The Power Broker #02: Jamelle Bouie

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Elliott Kalan: And I’m Elliott Kalan. 

Roman Mars: On today’s episode, we’re covering Part Three: The Rise to Power. That’s pages 91 through 177 in my copy with some nice glossy photos in the middle there. And our guest is esteemed historian, New York Times opinion columnist, and TikTok superstar Jamelle Bouie. And when we first came up with the series, I knew I wanted to have Jamelle on because he is so great at contextualizing history and connecting the past to the present. So, thank you for being here. 

Jamelle Bouie: It’s my pleasure. 

Elliott Kalan: Now, I should warn the audience ahead of time. Jamelle has not actually read The Power Broker. That’s okay. That’s okay. It’s like a lot of you. You haven’t read it either. He hasn’t read it. This is his first true exposure to the book. And I couldn’t be prouder that Roman and I get to deflower him in this way–just when it comes to The Power Broker. But Jamelle knows so much about this time period that we’re covering. We’re gonna bring him in periodically just to help us get a sense of what was going on at that time–what’s the context that this power is being broken in? 

Roman Mars: That’s right. So, let’s just start where we left off last time–at the end of Chapter Five. It’s November. It’s 1918. Robert Moses is about to turn 30. His career in public service has almost ended at this point. Like, he’s a complete failure. All of his different programs he has proposed have failed. But then he gets a call from his former boss’ wife, Belle Moskowitz. So, tell me, Elliott, who is Belle Moskowitz? 

Elliott Kalan: Okay, here’s one of the amazing things about The Power Broker. Jamelle, now my whole mission in this episode is just to sell this book to you directly hardcore one-on-one. One of the great things about this book is that it is about Robert Moses–it’s his face on the cover and his name in the subtitle–but there’s so many things that Robert Caro can’t help going into detail about. And that’s often the lives of the people who are important to Moses’ rise and Moses’ career. And in the case of Belle Moskowitz, this is someone who–without The Power Broker–their story may have disappeared possibly. They may not have ever gotten the treatment they deserved because she is this unassuming, kind of behind-the-scenes operator. She’s not a government official, but she is an activist. And she’s a determined activist. But she’s also a very realistic activist in the reform movement of the late 19th century, early 20th century. And she is going to become the most trusted advisor of New York Governor Al Smith, who will be a major person in the life of Robert Moses. Al Smith–he always refers to her as “Mrs. M.” And he asks her opinion on everything. Caro depicts her as literally the last person that he will talk to before he makes a decision. And he’ll usually go with whatever she says in the decision-making. And all the Irish political bosses–they really resent her. And they call her “Mosky” behind her back and very derisively as a sort of anti-Semitic nickname that–I will say–as someone who’s willing to find anti-Semitism just about anywhere, “Mosky” is a pretty good nickname for someone named Moskowitz. Like, I don’t know. It’s pretty natural. But I’ll go very quickly through her life. She’s the daughter of a poor Eastern European watchmaker. She comes from a different New York Jewish background than Moses does. She gets involved with the settlement house movement, which was one of the big reform progressive movements. Maybe, Jamelle, can you tell me a little bit more about the settlement house movements? I only know vaguely what was going on with it. 

Jamelle Bouie: I probably don’t know any more than you do. I know the term “settlement house.” My main understanding is that there is a major concern of sort of, like, crime and poverty among urban youth. And so, this was one of the ideas, especially in, you know, slums basically. “We can have these homes that can kind of offer programs–offer, you know, place for people to live–a space that is conducive to developing human talents.” And that’s the extent of my knowledge. 

Elliott Kalan: That’s a great description. You started out modest but came in strong at the end. So, I think that worked out great. She studies at Columbia University. And her second husband is the social worker Henry Moskowitz, who we met in the last episode running the Bureau of Municipal Research that Moses worked for. She’s real reform circle royalty. Like, she’s a major figure in the New York reform circuit. One of the reasons for that is because she succeeded in cleaning up what they called the “dancing academies,” which were essentially sex trafficking spots presented as dancing academies for young ladies but were places where young ladies were then preyed upon. And she cleans them up not the way that other reformers might have with, like, a big public movement or by bringing publicity to the problem. Instead, she does what Robert Caro loves whenever anybody does: she does the research. She goes to the titles and things for these buildings–the owners’ documents–she sees they’re owned by people in Tammany political circles, and she goes to those people and says, “If you pass legislation that regulates these things and then enforce it, I won’t go to the newspapers and publicize your name.” She’s willing to kind of work with people to get things done. And she is made an arbitrator in the arguments between the garment workers union and their bosses. And she kind of wins over both sides because she’s able to play the game. She knows how to work for a common goal between them without alienating the people in power. They come to really trust her. 

Roman Mars: They trust their blackmailer. 

Elliott Kalan: Yes. Yeah. Well, I think there’s a certain amount of like, “Well, you know, playing the game. This is how we do it around here. It’s the early 20th century. We don’t really we didn’t have a lot of rules these days.” She offers Moses a job as the chief of staff for a commission in the governor’s office to design a reorganization plan for the state government and a kind of general implementation plan for social welfare reforms. And he’s like, “Yes, of course.” I think he cannot agree fast enough because, again, he thinks he has had no shot in government anymore after this. And he opens an office instantly. Caro makes a point of saying that he starts hiring people from the Bureau of Municipal Research–the guys who used to look down on him. Now he’s going to be their boss. And Robert Moses never knows why Mrs. Moskowitz picks him–never knows why Belle Moskowitz chooses him, of all people. But it is the major turning point, you could say, in his public career because it puts him into contact with Governor Al Smith, who Carol goes into a little bit here. But there’s going to be more about him later, so don’t worry. We’re going to get into more detail with Al Smith. But he is essentially, as Caro puts it, perhaps the greatest pure politician in the history of New York state. And he is seen by outsiders as a real Tammany hack. But a few reformers are like, “You know what? I met this guy. He seems like he could be useful. He maybe will be okay.” I’m not going to talk about it too much more because you know what? There’s a big section of it in the next chapter. We’re going to get to that chapter next. This is one of the things that Robert Caro does in this book, which is a little confusing sometimes. He kind of, like, plays with the timeline in ways that give you information when he thinks it’s more necessary for you. But sometimes it can make it hard to keep things in your mind. So, at this moment, Governor Al Smith is governor. In the next chapter, we’re going to jump back and tell you the entire life story of Governor Al Smith. This is not a totally chronological book. This is a real– 

Roman Mars: Christopher Nolan…

Elliott Kalan: Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk of a biography. Yeah. I said Dunkirk as if his other movies are purely linear. 

Roman Mars: It’s a little jarring, but we’ll get to that. So, one of the key things that Belle Moskowitz is doing for Al Smith is she is helping him court the women’s vote. And this tells you a little bit about the time that they’re in. This is the 1918 election. This is the first time that women can vote in New York State. And Belle Moskowitz is his key advisor. And she tells him that to win over women, you should just talk to the women the same way that you would talk to a man voter and just tell them the same things that you would tell a man. And he does, and he gets their vote. And this was revolutionary. This is this brilliant idea that shows you really what politics was like at the time or what, you know, even American society was like at the time. 

Elliott Kalan: So, the big crusade here is reorganizing the state government. The state government is an example of–we talked about in the last episode–the sloppiness of early American governance and how kind of not organized, not put together, and not governed the government was. There’s this mishmash of different agencies in the state government. Taxes are collected by seven different agencies who will all go to the same place and demand taxes. They all report to different people in the government. It’s not really clear who is responsible to anybody. The governor has no power to do much of anything. He’s only in office for two years. The state doesn’t even have an accurate budget. Nobody knows how much money the state spends each year. It’s impossible. No one knows about it. And I feel like we hear so much budget accounting in the news now. There’s something kind of refreshing almost in the idea that back then, the news was just like, “Money spent? We don’t know! No amount is necessary–not information that we need!”

Roman Mars: I want to bring Jamelle in here a little bit to talk about this. I think people’s vision of politics and government is really sort of predicated on where they are –the solipsistic view of things where things are the way they’re supposed to be the moment I was born and made aware of them. But this is a very different style of politics and government than it is today. It’s not very ideologically driven. It’s more about what you can get and patronage and all that sort of stuff. You know, could you set the stage for what does it mean to be a political reformer in the early 20th century? Like, what are they reforming against? And what kind of government are people arguing for? 

Jamelle Bouie: There are a couple of ways to get at this question. And one way is to focus on one of the, I think, defining features of politics in the early 20th century–American politics around 2019–which is it’s still very regional. We live in an era right now of, like, just completely national politics, right? Almost all politics are national in one way or another. My congressman here in the fifth district of Virginia is a guy who I’m more likely to see doing a cable news hit than I am to see around the district. Everything is national. But 100 years ago or 120 years ago, there’s no national media of that sort. Local and state party organizations were much stronger and more cohesive. They were really the main way through which people engaged in politics, which gave them a lot of sway. Today we speak of kind of, like, the Democratic Party or the Republican Party as a singular national thing with a bunch of branches in each state. But then it’s probably much more accurate to speak of the New York Democratic Party as being its own singular institution. And even within that right–sort of in the context of New York City–its bureau has its own Democratic club with its own, you know, sort of power brokers… “Power brokers.” And everyone else… Tammany–Manhattan being kind of the most famous of them–but Brooklyn, Queens… You know, the five boroughs. 

Elliott Kalan: And the rest. Yeah.

Jamelle Bouie: “And the rest.” So, I think it’s really important to kind of, like, understand that the organization of politics is just, like, way different than it is now, right? In the context of New York politics, it’s very organization and very machine-driven–the machine just being a dedicated political organization that doled out patronage, rounded up votes, provided services to voters. It’s, like, an important and perhaps lost part of modern day thinking about political machines is that it wasn’t just a way to stuff a ballot box. If you had a problem with your landlord, you could go to your ward leader and be like, “I have a problem with my landlord,” and the party machine would try to help you out, knowing that doing this would probably cement your commitment to giving them a vote and telling your friends and family to vote for the machine candidate. So, reform in this context often is reform of this machine because a lot of middle-class reformers around this time saw this as being kind of messy and dirty especially since machine politics is very much associated with, like, mass immigration. This is a period of large-scale immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe. And one of the things that political machines did was quickly incorporate these people into the political process. And for many middle class, Protestant, white reformers, this was sort of messy and undesirable. So, we’re talking about New York here, but this similar kind of reform spirit of trying to maybe rationalize the political process to make it less messy is going on throughout the country. And one of the products of it are various types of suffrage restriction. And so, the emergence of the secret ballot called the “Australian ballot” as part of this process in the South… Part of this process is Jim Crow. Part of the argument for Jim Crow is like, “We’re going to clean up voting by getting all of these people who don’t belong out of the process.” 

Elliott Kalan: So, you’re saying there’s a good side to reform and a bad side to reform. It is not that entirely a wholly positive endeavor. But that past political world looks so alien to us because it’s so favor based and so transactional on a micro level–in a way that seems kind of slimy where it is like, “Well, I’m having with my landlord.” “Don’t worry, the party’s going to step in and help you with that.” There’s something a little mafia-ish about that. But also, there’s something appealing about that where… I don’t know who in the government I would turn to in my elected areas of Los Angeles for help with a permit or something like that.

Roman Mars: You wouldn’t. You wouldn’t. I mean, maybe the city–different people in the city–but nobody who’s, like, a legislator in any real way. 

