The Power Broker #03: David Sims

Roman Mars: 99% Invisible is brought to you by the Lexus GX and Sirius XM. As a 99PI listener, we know that you delight in exploring regional architecture wherever you go. If you’re looking for an adventure SUV that promises both luxury and capability, the new Lexus GX is just the vehicle you’ve been looking for. Enabled with SiriusXM, the 2024 GX comes equipped with a rich array of content you can enjoy on your next road trip. In true 99PI fashion, get an edge today, and experience how great design marries form and function. To learn more about the GX and SiriusXM and Lexus vehicles, visit and The all-new Lexus GX–live up to it. The Taste the Mediterranean sales event is going on now through March 19th at Whole Foods Market. It is a storewide, flavor packed journey of regionally inspired selections. Save on Mediterranean inspired flavors all over the store. Save on seafood like whole branzino. Stock up on wallet happy Mediterranean essentials like feta cheese crumbles and whole wheat pita pockets. Wines from the sun-soaked vineyards of Spain, Greece, and Italy start at just $8.99. Must be 21+. Please drink responsibly. Taste the Mediterranean now at Whole Foods Market. Robert Half research indicates that nine out of ten hiring managers are having difficulty hiring. If you have open roles, chances are you’re feeling this, too. That’s why you need Robert Half. Here, specialized recruiting professionals engage with their proprietary AI to connect businesses of all sizes with highly skilled talent in finance and accounting, technology, marketing and creative, legal and administrative, and customer support. At Robert Half, they know talent. Visit today. This is the 99% Invisible Breakdown of the Power Broker. I’m Roman Mars. 

Elliott Kalan: And I’m Elliott Kalan. 

Roman Mars: Today we’ll be going through Chapters 11 through 15. That’s the first section of Part Four: The Use of Power. With us for this episode is David Sims, the movie critic for The Atlantic and also co-host of Blank Check with Griffin and David. Hey, David. 

David Sims: Hello. Thank you for having me. 

Roman Mars: Well, I’m so excited that you’re here. It’s so funny because I was, like, thinking about this show. Like, in the middle of the night, I wake up–it’s, like, 3:00 in the morning–and I was like, “I bet David Sims has read The Power Broker.” And I wrote you. You wrote me about 20 minutes later because you’re in East Coast time. And you said, “I love this book.”

Elliott Kalan: I have to assume that David Sims had woken up at the exact same moment, knowing you’re about to ask him about the Power Broker. Yeah. That right, David? 

David Sims: Of course, I have a Power Broker Spidey-Sense, I guess. And we can all find each other on the astral plane. I was trying to remember if we had ever discussed–

Roman Mars: No. 

David Sims: But I guess we hadn’t. You just sort of figured my sort of Venn diagram of interests would overlap.

Roman Mars: You often–on your show about movies–reference reading very long books and being kind of a fan of the very long book, I think. And I don’t know. I just had this feeling. And I just wonder, how do you feel about being someone who somebody thinks about in the middle of night and wonders if you’ve read The Power Broker? Is that an identifying character? 

David Sims: I feel great. I do think that, I mean, in my sort of public persona, especially on my podcast, I do talk about my love of, like, you know, city subways and urbanism and, you know… But I have a longer history with– Well, I don’t know. Do you want my life story here? It’s not going to be that long. I’m the child of two New York City journalists–reporters. Well, one reporter and one more of an editor, but still… So, I grew up with, like, you know, New York City journalism and history–sort of steeped in that a little bit. And then when I moved to New York from college in 2008, the first job I got was at a newspaper called The Chief. I have no idea if either of you would know The Chief. Anyone? 

Elliott Kalan: Not at all. 

David Sims: It’s a venerable weekly newspaper–print obviously–in New York that’s existed since the 1890s that is, like, focused on municipal news, like civil service, unions, and news for city workers, right? And it’s this kind of –God love it–this creaky, old buttress in the sort of New York City media world. Back in the day when city reporting was robust, you know, you worked at The Chief and then you would sort of jump up to a job at The Post or The News or… It was sort of part of the ladder. So, I worked at The Chief. I covered teachers and white-collar workers and DC 37–a lot of unions and all that. And I covered the city budget. And so, within weeks of the job, I had to call Robert Caro on the phone because my boss, Richie Steier, who’s this venerable municipal kind of expert genius… I’m writing some story about the parks department, and Richie is just like, “Hey, call Robert Caro–this is his phone number–for background on, you know, Henry Stern.” On whatever–some piece of history. And so, I have Robert Caro on the phone, and he immediately is basically like, “Well, if you could turn to this page in The Power Broker…” And I was like, “Oh, I don’t have that in front of me.” And it got couriered to the office within a day. 

Elliott Kalan: He should have hung up on you immediately at that point. 

David Sims: And I was still this baby. I think I sort of knew who he was, and I knew about the book. But I was, you know, still like a wet-eared, nobody, 22-year-old trying to figure out how, like, collective bargaining in the city worked and things like that. And, so, I quickly sort of realized, “Okay, well, a great way for me to steep myself in, like, the kind of thing I have to worry about on this job–which is how these levers of government work and what goes on in these sort of agencies–is to read The Power Broker.” So, I read it. I read it in my early 20s as this kind of, you know, bible of New York history, which is what it is among other things. And then later, during COVID, I finally read all of the Lyndon Johnson books. So, I am a Robert Caro nerd, I would say, at this point. I’ve been very, very just adoringly listening to the stuff you guys have put out so far. 

Roman Mars: Oh, thank you so much. I mean, the book really is profound in this way if you want to understand this. And in fact, this is part of, like, Elliott’s origin story of this is somebody handing it to you and just saying, like, “If you want to understand anything about the city, this is the book.”

Elliott Kalan: This is the way to do it. Yeah. This is the book. And when I was walking around New York, I was handed two books, The Power Broker and Dianetics. And I chose one, and I never looked back. I still haven’t read the other one. I think I made the right choice. We’ll see. We’ll see how life turns out. 

David Sims: I mean, Dianetics has kind of got a big volcano on the cover. That’s pretty exciting.

Elliott Kalan: It does have a volcano. I mean, the Power Broker has a crumbling statue that towers over the ground around it. It’s Ozymandias transposed to the New York landscape, which is still a pretty great cover. But it was very much a similar thing for me. I was a production assistant at The Daily Show at the time. And it was a similar sense of, like, “If you’re going to understand politics, then this is the book to read.” And it served me in good stead for my years there certainly.

David Sims: When you’re handed it, you’re like, “Where does this book get off? It’s so big.” It’s not just that it’s 1,300 pages, but the fact that it’s this sort of, like, Atlas-sized object… You’re just sort of like, “How could this be?” But at the same time, you are kind of like, “Wow, this must be a masterpiece for it to dare exist in this form.” And it’s sort of… That’s what it is. 

Roman Mars: It truly is. So, let’s get to our recap. We’re going to sort of pick up where we left off at the end of Chapter Ten. It’s 1924. And the New York State Legislature has just passed a bill written by Robert Moses, giving him enormous hidden power to appropriate and govern land to the new State Council of Parks that is run by Robert Moses. He wants to build a string of parks connected by parkways on Long Island, with his biggest dream being Jones Beach, which he envisions as the greatest bathing beach in the world. And the part that we’re going to be talking about today is The Use of Power, where we find out where he gets things done. So, Elliott, tell me about the opening of this chapter. 

Elliott Kalan: Oh, you got it. So, as you said, this is the section where he’s wanted power all this time and now, he finally has it. And he’s going to use it. And we start with Chapter 11, The Majesty of the Law. This chapter opens with an epigram. I love a good epigram-opening chapter. I didn’t look up the original source of this one because after the Sophocles quote that starts the book, I was just like, “I’m not going to find Caro’s sources sometimes.” But there’s a quote from, Cornelius Vanderbilt–credited here as Commodore Vanderbilt as he was known–which says, “Law? What do I care for law? Hain’t I got the power?” And we’re going to see this is going to increasingly become Robert Moses’ way of seeing things. And I love the use of the word “hain’t,” which I’m sure is how it was said and written down. This is the way that people talk in the olden days. They didn’t say, “Ain’t I got the power?” They said, “Hain’t I got the power?” But we’re going to see this transformation over the course of these chapters that we’re talking about today where Robert Moses really says goodbye to the idea of legality as a way of getting things done and embraces power over the law and kind of running roughshod over the law. So last time he wanted this $15 million bond to start building parks and parkways, to make this Long Island dream a reality. It hasn’t passed the legislature yet. Don’t worry. Governor Al Smith–he always has Robert Moses’ back. He gives him $225,000 from the general state revenue to start work. Moses does the important things first: he rents a big office a couple blocks down from where he used to work and across the street from the tiny room where he finished writing the government reorganization report. He is–in a very literal way–showing his past how much power he now has by getting an office in the same area. He gets himself a black Packard limousine–the top-of-the-line car–and a chauffeur. He starts hiring people he’s known for a long time. He exempts them from the civil service exams–the same civil service exams he was so crazy about when he was a younger person that he just could not get enough of civil service regulation. Now, when he’s hiring people, he’s like, “Forget it. We’re not going to do that.” And he buys them their own cars and their own fancy office furniture. He is ready to start spending money on his favorites. And almost immediately, he’s using political favors to get things done. He’s doing the kinds of things that I feel like conspiracy theorists are always talking about, where there’s a classmate from Yale who knew him back when he was a student who’s an assistant to Herbert Hoover, who’s then the secretary of Commerce, and he helps Moses get 600 acres of Fire Island Beach. That’s 600 new acres that wasn’t even mapped yet because nobody knew it was there until he went there to see it. They’re like, “Yeah, yeah. We’ll give you that. We went to Yale together. Sure. That’s fine.” He has this land now, just through his connections as part of the state government. But that’s kind of not going to be enough. He’s going to have to go take land from other people. Is he willing to take land from other people? 

