Black people in there, too–and all of them in the path of this road. They had this very nice community. They all got the same letter. He had the letters dressed up to look like they were official notices from a court. They weren’t. And they said, “Basically, you have 90 days to get out.” And people ran out on the streets and said, “Did you get the letter this morning? Did you get the letter this morning? What are we going to do? It was a time of a great housing shortage in New York, and these were rent controlled apartments in the Bronx. It was the only place they could really afford to live. As long as they had that community, it didn’t matter that they were not very well-off people because they had neighbors. They had stores where everyone knew your name and your kid’s name, and you could send them out for milk and all. The old men would sit around benches on Southern Parkway and play chess. And the women, you know, had their baby carriages, and they’d sit there on Southern Boulevard and talk. So, although they didn’t have much money, they had a lot. And all of a sudden, this thing came along, and they had nothing. And they were going to be dispersed to the four winds. And I remember thinking, “If I really want to write about political power, I can’t just write about the guy who did this. I have to write about what it was like for the people on whom he did this.” That changed my whole idea of the book.
Elliott Kalan: Do you think it helped that you came from a journalism background–that you were used to looking at kind of ground level stories or used to talking to regular people, for lack of a better word–that you weren’t just coming at this as a historian or a sociologist or something like that.
Robert Caro: The answer to that is really yes. And I had been an investigative reporter. And you learn a lot of techniques. When they made me an investigative reporter, I had never done anything like that. And, so the editor said, “Well, I’ll sit you next to Bob Greene.” Bob Greene was this legendary investigative reporter. The thing about Bob Greene was he weighed approximately, let me say, 320 pounds. I don’t really– Okay? And we all have these little ten desks, right? So, I was sitting against the desk next to Bob Greene. When he was sitting at his desk, he was actually sitting at about half of mine at the same time. But I could listen to him on the telephone, and he could listen to me on the telephone. And I remember once we were trying to do a story about a corrupt state senator who was taking payoffs to allow gas stations in a residential neighborhood. So, in order to prove that, we had to show the real estate transactions. So, I was on the phone. I was saying, “I can’t find any proof of this.” And he said to me, “Listen, kid. You don’t look for this stuff under the name of the presidents of the corporation. You look for this stuff under the name of his secretary. That’s how they file it.” So, when I’m doing The Power Broker, Robert Moses wanted to build Jones Beach–this legendary beach. The Nassau County Republican organization says “Never, never, never.” Then all of a sudden, in one month, they go from “Never, never, never” to “Okay. Build it.” So, I was asking people what happened–what made them change their minds. And they explained to me that he had given the Nassau County Republican leaders advance knowledge as to where the exits on the parkways to the breach would be. That’s where he made all the money. They would buy this land cheap and be able to sell it for a lot of money. But I had to prove that. And I knew how to prove it because I learned how to look for the deeds. So, there were, like, a dozen techniques or tricks or whatever you want to call it, of investigative reporting that I used in The Power Broker.
Roman Mars: So, you know, the book opens with this scene–well, two different scenes–of Robert Moses dramatically quitting when he doesn’t get his way. When did you first notice that that was a theme in his life and was a good way to take a temperature of his level of power at a moment?
Robert Caro: Oh. So, I knew he had used this technique in New York City to keep all these jobs because I had covered it as a reporter that the mayor–Mayor Wagner–had been determined to take one of these many jobs of his away from him. And what Moses did was say, “If you don’t let me keep it, I resign.” And the mayor had caved in. And then when I started the book, I tried to find his classmates at Yale who had interacted with him. And, of course, he was a swimmer on the Yale swimming team. And I found the captain of the swimming team. And I said, “Do you remember anything about Robert Moses?” basically. And he said, “Oh, yeah, I remember him threatening to quit the team if we didn’t let him do what we wanted.” And I said to myself, “Oh, yeah, that’s the theme that runs through his whole life.” And that’s how I decided to start the book that way.
Roman Mars: Oh, that’s so good. It’s really remarkable. And, you know, when it comes up every time, I just wonder how when you’re learning about all the different times that he sort of falsely or maybe dramatically tendered his resignation and you’re thinking about all the stuff he did afterward, does part of you go, “Well, why didn’t anyone take him up on this? Why didn’t anyone just bite the bullet and denude him of some of his power at different times?”