Jamelle Bouie: The unsavory parts of it are real. Like, there’s a reason why there pops up a reform movement in Chicago, in New York, in St. Louis, in Kansas City, and in all the places where there are powerful political machines. Like, reform movements pop up specifically because, like, all this can get very coercive and corrupt very quickly. At the same time–and this is sort of where my kind of sympathy for machine politics arises from–that kind of direct connection between government and politics and everyday life is really powerful and cements a sort of level of civic participation and civic identity in people that just doesn’t exist these days. One consequence of the end of that kind of top-down, highly organized political organization in American politics is that, like, people don’t have that kind of connection to political life because there’s no mediating institutions to make it. 

Roman Mars: I actually think I miss this, too. I think there’s a huge problem with national politics because there isn’t enough earmarks and horse trading and all that sort of thing. 

Elliott Kalan: It’s easy for us to say that now, though, because we’re on the other side of it. 

Jamelle Bouie: Right. Yeah. 

Elliott Kalan: At that time, they were like, “I don’t like this.” It turns out the grass is always greener when it comes to politics. But it’s true that there’s a balance between idealism and practical reality that has to be struck. And this is what Robert Moses is starting to learn from Belle Moskowitz. Thank you, guys, for providing me with a great onramp to this part of the Robert Moses story highway. They have this report from 1915 that the Bureau of Municipal Research put together about how to reorganize the government. It didn’t go anywhere because the bureau has no power. But now, in the late teens, Belle Moskowitz has that power through the governor. And she says to Moses, “It’s time for you to put together a new report. Tell us how the state government should be put together.” And he will come to her with ideas, and she will say, “No, we can’t do that.” I know you want to eliminate these positions because they’re redundant, but the legislature uses those as big patronage positions, and we need that. They want that. This stuff about civil service reform–you can’t put that in there. That’s going to antagonize voters–workers or voters–we can’t do that. And this starts to really annoy Moses. And they talk about how when he is not in the room with Belle, he swears about her a lot. And he’s really mad about it. But when he is in the room with her, he holds his tongue. He doesn’t say those things because he’s learning. And he’s learning about how you balance idealism with practical political concerns. He’s learning about where actual political power comes from and how you need to accommodate it. Belle is really his teacher in how to get things done through a system–what the real levers are. And Governor Smith says to them, “I don’t want a plan that just has a bunch of airy ideas. I want actionable legislative policy. If you’re just going to give me a bunch of ideas, finish the report right now, and I’ll throw it away. That’ll be great. And just finish your job.” And Moses takes this as a real challenge, it seems. He drives the staff super hard. They love him for it. And this is something that you see starting now basically and going throughout Moses’ career–he can get groups of almost always men but women sometimes also to work for him really, really hard, often to the point of threatening their own finances and health eventually because he is working harder than everybody else. And he has a personality that is both volatile but also welcoming and impresses his employees with just how dedicated and how passionate he is in a way that at times sounds kind of like codependency between him and his staff. But that’s me psychoanalyzing probably more than Robert Caro would approve of me doing.

Roman Mars: This aspect of Robert Moses’ personality I’ve never… Throughout the book, Caro talks about him in different ways of him being very likable, very good in room, very hard driving, and then also very crucial to his subordinates. I don’t know if I ever get a real bead on Robert Moses–what it would be like to be in a room with him a lot of the time. It seems hard to square the circle of all these different personality traits into one human. 

Elliott Kalan: It’s a real Citizen Kane type scenario where everyone sees a little bit of this big character. But it seems like he just is such an overwhelming figure of energy–he has such an overwhelming personality–that he carries people along. And I don’t think it’s one of those things where he is kind of doing nice things for his employees throughout the day like, “He’s a tough guy, but he was there for me when I needed him.” It sounds like it’s more just the sheer charisma of somebody who is so passionate about what he’s doing that you can’t help but get carried along with it, even if after the fact you’re like, “Oh, well, he was a mean man. That was very mean of him to do that thing.” But in the moment, you get swept up in it. And this is the first time we see a thing that will continue throughout the book where Robert Moses is so full of energy that at the end of the night, he will go out to this beach bungalow that his family is renting at the time–this is 1919–and will just swim in the dark by himself and go way out farther than anyone else feels safe going because he’s just so full of energy. He’s just got to go swimming. And he is a night swimmer throughout the rest of his life in a way that just feels like him burning off extra energy. The money for this commission runs out. Moses has to finish this report himself. And when it’s finished, Caro is really very full of praise about it–that it is very clear. It’s full of confidence. Moses takes almost full credit for it, even though a lot of people worked on it. And there’s a funny story where he hires the historian Charles A. Beard, who wrote… Was it The Economic Interpretation of the American Revolution? 

Jamelle Bouie: That’s right. 

Elliott Kalan: Thank you. Oh, I’m so glad I got the title right. And he hires him to write part of it. And then Charles Beard takes that part of it that he wrote and repurposed it for an article. And Moses gets mad and threatens to sue him for plagiarism. And Beard is apoplectic. He’s like, “But I wrote this! Wait a minute, you hired me to write it! I wrote it! You didn’t write it!” We’re seeing that Robert Moses does not like to share credit with people. But he’s also starting to build his name among the right people as the only guy who can get things done. 

Roman Mars: So, under the guidance of Moses, they form a citizens committee on the reorganization of state government. And Al Smith is stumping across the state. He’s giving speeches in support of the report’s recommendation, which is all-new for Moses. Like, he is being supported for the first time. And he’s also kind of learning the political game. He’s showing tact sort of in the way that Belle Moskowitz has sort of trained him to kind of defer to other people, give them his ideas… He just is smarter about all this stuff. 

Elliott Kalan: He’s trying his best not to be visibly arrogant and hateful towards the people who have immediate power over him, which is new for him–very new for him. He doesn’t like it. 

Roman Mars: And so, with Al Smith’s support and with Moses’, like, deep knowledge of how all these laws work and how these reforms would work within them, they’re able to get a lot of stuff done. 

Elliott Kalan: They manage to pass a lot of this reform package. They don’t get the biggest things. They don’t get the four-year term for the governor yet. They don’t get to consolidate the state bureaucracy yet. They don’t get the executive budget–the idea that the governor would prepare a budget for the whole state. But Al Smith says to Robert Moses, “Don’t worry, I’m going to do that in my next term as governor.” But there’s a problem. 

Roman Mars: Yeah. The term is only two years, as you said. And Al Smith does not get reelected. 

Elliott Kalan: No, unfortunately, his reelection is during the election of 1920 when the Democrats–his party–put up Cox as president. And, of course, for our audience, I don’t have to remind you about President Cox. We all remember the amazing things that happened under his term–him and his vice president, Franklin Roosevelt. I’m sorry. If you’re like, “I don’t remember President Cox,” it’s because it didn’t happen. He lost really badly and took Al Smith down with him–not the last time that Franklin Roosevelt will get in the way of Robert Moses but certainly the first time. And so those major reforms–they just don’t happen. And suddenly, once again, Robert Moses is not in the realm of power anymore. 

Roman Mars: Right. Right. The committee gets disbanded. All that stuff, you know, just sort of goes away when Al Smith is no longer the governor–except that Robert Moses takes his job at the New York State Association, which is something we’ll hear a little bit more about in the next chapter. But one of the real key things is he has become friends with Al Smith. Al Smith has really taken a shine to Robert Moses. And now that they’re both sort of esteemed, private citizens, they begin to hang out as friends. 

Elliott Kalan: Yes. There’s a passage that I’d love to read here, where Robert Caro becomes kind of Charles Dickensy in describing these two seemingly mismatched but surprisingly deeply bonded figures in this story. It says it here. Here it is. “The two men made an odd pair as they walked through the winding, narrow streets of the Lower East Side in the twilight. One of them tall, slim, handsome, and aristocratic and bearing. The other short, potbellied, florid. The taller man striding out with long, springing steps continually had to shorten his stride to let the other, who walked with a slow, extremely pigeon-toed gait, catch up. Their progress was further slowed by Smith’s popularity. He seemed to know almost every man and woman who passed. And when one of them stopped to chat, he would stop, too, and talk with him without appearance of impatience, while his companion would stride restlessly in little circles or–trying desperately to stand still and listen politely–would nervously clench and unclench his fists.” And the chapter ends with Robert Moses amazingly reporting to the people he knows that Al Smith listens to him. 

Roman Mars: Yeah. And just to give full context of this… If you were to sort of encapsulate all of what Robert Moses did as this intern of a think tank and when it comes to political reform–if it all sort of came down to, like, one point–it is people like Al Smith shouldn’t govern. That is basically his conclusion at the end of his time at the think tank. 

Elliott Kalan: This is his thesis. This is his master’s thesis, right? It’s that only people with college educations should be in government positions. And Al Smith is the antithesis of that as we get through into Chapter Seven. But yeah, this is something that I wanted to get your guys’ thought on before we get into Al Smith’s amazing rise to the height of New York politics. Al Smith–to the outsider–he’s a Tammany man. He’s kind of emblematic of that kind of machine politics. And as you’re saying, Roman, Moses’ reforms in theory are all about “We shouldn’t have guys like that in power–only the college educated should. The democratic, clean way of doing things is to not have this kind of machine corruption.” But it’s only in the world of that machine corruption that a guy as from the bottom as Al Smith can rise to the top, which is the truly more democratic system because if Moses has way, like you’re saying, you wouldn’t see Al Smith in government. But it is only Al Smith who is able to get through the kinds of reforms that Moses is trying to do. And Jamelle, this maybe dovetails with what you were saying earlier about reform movements also being about removing certain types of voters or certain types of members of the populace. What is that? I don’t have a way to phrase this question. But can you talk about it? I guess that’s a question. 

Jamelle Bouie: Yeah, sure. I mean, the macro picture of, like, American politics in this period is that it’s really fractitious, right? So, in the 1880s and 1890s, you have the Farmers Alliance and the Populist Party, which is hugely disruptive. I mean, I think today–to the extent that anyone learned about the populists–it’s like, “Oh, yeah. The farmers got angry. And they had a party, and it, you know, contested some elections.” But like the Populist Party more or less, like, unsettled American politics across the country. And so, you have this, you have, like, labor unrest–really serious and violently unrest throughout the country. There are multiple economic crises happening. There’s a panic in 1893. There’s maybe a little recession at the beginning of the 20th century. So, kind of a context for the Progressive Reform Era, which is what this is all kind of a part of–progressivism exists in both parties as a reform movement. There are Republican progressives. There are democratic progressives. They exist within, you know, the Tammany machine as people who would identify as progressives. And I think, to a large extent, Robert Moses and this group of people are in that milieu. A guy who I’m sure will get mentioned in the book, Robert F. Wagner, because he’s sort of a very important figure in national politics in the 1930s… 

Elliott Kalan: We’ll hear about Robert Wagner. And we’ll hear about his son, the other Robert Wagner–not the actor. 

Jamelle Bouie: Yeah. If you’re ever Googling this, you gotta remember there’s an actor named Robert Wagner. Robert F. Wagner is the politician. His son is also Robert Wagner Jr. 

Roman Mars: Not Robert Wagner from Hart to Hart.