Roman Mars: Yes. He’s willing to take land from other people in a myriad of ways. 

David Sims: He enjoys it, it seems. The chase is part of the fun for him, I think.

Elliott Kalan: I think that’s true. It’s the chase and the conquest. Long Island at the time is still kind of split up between farmland and rich people’s estates. And there’s a little bit of housing developments. And he goes out to Long Island farmers in the evenings. When they’re done with their work, he charms them into selling him the pieces of the fields that he needs for his parkway route. If they don’t want to sell, the charm goes away. And he plays hardball. He condemns property. We’ll see a longer example of that later on in this episode. Long Island barons–they don’t like this. The whole reason they got these big estates on Long Island and then bought the land around the big estates and then bought the lands next to the big estates was to keep the wrong kind of people away from them. And now Robert Moses is saying, “I’m going to build parks and roads that’ll bring those wrong people straight to you.” And there’s a specific man who decides he’s going to stand up to Robert Moses. His name is W. Kingsland Macy. The names of people in the past were so on the nose. I just love it. Like, if you were a wealthy guy in Long Island, you were W. Kingsland Macy. If you were going to donate money to the Yale swim team, you are Ogden Reid Mills. Or Ogden Mills Reid? I can’t remember anymore. But W. Kingsland Macy starts a consortium with a couple other wealthy people. And he’s not the wealthiest of the barons, but he’s a man with money. And they preemptively buy this land called the Taylor estate that Moses is supposed to go take. And Moses calls Macy into a meeting and he goes, “Don’t finish buying that land. I have the power to seize that land. The law says so. If I want, I could go into your house. And I could seize your house. I could kick you out of it. If you tried to go back into your house, I could have you arrested for trespassing. And then I would have the newspapers in New York harass you for trying to get back into your house. So don’t buy that land.” And W. Kingsland Macy is like, “Well, this isn’t really the spirit of the law. I have rights as an American.” And he buys that land. Moses immediately sent state troopers to take possession of it and starts working with it. And Moses is doing this with other barons as well. And they have their expensive lawyers start researching what Moses’ law means when it says appropriating land, which–as we talked about last episode–means something different than what most people think it means. And F. Trubee Davison–the rookie state legislator who put the law through–he feels really bad about introducing that bill. It just wasn’t what he intended it to be. And Moses is just appropriating land left and right. Is anyone going to stand up to him? Roman? David? Is anyone going to stand up to Robert Moses at this point? 

David Sims: If they are, they’re only going to supercharge him. 

Elliott Kalan: That’s true. There’s one man who is going to do it: W. Kingsland Macy. 

Roman Mars: Yeah, well, it’s Macy. But the thing is–what’s so interesting here–he has this power and he sort of begins to show his corrupt side. And it’s not even that corrupt. You know, he gets a fancy car. He has a nice office. But none of it is, like, a crazy amount of stuff. And then he starts, you know, going after these parcels of land. And I always find myself in this section really flip flopping on how I feel about Robert Moses because sometimes he’s taking it from people. I’m like, “Yeah, sure. Go ahead and take that land.”

David Sims: Literal land baron essentially. He does seem to be one of a few people who’s looking at Long Island and is like, “We should do something with this,” which you sort of understand. 

Elliott Kalan: I think what you’re getting at is there’s a thread running through this section, especially, of the power of the political argument of the people versus the powerful. It’s the thing that the framers of the Constitution were worried about in terms of a demagogue who could come in. There are certain times when it is very attractive to take something from powerful people–rich people–and give it to poor people. And often that is a form of justice as well. There are times when that’s the right thing to do. But it’s easy to overstep that boundary. And the idea of one man standing up against the wealthy for the benefit of the poor–of the many–is a very powerful argument that gets used to support Moses in this section. And when Moses is using it to do something beautiful in a way–to create these parks and to make them available to regular people–it’s easy to see that as a positive thing. But it’s also easy, as Caro shows it, to see the seeds of what will become the bad Moses later on. Moses–he’s taken from the rich, so why shouldn’t he take from the poor as well if it’s getting in the way of his schemes? And we’ll see that later in the seeds that are being planted here. But it’s easy to overlook it because when you’re reading this book for the first time, I know I was like, “Do it, Moses! Do it! Take that land from those barons! They don’t need it! Give it to the people!” And it’s that kind of back and forth that is the devil of democratic government.

David Sims: And he’s learning here that the fastest route to what he wants is not really going to be the most legal or the most compassionate route, right? It’s going to be more brutal–sort of a mix of brutality and, like, you know, charm, I guess, or something a little insidious. But, I mean, look, what I love about this book and about the Johnson books is what powers Caro’s sort of fascination, I think. It’s, like, how much good these people did but often the means were terrible and motivations were bad and the end results were often so… But how do I measure that against, like, the great good being done? Like, that’s what’s so gripping about him arguing with farmers over the price of an acre of land. You should be putting this book at the bottom of a gigantic pile out of total boredom when he’s describing the Long Island zoning to you, but you’re not.

Roman Mars: Not at all. It’s so dramatic. 

Elliott Kalan: He makes it so dramatic and so exciting. And the section reminds me of when I visited Versailles in France–the one time I went there–and they were like, “The cost of building Versailles was half the gross national product of the country.” And I’m like, “That’s crazy. People are dying in the streets, and he’s building this enormous house?” But then I was like, “you know what? That’s 100 years ago. Those people are going to be gone by now anyway. But the house is still here.” So, like, was it a better investment? There’s no way I could enjoy those 18th century, 17th century Frenchmen. But I can enjoy this house still, so it’s a hard thing. History is a tough business. Anyway–

Roman Mars: Well, we should talk about… Because this is a real key moment here that ends up being kind of the– We talk about Robert Moses’ ability to draft bills as being one of his superpowers. So, he affords himself all this power through this law that he passed. He changes what the meaning of appropriating kind of means for most people. But it only really works–when he begins to enact it–when Al Smith agrees to it. And this is a real key thing. 

Elliott Kalan: He still is relying on Al Smith for that power. Exactly. Yeah. 

Roman Mars: Because he could write that law, and it doesn’t matter. At the end of it, executing it requires the governor to buy into it. 

David Sims: What’s so fascinating about his partnership with Al Smith–who’s such a fascinating figure, and I assume you guys talked about him a lot last time–is just that Al Smith is this, like, genuine populist. And Robert Moses doesn’t seem like a populist at all, but everything he is doing here is, like you’re saying, a form of populism, right? Like, “Yeah, this land will be for the people. We’re gonna make Jones Beach.” And, like, yes, insidious things will happen later to sort of make it for specific people maybe, but it’s just such a funny match. And I don’t know. Would Moses have considered himself, like, politically aligned with Al Smith? Like, probably not, right?

Elliott Kalan: No, I don’t think so. No, I mean, Al Smith is a Democrat. Moses never loses his Republican affiliation. Even when he was the closest man working for the Democratic governor, he is still registered as a Republican. And it’s almost like Al Smith has no ideology, but he wants to help people. And so, he will do whatever it takes to do that, even if it means being a little slimy. Robert Moses wants to control things and he wants to make things. And so, he is willing to do nice things for people if it means he gets to create things. You know, he had that idealistic bent at the beginning, but it was the entitled idealist. It was the guy from above who knows better rather than the populist. He wants to make things for people, but he does not want the people to have the power to have decisions over those things that he makes. And I feel like Al Smith is the opposite. He would rather have the people making decisions than powerful people–unless the powerful people are him and his best friend, Bob Moses. 

David Sims: Al Smith rocks, even though Al Smith is a hugely flawed figure. Then he eventually hated the New Deal. Any time in this book when he’s like, “Yeah, but I’m sticking up for the little guy!” I know he didn’t sound like that. I just kind of love thinking about–

Elliott Kalan: He probably did a little bit. 

David Sims: “Yeah, I did sound like that, actually! I take it back!”