Robert Caro: Boy, I have to say–and I never say this–these are terrific questions. I didn’t know the answer to your question. I asked myself the same question. And that led me really to say, “Why couldn’t they let him resign? Why didn’t they let him resign?” You know, now it sounds like I knew all the stuff. I was trying to figure it out as I went along. And I realized, “Okay, if you took one of his 12 jobs away, he would still have the other 11 jobs and the power to give out contracts–all the power that went with those jobs–so he could use that against you.” This was as part of his genius. He was chairman of the Triborough Bridge Authority. He was chairman of the New York State Power Authority–chairman of the Jones Beach Authority. But he resigned each of his terms so they would end at a different date. So, he would always have control of most of them. And when you went up against him, you knew you would be facing the power that he still had.
Elliott Kalan: It sounds like the process of writing the book was this process of kind of discovering larger and larger scopes of the powers involved and the dynamics of it. Did you ever feel like you’re going down a stream and then it turns into a river and then it turns into an ocean? And did you ever feel overwhelmed that you were not going to be able to get your hands around everything that needed to be said in the story?
Robert Caro: Yeah. I felt that way for basically seven years. First of all, you’re learning all these new things. You know, when you started out… You know, I had been an investigative reporter. I had one of a couple of, let me say, really minor awards. But I was young. When you win an award and you’re young, you think you know everything. And I just started in this book, and I realized I didn’t know anything about how power really worked in New York. And then when I started talking to officials, I realized they didn’t really know anything either. I mean, no one had figured it out. All they knew was they were afraid to take on Robert Moses. They didn’t really know how he had amassed all this power. They just knew he had it.
Elliott Kalan: That’s amazing.
Roman Mars: So, in the process of reporting the book over those seven years, you were in the physical presence of Robert Moses. You know, you talk about him giving long lectures on his life. Could you take us in that scene? And what did it feel like to be in his presence? Where did you sit? How did he sit? Did he stand up and pace? Did he have that sort of charisma the way you talk about–how he commanded a room?
Robert Caro: Yes. He commanded a room, and he made sure that he did. I’ll tell you, I interviewed him in a number of rooms. But one of them was in his country cottage on Long Island. It was a very modest cottage. But what he had done was it was very strategically located. It was the last house before the Robert Moses Causeway, which went across to Robert Moses State Park, where there was the Robert Moses Tower. So, he tore out two walls and he replaced them with picture windows. And he would sit in this big leather chair in the corner, as though he’s sitting there. And out the left window you see the Robert Moses Causeway, out the right window you see the Robert Moses State Park, and in the center there’s Robert Moses talking to you. So, let me tell you, intimidation is two miles a word, okay?
Elliott Kalan: You want to interview the Pharaoh, and he’s like, “Let’s do it next to the Sphinx. Let’s do it between the Sphinx and the pyramid.
Robert Caro: Yeah. Yes. But to tell you the truth, the most impressive thing… Well, I’ll tell you another physical thing. So, his other offices–his more formal offices as city park commissioner or in the Triborough Bridge Authority–he had 12 offices. So, in the other… I think every one of them– But in every other one or most of the other ones, he had a huge map on the wall behind him. And it would be a map of New York City and its suburbs–eastern New Jersey, Port of Connecticut, Port of Westchester County… And he was so excited. He was so excited when he would talk about things that he was going to build. He was like a kid. He’d jump up. He had this gesture, which I can show you on a podcast. He always had one of his assistants sitting behind him. And he’d sort of hold out his hand with his palm up. And the assistant would slap a pencil into it. And he’d take the pencil over to the map, and he’d say, “So if we put the highway here, we could put the housing project here. If we do that, we can have the park over here.” And he’d be talking, and you’d suddenly realize he’d be gesturing with this pencil over this entire map from the western edge of New York to the easternmost part of Long Island. And you said, “This is sort of a genius.” We think of a Picasso at a canvas, right? And there’s a lot of writings about that kind of genius, but there has never been… He saw this whole huge metropolitan area. I think it had 23 million residences. It’s been a long time since I wrote the book. That figure may be wrong. But he saw it all as one whole. And when he was young, he mapped out all these highways–the Southern State Highway, the Long Island Expressway, the Westchester Expressway, the Triborough Bridge, the Throgs Neck Expressway, the Whitestone Bridge–he conceived of all these things when he was young. And he spent the next 44 years filling it in and actually building them. And I said, “If I want to be honest about him, I have to find a way to write this, so I show people this kind of genius. It’s a new kind–different kind–of genius, but it’s a genius. He’s like a city shaper–not a painter–but a city shaper.