Jamelle Bouie: No, it’s the fractitiousness and, in some cases, the violence of American politics that a lot of reformers want to get a handle on. It’s the very real corruption. I mentioned there’s mass immigration during all this. And what’s also happening is sort of, like, a growing kind of nativistic attitude within American politics. So, the progressive reformers–whether they’re operating in New York or other northern and Mid-Atlantic cities, whether they’re out west in California, or whether they’re down south–the progressive reformers are trying to do a bunch of things. And one of them is this attempt to rationalize politics, reduce the level of fractitiousness and violence and conflict, and promote people who are interested in, quote unquote, “scientific government,” government by experts, government by people with a base of knowledge. And this is the ugly side–the more ordinary immigrant voters and laboring voters… Like, “What do they know? What do they know about administering the government? Maybe they shouldn’t have as much of a say. Maybe we should be finding ways to have them be less of a part of the political process.”

Elliott Kalan: And to be clear, you’re saying what they would be thinking. We shouldn’t take that out of context into a political ad. 

Jamelle Bouie: New York Times columnist Jamelle Bouie does not think immigrants shouldn’t be involved…

Elliott Kalan: Oh, I’m so glad that we settled that. Oh ,thank goodness. 

Roman Mars: But what I was thinking in that moment was actually, like, how overt was the anti-immigrant, sort of bigoted nature of this reform movement? Was it all subtext, or did they talk about it openly? 

Jamelle Bouie: Oh, it wasn’t subtext at all.

Elliott Kalan: It was supertext. 

Jamelle Bouie: Let me pull up something real quick. There’s a wonderful book from the 1970s by a political scientist who’s still living named J. Morgan Kousser called The Shaping of Southern Politics: Suffrage Restriction and the Establishment of the One-Party South. And it’s mostly about the South. But because it takes place during this time, it deals with similar kinds of movements happening throughout the country. Here we go. This is from the book. “Between 1889 and 1913, nine states outside the South made the ability to read English a qualification for voting, and Rhode Island required voters to pay at least $1.00 in taxes. Writing in the prestigious North American Review, a prominent University of Michigan geologist denounced, ‘The communistic principle of universal and equal suffrage.’ ‘It is not an injustice to those who surrender control. It is justice to those who have the right to the best government. It is justice to those whom nature and education have fitted to administer best government. This is not oppression of the masses by a selected few. It is the best protection of the masses from all political evils. The best guidance of the masses towards the blessings of higher national and individual prosperity.’ Other northerners supported state or national literacy tests to reduce the influence of immigrants or Negroes or expel the ‘bosses’ and ‘demagogues’ who allegedly benefited from the votes of these groups.” That’s generally the tenor of conversation. 

Roman Mars: So, let’s take a quick break. And when we come back, we’re going to get to one of our favorite sections of the book: a little micro biography of Al Smith–the great Al Smith–after this. When you love someone, you protect them in the best ways you can. SimpliSafe Home Security is an advanced system that protects every inch of your home. It’s backed by 24/7 professional monitoring for fast emergency response for less than $1.00 a day. As my kids get older and people come and go at different times and all hours of the night, what I love about SimpliSafe is it just gives me a bird’s eye view to check in, if I need to, to know what is going on in my home. It gives me that kind of peace of mind. SimpliSafe was named Best Home Security Systems of 2024 by U.S. News and World Report and offers everything you need for whole home protection, including HD cameras for indoors and outdoors, advanced motion sensors and entry sensors to protect doors, windows, and rooms, and a collection of hazard sensors that detect fire, flooding, and more. Order now to get 20% off any new SimpliSafe system with Fast Protect monitoring. Don’t wait. Visit That’s There’s no safe like SimpliSafe. This podcast is brought to you by Squarespace, the all-in-one website platform for entrepreneurs to stand out and succeed online. Everyone knows the holidays can take a toll on your bank account. If you’re looking for creative ways to increase revenue and give your family and friends the holiday treats they deserve, then you need to get started with Squarespace’s new feature, Squarespace Courses. So, say you are a podcaster. Squarespace has all the tools you need to create and sell your own online course in podcasting. Start with a professional layout that fits your brand, upload video lessons to teach techniques and skills, and tailor your course with the powerful, built-in Fluid Engine Editor. With Squarespace Courses, you can create engaging content your audience will love. Then simply add a paywall and set the price. Plus, you can charge a one-time fee or sell subscriptions. Turn your creativity into income with Squarespace Courses. Head to for a free trial. And when you’re ready to launch, go to to save 10% off your first purchase of a website or domain. That’s So, this is the part of the book where we talk about Al Smith. And right here, Caro jumps back in time. And if you’re not paying close attention, it is pretty confusing for many of us. 

Elliott Kalan: Because you’re suddenly like, “Wait, he’s a child now. I thought he was the governor.”

Roman Mars: And then he was the governor not elected in 1918. And then he goes back–

Jamelle Bouie: “All my life I wanted to be the governor.” And then we fade to…

Elliott Kalan: Yeah, that’ll be the movie version of it. So, we’re in Chapter Seven now. It’s called Change of Major. And it opens with a long section that I will try to do quickly and not too detailed. I love it. This is a 17-page section. It’s half the chapter, which is just telling the life story of Al Smith. And every time I think about this book–I know it’s 17 pages, but it stuck with me from the first time I read it–I’ll be like, “There’s no way that section is 17 pages. I must be exaggerating.” And then I’ll go back and read through it again. I’m like, “No. It is. They talk about Al Smith for a long time.” I remember the first time that I read this book I was really enjoying Al Smith’s life. And then Robert Moses came back, and I was like, “Oh, yeah! This book is about Robert Moses!” Like, it felt like two superheroes were finally teaming up–that I had been reading their books, you know, separately for a long time. But he is the exact opposite in many ways of Moses’ upbringing. And Caro compares them specifically. He says, “At this age that Moses is doing this, Al Smith is doing this.” He’s growing up in the Irish tenements of New York’s Fourth Ward right at the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge. It’s all tenements. It’s kind of your classic, easy to romanticize but actually very terrible to live in tenements. And his father dies when he’s young. His mother is literally worried that if she cannot financially support her children, they’ll be taken away from her and put in institution. And finally, he drops out of school at 13 and goes to work. For much of the time he’s working at Fulton Fish Market, where Caro notes he works from 4:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. every day except Friday, when he starts work at 3:00 a.m. It’s not that he has Friday off. It just he has one extra hour of work. But he also starts getting into the kind of low-level political work that–Jamelle–you were telling us about, which they describe as “executing contracts,” which is kind of favors. They talk about, like, tipping off a brothel owner that there’s going to be a raid, so maybe “get ready for it.” Or there’s a poor constituent who needs a little bit of help because they lost their job. And each of these things is a favor that you’re doing. And the person you’re doing a favor for knows this is the Democratic Party who’s doing this favor–and specifically the local Democratic ward boss, who in this case is a guy named Big Tom Foley. If you want to be a machine politician, you should have “Big” in front of your name. That should be your nickname. It can only sound kind of corrupt. It’s hard for me to imagine a politician with “Big” at the front of his name who is above board and just known for his honesty, like Big Abe Lincoln or something like that. And he catches Big Tom Foley’s eye because Al Smith is someone everyone seems to like. He goes out of his way to do as much as he can for people. He works hard. People just seem to like him. And he says, “Hey, I’m going to put you as a state assemblyman.” And Al Smith is like, “Oh, okay, sure. Yeah, that would be great.” And he gets elected. He goes to the state legislature in Albany, and he finds it impenetrable. The speeches are impenetrable. The wording of the bills is impenetrable. Again, this is a guy who dropped out of school at 13. And this is a New York school in the late 19th century; this is not an amazing school probably. And each night, after kind of carousing with his fellow legislators because a lot of the job of being in the state legislature seems to be to go drinking with the other legislators, he would go back to the room he was staying in and read through every single bill that was brought up that day and the older bills they referred to. And it’s his way of just trying to figure out what do these things mean. Like, “What do they mean? Why are they written this way? What are the people who introduced this bill? What are they thinking? Why are they thinking this is the way it has to be done?” And he needs money. He has a family by this point. And he goes to big Tom Foley, and Tom Foley says, “I’ll give you this big patronage job–this plum job. It’s not a lot of work. It’s good money. But if you take it, you’ll never be a big man in New York. But hey, maybe Albany’s too tough for you, you know? Maybe you’re just not ready for it.” And Smith decides to turn down that job, and he goes back to Albany. And while he’s a state legislator, he is entirely a Tammany man. Whatever Big Tom Foley tells him to do, he does it. And he spends his days voting whatever he’s ordered to vote–winning over his colleagues with kind of jokes and things. But then at night, when nobody knows what he’s doing, he is just researching and reading and studying and researching and learning. And as we know, there’s nothing Robert Caro admires more than deep research that involves reading papers long into the night. Anytime a character does interviews or researching papers in this book, instantly there’s a shine that glows for them. And we’ll talk about this more later, actually, because it will get into the deeper weeds of bill writing. But as a dilettante when it comes to politics–I read about it, but I’m not a New York Times columnist or anything like that–Jamelle, can you enlighten us why the laws are written so complicatedly. Why are they so complicated? Why do we need a whole court whose job seems to be just to tell us what words that are in the dictionary mean? Why should he have to study so hard to understand what these laws are saying? 

Jamelle Bouie: A lot of reasons. So first, a piece of legislation may effectively just be an amendment of an older piece of legislation. So, you need to know the language of the older piece of legislation A) to understand what this new one is doing. And B) to even write it, you have to have knowledge of this previous piece of legislation. And then these things are written in a kind of very technical, legalistic language. And that explains, like, 90% of it. And so, where a court comes in is, I mean, most often the bill is written, it’s passed into law, it’s being implemented, and the people tasked with implementing it are reading it or cross-checking it based on what they know. And they begin to take action. And then someone else who maybe is affected by their actions says, “Hey, I don’t think you’re reading that correctly. This is what I think this means that the law says.” And now the legislature is doing other stuff now. It’s not going to go back and, like, clarify. So, the job of the court is they look at the text, they look at the legislative history, they look at similar laws maybe and how those are implemented, they look at everything, and they say, “Well, we think that this understanding of the law makes the most sense.” And that’s kind of most of the deal, right? Law writing is a technical process. It’s an interpretive process. And the people who write laws are often trying to do it in such a way as to make sure that what they want to happen actually happens. This is sort of like the big bang. You gotta write it in a way that’s like, “We want X to happen specifically. And we need to make sure that it does actually happen.”

Elliott Kalan: Because there’s someone else who can come along and say, “Eh, but that law kind of says Y. I know you maybe wanted X, but Y works also.”

Jamelle Bouie: Right. Yeah, yeah. Right. “You wanted X, but what you wrote is more akin to Y. You’re doing X, but you can’t do X because actually it means Y.” Like, you want to avoid that situation as much as possible. 

Elliott Kalan: Well, now that I know how complicated it is, it is less surprising to me that it takes Al Smith until his fifth term in the state legislature to finally understand how laws work and what’s going on. 

Jamelle Bouie: I mean, this is a bit of my own little hobby horse. So, listeners, if you disagree with me–whatever–just ignore it. Fast-forward through. But this is actually the basic problem with term limits as a concept. When you get elected to a legislature your first term, 90% of it is learning who the people are, what the basic rules are, and, like, that’s it. And if you get elected to a second term, then you could learn a little more. And in practice–especially for when the terms are two years or three years–your first five terms might simply be equivalent to orientation. It’s sort of like, “Okay. I’ve been here for ten years. Now I know enough to do something that I want to do.” And a term limit basically short-circuits that process. What the term limit does is say, “Okay, you’re now at the point where you have enough knowledge and you have built enough relationships and you’ve developed an area of expertise or an area of interest. You’re at the point where you can write a law and build a coalition and get it passed. Well, now you can’t be in a legislature anymore. Goodbye. You can’t be here.”