Elliott Kalan: One of the other things that’s kind of surprising about The Power Broker, considering it is so much about kind of the rules of power and how institutions work, is how much it is still in that world of the influence of personality on politics. Why does Al Smith hate the New Deal? Because, as we’ll see, he hates FDR. He doesn’t like FDR. And why is he doing these things for Bob Moses? In a big sense because he likes Bob Moses. And the shape of a city can be so transformed by the personality of the person. And that’s much of the Johnson books as well–the effect of personality on history, which is not a popular way of looking at history right now. But it’s undeniable that larger social forces and individual personalities mix to create, you know, the world we live in. It’s all part of the beautiful tapestry of The Power Broker. But Al Smith is about to step into this Macy fight, as we’ll see. W. Kingsland Macy’s lawyers–he points out that the way Robert Moses took the Taylor estate wasn’t even fair according to the law that he wrote. He created a law to let him do whatever he wants, and he still oversteps that law. And he shouldn’t have appropriated that land without attempting to buy it first–without having the money on hand to legally purchase it. And Moses needs Governor Smith to sign the documents appropriating this land. And Smith is like, “I don’t know if this whole thing is legal. Let me meet with the barons so they can press their case.” And the barons screw this up so bad–this meeting with Al Smith. The way Caro presents it–and I have to believe that this is how it was told to him–it’s so on the nose. The rich people are like, “Well, we don’t want Long Island to be overrun with rabble from the city.” And Al Smith gets mad and goes, “Rabble? That’s me you’re talking about!” And he signs that form right in front of them because he’s so mad in that moment. And it’s, again, personality and history. Maybe he wouldn’t have been so eager to do it if those guys hadn’t pissed him off in that moment–in that specific way that he’s so sensitive to. 

Roman Mars: Yeah. Yeah. It’s amazing how Moses uses the political valence of, like, who is a lead and who isn’t in these ways that really get what he wants in each of these situations. And what’s funny to me is how much that resonates with today. You know, like, when Trump talks about the elites and these weird situations as, like, a gold toilet billionaire talks about elites–it really is just a matter of how you present that narrative. And these lawyers, like, really fucked up when it came to talking to Al Smith. 

Elliott Kalan: They really screwed it all up. And this court fight for the Taylor estate–this is another time where we’re going to watch something for a little bit, and then later we’re going to skip back, you know, because Caro is not doing everything on the same timeline. The fight for the Taylor estate goes on for two years in the courts. And W. Kingsland Macy’s partners are like, “This isn’t worth it.” But Macy doesn’t care about the money. It’s the principle of the thing. And he’s gotta fight for the private property rights of Americans. And he’s so old fashioned, a reporter is like, “Hey! Why don’t you come take me to the land and show it to me?” And he goes, “No, that would influence you’re thinking of it. That would be unfair.” Whereas Moses is like, “Yeah! I’ll take whatever help I can get.” And the New York Times is putting out front page headlines like, “A Few Rich Golfers Accused of Blocking Plans for State Park,” which is the yellowest of yellow journalism. Nowadays the Times would be like, “In a fight over land, two competing narratives…” And that would be their headline. You know, they’d make no judgments whatsoever. But back then, they weren’t afraid to. And Moses is using them to really portray himself as “I am fighting for the benefit of regular people, and rich people are trying to stop you from getting a park and a beach. And we’ll bury it in the article–in paragraph 24 or 25–that the appropriation of land was probably illegal.” And in the court of public opinion, things are going… Well, in the actual legal court, they’re not going so well.

Roman Mars: They’re going poorly because there’s two big problems. He’s not allowed to appropriate land that he hasn’t offered for purchase, and he doesn’t have the money to purchase it. And so, they need to rectify these two situations, like, toot sweet before the court, you know, rolls over them. 

Elliott Kalan: And so, Robert Moses is like, “I need the legislature to appropriate this money for me.” But the Republicans in legislature are like, “This a great way to embarrass Al Smith through his best buddy, Moses.” But luckily, in the end, in terms of politics, the court of public opinion is more powerful in many ways than the court of court–the court of law. People love parks. He has Al Smith. And so, Moses can just use his lawyers to stall the court proceedings, until Smith can bully the legislature into getting the money through so that it will appear somewhat legal. And Moses is like, “Governor, hurry up! Hurry up!” And Governor Smith, who’s the master politician, says, “Wait. It’s spring right now. Wait till the summer. Wait till New York gets hot. Wait till the voters are so sweaty that they feel the need for a place to swim–that they feel the need for fresh air because they’re so hemmed in.” And so, on June 10th, right as the heat is starting to build up in New York City, in the first speech ever carried on a statewide New York radio hookup, Al Smith talks for 2.5 hours, demonizing the opposition–the rich–calling for a special session of legislature to give the people parks. And it’s not a question of the state overreaching its power. It’s a question of whether the rich can stop the state from giving the people what they need. He barely mentions Moses in the speech. It’s all about the rich versus you. “And you’re hot in your tiny apartment. You’re sweating. It’s terrible.” And the Republicans have their own speech the next day about, like, “Well, sacred property rights…” But when you’re hot, you don’t care about that stuff. When you’re a New Yorker, and it’s, you know, summer in the city–the back of your neck is getting dirty and gritty–you don’t care about that. You want a place to go. And the people are so overwhelming in support of Moses and the governor’s side, they flood the legislature with letters. The New York papers kept carrying stories of this fight. And it’s something that you have to wonder–Roman, this a question that you brought up when you were talking about this episode–if you’re there at the time, not knowing how things will turn out, whose side are you going to take?

Roman Mars: I’m all Al Smith on this one. I’m, like, all Robert Moses–all Al Smith. He’s making that speech, and I’m like, “Hell yeah. Let’s storm the beaches.”

David Sims: Oh, it’s so rare that there’s a fight over public parks. Like, now that this fight is always over, we want to take your land to build an arena for a billionaire sports team that doesn’t want to spend one red cent building it. Like, it’s always something like that where it’s easy to understand why people get angry about the construction of, you know, whatever arena. 

Elliott Kalan: Or it’s “We want to take this land and build low-income housing in your neighborhood.” And people get angry about that because with parks it’s the thing where everyone can use them, even if you’re middle class or if you’re lower class. Everyone can use them. And so, there’s less of a partisan fight except against the ultrawealthy, who everyone hates already. 

Roman Mars: I’m just amazed that this worked so well. And it all has to do with the parks, you know? I just wonder–with Moses’ acumen for all things law and politics–if he didn’t have the parks as his thing, would he have gotten anywhere because it allowed him so much latitude to do horrible things because he could always cloak it in the park fight. 

Elliott Kalan: Yes. It was very lucky for him that the issue that he was kind of naturally interested in anyway but that he could stumble into because it was not being exploited by anyone else in the moment was one that’s so universally beloved. And it’s so hard to make an argument against a park. I can’t really think of one. “Oh, we should have a park here so that people can enjoy themselves and it can be, like, natural and fun and relaxing.” No. I guess you could have people saying, like, “Any distraction from work hurts the ambition of the species. We have to get into space or something like that.” But that’s a pretty out-there argument. And it’s not one they would have been making in the ’20s. I think you’re right that he had this powerful issue that gave him that latitude. 

David Sims: I think he gets into it later in the book even more as well–just underlining how little public space there was available in the city, especially. Just that there was, like, one playground for every 150,000 kids–the need was really, really desperate. I guess what happens later is the people start saying, like, “Well, we don’t want a public park because we don’t like what that means–who that’ll bring or whatever.” But in the 1920s, I feel like Long Island is… It’s not empty, but it’s a very quiet part of the state, right? It’s the dawn of motor cars. 

Elliott Kalan: You’ll read nostalgic things where they’re like, “Yeah, we used to play stickball in the street.” And it’s like, “Well, you were playing in the street because there was nowhere else for you to play on.” The street is not a good place to play. That’s a bad place to play. Like, “Why can’t kids throw balls against stoops anymore?” Well, because that’s not a great place to be playing. A car could hit you, or a horse could stove your head in. Horses always stove things. Anyway, Caro takes a moment here to talk about some of the people who are behind the New York Times, specifically, who are helping in the press. New York Times, even at the time, was the most powerful paper in New York. Now it’s the most powerful paper in the country. And the publisher, Adolph Ochs, was very close to Al Smith. His daughter, Iphigene, was already an idealistic activist. And as we’ll see, she’ll come to idolize Robert Moses. She will really kind of adore him and, in a way, worship him. And that support is going to be unquestioned for decades and will become hugely valuable to Robert Moses as he embarks on his projects. And there’s all this lobbying behind the scenes. There’s all this kind of backroom politics stuff. They decide to hold a conference of regional parks commissioners on the day that the legislature session opens, so they can all be there cheering when parks are brought up–just kind of classic, old fashioned political theater that works. And it doesn’t work. The Republicans hold firm. They defeat Moses’ park money bill. He doesn’t have it. He’s losing land that they could be buying. Worse–now, the Taylor estate appropriation really is not legal. They’ve got to get this money from somewhere so that they can make it look kind of legal. That’s when they turn to Mrs. Moskowitz. And she just says the name that I’m sure we’ve all been thinking up to this point, August Heckscher. And he is a millionaire. He is a famous millionaire. He agrees to give them the money in exchange for naming the park after him. And it still is. It’s called Heckscher State Park. It’s still there. 