Roman Mars: I wonder, in that situation, did you feel caught up in his vision? Do you get riled up and like, “Yeah, I’m excited about this,” the way that he is? Does it catch on you?
Robert Caro: Yeah. Yes. Even if you knew he was totally wrong. I’ll give you an example. So, he had this cottage that I told you about. So, it’s across a little inlet from Fire Island. Now, at the time I’m writing the book, a project that he wanted to build was a highway the length of Fire Island. Now, Fire Island is a very narrow strip of land. And there were places in which this highway would have been wider than Fire Island, right? He would have obliterated most of the communities along there. So, they were protesting, and I knew this was one of the world’s horrible ideas. So, one day, he’s sitting in his chair, and I’m sitting opposite him, taking notes with my head down over a notepad. And he starts talking about how there should be this highway because it would link up to others of his highways, basically. And he jumps up, and he says, “Come on out here.” And we went out on the deck, and he grabs my arm. And, you know, he was 78. He was strong. He grabs my arm. To tell you the truth, for years I could just sort of feel his fingers on my arm. Very strong. And he points across, and he says, “Can’t you see there ought to be a highway there?” And to tell you the truth, you did. Driving away after the interview, you said, “No! There won’t be anything left of Fire Island.” But in the moment, he got you. Yeah.
Elliott Kalan: When he’s kind of speaking with this fervor and this energy, is he loud or is he kind of, like, quiet? Like, I’m very curious because I’ve watched a few videos of him being interviewed. And it feels like when he was on camera, there’s something kind of a little anxious or awkward about him. And I wonder if in person he was, like, big? Or was it, like, come closer and you’ve got to lean in–that kind of thing?
Robert Caro: Well, it wasn’t a matter of being allowed or being soft, Elliot. It was a matter of–first place–he remembered everything. And sometimes he wanted you to understand it. I remember we were talking about, I think, Jones Beach, but it was an early park project. And I was asking him something about the legislature because the Republicans controlled it. They didn’t want the parks, you know? They didn’t want people from New York coming out to their beautiful little island on Jones Beach. And he said to me something like “In the assembly, it was eight to seven against us in ways and means. But the swing vote was Stephens of Cattaraugus County. And Stephens had this farm and the farm had a mortgage and the mortgage was held by the Rochester State Bank. And the way to get to the Rochester State Bank was through so-and-so.” And you said, “He remembers everything!” And then, of course, as I said before, he would try to explain to you and convince you of his vision. But of course, that didn’t work because by that time, you had been thinking about and talking to the people who were affected by this vision. I’ll tell you what I mean by that. It’s about the Cross Bronx Expressway chapter–what I was saying before about all the people who were told they had 90 days to get out. So, they of course had to move; they were gone. This community–the people were scattered. Because they weren’t very well off, some of them have to go to live in city housing projects. Some went to live with their kids in Westchester County or Long Island. Some moved to Co-op City, which was a big development. But I’m interviewing them about what their life was like before and what their life was like now. And I remember it hitting me. When I interview people that night, I type up the interview. You know, I take notes while I’m doing it. And then I realized I was typing over and over the same word: “lonely.” They were saying they had friends. They had family. Now they didn’t know anybody. “Lonely” is a word… In my opinion, you don’t use the word “lonely “about yourself unless it’s very, very overwhelming in your life. So, I was really feeling bad. Sometimes you do interview an elderly couple. You realize they’re in some community. They don’t know anybody. They used to have this wonderful life with friends around–a sense of community. Now they have nothing. And at the same time, I’m interviewing him. And they had formed an organization to try to fight him and stop the road. He could have built the road just two blocks to the south and displaced almost nobody. But he wasn’t going to. He was going to build it right through their apartment houses because that’s where he said it was going to go. And I remember sort of bringing up with him the community opposition. And I remember him saying… The exact quote is in the book. But his tone of voice I have–I can tell you said. He said, “Oh. That didn’t mean anything. They just stirred up the animals up there. And I held back, and that was that.” And I remember in those moments you really felt the hardship–the unnecessary hardship in many cases that he had inflicted. You know, he evicted… This figure sounds so large that I’m going to preface it by saying to the two of you–I don’t know if you’ll have room for it on your podcast–I was determined to get a figure that was so conservative and so low that he couldn’t possibly challenge. And the figure I came up with that way was for his highways. He displaced 250,000 people–a quarter of a million. For his urban renewal projects–he displaced another 250,000. So, he threw out of their homes half a million people. It’s a huge, forced migration. And a lot of them wound up in places they didn’t want to be because they couldn’t afford anything. So, you’re talking about a human tragedy here.