Roman Mars: But even a term limit–a single term being so short–is an impediment to all of this. And it’s pretty fascinating. I think one thing you have to sort of think about that’s different today as back then is, like, you know, essentially campaigns are so long that two years… Basically, you get elected, your focus on being reelected is, like, immediate. Whereas I think these campaigns–we talked about different campaigns later on–they’re, like, a month long maybe.

Elliott Kalan: They’re pretty short. And when you’re running for the state legislature and you got Big Tom Foley in a corner, you’re not really campaigning too hard. You got the bully boys standing on beer barrels, giving speeches on street corners–and that’s enough. And, you know, everyone owes favors. 

Jamelle Bouie: Guys with bats–that kind of thing.

Elliott Kalan: Oh, yeah. Of course. Oh, the good old days. Yeah. And by 1911, he is the majority leader for his party. He’s still doing Tammany business. There’s a kind of a little bit of a turning moment as a result of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire–one of the one of the great labor tragedies in the United States history. And he adds himself to the committee that’s investigating it for the state. And he starts to make relationships with the reformers who are also working on that committee and working in the cause of safer, labor situations–especially for New York garment workers and workers in general. And he starts to make this relationship with a few reformers who see that he’s uneducated, he seems to have no political ideology really whatsoever, but he cares in a broader sense of the idea of taking care of the people–of little people. Jamelle, what you’re saying about populism–he is that kind of populist in the positive sense of the word. And he becomes a very powerful speaker for the rights of workers and the rights of the poor while he’s still at the same time doing Tammany business. And he becomes the Assembly speaker, he gets a reputation for working efficiently, he bullies laws through, and he might stand up for a progressive bill. But if Tammany says, “Don’t do this,” he will switch on a dime. So that 1915 reorganization report that failed–the one before Moses’ report–he was in support of it. And then his boss is like, “Don’t do this.” And he says to them, “Sorry, boys. Got the word–can’t do it.” Like, he’s very open about how he was told he can’t support it, so he’s not supporting it. But behind the scenes, he’s starting to kind of lobby the Tammany people to change their thinking a little bit. And he’s getting traction because they have a goal that they think he might be able to achieve, which is to be the first Irish American governor of the state. It’s something they’ve never been able to establish. And it means a lot to this very Irish political machine in a city with a lot of Irish voters who are looked down on. And so, 1918–that’s when he was elected governor–he’s associated in that campaign and then for the rest of his life with the then new song The Sidewalks of New York. It’s a song that I feel like I only know from old cartoons and things like that. It’s the song that goes, “East side, West Side, all around the town.” 

The Sidewalks of New York: East Side, West Side, all around the town The tots sang “ring-around-rosie,” “London Bridge is falling down” Boys and girls together, me and Mamie O’Rourke Tripped the light fantastic on the sidewalks of New York…

Elliott Kalan: But you kind of feel like when Robert Caro is writing this, there are still old timers who–when they hear that song–they go, “Ah, yes. Al Smith,” the same way that I’ll always think of Bill Clinton when I hear that Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow song when it comes on the oldies radio. And Governor Smith–he will work with reformers, but he works on reforms that are good politics. He has no time for the kind of uncompromising idealists that Moses used to traffic with. And he has some great names for them that I want to highlight. He calls them “mush brains,” “double domes,” “crackpots”–that’s still around–and my favorite, which is “goo goos.” 

Jamelle Bouie: Oh yeah, I love “goo goos.”

Elliott Kalan: He won’t deal with goo goos–doesn’t want them. And at this point the book has brought us back to where we left off before. Moses is part of Smith’s kind of coterie of people. He likes him. He likes singing barbershop quartet songs with him. Nobody really knows why. He just seems to like Robert Moses. And that’s when–going back to the end of the last chapter–Smith loses the election. Moses accepts this job with the New York State Association. It’s a new statewide good government organization–the first statewide good government reform organization in New York. And that instantly makes him a more important figure in that reform circle. He catches the eyes of the old reformers and the young lawyers. He’s the embodiment of everything that they think is possible in the reform movement–this brilliant, young, hardworking guy who has strong principles and won’t compromise. And he edits the organization’s monthly magazine, which is very straightforward reform principle boostering–except when it comes to talking about Al Smith, in which case it is a super pro-Al Smith Magazine. And the other reformers are like, “What is the deal? I don’t understand. Why is that the one guy?” And in 1922, Smith runs for governor again. The reform magazine is so solidly pro-Smith that it is making factual errors about Smith’s opponent. And Moses doesn’t seem to care. It’s so in the tank for Smith. And the other members of the government group who saw this as a nonpartisan organization–they’re dismayed. They start to resign. The organization somewhat falls apart. And Robert Caro notes that 50 years later, when the book was written, the League of Women Voters was still the only statewide political reform organization in New York–that this organization, which had such potential, Moses effectively turned it into an Al Smith super pack. And I have to assume that’s changed by now, but I did not do the research for it. But there must be a statewide reform organization in New York now. And Robert Moses–he has made the ultimate change, which is that these other reformers come to him and say, “Al Smith said this in his speech, and it’s not true–this thing that he said about his opponent.” And Moses goes, “Yeah, but it sounds better. We gotta win this election, right, guys?” And he has come to scorn anyone who prioritizes truth over results. And as Caro says, “Bob Moses was scornful in short of what he had been.” And Al Smith wins the election. And Robert Caro ends the chapter saying, “And when, on January 2nd, 1923, Al Smith went back to Albany, he took Bob Moses with him. And he took him back big.” I love that. He knows how to end chapters so well. He’s a super chapter ender. 

Roman Mars: So now we’re into Chapter Eight. It’s called A Taste of Power. And Al Smith is the governor again. And Robert Moses is up in Albany with him. But in what is a very–for me–confusing-the-first time-I-read-it scene, he’s not sitting next to Al Smith in the beginning of this chapter. He’s sitting next to a young Democrat named Jimmy Walker. Who is Jimmy Walker?

Elliott Kalan: At the time, Jimmy Walker is the Democratic floor leader in the legislature in the state Senate. And you’re right, it is super confusing that this guy is just brought in. And Jimmy Walker will eventually be mayor of New York. He will. And he is famous as the mayor who is… We’ll hear about him more. But he’s a man about town. He’s a songwriter. He is kind of the epitome of gentlemanly, slimy corruption in New York City. He is a guy who dresses well. He takes his mistress to official public events. Everybody loves him, and he is super crooked. But here he’s just kind of mentioned, and he’s mentioned in the way that I have to assume that what Robert Caro is doing here is equivalent to when a Marvel movie ends and a character suddenly shows up and half the audience goes, “Oh!” and the other half is like, “I don’t know who this is. Am I supposed to know who this is–this character who shows his face for a moment?” Robert Caro assumes, when he’s writing for a New York audience in the 1970s, “They know who Jimmy Walker is. Come on. He’s famous. How could you forget about this indelible New York political character?”

Roman Mars: And all I can think about is Good Times. That’s all that comes to mind when I hear Jimmy Walker. 

Elliott Kalan: Once again, New York political figures having the same name as a television actor is tripping us up again. Thanks a lot, reality, for giving us so many of these. That’s two in one episode. 

Jamelle Bouie: I just looked up a picture of Jimmy Walker. This guy does not look like you should trust him. 

Elliott Kalan: Well, in some ways he was kind of the way that Trump… Part of this thing that people like about Trump when they like him is that he’s kind of a slimeball. You know, they kind of admire that about him. With Jimmy Walker it was kind of the same thing, where it was like, “Oh, Jimmy. Oh, this guy. Come on. Oh, that’s Jimmy.” He was very much the arch nemesis of a lot of reformers at the time. But this is before he’s become mayor. This is when he is still a Democratic senator. But Robert Moses is doing the job in the scene of being the guy who stands next to the politician and tells him all the things that he needs to know so that he can then go out and give the speeches or make the legislative moves that are going to get the policies in place. Moses–at this point–he has no official position in the state government. His only official job–his only salary–is as secretary of the New York State Association. But effectively his role is as Al Smith’s legislative researcher, messenger, all-around companion, and right-hand man in a lot of ways. He’s in the building when Al Smith’s at work. He goes with Al Smith to visit Al Smith’s grandkids. He goes with Al Smith at night to visit the animals in the Executive Mansion Menagerie, which apparently was something that they had at the time of the Executive Mansion. And it’s possibly the least relevant piece of information, but I feel like I have to highlight the animals that were living outside the Executive Mansion in Albany at the time, which was -tiger and bear cubs, goats, a fox, and an elk–and as permanent residents, six dogs, a mother raccoon with three baby raccoons, and three monkeys. So, at this point, the governor of New York has a private zoo, and Al Smith loves it. This will come up later–his love of zoos. But Moses is in the political inner circle. It’s him. It’s Mrs. Moskowitz. It’s a few other people–Tammany bosses and reformers. He is in the mix of power. Jamelle, is this how things still work? There’s, like, just unpaid people wandering around with politicians? I mean, like, I feel like when I watch cable news, which I try not to because it depresses me, there’s always people who are credited as, like, “political consultant” or “adviser.” Is this the kind of thing that Robert Moses was–just kind of a free floating, kind of unpaid but very necessary adviser? Do we still have that? 

Jamelle Bouie: We, I mean, often the people who fill that role are paid these days. Your top and your top campaign adviser you may bring on as staff, right? Like maybe they’ll be your chief of staff. Maybe they’ll serve some other, like, staff position that they can be paid. The kind of just sort of, like, guy who’s around and doesn’t really have a job but, like, is close to the governor or to the mayor or to whomever–I feel like that’s a little less common these days. Like, that kind of close adviser is still around, but they are often given some kind of official role just to put them in proximity and give them, like, a paycheck. Patronage is still a thing. 

Elliott Kalan: But now it’s good, white collar, expert patronage as opposed to the bad, old-fashioned, regular-people-get-jobs patronage. 

Jamelle Bouie: Right, right, right, right. I’ll just say even white-collar patronage–people still feel like someone needs to have qualifications. I don’t know if you remember George W. Bush’s first pick for Supreme Court after Sandra Day O’Connor. 

Elliott Kalan: Yeah. Harriet Miers.

Jamelle Bouie: Yeah, Harriet Miers–who was, like, his personal lawyer. And it was like, “Yeah, I’ll put my personal lawyer on the Court. Why not, right? Like, that’s classic patronage. It’s classic patronage. And I don’t think it’s a bad thing. I mean, I think we probably would have all been better off if it was Justice Harriet Miers and not Justice Sam Alito. 

Elliott Kalan: Well, that’s the amazing thing is it’s like, in theory, it’s bonkers for the president to put his personal lawyer–someone who did not seem to have the experience, and nobody knew really what her ideas were–on it. But looking back on it now, I’m like, “You know, it probably would have been better to have just, like, a personal attorney who is not beholden to the Federalist Society or didn’t clerk for a Supreme Court Justice–to have them on the Court.” Well, maybe we need more of that stuff. I don’t know. 

Jamelle Bouie: Well, this is actually the point I was going to make. The legacy of this reform movement is the professionalization of government service, and we gain a lot from that. That is important. But these are political jobs at the end of the day. And political considerations do have a place in political jobs. And I think we lose something in trying to get rid of political considerations in political jobs. There’s a balance to strike. And sometimes I think with certain kind of positions, we’d move way too far in the direction of everyone has to be a certain kind of professional versus–in the case of a Supreme Court seat or the federal judiciary in general–maybe it’s not a bad idea to appoint someone who was a long-time legislator to this job. They can figure out the technical parts, but we’re hiring them for, like, their judgment. And maybe that’s what we’re looking for. 