David Sims: He was zinc. I always like looking up those guys where you’re like, “Where did they get the money?” It’s zinc. The guy just had a ton of zinc. That was his thing. That was his racket. 

Roman Mars: Robert Caro describes him as a “wee man who has little tufts of white hair. And when he sits in a chair, his feet don’t touch the ground.” The image that conjured in my mind was Mr. Mxyzptlk from the Superman comics. He just sounds like that to me. 

Elliott Kalan: You have to imagine when Moskowitz said his name, he just appeared in the air floating around them and was like, “Money for a party ye need? Oh, well…”

David Sims: “Let me move 1,000 tons of zinc.” 

Elliott Kalan: Powered by zinc. Yeah.

Roman Mars: Yeah, because they make this calculation that they can’t go… What you’d normally do when you’re fundraising for a thing is to talk to a lot of people and try to get support and maybe collect it. They know that if people find out that they’re asking for the money because they don’t have the money, they’re going to be in big trouble. So, they have to ask one person who Belle Moskowitz says will say yes. And that’s August Heckscher, which is crazy. 

Elliott Kalan: Yeah. And it is the exact opposite of the theory of democratic politics and governance. It’s like, “Oh, yeah, well, we couldn’t get this money through the democratic process. So, we’ll go to one rich man. In this fight between the powerful and the poor, we’re going to go to this one rich man to make it happen.” But it’s a complicated business–politics. The court battle is going badly. The judge rules against Moses. Meanwhile, these towns in Long Island that Moses needs the approval of to build his Jones Beach dream and his roads are turning against him. There’s a public referendum to allow park development in Hempstead on Long Island. It gets voted down. And Moses is like, “This is all slipping away. I’m not going to be able to build any of this. My land options are lapsing. The parkway land negotiations are halted. Developers are starting to buy up the land I need. They’re building little houses on it, which is not what I wanted.” And this is when the chapter ends with one of Caro’s most beautiful kind of tease transitions. He says–this on page 206–“It had been a year since Robert Moses had announced his revised and broadened park and parkway plan. Now, more than a year later, parks and parkways were still located nowhere but in the map of Moses’ imagination. After all the talking, all the planning, all the fighting, they simply didn’t exist. And at the end of 1925, there seemed little possibility that they would come into existence at any time in the foreseeable future. If one looked ahead a decade, even a generation, it seemed unlikely that any substantial part of the dream would be a reality.” New paragraph indent. “Within three years, almost all of it would be reality.” What? How did that happen? We got to find out in the next chapter. 

David Sims: Because you counted him out! You fools! You thought he was dead! 

Elliott Kalan: No one puts Moses in a corner. Nobody. 

David Sims: Exactly. Him standing with his hands on his hips on a beach or something. 

Roman Mars: At the end of this whole project, we could just do a whole episode on the last sentences of each of Robert Caro’s chapters. They are so good!

David Sims: He has incredible flair. 

Elliott Kalan: He’s really good at finding the dramatic core of a moment–cutting through to what is the dramatic question that has to be answered. And guess what? In the next chapter, I’m going to tell you how we answer it. And you’re like, “I got to find out!”

Roman Mars: But we’ll get to that chapter after this break. Whether you’re a family vacation traveler, a business tripper, or a long weekend adventurer, Choice Hotels has a stay for any you. Choice Hotels has over 7,400 locations and 22 brands, including Comfort Hotels, Radisson Hotels, and Cambria Hotels. Get the best value for your money when you book with Choice Hotels. Cambria Hotels features locally inspired hotel bars with specialty cocktails and downtown locations in the center of it all. That’s what I like. I like to be within walking distance of all the stuff. Radisson Hotels have flexible workspaces to get the most of your business travel and onsite restaurants. And at Comfort Hotels, you’ll enjoy free hot breakfast with fresh waffles, great pools for the entire family, and spacious rooms. With so many hotel brands, Choice Hotels allows you to prioritize what you need. Choice Hotels has a stay for any you. Book direct at, where travels come true. This show is sponsored by BetterHelp. What’s the first thing you’d do if you had an extra hour in your day? Would you go for a run? Take a nap? Read a book? A lot of us spend our lives wishing we had more time. The question is time for what? If time was unlimited, how would you use it? The best way to squeeze that special thing into your schedule is to know what’s important to you and make it a priority. Therapy can help you find what matters to you so you can do more of it. If you’re thinking of starting therapy, give BetterHelp a try. It’s entirely online, designed to be convenient, flexible, and suited to your schedule. Just fill out a brief questionnaire to get matched with a licensed therapist, and switch therapists at any time for no additional charge. Learn to make time for what makes you happy with BetterHelp. Visit today to get 10% off your first month. That’s 99% Invisible is sponsored by Squarespace. Squarespace is the all-in-one website platform for entrepreneurs to stand out and succeed online. With Squarespace, it’s easy to create a beautiful website all on your terms. You don’t want to miss Fluid Engine, a next generation website design system from Squarespace with reimagined drag and drop technology for desktop and mobile. And with their new Asset Library, you’re able to manage all your files from one central hub and use them across the Squarespace platform. Get started with one of Squarespace’s professional website templates with designs for every category and use case. Then customize your look, update content, and add features to fit your unique needs. I made my website––a long time ago in Squarespace. It was simple. It was easy to do. It was exactly what I needed. 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. Okay, this is the new chapter. Chapter 12: Robert Moses and the Creature of the Machine. Where are we now?

Elliott Kalan: You’ve just said one of the coolest titles, I think, in any chapter, in any book.

Roman Mars: We haven’t gotten to The Curator of Cauliflower yet. 

Elliott Kalan: That’s true. Last chapter in this episode is The Curator of Cauliflower. And the first chapter of next episode is going to be The Feather Duster, which shouldn’t sound cool, but it does. So, Robert Moses and the Creature of the Machine, which–again–it sounds like he used a machine to build a creature, which is fantastic. But that’s not what he does. It’s 1925 going into 1926. And at this point, Caro takes a moment to stop us and to say, “Let’s talk about the political power of parkways–of roads that open up new areas.” They are a potential source of enormous wealth for politicians. Parkways mean that the government has to buy a lot of real estate. It means the government has to hire a lot of workers and contractors. It means that a lot of businesses that were isolated before are now reachable by road. Land that was not valuable because it was too distant is now valuable because it’s within close distance. And if politicians are aware of where these roads are going, they can buy land along those routes, they can get contracts to the people that are connected to them, they can give tip-offs to people in exchange for money, and they can make a lot of money. If they own businesses in those areas, those businesses will now be worth more. There’s a lot of ways to make money off of a new road if you know where the road is going. And previously, Robert Moses–the idealist and the democratic purist–is he going to play that game of getting votes by telling them where they should buy land ahead of time?

Roman Mars: No, sir. That is against the spirit of democracy or whatever.

Elliott Kalan: He refuses! In 1924, he announces the park plan. They say, “Where’s the roads going to go? We want to make some money.” And he says, “No. I refuse.” And in 1925, there was that Hempstead referendum. He still is refusing to give inside knowledge to the guy who can sway that, Nassau County GOP boss G. Wilbur Doughty. But his dreams are falling apart. So, in 1925, that’s going to change. He’s not going to stand by that anymore. And Caro says, “Look, there’s no record of a deal on paper. I cannot prove that there is an agreement by the standards of Robert Caro, which means it has to be written down on paper or he has to be told it by someone who either was there or talked to witness.” But Moses says, “I’m going to work on this parkway with a commission led by a crony of G. Wilbur Doughty.” Moses has previously called this crony “the creature of the machine.” That’s where the title comes from. He was so disgusted by this guy being a creature of the machine. But not long after that, there’s a politically connected lawyer who starts a corporation whose only business as a corporation is purely to buy 265 acres of seemingly worthless land–land that nobody has any use for–which happen to be needed for the right of way for the Meadowbrook Causeway, which is part of the parkway being built. Contracts to build the causeway–maybe by coincidence–they go to a contractor that’s owned by Doughty’s brother-in-law. And then Doughty throws his support behind Moses’ Parkway plan, and he tells Moses, “Rewrite the referendum. Resubmit it. Let’s see what happens.” And the referendum that lost by a three to one margin in 1925 suddenly wins by a three to one margin in 1926, giving the Long Island Park Commission essentially control of Jones Beach. Now, can you prove a quid pro quo? Caro says you can’t. But I mean, it basically seems unlikely that there was not one there. He’s doing the thing he needs to do. He’s getting his hands dirty in order to make his dream a reality. And it’s the only way he can do it, it seems. 

Roman Mars: Yeah. 