Elliott Kalan: And did it feel like… He was so focused on his vision that you said he had come up with as a young man, that nothing could stand in the way of that vision, no matter how many people that he would have evicted. There was no number of evictions where he would have said, “Well, that’s too much. I don’t have to build this road.” Do you think that was the case?
Robert Caro: Exactly. That’s exactly what I thought.
Roman Mars: How far into the interview process did you realize how critical the book would be of his legacy? And \o you think there was a moment when he cottoned on to that as well?
Robert Caro: Well, can I answer the second part? I know the answer to the second part. I have to think about the first part. There definitely was a moment when he cottoned on to it. And, you know, I had seven interviews with him. So, these interviews, I would just let him– In the first place, you didn’t have to let him talk. You know, once he got started, questions were immaterial. You know, he was just talking. But while I was doing the research, I found out that when he was building the Northern State Parkway, he took a $10,000 contribution from actually a cousin of his–a great financier singer named Otto Kahn because the Northern State Parkway would have run through Otto Kahn’s private golf course–on his estate. So, he built the road south. Okay? Now, that was a great secret. At the time, no one had ever known this. I found out about it because I had gotten them to open the papers of the governor at the time–Al Smith. And I found references to this and then the proof of it. So, I knew I had to ask him about this, and I was wording the question. I spent a lot of time thinking of a way of wording it. But he was smarter than I was. And the minute the words “Otto Kahn” came out of my mouth, I saw his face change. And not long after that he said, “Well, that’s all we can do for today. Thanks,” very politely. But I never saw him again.
Roman Mars: Wow. Wow.
Robert Caro: What was the other half of your question? Was there a moment that I realized how critical it was going to be?
Roman Mars: Well, yeah. For yourself, like, when you were developing it and you’re hearing these stories and you’re hearing the word “lonely” over and over again, does it change the tenor of, like, what you’re creating, what questions you’re going to ask, and who are you going to follow up with? And how does that all snowball?
Robert Caro: Yeah, well, it snowballed. When I started, I knew I wanted to write one particular kind of book. It turned into another–a different book–in part because I really said what I’ve come to believe. And I believe it was about my Lyndon Johnson books, too. If you’re going to write about political power–the power that affects people’s lives–if you want the book to be honest, you can’t just write about the guys who wield power. You have to write about the people on whom the power is wielded–both for good, like with Lyndon Johnson getting the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act, or for ill, like throwing them out of their homes and destroying communities. So, when that happened, that was a big deal for my wife, Ina, because we were really quite broke. Reporters who are listening to your program will understand what I’m saying. This is a really time consuming thing. The Cross Bronx Expressway–I’m talking about how he threw out the people of East Tremont. And I remember saying to Ina, “You know, I really want to tell the story of East Tremont.” Now, that sentence–that means a lot of time. You have to learn about the community. You have to read whatever you can find on the community’s history. You have to go to the community’s newspapers. And then you got to find the people. And remember, these people are scattered all over the place. It’s time consuming. And time means money. And I gotta tell you, at this point, we didn’t have any.
Elliott Kalan: That’s why we need people to buy this book. Anyone who’s listening, if you haven’t bought a copy of The Power Broker yet…
Robert Caro: I remember saying to Ina, “I really want to do this.” And of course, Ina being Ina said, “Do it.” You know, she never told me how she had to change shopping centers because we’d run out of credit. I remember when The New Yorker bought The Power Broker, I told her. And she said, “Now I can go back to the dry cleaners.”
Elliott Kalan: But you touched on something that I’ve noticed in the book. There are these points where people in the book are doing research, where Al Smith is reading all the bills that are coming up in the state legislature and the civic reformers who are trying to assemble the facts against Robert Moses are interviewing people. And even when Moses is going through the laws and finding the places that he can put in the laws to help them. And it feels like there are these moments where you’re… Maybe I’m imagining this because I’m aware a little bit of your methods. But it feels like your love of research and your appreciation for deep research comes through there. And it’s almost like there’s this valentine to really getting to know facts.
Robert Caro: Thank you.
Elliott Kalan: And to really doing the digging that needs to be done to know facts that kind of threads throughout the book. And I was wondering if that was something that felt conscious at all or if you just recognize research as a vital thing, so you’re like, “I understand how hard it is to do research. I’m going to mention that these people are doing this”? Or is it something that you thought of as an idea you had to eliminate?