Elliott Kalan: Well, that’s the way they were doing things in the old days. And Robert Caro talks about the excitement for Moses of working in Smith’s office. He’s in the center of power in the state, and he’s seeing how real decisions are being made. He’s seeing the practical considerations that go into these bills–like you’re talking about–into these decisions. And it’s exciting for him because he knows now that none of his ideas matter if he doesn’t have executive support. When he was pushing that civil service reform and the boy mayor John Perry Mitchell just wouldn’t back it up, it died. But now he knows if he has a good idea that can get Al Smith political benefit and also will help people, Al Smith will put his support behind it. And he starts getting things done. And the things are not the things that we associate Robert Moses with yet. There’s prison reform–especially juvenile detention reform–and a lot of elimination of ground level railroad track crossings, which were incredibly deadly and yet all over the place. Trains were constantly hitting people, but it took a lot of effort to get those removed. And they eventually win that government reorganization fight that started Smith’s first term. And they get those bills. And Moses is doing a lot of the bill drafting here. And there’s a second here that describes what we were talking about earlier–that kind of specialized knowledge of how bills go–that I would love to read to you guys. And then we can cut it later, but you’ll know that I read it to you. And it’ll live with you forever until your dying day. It says, “Bill drafting was called by Albany insiders the ‘black art of politics.’ An expert bill drafter had to know thousands of precedents so that he could call out the one, embodying it in the bill he was working on, that would make the bill legal, or so that he could, by careful wording, avoid bringing the new act within the purview of an old one that might make it illegal. He had to know a myriad of ways of conferring or denying power by written words. He had to know how to lull the opposition by concealing a bill’s real content. For years, everyone had known the identity of the best bill drafter in Albany, Alfred E. Smith. And Smith had never been shy about accepting that accolade. But now, when someone brought up the subject, Smith said, ‘The best bill drafter I know is Bob Moses.'” So, he’s making a name for himself as the guy who can write laws that get things done and that work the right way. And Al Smith wants to repay Moses the way that he’s used to repaying people in these positions, which is with a high paying, low work job. He’s like, “Hey, do you want to be director of the board that supervises the work projects in the state prisons? You don’t have to do anything, and you’ll get paid money for it.” And Moses says, “No, I don’t want that.” And Al Smith keeps asking Moses, “What do you want? What do you want? What do you want? What can I get you? What can I reward you with?” Moses keeps saying, “Nothing.” And then the chapter ends with one of these lines. Robert Caro–he writes it… This is one of those things where it’s a real “Oh, What?” moment, but only in this context. “And then one day there was something. The something was parks.” We’re 143 pages into the book. We’re finally talking about parks–the thing that he does. It’s amazing. We’re here finally with Chapter Nine: A Dream. 

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Roman Mars: Okay, so now we’re starting with Chapter Nine. This is not the longest chapter in the book, but it’s the longest one we’ve encountered so far. And it really sets up this idea that as New York was growing, there was always more land to be considered. And there was open land and, you know, natural areas for people to potentially go to. But New York is growing so fast. All that stuff is filling in. And all of a sudden people are like, “Whoa, we need to get to some parks. We need to take care of parks here.”

Elliott Kalan: “You know what I used to see around here? Trees. I don’t see them so much anymore. I’d like to see some. We gotta figure out a place to have some.”

Roman Mars: I mean, it’s hard to imagine it now, but New York wasn’t always this, you know, densely packed with all these buildings and streets. 

Elliott Kalan: When I lived in New York, I would walk around a lot and think about what part of what I’m standing on is natural geography, what hills and what dips are natural geography, and what things were added by human beings because once this was all forest land. Once this was all forest and marsh, and now it is entirely covered in paving. And this is the period when those final bits of paving are starting to be done–that open space that the city used to have is being filled in with housing developments. And at the same time, there’s all this new technology that means people finally have a little bit of leisure time. The days of working at the Fulton Fish Market seven days a week–4:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. and at 3 a.m. on Fridays–that’s starting to come to an end. People have cars for the first time. They can actually leave the city if they want to go places. This is amazing. They need something to do with their leisure. The only problem is that most of the good land right outside of the city is in private hands. And the public land that you could use as recreation–it’s too hard to get to. There’s literally very little actual road work to get there. The roads are poor. The bridges across the rivers are tiny. The only way to get west across the Hudson River is to take your car on a ferry, which has to be the least efficient way to do that other than to put, I guess, balloons under your car and float it across the river with an oar and make it its own ferry. And to the east is Long Island. And Robert here talks about this kind of open potential in Long Island. Long Island is this place that still has space. First, he talks about how the Ice Age created Long Island’s geography. And I gotta say, that’s the one–maybe the two pages of this book–I find my eyes really glazing over, where I’m like, “Aw, I just can’t visualize it.”

Roman Mars: I love that part. And I’ll tell you why. This is the first instance of Robert Caro, the author, using geography as a piece–a key piece–of biographical text because in the opening chapter of the first LBJ book, it’s all about the Texas Hill country’s soil composition and potential fecundity, which creates Johnson as a person. And so, when I see this echo of Caro’s style, I get pretty excited, even if the details of the Ice Age forming the Long Island Sound does not stick in my head. 

Elliott Kalan: While he’s talking about this, I’m like, “All right, Mr. Caro. I respect so much that you put this effort in, and you understood how the rock formations came across.” But I’ll just move on to the next place. The point is, Long Island looks like it would be a great place to spend your one day off from work with your family, right? 

Roman Mars: Right. But you can’t. 

Elliott Kalan: No, you can’t, unfortunately, because Long Island is taken. Who’s it taken by? There’s the South Shore where you have the beaches. They’re in the hands of the Baymen–these kind of fishermen who have lived in that area for generations. And they do not want outsiders there. They don’t like people from New York City. Robert Caro presents them as especially careful to keep sacred the bay bottoms–the actual fishing area that they see as their birthright. He presents them as fairly racist and also talks about the Klan’s popularity there. And I sometimes wonder if Robert Caro is going really far to demonize these fishermen. But I can’t tell for sure because this is 100 years ago. I can’t talk to them. They’re not there anymore. That’s the South Shore. You’ve got your–for lack of a better word–kind of provincials. Then up in the North Shore, it’s even worse. That’s where the land is locked up by the private estates of the wealthy robber barons. J. P. Morgan’s family and his partners are there. You got Standard Oil millionaires–Andrew Carnegie’s partner–there’s a lot of them. Robert Caro–he loves to list things. He goes through all of these rich people and what they own. He talks a lot about the size of their castles and how they would go fox hunting there. They build a private golf course that’s surprisingly full of mosquitoes. They own vast amounts of land, and then they own more land around that land that is guarded by private guards to keep regular people away from them. And they especially seem to enjoy blocking access to the beaches. And Robert Caro points out that there’s one area of Long Island where there was 48 miles of shoreline and 1,250 ft were open to the public. And the rest was all in private, wealthy hands. And the barons of the North Shore–they want to keep things this way. And they do that by essentially bankrolling the state GOP. The Republican Party–specifically the Nassau County Republican Party–is very much a machine that works at the behest of the barons to keep them in control of all this land. And Robert Caro has this amazingly vivid section–this is one of the sections of the book that I always remember the most when I think about it–that is him describing the experience of you being a guy taking your family in your car on the weekend to drive out to Long Island to find a place to have a picnic and just how incredibly futile it is to do this. And I’d love to read some of it. “If they were heading for the North Shore on Northern Boulevard, 160 ft of smooth macadam shrank to 18 at the city line. The cars heading east had to cram into a single file. As they crept along, the paving of the boulevard deteriorated so that each family had to watch the cars ahead jounce, one after the other, into gaping potholes and then wait for the jolts themselves. More and more frequently, they came to unpaved stretches in which, if there had been a recent rain, cars became mired, bringing the endless line behind them to a halt. If the earth was dry, thick clouds of dust hung over the unpaved stretches, turning dirty the gay dress mother had worn for the excursion. As the families drove, they could see on either side of them, through gates set in stone walls or through the openings and wooden fences, the beautiful meadows they had come for, stretching endlessly and emptily to the cool trees beyond. But the meadows and trees were not for them. The gates would be locked, and men carrying shotguns and holding fierce dogs on straining leashes would point eastward, telling the families they were parks open to them farther along. There was no shade on Northern Boulevard, and the children became cranky early. The more persistent, who determined to head east until they discovered some place to swim or picnic, found the road becoming worse and worse. They would see Long Island villagers sitting on the fences and laughing at the families who, because of engine overheating or in a desperate try at a piece of grass, pulled off the road. The line of cars was so solid, the radiator of one almost touching the tailgate of the one before it, that once out of the line, it was hard for a car to get back in. ‘And it was fun,’ the villagers said, ‘to watch them try. ‘” All the elements of a really terrible outing with your family are there so vividly to me, where it’s like, “It was supposed to be nice. It’s not working out. It’s hot. It’s gross. And the locals are laughing at you, and you’re trapped there. You’re stuck.” And we’re all fathers, right? We’ve all been in situations where we want to do something nice with our families and nothing is working out right. And I feel like Robert Caro does such a good job, to me, at least of taking this big issue of public space and how it’s allocated and what’s public space and what’s private space and making it really relatable in that experience of “We just want to go somewhere outside the city today, and instead we’re going to end up spending the entire day in the car. And then we have to go back. And it’s terrible.” The point is the people need parks. Long Island is the best place for them. But building a park there means you have to get the state legislature involved. They’re in the control of the barons. The land is too valuable for the government to buy. It’s too valuable for them to condemn it. They can’t afford it. And if you did build parks–even if you did–how would anybody get out there? The roads are so bad. And so, the reformers who talk about parks–they have to settle for kind of, like, little city playgrounds. There’s nobody who’s going to be able to cut this Gordian Park knot. 

Roman Mars: Except there is one man!

Elliott Kalan: One man! Who would that man be? 

Roman Mars: His name is Robert Moses. So, it’s 1922. Robert Moses and his wife–Mary–they’re renting a bungalow in Babylon, Long Island. And this is one of the few times you actually see Robert Moses on a train. 

Elliott Kalan: Yes. Yes, he has to take the Long Island Railroad from Manhattan to Long Island–the same railroad he will, years later, help to push into deterioration and almost to a disintegration with his road building. And as he’s taking this long train ride, he’s looking out the window to what he can see north of the railroad. And he realizes that he’s passing all this untouched land. There’s housing and towns. But in between it there’s ponds and woods and streams. There’s just land that is just sitting there; nobody’s doing anything with it. How’d this land get there?

Roman Mars: Well, what’s the most amazing thing is, like, he does some research. And he goes to the Babylon Town Hall, and he is told that this property was bought by the city of Brooklyn when it was its own independent city in 1874. And it was the emergency backup water reservoir, in case, you know, the city needed extra water. And so, he goes to the Department of Water, and he asked the clerk if they had ever used it. And he says, “No.” And it’s just sitting there. It’s undeveloped. 

Elliott Kalan: And Moses can’t help but think to himself, “I’ve got to look at it. I’ve got to see how much of this there is.” And he decides to just hike through Long Island–just on his own. He’s just tromping through the woods. And it turns out every time he thinks he’s figured out how much land there is, there’s more. It’s so much more extensive than he thought it was. It’s so much more beautiful than he thought it was. There’s so much of it. 