Elliott Kalan: There’s some election year wrangling in Albany that we don’t need to get into. As much as I love getting the details of this, we don’t need to. But as a result of it, Al Smith and the Republicans in legislature agree that in exchange for the Northern State Parkway not being built until Moses has a route agreed to by the Long Island barons and has built enough of the Southern State Parkway to reach Jones Beach–that’s a lot of names and a lot of details–they’ll give him all the money for the parks in 1926 so that Moses can begin building projects. Basically, the agreement is he can’t start this other road until he finishes the first road. He can’t start the northern state until he’s a certain way along the southern state. And they end the Taylor estate fight. Moses gets that land. Macy has realized that his allies in the legislature have betrayed him, which is a lesson he will take with him for the rest of his life, as we’ll see. And the Republicans say, “It’s going to take him so long to build the Southern State Parkway. The Northern State Parkway? We don’t even have to think about it. This parkway that’s going to go through the land of our political patrons–the barons–we don’t have to worry about that. It took 14 years to build the Bronx River Parkway, which is the same length. This is way in the future. We don’t have to deal with this. It’s going to take Moses so long just to get the rights to the land he needs for the Southern State Parkway.” They don’t know that Moses has been out-scheming them and playing with the local Long Island bosses. So suddenly, the Nassau County Board of Supervisors gives him miles of land as a gift. And combined with the lands that New York City already owns, Moses suddenly has all the right of way land he needs for the Southern State Parkway. And the legislature’s like, “What?” I have to assume that they’re eating soup at the time, and they just spit soup all over themselves when they get the news. And the Republicans are like, “Oh, yeah, but we’re going to give them all this money. But the appropriations–until it’s available and that bond is passed–we’re going to keep them small.” So, he can’t do any actual work. And then they look outside their windows, I guess. There’s engineers and surveyors already out there working because it says in Moses’ law that the Department of Public Works can use its money and its workers to work on parks projects. And I always imagine that this is the way it would work in a movie–they’re investigating and there are parks workers working on park stuff. And they’re like, “What’s this all about?” And they’re like, “Oh yeah, we’re from the tree nursery. This is the tree nursery program for the conservation department. It’s fine. There could be trees here someday.” “Well, you’re developing this beach for a parkway?” “Oh, no, no, no. This is oyster culturing. We’re doing oyster culturing with this money. There could be oysters here someday.” All this money that’s earmarked for other stuff is going to park and road building. And Caro personifies the Republicans in the form of Ways and Means Committee Chairman Eberly Hutchinson and Finance Committee Chairman Charles J. Hewitt. And Hewitt and Hutchinson are just going to be continually stymied by how fast Moses is working and how Moses outthought them in this. And they go to the governor, and they protest. And the governor’s like, “Well, let’s talk about it. Come over to my hotel room.” And he just gets them drunk, and they kind of listen to music all night. And he puts them to bed and the next morning makes them breakfast really early. And they’re all hung over. Again, personalities and politics. “How are we going to deal with this problem?” “Ah, just send him over to me, and I’ll just drink with them all night. And I’ll get them hung over, and they won’t be able to argue anymore.”

David Sims: It does seem like the Al Smith treatment. If the Lyndon Johnson treatment was that he, like, screamed in your face until you just wanted to kill yourself, Al Smith is just like, “Roll in a barrel of bourbon! We’ll just sort this out. I’ll tell you about the Fulton Fish Market until you’re just like, “Fine, Al! Whatever! He can have the money!” 

Elliott Kalan: “Put a record on the gramophone! Put Sidewalks of New York on. That’s my song. We’ll listen to that. That’ll be great. Come on, sing with me, boys. East side, West side…” 

Roman Mars: But they’re sort of assuaged by the, like, chummy, old school, very slow working politics of Al Smith. But coming up right behind–drafting up behind him–is this person who, while you go to sleep at night, will have built an entire foundation on your land. And then he’s going to go, “What? What, are you going to tear it up? What?” You know, like, it’s crazy. The two of them really work as this incredible team because Al Smith kind of lulls a lot of these old school politicians into thinking that this road will take 14 years. And Robert Moses knows it’s going to take six months.

Elliott Kalan: It’s like slow cop, fast cop–the way they deal with things. So now we’re in May 1926. They’re still stalling that Taylor estate trial. At the same time that they are literally in court stalling a decision about whether they own this land or not, Moses is sending out crews to start turning buildings that are already on the land into park facilities. And by mid-May, the Deer Range State Park, as it’s called, is open. And when the trial finally begins in June, the judge is like, “We’re going to fine against you.” Like, he fines Moses and the other park commissioners. He hits them each with $22,000 fines. And this is one of my favorite details in the whole book. Moses’ mother reads this in the newspaper and says, “Oh, he never earned a dollar in his life, and now we’ll have to pay this.” And I just love that Caro knows that she said that–talked to the right person who delivered that newspaper to her. Moses appeals. There’s a new trial. Al Smith testifies in his favor and has lunch with the judge. And the judge ultimately decides in this retrial that the law was broken but the land belongs to the Long Island Park Commission now. They’ve already done it. They’ve already built on it. He’s not going to tell them to tear down the park buildings. And he advises the jury to fix damages owed to W. Kingsland Macy at $0.06 to add insult to injury. “By the way, the law was broken. But it’s happening anyway. And you don’t get any money.”

Roman Mars: Rude as hell. That’s awful. It’s so mean. 

Elliott Kalan: Really seems like… I mean, I’m sure Moses loved it. But the twist ending of the movie The Sixth Sense is that Moses should have lost the trial, but he didn’t. You did that one on Blank Check, right? 

David Sims: We did. We did long ago. Yes. And I believe it was about a land battle in the Long Island courts. 

Elliott Kalan: The whole time, you’re like, “Bruce Willis doesn’t own this land.” And the judge at the end is like, “He doesn’t, but he gets to keep it.”

David Sims: “What’s the matter with you? Let the people have a beach. $0.06. Get out of here. Bang, bang, bang.”

Elliott Kalan: And all these people in the audience go, “Oh, that’s what that title meant.”

Roman Mars: That makes sense. This is the adage of possession is 9/10 of the law. This is what this sort of refers to–this type of thing. If you’re there and you’re squatting on it and you’re doing the thing, you’d think that judges are kind of conservative in the way of, like, wresting someone’s land away from them–stopping that is a conservative point of view. But in a way, they’re kind of more mostly conservative in the sense of, like, “Well, if it’s going to cause so much trouble–already these parks are here–we can’t just undo all this stuff.” Like, they’re really loath to just cause something to stop or be dug up or do something different. They really want to keep what is the most ultimate common-sense piece in this situation? And at this point, people are already going to this park, so it just makes no sense. 

Elliott Kalan: Yeah, there’s a great passage here where Caro goes, “By the time the higher courts came to rule on the question of whether the Taylor estate was a park, it was a park. What was a judge to do? Tell the state to tear up the roads and tear down the buildings? Destroy what hundreds of thousands of dollars of the public’s money had been spent to build? Tell the people who had visited the Taylor estate that they could visit it no more?” In theory, of course, judges should not be influenced by such considerations. But judges are human, and their susceptibility to such considerations was undoubtedly increased by Moses’ willingness to attack publicly those of them who ruled against him.” They’re people, you know? And, Roman, like you’re saying, a judge is not going to be like, “Okay, well, the law says no one can use this park ever again, so I guess no parks.” And at the same time, Caro talks about a real imbalance between a lawsuit between a private individual and a government agency because the government has so much money that they can just keep stalling and keep appealing–whereas an individual will run out of money. And that’s what happens with Kingsland Macy eventually. He can no longer afford to keep this lawsuit going. The park has already been built. But ironically, he becomes so inspired by this fight that he decides to go into politics, and he becomes the most ruthless machine boss that Suffolk County, Long Island has ever seen. And they call him “The Little King of Suffolk County.” He rules with an iron fist. He sends himself to Congress. He and Moses start working together. And when Macy dies in 1962, Caro says, “The only person outside of Macy’s family that he wants to see before he dies is Robert Moses.” And it feels like… I don’t know that there are any books about W. Kingsland Macy. But it feels like there’s a whole book in this guy who lost this battle to Robert Moses–and instead of taking the lesson, “We’ve got to do more to regulate this government,” he takes it like, “Well, if you can’t beat them, join them! I guess I’ll be a corrupt political boss, too. And he becomes so good at it that he just takes over this one area and rules it like a king. 

Roman Mars: That’s a real comic book narrative right there. That’s a real, like, Batman shows up in Gotham and then creates the Joker.

David Sims: Yes. Right. Anyone who does battle with him is just like, “Well, I guess there’s only one way to succeed.” It is crazy that he asked for Robert Moses on his deathbed, though. Like, is there more on that later in the book? I do not remember. Like, I would love to know. 

Elliott Kalan: It’s the last time you hear about Macy. It’s a big book, David. We can’t talk about every person Robert Moses touched along the way. 

David Sims: I don’t know! The book kind of has the vibe though.

Roman Mars: It has the potential. 

Elliott Kalan: That’s true. There’s a lot of pages to fill. You might think that Macy shows up again. I feel like once they mention when a character dies, you usually don’t hear about them again. Usually Caro’s like, “I’m saying that now, so say goodbye to them.”