Robert Caro: No, I happen to love just sitting in a library going through papers, you know? I mean, I just love it. There’s something about raw files–not press releases–but seeing the original letters and the original stories. I do love it. People keep saying, “Oh, you had to spend all these years at the Lyndon Johnson library.” You know, I remember thinking, “I just wish I had more years. I’d like to spend a lot of them there.”
Elliott Kalan: If anything, the book is getting in the way of you just getting to read through the files for as long as you want to.
Robert Caro: Yes, as a matter of fact. You know, you do have the feeling you’re supposed to publish at least every seven years or eight years or something, you know? Yeah.
Roman Mars: I’ve been thinking about the book and its legacy and wondered how you place it in history and especially in the history of Robert Moses. Like, had you not written The Power Broker, how do you think people would remember Robert Moses today? Or do you think that we would remember him at all?
Robert Caro: Well, this will sound very boastful, but I think without the book no one would even remember him. No one. And without remembering him, you would not understand the history of New York City, really, because he shaped it. But I do believe that. I mean, he hated the book. He just hated it. But I believe no one would know who built these highways. No one would know what communities were there before. Anyway, that’s what I think.
Elliott Kalan: I think you’re right. I grew up in the New York area, and I lived in New York for a number of years. And without The Power Broker, I think Robert Moses would just be a name on a park or a name on a plaque that I wouldn’t think as much twice about. And do you ever feel like you’ve done yourself a disservice by, you know, immortalizing Robert Moses and keeping him in people’s eyes when perhaps the true justice would have been if his name had vanished–the immortality he sought had been taken from him? That’s the dramatic way of putting it. But, you know, is there a time when you’re like, “Maybe I shouldn’t have written that book”? I don’t think you should think that. But I’m wondering if you ever thought that.
Robert Caro: No. I remember there were times when I said, “Boy, I want people to know this.” For one thing, you want people to… The only thing you can say about a lot of injustices–the only thing you can do about it–is to make sure people know about it. You know? And I did feel that. New York doesn’t have to be as segregated as it is. New York doesn’t have to be dependent on cars like it is. It could have been different. Every time I drive… I mean, this sounds like a nothing thing. But I happen to think it’s rather important. Let’s say you’re out in the east end of Long Island–we have a house out there–and you’re driving back to New York. Let’s say it’s in late afternoon. And you look down, and as far as you can see, there’s bumper to bumper traffic coming out. Now, that bumper to bumper traffic is out all the way basically–the last time I checked–to Port Jefferson. That’s a little over two hours driving each way. Let’s say your commute takes only an hour and a half each way. That’s three hours a day of your life. That’s 15 hours, and they’re tiring hours. And if you know or you think you know that they didn’t have to spend this time– When he was building the Long Island Expressway, everybody said to him–it’s not a hindsight thing–“You are building a six-lane road, and you’re buying 200ft of right of way for, like, 80 miles or whatever the right number of miles is.” And Suffolk County was just potato fields–just farms. Land was really cheap. And you said, “If you just build by 240ft instead of 200ft, there’ll be room down the center for a light rail line. And every ten miles or whatever, you can have a huge parking lot. So, people who want to drive into New York can keep driving. But if you want to take a train into New York, you have that option.” And he refused to do that. And the thing is, they said, “Well, if you won’t build it, at least buy the right of way, so that if someone wants to build it in decades to come, they’ll be able to.” And he didn’t want that to happen. So, what he did was he built the footings of the expressway–I forget the engineering term–so light that it wouldn’t hold a rail line. So, he condemned not just one generation, but generation after generation after generation of people to spend these hours of what otherwise could have been a life of driving. And sometimes even now I get mad thinking about it.
Elliott Kalan: I remember when I first read the book years ago and when I read it again, preparing for the podcast–that anger numerous times during it about reading something and saying, “So it didn’t have to be this way. When I was taking the subway, I didn’t have to be on a broken-down subway. They could have taken that road money and rebuilt the transit lines.” And this is a lot more of a compliment than a question, so I apologize. But I think something that you do so beautifully in the book is presenting these things as choices and not as inevitabilities. And perhaps that’s a theme in it that I feel like I’m only recognizing now, which I should have thought about ahead of time. It’s more the idea that each of these decisions is very much a conscious decision and that things could have gone a different way. And for readers to take that with them into the future–that when they reach a decision point… It’s probably not as momentous as whether to doom everyone on Long Island to driving in their cars, but to think about what could happen is something that… Yeah. It’s such just a rich book. That was just a compliment. There was no question attached to it. I apologize. I took up a lot of our time with a compliment.