Roman Mars: Yeah. There’s 3,500 unused acres that’s just sitting there. And it’s within 30 miles of Manhattan. And he really starts to, you know, create this vision of parks and sports facilities. And it’s all right there. And he gets a motorboat–a little motorboat–and he begins to explore the shoreline. 

Elliott Kalan: These are the most vehicles that Robert Moses will use in the entire book. He is piloting this motorboat. He’s never going to drive a car, but he can apparently drive a boat, which is… I don’t know why he didn’t transfer those skills to cars, but he’s stuck with boats. He just can’t help exploring. And he gets almost obsessed with it. He is spending all of his time just pioneering through Long Island–this land that nobody has bothered to look at in such a long time. 

Roman Mars: And because of the sort of–I don’t know–hydrology and geology, there’s actually more beach and more land than even the mapmakers had when they last surveyed it than he thought. And he gets obsessed with this little area–this area called Jones Beach. It’s this huge, untouched stretch of shoreline. And he says to himself, “This would be the greatest bathing beach in the world. This could be. But it’s totally unused. It’s totally untouched.”

Elliott Kalan: There’s only two problems. One, how do I turn this stretch of beach into the greatest bathing beach in the world? And two, even if I do that, how do I get people there? The reason this land is so untouched is partly because the city owns it, and no one knew that, but also partly because there’s no roads out there. He had to take the train to get where he was going. And you can’t just turn a train and drive to a new area. You need roads to get there. And so now, as he is tromping through Long Island, he is drawing on pads and drawing on maps these parkway lines–lines for imaginary parkways–that he is envisioning the same way that Robert Caro told us in the previous episode he was still doing years later. He just could not stop drawing lines on maps that represented roads. So, this is where he starts to do that really for the first time. And he’s spending so much of his time doing it. And it really makes you wonder, like, “How does he have time to do his job?” 

Roman Mars: In Albany.

Elliott Kalan: He’s a very busy man. And yet he somehow has time to just wanderlust through Long Island, drawing imaginary parkways. This guy–he’s just really good at using this time. 

Roman Mars: He seems to be. And other people don’t seem to be demanding too much of his time it seems like. 

Elliott Kalan: “Hey, boss. Can I just go walk around Long Island for a couple days?” “You got it. You’re the best bill drafter in Albany. I don’t need you for anything else.” And there were a few state parks at the time. Robert Caro goes into this. In the early 1920s, there are a few small state parks in the hands of local associations because the state basically didn’t want to handle the responsibility. So, they would say, “Great. This land–you can take care of it. You want to be caretakers of this local historical association? Whatever. Go for it.” And Moses says, “This is a dissipation of power. Instead of one major parks organization that has political muscle behind it, you have these competing, little, tiny, private organizations that the legislature doesn’t want to give money to because they can’t really control it.” And through the New York State Association, Moses issues a report that sums up all this called A State Park Plan for New York. A beautiful name for a beautiful report–just really gets the blood pumping. The State Park Plan. 

Roman Mars: I want to bring in Jamelle here for a second. 

Elliott Kalan: I’ll allow it. 

Roman Mars: A lot of our political history is about our relationship with land. And there was a sort of national parks movement associated with Teddy Roosevelt before this. And then there’s also, like, the use of common land. And that was sort of, like, disrupted by barbed wire, you know, in the West. Where are we in our thinking of public land at this point in time, in our political history?

Jamelle Bouie: We’re at an interesting point. I mean, one of the things that is structuring how Americans are thinking about public land is just that the frontier, as they understood it, does not exist anymore, right? There’s no West for the young man to go to; everything’s been settled. And they were also sort of in this age of industrial capitalism. And so, all around the country, especially in places that are well populated, you’re seeing the march of industry, the use of natural resources, and the growth of the country’s productive capacities. And for many Americans in the political elite, this is all well and good–this is the way things ought to be. But there is this anxiety about what’s being lost. One interesting social wrinkle here is that in the early 20th century, there were these recurring panics in the United States over whether young men are manly enough. And, like, this is one of them happening–sort of like, “Oh, okay, our America’s young men… Are they being feminized? Are they spending enough time outside? Are they engaged in manly pursuits, or are they reading books and being inside and all these sorts of things?”

Elliott Kalan: This feels like a direct attack on me. But I understand. 

Jamelle Bouie: All of this is part of this push for public parks and national parks and places where we can preserve the land both because we want to have a sense of what America was like in the mythic past–so we want to preserve what our forefathers saw–but then also we want to make sure that the young men of the country can be exposed to the outdoors and can be exposed to physical activity. The Boy Scouts are founded here in this time. We want to make sure that the young men of the country are engaged in the pursuits that will keep them manly and not unduly effeminate. 

Elliott Kalan: This is the time when more and more men are growing up, never having had the experience of cutting down a tree or something like that. 

Jamelle Bouie: Right. 

Elliott Kalan: And it’s time to get them back into knowing what that’s like and what it’s like to sleep outside–things that people spent thousands of years trying to get away from. It’s time to get back to those things. 

Jamelle Bouie: Or just, like, more Americans are living in cities and living in urban environments. The percentage of Americans who are engaged in agricultural work is at a low point at this time. And so, all of this is sort of anxiety about what’s going to happen to American manliness and masculinity if, you know, there’s no frontier for young men to go to, to make their way. Everyone’s living in a city. 

Roman Mars: Getting soft. Yeah. And there’s a bit of an evolution here of, like, open land in the beginning is sort of part of a commons that’s doled out not exactly fairly–but it’s part of a commons for exploitation because there’s always more land. You can exploit it and use it for whatever sort of industry you’re trying to do. And then there’s this moment of like, “Oh, my God. We need to conserve some of this to keep it as natural as possible because that’s important to our character, too.” And a little bit of Moses’ evolution here is he’s not trying to preserve the marshlands of Long Island so that there’s a nice natural place for us to go. He’s a new kind of developer. He’s a developer of recreation and attractions. And so, when he means “park,” he doesn’t mean this nice natural area. He means a thing of really great design and utility for the purpose of recreation. 

Elliott Kalan: Yes. And very specifically, you know, he means baseball diamonds. He means band shells. Kind of halfway between being a soft city lad and being a rough and tumble country boy is that you get to go out on the weekends and play baseball or football or something in a park space during that time. And this is a big, new idea for the reform element at the time in the state–this idea of land not for conservation but for recreation–that these are parks that are going to have roads and facilities, like you’re saying. They’re going to be designed things. And he asks for a bond issue of $15 million to fund state parks and parkways overseen by a proposed new State Council of Parks. And first, he’s got a win over Al Smith. Al Smith–he doesn’t really care that much about athletic recreation. He’s not a big sports buff. And he thinks the plan is too expensive. But Robert Moses knows… And this is something that will come up throughout the book, too–other people are attracted to this as well. But Al Smith particularly is attracted to big visual ideas. Show him a thing. Show him a made, built thing. And that will impress him, and it’s something that he can point to for the voters and say, “Look at this thing I’ve got made. Look at the thing that we produced. If you elect me again, I will make more of those things. You can really improve people’s lives in a visual way by building stuff. It’s just very straightforward.” There’s an acronym that I’ve been trying to get off the ground in my private life, but I can’t really for politics. My motto–I want it to be Noticeably Improve People’s Lives, which is NIPL. The people I’ve tested it on–mainly my wife and my mom–think I need a new acronym. They don’t love it. They don’t love the acronym. But that’s essentially what they’re getting at here–noticeably improving people’s lives with big visual things. And Moses wears Al Smith down. Al Smith goes, “Okay. But according to law I can only request one bond issue a year. I already requested one. And I’m not quite sure how the public is going to go with this because the price tag is so big. So, I’m going to make a public statement saying that next year I want to issue these bonds, and we’ll see how it goes over.” And he makes a statement saying, “Next year we should have this $50 million bond issue to build parks.” And the immediate public response is enormous–almost nearly unanimous. People love it. Everyone approves of building parks. There’s no one who sees a downside to it. Parks are the best. Everybody loves them. Robert Caro goes back to Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar–to the part where Mark Anthony is like, “Not only was Julius Caesar going to do these great things for you, when he died, he left you all of his estates as parks.” And that’s what makes the Romans go nuts. Now they miss Julius Caesar. People love parks. You just can’t get over how much people love parks. They love the idea of it. And Al Smith knows good politics when he sees it. He knows that even if they’re expensive, if parks are something that people love, then that’s the thing that will get votes. And Robert Caro goes into this description here of Moses’ kind of comprehensive vision of Long Island in total as this working unit–this enormous development–and compares it to Walt Whitman’s poetic vision of the area. He says basically that Walt Whitman is the only other person he can think of who has that kind of grand and universal vision for this region. And Moses is not done. He’s still roaming Long Island. He’s still finding unused land. He goes to Fire Island, and he’s confused that the beach looks so much bigger than his map shows. And he remembers back to earlier when he was told that the ocean is always depositing new sand. It’s been so many years since anyone mapped this area that there is 600 new acres of beach that nobody knew about, that is right here, and that is ready to use. And he’s, like, drunk on the idea of land. He’s just drunk on space and the ability to make these parks and on his own dreams. And Moses says, “There’s even more. We should do an even bigger system. More parks. Bigger parks. A bigger parkways system.” And Al Smith proposes making him the president of the Long Island State Park Commission. And Moses, unsurprisingly, accepts the job because if he didn’t, that’s the end of the book. There’s no book left. If he doesn’t take the job, we don’t have a book. There’s no book. There’s nothing there. 

Roman Mars: But luckily, there is a whole lot of book there left. And we’re going to start with the next bit–Chapter Ten–after this. 

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Roman Mars: Unexplainable is a podcast from Vox about the most fascinating mysteries in science–explores how scientists answer questions, which questions they choose, and what a discovery looks like while it’s in process. Every episode takes listeners right up to the edge of what we know and then keeps going. Recent episodes have explored living in space, hidden mountain ranges below the surface of the Earth, and how AI might help us translate animal communication. Follow Unexplainable wherever you listen for new episodes every Wednesday. Okay, we’re back, starting with Chapter Ten: The Best Bill Drafter in Albany, which is a short chapter–a very fun chapter. I love this chapter.

Elliott Kalan: It’s a very important chapter. The title makes it sound like the worst of the tall tales and legends of upstate New York’s Adirondack Mountains. It’s like, “There’s Paul Bunyan. There’s the Best Bill Drafter in Albany. Gather round, children. No one could draft bills better or faster than this man.” “Did he cut down trees or anything?” “No, he just was drafting bills all the time.” 

Roman Mars: “Yeah, but he did it really well.” And this is where really, like, his brains, his sort of–I don’t know–deviousness, and everything is coming together to give him the power that he needs to do what the rest of the book lays out. 

Elliott Kalan: Yes, he is writing the law that creates the State Council of Parks, knowing that he will be in charge of the State Council of Parks. He’s going to have that position. And so, his job here is to write a law… Not his job. It’s his mission. No one said to him, “Write the law so you can be an independent power broker.” But his personal mission is to do just that. And so, for instance, he says, “Well, we’ve organized the government. The State Council has to be under the head of one of the preexisting departments. I’ll put it in the conservation department. And I’ll say that the conservation commissioner submits my budget to the legislature. But a little bit farther down, I’m going to write a law that says that I prepared that budget and the conservation commissioner doesn’t have anything to say about it. He just delivers it. And, you know, obviously, this is part of the executive branch. I have to be responsible to the governor. But I’m going to make it so that my term is six years long, which is longer than the governor’s term. When there’s a new governor, I get to stick around. I don’t have to leave. And he’s just putting in all these ways like that to give himself his own power and cement himself as an independent part of the government that other people don’t have control of and cannot remove very easily.”