David Sims: Caro is actually… You’re right. He’s outstanding at keeping information streamlined in a colossal book like this. You’re not going 400 pages later and seeing a last name and being like, “Who the hell is this?” It’s not like that at all. 

Roman Mars: Yeah, because he closes the book on Macy at this moment when he in fact lives another, you know, 30, 40 years. And he’s just like, “Put Macy aside. And that’s it.” He’s not, you know, slavishly devoted to chronology when it comes to doing this type of biography, which is a fascinating choice. I mean, I find that actually sometimes it’ll draw me a little bit. But mostly I love it, you know, because he’s really much more about the ideas and the drama than being like, “This relentless march of time.”

Elliott Kalan: Yeah. He’s organizing the book mainly through Moses’ development as a person from idealist to monster. And anything along the way–if it makes sense to talk about this thing now, he’ll talk about it. There’s a whole chapter that we’ll get to much later that’s just Moses’ relationship with different mayors of New York, where it’s almost as if Caro was like, “We’re going to step out of the timeline of the book for a moment so I can talk about this stuff, and then we’re going to step back into the stream of events.” But he organizes it really well. It is confusing sometimes, but it’s just a lot of stuff to keep in your head. It’s such a long book. And it’s astounding to me that Caro was able to keep it in his head and organize it in this way over such a long thing. 

Roman Mars: It amazes me to no end actually. 

Elliott Kalan: Yeah. Caro–at this point–he enumerates some lessons that Moses has learned from this. “Number one, the simplest way to get what he wants done is to use every source of power he has. He can’t hold himself back because of his ideals. What difference does it make if a few politicians profit off of a public work? If they do, the work gets done. If they don’t, it doesn’t. You can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs,” which becomes one of Moses’ big slogans. “Also, in the eyes of the public, the ends may not justify the means, but if the ends are loved enough, the means don’t matter. They’re unimportant. They don’t have to be justified because no one cares. People love parks. They don’t care how parks get built.” Another lesson is people love parks. If you’re fighting for parks, you’re a hero. It doesn’t matter what you do. He’s like. “Oh, this is great. Yeah.”

David Sims: He gets undone later by forgetting that and instead being like, “Do people love highways in the middle of Manhattan?” People are like, “No!” And he’s like, “Are you sure? I really want to make one. Like, let me put one right here.”

Elliott Kalan: “We have this dumb park, but there could be a big cloverleaf exchange.”

Roman Mars: No, that’s a really good point. That really is because, yeah, he loses touch of this secret well of goodwill he can tap into when he’s trying to do all these ruthless things. 

David Sims: It’s so crucial that when he pivots to the car shit… Sorry for swearing. I’m not sure if I’m allowed to do that.

Elliott Kalan: No, this is an all-audiences, family Power Broker podcast because the kids really want to hear about it. 

David Sims: Power Broker, of course, is rated G. But the other thing about Moses is when you look around the city and you see the parks that he made, you’re like, “You know, these endure. Yes, maybe they had some problems.” And all of his roads stink because they’re parkways that are made for cars that go 40 miles an hour and you’re supposed to look at trees while you go by. Now you’re, like, on the Jackie in an insane traffic jam. You’re like, “Who built this stinking road?” It’s Robert Moses. Roads are just not the way to go anyway. I’m sorry. This is my road rant–over. 

Roman Mars: But I think that’s really smart. I mean, it’s not just all time moving on and people getting savvier to his ways. I mean, like, if he doesn’t have this as this battery source of power–the goodwill of parks–he really falls down and becomes… More and more people–maybe not the New York Times–but more and more people, you know, consider him a villain. And it’s really, really intriguing. And in addition to this moment where he’s learning all these lessons that he has to let go of his morals and his ideals of how politics works, he’s learning really key things about, like, what it means to be a developer and constructor of things. If you drive down stakes and you pour concrete, it is really hard for people to stop you. And that’s a really important lesson he uses constantly. And then the other thing is that it is really important to lie about how much everything costs because he knows that none of this stuff will work even for, like… That $225,000 allotment that he got, you know, barely got him a limousine and stuff. But he just begins to work on stuff and knows that if he spends a lot of money–but not all the money he needed–and does a part of a thing, people might be mad at him for underestimating the cost. But then he can just say, “Yeah, but, you know, you’re the one who gave me this money. And if you’re so smart, you should have known better that it’s not going to cost this much.” I mean, like, he’s really devious when it comes to this stuff. I also like that his tactic in this is to not, like, build, you know, a couple of things or spread the money out and start a lot of things. He likes to get really far along with one thing, so then they just cannot help but be like, “Okay, I guess we got to put this building up. We have to do this thing because it’s already so far along that it’s really hard to say no.” And people are really subject to a sunk cost fallacy when it comes to this stuff. 

Elliott Kalan: He’s got kind of a two-pincer strategy–you’re right that he’s going to use this again and again and again–which is, “I’m going to spend enough money to make sure that there’s visible work done. And are you going to tell people you wasted that money instead of finishing it? And then I’m going to finish it so that people see it and see how great it is. And they will want me to do more of it. Voters will want me to do more of it. Once I finish these buildings on Jones Beach, they’ll let me do whatever I want because they’ll see how amazing they are. You know, once I finish this park… But also,” as we’ll see in this section, “I’m going to use all the money you gave me to build this building–to lay the foundation for this building. And then I’m going to say, ‘Are you really going to just leave a naked foundation on this beach and tell people that that’s what you did? No. You’re going to give me the rest of the money.'” And the ultimate lesson? He broke the law. He got everything he wanted. He was fined $0.06 for it. So, it’s one of those things where it’s like, “You got what you wanted, but was it worth it?” And he’s like, “Yeah, it was worth it. It was worth $0.06 to do that.” And he is insulated from the law because he has contracts and money to dispense. He has access to lawyers who can delay it. Caro says on page 220, “If there was one law for the poor who have neither money nor influence and another law for the rich who have both, there is still a third law for the public official with real power who has more of both.” And he’s learned that he has the power to defy the law. And the only way that he can make his dreams a reality is to defy the law. So, he has $1 million available to him immediately from this $50 million for the entire parks and parkway system. He uses it to buy up so much land so he can start developing them. By the end of 1926, some of them are open for public use so he can show people, “Look what we’re doing.” And on August 29th, 1926–my wedding anniversary, but many years later–he digs the first bit of soil of his first road construction, the section of the Southern State Parkway that’s going to loop around the Hempstead Lake State Park reservoir. He’s been planning roads since 1914, in his mind. And I think the reason, David, that he goes to roads eventually rather than parks as his big thing is what he really loves is drawing lines on maps. He likes taking a pencil and drawing a line on a map. And you could do that with roads even more than with parks. 

David Sims: It’s just what Caro said on this podcast, right? He drew all these lines on a map basically when he was a teenager. And then he built them all when he was an adult with, like, very little change. He did exactly what he always wanted to do. 

Elliott Kalan: Like, 12 years later, he’s finally building these roads. Hutchinson and Hewitt are so mad that Moses is finding more money than they intended and doing more work than they intended. And he starts planning Jones Beach. They say, “Oh, you’re making a bathing beach. Okay, you’ll have a few, you know, kind of cheap dressing areas so that the boys can’t watch the girls getting changed. You’ll have, like, a boardwalk or something with some hot dog stands.” And Moses is like, “No, I don’t want that. I’m going to get a bunch of star architects together. I want enormous bathhouses big enough for 10,000 lockers. I want swimming pools big enough for hundreds of people. There’s going to be terraces with restaurants. There’s going to be diaper changing stations. It’s all going to look fanciful and whimsical. I want it to look like a fairy tale. I want two parking lots big enough to hold 10,000 cars each. I want bandstands. I want outdoor sporting areas.” And the architects are with him standing on an empty, totally nothing sandbar. There’s nothing there. And he’s like, “I want this entire recreation complex. You’re going to make it.” And they start bringing him designs, and they’re very utilitarian. They’re the kind of stuff you would expect for a government bathing station. And Moses like, “No! I want one of these buildings to look like a castle. I want another look like a Moorish temple. I want this to look like a campanile from Venice–this water tower. I want these beautiful building materials. I want the most expensive stone I can get.” And his architects are like, “It’s going to cost $1 million to build this.” And Hutchinson and Hewitt say, “Well, we’ll only give you $150,000,” assuming that he’s going to scale down his plans. No. He just uses all that money to lay the foundations. And they’re like, “What? That’s all you did? Smith, fire this man!” And Smith says, “No, I’m not going to do it. “And Moses just sees the situation so clearly, like we’ve said. “Are Hutchinson and Hewitt going to go back to our voters and say, ‘This guy lied to us, and we wasted $150,000 on two cement foundations on a random sandbar in the middle of nowhere in Long Island that you can’t even get to because there’s no roads to get there’? Or are they going to give me some money? I’m gonna finish this.” Yeah. And they’re like, “Well, we’ll get revenge on you. Will only give you some of the money you want.” And he’s like, “I can just take money from the other departments. It’s fine. I have so much more control over this.” And that’s how the chapter ends–with Hutchinson and Hewitt fuming on Jones Beach at these foundations, just going, “Ooh, Moses! He got us again.” That’s the end of Chapter 12. 