Robert Caro: Yeah. No. Keep going. Don’t let me stop you.
Roman Mars: Well, I guess we’re going to wrap up here. And I just have one question to ask about before a lot of people are embarking on this journey with us to read the book in 2024 with us. You know, how did you imagine– I mean, did you ever imagine how enduring this book would be–that a bunch of us would be reading it 50 years later and just reveling in its detail and thinking about these choices about the world that Robert Moses made? I mean, did you ever imagine such a thing? And how does it strike you today?
Robert Caro: No. I’m so moved by what you guys are doing. I can’t tell you. It means so much to me, for one thing, because you understand the book. You don’t just talk about it. You asked did I ever think anything like this would happen. As I said to an earlier question, all the time I was writing it, people were telling me basically nobody is going to read a book about Robert Moses. So, I wrote it really thinking that it’s just got to be written. But I didn’t really feel many people were going to read it. That’s the truth. I remember my agent, Lynn Nesbit–who never tells me anything she’s doing–didn’t tell me she submitted it to The New Yorker. And she called, and she told me she’d done that. The editor of The New Yorker was named William Shawn. And she said to me, “Mr. Shawn…” Everyone called him Mr. Shawn. “Mr. Shawn says he’s never read anything like it. And he’s going to publish more of it than he’s ever published of any book.” I couldn’t believe that. All this time things have happened to the book that I never would have believed that it still would be going like it is 50 years later. I never thought that would happen. And I never thought, to tell you the truth, that there would be a program or a series of podcasts, like you two guys are doing, which are not only taking people through the book but in a way to help them understand all the nuances in it. I don’t want to thank you anymore. But thank you.
Roman Mars: Well, it is our pleasure. And it was a great pleasure to talk to you. Thank you so much for taking the time.
Elliott Kalan: Thank you so much.
Roman Mars: It’s been an honor for us.
Robert Caro: A pleasure.
Roman Mars: And that is a wrap on the first official episode of the 99% Invisible Breakdown of The Power Broker. I am so excited for this year. Thank you so much for joining us. In Episode Two, we’re going to tackle Part Three: The Rise to Power. That’s pages 91 to 171 in my book. We’ll also be releasing a handy little guide, so you know which chapters we’ll talk about in each episode ahead of time. And even though this is a virtual book club, we still wanted to create a space where anyone reading along can gather together and nerd out on the book, so it’s not just me and Elliot. So, we created a Discord server. You can find the link on our website or by going to discord.gg/99pi. We’ll also check in on the 99% Invisible subreddit. There will be a post for each episode. So come hang out with us. The 99% Invisible Breakdown of The Power Broker is produced by Isabel Angell, edited by committee, music by Swan Real, and 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 Sarah Baik, Chris Berube, Jayson De Leon, Emmet FitzGerald, Gabriella Gladney, Martín Gonzalez, Christopher Johnson, Vivian Le, Lasha Madan, Jeyca Maldonado-Medina, Kelly Prime, Joe Rosenberg, and me, Roman Mars. The 99% Invisible logo was created by Stefan Lawrence. The art for this series was created by Aaron Nestor. We are part of the Stitcher and SiriusXM podcast family, now headquartered six blocks north in the Pandora Building… in beautiful… uptown… Oakland, California. Keep up with us and The Power Broker at our website. It’s 99pi.org. So, what’s your favorite thing in this section that we didn’t mention in our summary?
Elliott Kalan: We didn’t have time to get into Moses’ record as a swimmer–as a competitive swimmer at Yale. But Robert Caro–he has these great couple lines that our producer, Isabel, made sure that we didn’t forget about, where it says, “Moses joined the swimming team as a sophomore. If he ever won a race, the victory was not reported in the news.” And “news” in italics. It’s the Yale Daily News he’s referring to. But it is so funny to me, one, because it is such a slam on Robert Moses–such a backhanded slam on the subject of this book. “All right. If we ever won, I didn’t hear about it.” But also, this means that Robert Caro–you know he went back and read as many copies of the Yale Daily News from 1908-1909 as he could just to see and make sure. “Did Robert Moses win a race in swimming? Does it mention it? Let me read tomorrow’s copy. Let me see what the next edition says.”
Roman Mars: It’s such a flex.
Elliott Kalan: You know that Robert Caro was reading that and he’s like, “I wonder if I could beat Robert Moses in a swimming race. Maybe I could. Maybe I could.”
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