Roman Mars: Yeah. Like, he’s creating his own deep state–like the deep state of park. 

Elliott Kalan: Yeah. The deep park. Yeah. And he is doing all the things that, like, I feel like we are warned about sneaky politicians. There’s one more that I want to mention because it feels so bonkers. And then I want to talk to Jamelle about the stereotypes around this kind of thing. But he writes the bill using the word “appropriation.” And the legislators would have taken that to mean allocation of funds. That’s the only way they use “appropriation.” You appropriate money for a thing. But then in the bill it says that the term is used, quote, “in the manner provided by section 59 of the conservation law. And just like you were saying, Jamelle, that law is one that was passed in 1884. So that’s 40 years earlier. And in that law, it provides for appropriation of land by a state official, by walking onto private land and saying, “I am now taking this land from you. And if you want compensation, come back to us later.” And it’s a method that hasn’t been used in 30 years at that point. There was questionable constitutionality, but it’s still on the books. It was never appealed. So, it’s still law. Moses knows that law. Most of the legislators don’t. And there’s just clause after clause in this bill that gives this park council so much power–power to control roads, power to have their own police force, power to basically write their own bylaws in parks… And he writes a thing in it saying that “the Commission shall have power to improve, maintain, and use lands of the municipalities adjoining the parks and parkways of the Commission, with the consent of the local authorities having jurisdiction thereof.” And since this is in Long Island, the legislators all say, “Oh yeah, well, that means the local Long Island governments,” because they don’t know that a lot of this land is owned by New York City. So, he doesn’t have to get the consent of the local Long Island government. He just asked the city, and the city is like, “Park land for our residents? Go for it. I don’t care what happens to Nassau County. Just build the roads.” And so, he’s managed to kind of hide all these things in there. And Jamelle, the question I wanted to ask you was I feel like it’s been a stereotype in American politics for–I don’t know–200 years that politicians are kind of slimy folks hiding things and bills to do favors for people or to get things for themselves. And it feels like Robert Moses is really doing that here in order to make this Parks Committee as powerful as possible… Or Parks Council. I keep using “council,” “commission,” and “committee” interchangeably when I know they’re not. They mean different things I don’t know the definitions of. I apologize to council members, committee members, and commission members who are listening to this who are very frustrated by it. But how often do you know of this kind of thing really happening, where someone is really hiding things in bills, knowing that by the time anyone finds out, it’s going to be too late? Is that really a thing that happens, or is this out of the ordinary? 

Jamelle Bouie: Yeah, this is unusual only because it’s such a singular person doing it. This is a kind of unusual case of a singular guy being like, “I know I’m going to be in this position, and I want to make sure that I can accrue as much authority to myself as possible in a way that no one’s really going to notice.” I can’t think of it happening all that often because usually a bureaucrat like that isn’t in a position to write laws, right? Like, usually a bureaucrat like that is in the executive branch. And they may have influence in writing laws, but they may not be able to directly write the law themselves. That’s what we call, like, a separation of power problem. Like, you don’t necessarily want the person charged with executing a law to be the one writing the law. More common is executives, whether they’re at the state level or the federal level, creatively reading existing laws for the sake of doing things they want to do. Maybe the great American example with the presidency is the Emancipation Proclamation, right? Lincoln is essentially saying, “This category of person–these are contraband. And the law gives me the legal authority to seize enemy contraband. And so, I’m saying that all states in rebellion…” Because the Lincoln administration does not recognize the Confederacy as a thing, legally–according to the White House–the Confederacy does not exist. These are just states in rebellion. “I can confiscate contraband in the States in rebellion under the existing legal authority I have.” That’s all just a creative reading of, like, existing law, right? And that’s way more common than someone writing the law itself to give them basically a bunch of secret power that no one anticipated. 

Elliott Kalan: Okay. Well, I feel good knowing that this is out of the ordinary. 

Jamelle Bouie: Yeah, that’s a little less common in part because lawmakers are very jealous of their power to write laws. They don’t want other people to do it. So, it’s very clever and sneaky of Robert Moses to put himself in a position to be the guy to write the laws. 

Elliott Kalan: There’s some of that kind of, I guess, setting himself up for those interpretations also where it talks in one section about the bill giving the commission power over parks. And then in another section, it defines parks as including parkways, boulevards, docks, piers, bridges, and entrances to parks. And it says, “The state law on highways says that counties can veto highways and their borders.” But that law doesn’t mention parkways. So, he specifically makes sure that they are labeled as “parkways.” And that’s one of those readings where I’m like, “Okay. I mean, it’s roads, right?” The idea that a highway and a parkway are such totally different animals that the counties can veto one and not the other seems like an interpretation, you know? 

Jamelle Bouie: Yeah, I mean, that kind of politics and bureaucratic maneuvering rewards people who are really into being the biggest pedants you can imagine. 

Roman Mars: And we’re finally answering this question that, you know, Robert Caro started in the very beginning when we talked to him. He’s a reporter at Newsday and he hears Robert Moses being mentioned in something. And then he looks up his title, and it’s, like, New York City Parks Commissioner. “Why is he building roads and housing developments in all these places if he’s the parks commissioner?” And this is it. Like, he answered the question. This is how: he’s managed to call everything a “park.” A road is a “park.”

Jamelle Bouie: “If you just look at Subsection C of Clause Nine, you’ll see that Parks Commissioner is defined as ‘God Emperor of New York.'”

Elliott Kalan: Yeah, that’s kind of it. Yeah. Clearly this isn’t a park, Mr. Moses. Yet if you look at the section after, you can see parks can be defined as the internal organs of people I don’t like. And so that’s why I’ve been removing the kidneys of people who get in my way. Well, it’s legal. It’s all there in black and white. You know, I guess we should have read the law. But luckily for Moses, nobody reads the law. Nobody reads it before it’s introduced in legislature. The people who run the small parks in the state–Robert Moses is like, “Hey, this is just going to be a coordinating agency. You guys are still going to control your own little parks. So will you support me in this?” They go, “Certainly.” And that’s a lie. It’s just an outright lie. And Moses hand selects to introduce the law a State Assembly member representing the North Shore–a guy named F. Trubee Davison. “Trubee” is an amazing middle name for the guy who is kind of the political novice who represents rich people. He is a wealthy 22-year-old. He is so impressed to be in a room with Al Smith that he doesn’t really know what he’s doing. He doesn’t read or study the bill. On April 10th, 1924, he introduces it. It passes by unanimous vote with no debate. And then Robert Caro depicts Moses being so impatient for Al Smith to sign this bill probably because he’s worried someone’s going to read it before Al Smith gets around to signing it into law. And finally, eight days later, Smith signs the bill. He immediately appoints Moses President to Long Island State Park Commission, which makes him a part of the State Council of Parks. The State Council of Parks elects him as chairman. And as Caro ends this chapter and this part–Part Three–he says, “At the age of 35, Robert Moses had power. And no sooner did he have it than he showed how he was going to use it.” Oh, that’s where we leave off! He’s got the power finally! Finally, he’s brokering power. 

Roman Mars: It’s so good. 

Elliott Kalan: So much of this book feels at times like each chapter is the end of an episode. And I’m like, “All right, well, how are they going to get me excited for the next episode?” And then they do it, and I’m like, “Wait! How’s he gonna use that power?”

Roman Mars: I know. 

Jamelle Bouie: I just watched the movie Executive Decision, and there’s a scene where a character says, “The president is going to have to make an executive decision.” And this is what this feels like, you know?

Elliott Kalan: Probably the only time that a Steven Seagal movie–or, I guess, really Kurt Russell movie–has been compared to The Power Broker. 

Roman Mars: You know, it reminds me of the end of that last section where we said, “What about parks?” It kind of reminds me of, like, every dumb ass Easter egg in the Star Wars prequels. They’re like, you know, trying to give some little backstory here, and you’re like, “Oh, I know what that means! I know!”

Elliott Kalan: “Oh, that’s where Han Solo got his jacket! I was wondering that!” But yeah, Robert Caro’s done such a good job of setting up that this guy is going to take parks and use them to reshape the city. And so, as we see him getting closer and closer, even though I know where it’s going–I know that it’s going to a place that is going to be very bad for certain people and for thousands of people, as they are forcibly removed from their homes in his later projects–there’s still the excitement of seeing it come to fruition. The fact that when we started this episode, he was 30 years old and he seemed like a has been, and now he is 35 years old and he is approaching the apex of this power that he’s going to wield for the next 40 years as one of the most important people in the northeastern United States–it’s a real Star Wars prequel thing where it’s like, “Anakin! He’s becoming more and more like Darth Vader!”

Jamelle Bouie: It’s always striking to me just to see how young people are, right?

Elliott Kalan: Yeah. It makes me very mad. Yeah. 

Jamelle Bouie: Like, 35 years old and he’s about to wield a tremendous amount of authority. And that, to me, is always quite striking. 

Roman Mars: Yeah. Also, what’s striking about this moment is there’s only one person in the world who knows how powerful he is at this moment, and that is Robert Moses. He’s the only one who knows how powerful he has made himself. And that is just a great moment of just… I don’t know. Like, the end of Clockwork Orange or something when you look into his eye, and you see he knows what’s going on. It’s just really an intense moment. And I love it. I love the drama of it. 

Elliott Kalan: Yeah. That sets us up for Part Four: The Use of Power, which we will not get into in this episode. But it’s going to be very exciting. Look, Moses versus the North Shore barons. Moses is going to start getting corrupt. He’s going to make his dream a reality. He briefly gets involved with boxing in a way that is not totally straightforward. You know, it’s very brief. He’s got power. He wants to build things. And to do that, he’s going to have to start breaking things, like rules, because he is The Power Broker Rule Breaker… There’s only so exciting I can make it at a certain point. 

Roman Mars: Well, that is on the next time. So, Jamelle, thank you so much for joining us. And, like, I hope that we’ve spoiled enough of this to convince you to pick up the rest of The Power Broker or at least follow along with us listening if nothing else. 

Jamelle Bouie: If there’s an audiobook of this, I think I might pick up The Power Broker to listen to at least because I am genuinely fascinated by bureaucratic maneuvering and, like, legislative maneuvering. It’s fascinating to me. 

Elliott Kalan: Oh, you will get your fill. You will love it. 

Roman Mars: 66 hours. The audiobook is actually very good. Robertson Dean is the narrator. He has extremely good diction. So, you can speed that sucker up, so you can get through it. I tend to go back and forth when I read it. I went back and forth and read some parts and then took the dog on a walk and listened to some. And it’s a good way to get your Power Broker in for sure. 

Elliott Kalan: I should do that because I have to admit, I have my two copies of the book–my signed copy that I will not let my children touch and then my working copy that I write notes in. And I will frequently find myself reviewing it by reading it in bed before I go to bed. And it’s such a big book that it, like, hurts my tummy when it’s resting on it. Like, it’s not really comfortable to rest on my stomach. So, the audiobook might be the way to go for me. 

Roman Mars: And notoriously there is no e-book version of this, which a lot of people on our Discord have complained about. And they’re like, “Do you think maybe the presence of this book club will make them put out an e-book version?” In a way, like, perversely, I actually never want to see an e-book version of it. I really want it to be this big tome that you have to carry. What I love most about it is when I was carrying around reading it the second time, I would rest it on the passenger seat of my car. And it weighs enough that the car thinks I need to buckle the seat belt of the passenger seat because it just sets off the alarms. 