Roman Mars: This commitment to having this–it’s, again, where I get kind of on Moses’ side a little bit, where I’m just like, “Yeah, get that Ohio limestone. Get it.” Everyone who does any sort of, like, remodeling or construction knows that a building costs what a building costs. But, like, 90% of what the building cost is in the end is that quarter inch of surface. Is it bamboo? Is it stone? Is it marble? You know, it’s that little bit. And he’s picking the most expensive materials in the United States to do this stuff. And he has this real eye for this stuff. And people talk about this–that he has a real designer’s eye. He’ll go, “Yeah, but those bricks will really bounce off the sand and sea. The colors will really sparkle.” And I totally appreciate that. Like, I think that’s amazing. 

Elliott Kalan: Yeah. Yeah, he has a real aesthetic sense. He wants these things to look beautiful. And there’s also such an undeniable fun in seeing him outsmart and outwit these guys. There’s a real Bugs Bunny kind of coyote element to Robert Moses outwitting these guys who are trying to basically do their job of not overspending on a public beach. 

David Sims: I mean, those bathhouses are still incredible. A lot of them are being spruced up to this day or whatever. Like, they are impressive and enduring. He was right on a lot of those calls, which, again, is weird when he seems to abandon aesthetics as he goes on. 

Elliott Kalan: Like any artist, his style changes over time. It’s his earlier, more popular stuff that’s easier to understand. His later, more brutal or…

David Sims: His pollution era. 

Elliott Kalan: Someday maybe we’ll be kind of high-minded enough to understand what he was getting at with those works. 

Roman Mars: But it’s so true that the enduring quality of just how nice Jones Beach is– Like, you could take the most ardent anti-sprawl, anti-car, anti-Moses person. But they’ll go to you. “Yeah. You know, Jones Beach is pretty nice.” It really works in his favor–this vision. In a way it’s interesting that this is his crown jewel and it’s done so early in this process. 

Elliott Kalan: But you could say because it’s so beautiful, because it’s so accomplished, it gives him a blank check for his later work. 

David Sims: Hey! I mean, he definitely wrote himself blank checks, right? 

Elliott Kalan: That’s true. Yeah.

David Sims: It’s not the traditional blank check of the government being like, “Whatever you want.” The government is just kind of like, “How are you paying for this?” And he’s like, “Don’t worry about it. I got nickels coming from so many bridges, you don’t even need to write me a check.”

Roman Mars: Yeah, but in blank check parlance, this is the guarantor. Like, Jones Beach–its success is the guarantor. 

David Sims: All of his work with Al Smith is the guarantor for later. “Now you can’t get rid of me, one, because I’ve created popular things and, two, because I have, like, planted roots in every agency. And you cannot get rid of me. Like, you know, even if you try, I’m already over there. So, it doesn’t matter if you’ve got me out of here or whatever.”

Roman Mars: It’s like Voldemort. 

David Sims: You know what? Yes. I know everyone compares everything to Harry Potter. But when you were talking with Caro, I was like, “Yes! It’s like Horcruxes.” He’s like, “You can’t destroy me because I have a job in that agency. So even if you obliterate this one, I live eternally.” You know, it’s ridiculous. Yes. 

Roman Mars: We’ve got to take a break. When we come back, Chapter 13. Want to make your next trip unforgettable? Book a GetYourGuide travel experience. Choose from over 100,000 travel experiences in the U.S. and around the world with GetYourGuide. I love to travel. And you can do a little bit of reading and just show up at a place and get something out of where you are. But if you really want to connect with your destination–if you really want to find those under the radar gems and get that local history–you need a guide. You can make memories all over the globe with GetYourGuide’s locally vetted, expertly curated experiences. Discover and book your next unforgettable travel experience with  Article believes in delightful design for every home. And thanks to their online-only model, they have some really delightful prices, too. Everyone who’s listened to this show for years knows how in the bag I am for Article furniture. I love it. I have a ton of it in my home. But our sound engineer, Martín Gonzalez, just redid his whole living room with Article. He sent me a picture, and it was almost comical how much Article furniture he stuffed into his Brooklyn apartment. So, I’m gonna let him tell you what he thinks. 

Martín Gonzalez: I am sitting here enjoying my brand-new Article living room set. I replaced my junky, free, and Craigslisted furniture with a very nice set from the Ceni collection. I got a sofa, love seat, and chair all in matching volcanic gray. They were delivered right to my door. All I did was pop open the boxes and screw some legs on. I am so much more excited to have people over now that I’m not embarrassed of my furniture. I did, in fact, use this offer code that Roman is about to tell you. 

Roman Mars: Article is offering our listeners $50 off your first purchase of $100 or more. To claim, visit, and the discount will automatically be applied at checkout. That’s for $50 off your first purchase of $100 or more. Apple Card is the perfect cash back rewards credit card. You earn up to 3% daily cash on every purchase, every day. That’s 3% on your favorite products at Apple, 2% on all other Apple Card with Apple Pay purchases, and 1% on anything you buy with your titanium Apple Card or virtual card number. Visit to see how much you can earn. Apple Card issued by Goldman Sachs Bank U.S.A. Salt Lake City branch. Subject to credit approval. Terms apply. 

Elliott Kalan: Let’s move to the next chapter, Chapter 13. It’s called Driving, and this is a chapter title that Caro’s going to use again. And I love it as a title because it’s got two or three big meanings. Moses is driving himself and his men to work as hard and fast as possible in this, so people can do driving in their cars later. And it reminds you of that irony that Moses himself almost never drives a car–never really learns how to drive. There’s a scene in here where he’s practicing in case he wants to learn someday. And I think he just doesn’t want to. But Moses’ success in the bathhouse battle–the battle of the bathhouses–shows him how much he needs Al Smith’s support. Al Smith is the one who is the guarantor right now that can back him up against the legislature. But he’s not going to have Al Smith for long. Al Smith is planning to run for president in 1928. And so, Moses is like, “I’ve got to get as much done as possible on these projects so people can see how great they are. And then people will provide pressure on the government to get my other projects completed.” And so, Moses’ staff–a lot of this chapter is about how hard he pushes them. They’re working from 9:00 a.m. to midnight on many days. If someone isn’t giving Moses what he wants, he yells at them or, even worse, shuts them out of his presence–just cold shoulders them completely. And at the same time, Moses is still overseeing a lot of non-parks projects for Al Smith because he’s still Al Smith’s go-to guy for getting things done. And so, Caro talks about the schedule. Moses gets on the 6:00 a.m. train to Albany, which is a four-hour ride on Monday mornings. He goes to Al Smith. He says, “Can you give me a state-owned car and a chauffeur to take me back? I know I’m going to miss the midnight train back home. And if you give me a car back, then I can start work tomorrow morning, on Tuesday, on park stuff.” And he has to spend at least three days a week in New York City for the State Council parks. He’s shuttling between regional parks to check in on them. His park employees at the Long Island office in the old Belmont mansion–they say he never seems tired. He’s working late into the night. He keeps them there until late in the night. The only person who can get him to leave the office is his wife, Mary. So sometimes the employees will sneak out and call her privately so that she will come to the office and tell him to come home. But then when he goes home, he does more work there. There’s always a manila envelope full of new instructions for his employees the next morning in his house. And his family is always around the office. And the people at the office talk about how they’re working hard. Their boss is kind of a tyrant. But there’s a sense of excitement, and there’s a sense of a fun, informal atmosphere, especially for the 1920s. They don’t have to wear their suit jackets while they’re working and things like that. Their boss dresses like a slob and is always wearing an old, beaten-up hat. It is the excitement of a startup, essentially, that they’re working in, in this parks department. And this is the 1920s. Things are super basic. Moses is like, “I want the areas around my parkways zoned to certain ways, so they can’t be turned into houses.” And the towns of Long Island are like, “We don’t have any zoning laws. We don’t have those.” So, Moses’ workers have to draft laws and then work with local town councils to get them put in place. There’s so much work that has to be done even beyond the designing of things. And the designing of things has to be incredibly effortful because Moses wants his work to be as elegant and beautiful as possible. If you’re designing a guardrail, if you’re designing a light pole, if you’re designing the sign that points to the bathroom, he’s saying, “How do we make this pleasant to look at? How do we make this something that people will enjoy looking at and remember?” And his workers are very inspired by that, as I imagine anyone would be by someone who’s pushing them to do their best–not just to work hard because we’ve got to make money for the company, but to do the best work that they can do as designers. 

Roman Mars: Yeah. Yeah. This is the part where I feel like the cult of personality makes the most sense to me when it comes to Robert Moses. Like, sometimes when he’s shouting at people, I’m always like, “I would just walk away from this fucking idiot.” You know what I mean? But, like, this vibe–this is very school paper, public radio, everyone’s getting paid $15,000 a year, but we’re still going to put out something amazing. We’re going to work all the time. I can get into the spirit of this moment. 