Elliott Kalan: It’s a human sized book. It’s a person sized book, and I love that about it. 

Roman Mars: Jamelle, where can people find you and listen to your podcasts–all that sort of stuff? Let’s do that. 

Jamelle Bouie: You can find me usually twice a week at the New York Times. I have my weekly column that runs on Tuesdays and Fridays most of the time. We also have a new blog at New York Times for opinion, and so sometimes I post on that. And that’s my job. That’s my main job. And so, I mean, honestly, a lot of people don’t necessarily understand. I mean, they think that you write for The New York Times sometimes and then you do other stuff. No, my full-time job is, you know, writing that column. That’s how I can afford to go to the dentist. I have this podcast, Unclear and Present Danger, with my friend John Ganz, who is also a writer, and we watch the political and military thrillers of the post-Cold War period of the ’90s. Otherwise, you can just find me around the internet. I don’t know. I’m on TikTok. I’ve been on Elliott’s other podcast, The Flop House. 

Elliott Kalan: That’s right. Jamelle is The Flop House’s politics and hedgehogs correspondent. He was on our episode for Sonic the Hedgehog and our episode for Andy the Talking Hedgehog. So, we’re looking forward to having you back for Sonic the Hedgehog 2, I guess. I just wish that you had a larger purview. That’s the only other hedgehog movie. 

Jamelle Bouie: I’m sure there’ll be others. Hedgehogs, I guess, are popular. I don’t know. So that’s where you can find me. Yeah. 

Roman Mars: Tell me a little bit about this TikTok outlet that you have because I don’t use TikTok very much. But I mostly just see you on it, and it’s great. And it’s sort of an interesting and maybe not intuitive place for, you know, good political discourse. But you bring it there. You know, how did you stumble upon it? How do you use it? Like, how’s that working? 

Jamelle Bouie: You know, so I’ve been in journalism for about 13 years now. And the entire time my thinking has always been that whenever there are new social platforms, it’s worth trying to get familiar with them just because who knows what’s going to happen? It’s nice to be able to translate what I do to maybe a different kind of media. And what I think I do is think about contemporary American politics with an eye towards, like, broader American history. Very often I’m like, “You can believe or think what you want, but it’s worthwhile to know the specifics and the actual mechanisms at work here.” Some of this is, like, pushing against, you know, things that I like to call “folk civics,” like ideas about the way government works that have no real relationship to reality but are a good story that we’ve told ourselves are true. Some of this just relates to sort of straightforward American history. There is a period where I was constantly doing videos about why Abraham Lincoln really did oppose slavery. I really tried to impress upon people, like, “No, this is actually a very significant thing that is true.”

Roman Mars: So, why do you think we have to reset a narrative about Abraham Lincoln? Like, I have this hypothesis, and I think narrative journalism plays a role in this, that it is our tendency as humans to revise narrative sort of–in surprising ways, especially. And so, you grow up, and you think, “Well, Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves. There’s no argument there.” And then there’s, like, this impulse to forward the story in some way that complicates it and makes it different and develops it and maybe eventually even makes it counterintuitive. And then we have to reconnect to the original story again. What is that impulse? I’m so curious about it. 

Jamelle Bouie: No, I think your initial examination actually is a lot of it. We get these stories and these ideas and these often myths. And then we learn more, and it challenges and shatters our previous conceptions. And so, we, I think, make the totally reasonable and rational supposition that for anything that even seems, like, a little good in the past especially, there must be some complicating factor to show that either it’s actually bad or, even if the result is good, the intention was bad. And with Lincoln in particular–Lincoln’s sort of a perfect subject for this precisely because he’s, like, the great secular American saint. He’s the guy for whom… You know, he’s unimpeachable. And then people learn that, you know, through much of his career, he supported colonization of Blacks. They read the letter that he wrote to Horace Greeley, which says, “If I could save the Union without freeing a single slave, I would.” And it all builds up as a circumstantial picture for, like, “Oh, well, this guy was totally insincere. And he was a politician, and blah, blah, blah.” And the thing that’s actually kind of hard to communicate is that, like, at the same time, all of those things are totally true. But then you read more about the guy’s life and the politics, and it becomes also very clear that this is a guy who has a deep-seated opposition to slavery and is negotiating that through the world of, for him, contemporary American politics. “How do I act as a guy who is against slavery in a political context where most people don’t really actually care that much? And people who care a lot are some of my putative political allies.” That’s a more interesting story, and it’s less clear-cut. I think people want the story to be neater than it is, but, like, it’s not right. I was talking about this on TikTok, actually, with regards to LBJ. LBJ–probably a racist. You know? It’s not really that hard to… You know? It’s pretty straightforward. 

Elliott Kalan: It wouldn’t be surprising. 

Jamelle Bouie: Right. Yeah. And LBJ–also a sincere believer in civil rights. And the two things are both true. And there’s a tendency, I think, in American culture to want everyone to be one thing or the other. And we have a very hard time dealing with contradiction and dealing with sort of, like, oftentimes major political figures being both at the same time. Like, I feel like my thing on TikTok is emphasizing this again and again–and emphasizing why this is important to take seriously and what the lessons of this might be. 

Roman Mars: Yeah. I mean, certainly the story of Robert Moses, as Robert Caro tells it in The Power Broker, is a story full of nuance and, you know, some noble motivations and some terrible motivations. He’s a complex figure. And when you get to, like, the Lyndon Johnson books… Whoa, Nellie! I mean, it is a real mess of nuance, to tell you the truth. It’s kind of crazy. 

Elliott Kalan: The whole message of the Lyndon Johnson books seems to be that a bad person can do a good thing sometimes–and asking the question, “Is it worth all the bad things that it took to get that good thing eventually?” And with The Power Broker, it’s almost the opposite, where it’s like, “This guy could do bad things, too, but he might do some good things along the way.” Or a good thing could turn out to be a bad thing. A bad thing maybe could turn out to be a good thing. We can never know anything. That’s why I always turn to The Power Broker for all my answers. 

Roman Mars: And also, The Power Broker–in and of itself–is this gigantic tome of revisionist history. Like, people had a very different concept of Robert Moses before this book started. And then after this book came out, really everything changed. 

Elliott Kalan: That’s exactly right. Literally before this book came out, unless you had done the specific research into the life of Robert Moses or you had been affected personally by Robert Moses’ work, you thought of him just as “that good guy who built the parks. He seems great. He didn’t even want money. He’s amazing.” And Robert Caro’s book changed that story completely, to the point that we are now currently in this wave of revisionist revisionism–this post Power Broker world where you have books coming out saying, “Well, actually, Robert Moses was the only guy who could get things done, and you need a giant city planner who will push people around like… Not even chess pieces. Like, you know, tiny ants or something like that.” And there’s just no end to that cycle. I’m looking forward to when I’m an old man and Power Broker 2 comes out and it is the revisionist take on that revisionist take. I guess just one of the wonderful things about human nature is that you always want to prove your previous generation wrong. And the next generation always wants to prove you wrong. And maybe history moves a little bit forward at the same time through that process. 

Roman Mars: You know, over the years, certain other reassessments and some criticisms of the book have sort of bubbled up to the surface. And we’re going to actually talk about some of those, I think, over the course of the year as we go through the parts of the book. But I have to say, most of them are not as compelling to me as the book, The Power Broker. 

Elliott Kalan: It’s difficult. It’s such an amazingly written book. Robert Caro put so much work into it. He has documents to back up everything he’s saying. It’s a real “If you come at the King, you best not miss” type scenario. It seems like anything you can come up with, he’s like, “Well, when I talked to the guy who did that, this is what he told me.” or “I looked at the document no one else has ever seen. But I’ll show it to you now. This is what it said.” So, to undermine The Power Broker in a truly effective way would take such an enormous outlay of energy and time and patience–the kind of thing really only Robert Caro has in him.

Roman Mars: That’s right. You need a Robert Caro to take on Robert Caro. 

Elliott Kalan: It’s like the old story where Sherlock Holmes creates Moriarty because he needs an opponent worthy of his skills. Robert Caro would have to put on a mask or something and become, you know, Dark Caro and go after his own work so that he could stop himself. I wish that I had any other cultural frame of reference besides superheroes. I feel like I’ve brought them up so many times in this episode. 

Roman Mars: Well, we can figure out some way to incorporate superheroes in the next part of the book. It’s Part Four: The Rise to Power. That’s Chapters 11 through 15, so get out your books, turn on your Audible, or whatever. However, you consume your Power Broker, get on that, and we’ll talk about that next month. If you’re yearning for even more Power Broker discussion, we have a whole Discord server. 1,400 people have already joined the Discord server. We’ll have a link to the website, and we’ll also have a link inside the show notes. There’s been really a ton of fun discussion going on. We’ll also have a post on the 99% Invisible subreddit, so you can talk about The Power Broker there to your heart’s content. 

Elliott Kalan: If you enjoyed this episode and you thought, “I wish I could hear Elliott talk more, but this time I want him to talk about stupid things,” then why not check out my other podcast, The Flop House? It’s America’s original bad movie podcast… Probably. My co-hosts–Dan McCoy and Stuart Wellington–have been doing it with me for a long time now. Also, I have a couple other things starting in April. You can pick up a comic series called Hercules from Dynamite Comics. It’s based on the Disney film of the same name. It’s also completely unrelated to The Power Broker. But luckily, I have two books I’m working on now that should hopefully be out not too long after this show finishes. One is a book about joke writing from the University of Chicago Press. It’s called Joke Farming. And the other is a children’s picture book from Harper Kids called City Mouse Wrecks the House. Those books are still being made, but I guess write yourself an email and set it to arrive in your inbox a year from now, reminding you to buy those two books. I really appreciate it. They are not related to The Power Broker. I apologize. 

Roman Mars: That is perfectly fine. The 99% Invisible Breakdown of The Power Broker is produced by Isabel Angell. It’s edited by committee, music by Swan Real, and mixed by Dara Hirsch. 99PI’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 The Power Brokers series was created by Aaron Nestor. We are part of the Stitcher and SiriusXM podcast family, now record six blocks north in the Pandora Building… in beautiful… uptown… Oakland, California. You can find links to other Stitcher shows I love, as well as every past episode of 99PI at

Elliott Kalan: But now when someone brought up the subject, Smith said, “The best bill drafter I know is Bob Moses!” I cannot get a good New York accent. This is ridiculous. 

TaxAct: TaxAct knows you don’t look forward to taxes. TaxAct doesn’t even look forward to Taxes, and TaxAct is a tax software company. It’s basically TaxAct’s whole thing. If TaxAct did things over, maybe TaxAct would end up teaching kindergarten or leading fly-fishing tours, but that’s a different story for a different ad. So why don’t we just agree that taxes aren’t fun, but you still have to do them? TaxAct’s filing software can help you do that. TaxAct. Let’s get them over with. 

LeVar Burton: Hi, it’s LeVar Burton. I’ve got a brand-new podcast called Sound Detectives. It’s a comedy adventure about the magic and mystery of sound, and it’s fun for the whole family. In this world, sounds have gone mysteriously missing. Follow Detective Hunt and his sidekick, Audie the Ear, as they track them down and find the nefarious Sound Swindler–all with a little help from me, LeVar Burton. You can listen to Sound Detectives on SiriusXM, Pandora, or wherever you get your podcasts. And don’t forget to follow the show so you never miss an episode. Sound good to you? Sounds great to me.

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