Elliott Kalan: There’s a number of times in the book–this is one of them and earlier when Moses is starting to work for Al Smith–that really resonate for me with my years at The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. We didn’t get yelled at at The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, but there was a very hectic pace. We had to work really hard. We were putting out TV shows four nights a week that had a lot of substance in them. But you felt this exact feeling of, “I’m being pushed to do my best. And I’m doing something that feels important. And I want to do it as well as possible. And I want to make it as funny as possible while also saying something.” And there’s something very exciting about that, and especially when you’re young. And a lot of the people working for him are relatively young men. There’s an excitement to doing that, especially when you have the energy to do it. Later on, as we’ll see coming up soon, people with families also have to work this hard. And it is not as easy. But I see why some of these guys who were working for them here go on to work for them for decades and will defend him to Caro throughout. So, they got to do work on Jones Beach. It’s the winter. “We’re going to wait until the winter is over to survey the speech, right?” “No. We’re not going to do that. You have to go out. We have to get it done. Go out there.” “Well, sometimes the water freezes, and we can’t get off the beach.” “So, bring rations with you so you can live there.” At one point, the bay freezes for ten days, and most surveyors have to just trap there. And they just eat nothing but pancakes because that’s all they brought with them–pancake fix. And they can never eat pancakes again because they spent ten days eating pancakes. The beach level–it’s too low to keep the ocean from rising above the road at times. They’re going to have to fill this beach with 40,000,000yd³ of sandfill taken from the bottom of the bay. It has to be dredged up and spread over 17 miles. It’s the winter. The crew is living on the ships in the winter of 1927 to 1928, working all day to get it done. The bay bottom sand–it’s too fine to stay down when it gets windy. It blows in your face. Now we got to plant millions of clumps of beach grass by hand to hold it down. We got to do it in the winter. So, you got guys–by hand–kneeling in the sand, digging holes to plant beach grass as wind is buffeting them and it’s freezing. They’re just doing it because Moses knows they have to get it done enough before Smith gets out of office. The contractor who is building the causeway is like, “Look, I’m out of money. I can’t meet my payroll. So, if we don’t get another $20,000, we’re not going to do it.” Moses can’t get the government to pay it to him. So, as he always has done, he turns to his mom and borrows that money from his mother. Again, it is bonkers to me–the idea where it’s like, “Well, this is a government project, but we gotta get it done. So, mom, can you give me $20,000 so I could pay these guys to build a highway?” 

Roman Mars: Oh, it’s so funny. 

Elliott Kalan: He’s ignoring legal injunctions to stop working. He’s still working. And he is building Jones Beach, and he’s getting closer and closer to the point where the landscape stops being his and starts belonging to Babylon Township. He needs that land before he can build the roads that are going to reach his beach and reach other places that make that land valuable. And he doesn’t want someone to see that the road is going there, buy it up, and build crappy, gaudy beach stuff. He wants it for himself because he needs to someday be able to build his bridge that goes from there to Fire Island. He has so many plans that he needs this land for. He tries threatening the Babylon Town Board. It doesn’t work. He’s unpopular there. He’s living there at the time. So, when his wife goes to the stores to buy things, she’s getting dirty looks and the people in town. One day he is practicing driving in case he ever does it. He’s never going to. He meets an old man, and the old man is like, “Hey, my father was a judge in the county. And he and another judge had to resolve a case about who owns the bay bottom–this sacred bay bottom that Babylon Township has been leasing out to fishermen. It’s the thing they’ve been protecting for generations. Hey, why don’t you talk to this other old man who dealt with the case? He has something interesting to tell you.” And this other, even older man tells Moses that when they were looking at this who knows how many years back, they discovered that there were two laws that were going to be passed in the mid19th century, giving half the bay bottom to Nassau County and half to Suffolk County. The Nassau County half passed. The Suffolk County half–they never got around to it. They never passed it. So that bay bottom that Babylon treats the sacred and leases out and doesn’t want anyone ever to impinge on it?

Roman Mars: They don’t actually own it. 

Elliott Kalan: No. It belongs to New York State. They forgot that they don’t own it. And Moses uses that information. And he calls it “blackjacking”–that he “blackjacks” the town council. But it’s blackmail. I don’t know why you’d say blackjack instead of blackmail. I guess it sounds cooler. Like, he hit the town counselor over the head with this information. He says, “If you don’t give me the Jones Beach land in exchange for the city finally giving you this bay bottom, I’ll reveal to your citizens that you have spent 70 years leasing it out to fishermen when you don’t even own it because you never bothered to finish the job of getting legal control over it.” And they go, “Okay, okay, well, we’ll hold a referendum. How about that? We’ll hold a referendum about whether you’ll get this land.” Moses says, “That’s fine. And you know what? This referendum? Voting shouldn’t just be open to taxpayers here. It should be open to anyone who lives in town, including the employees of my projects that are living here temporarily. And you know what? We’re going to hold it on the day of the primary. But the primary hours–voting is gonna be open until 9:00. The referendum hours–the voting is going to end at 6:00.” And so, they’re bringing in by car state employees from out of town to vote. There are no clear voter registration rules. They can’t tell people not to vote. People show up to vote after 6:00 and find that they cannot vote in the referendum–only the primary. Even with all that–the referendum ends–Moses wins by seven votes. And so, with all of that… And he barely gets it. But now he finally has that land. And I just love that it feels, again, like a movie where it’s like, “If only I had some special information that I could use to get this land.” And an old man says, “Well, you might look back here…” 

David Sims: “Where did this old man come from?”

Elliott Kalan: Look, these were the days when if you wanted information, you had to find an old man, so he could tell you. They didn’t have the internet. There weren’t a lot of encyclopedias. You had to get an old man to give you some information. 

Roman Mars: Yeah. Yeah. And this is another instance of Robert Moses kind of using the sort of inept practices of his opponents against them, where he’s like, “I’m going to embarrass you with how bad you are at this if you don’t just give me what I want.” And it works a lot. I mean, Belle Moskowitz kind of taught him this stuff.”

Elliott Kalan: We talked about in the last episode the dancing halls–when she cleaned those up–where she said, “I could reveal that you are running these places of predation. Or we can just register them, and no one has to know about it.” And he’s using those lessons he learned from Belle that instead of a frontal attack, often you can get around the back and make an agreement with your enemies that they won’t like–but you’ll get what you want. And he’s not in it. Look, he’s like a reality show contestant. He’s not here to make friends. He’s here to win. You know, he’s all about parks. He’s not gonna make friends with the Babylon Town Council. But he’s running out of time. Smith’s governorship is almost up. There’s a law that says you cannot run for president and governor at the same time in New York State. And Smith wants to be president so badly. And so, Moses is working fast. In less than three years, he’s got all the land he needs for the Southern State Parkway. He has 21 miles of it in various stages of work. In that time, he’s also expanded Long Island’s state park space. It’s gone from 200 acres to 9,700 acres across 14 parks. He’s acquired that land for about $1 million, even though the land value at the time was more than 15 times that. Through picking up land the government already owns, making deals with people, trading things… He started building facilities in those parks–bathhouses, baseball fields, picnic areas, playgrounds, diving boards, hiking pads, roads… Jones Beach in 1926 is nothing but sand. Now it’s got these two enormous, beautiful bathhouses. And here’s another passage that I would love to read to you just about the immediate effect of this after this frenzy of work. “During the summer of 1928, park-seeking families heading out of New York City began to feel Long Island open up to them. Week by week, word spread. At the beginning of the summer, the bathhouse at Valley Stream State Park contained a thousand lockers. For a few weekends, these were sufficient. Then they were not. Another thousand lockers were added, then another thousand. And even so, by the end of the summer, thousands of would-be bathers were being turned away every weekend. By the end of the summer, attendance at Long Island State Parks had passed half a million.” So, there was this need. People do love these parks. They’re already using them. And there’s also a foreshadowing here of what’s going to happen when Moses builds roads. Later on, he’s going to build expressways and bridges to cut down on traffic, only for more and more cars to fill up these roads. And he’s seen that happen with people. But here, there’s something kind of joyous about it because it’s like, “Yeah! People are using the parks! This is amazing! This is great! He’s already making this dream happen in reality. And the press loves him. They give Moses all the credit. He’s becoming a popular hero in New York. And Robert Caro has an interesting comparison here where he’s like, “Moses was getting far more New York headlines than Einstein’s new theory of relativity.” Einstein had a new version of the theory of relativity that was coming at the same time. And–yeah–it’s an interesting way to measure relative popularity. 

Roman Mars: Totally because it’s not like, you know, there’s newsies on the street corner going, “Extra! Extra! Read all about it! Time slows down as you approach the speed of light!”

Elliott Kalan: But it shows you how big a name Moses is. Even the most famous scientist in the world, you know, is getting less press. The one funny thing is they keep giving him middle initials in the press, even though he doesn’t have ones. They’re making up middle initials for his name. He’s like “Robert A. Moses” or “Robert T. Moses.” And the legend is being built. Here’s this public servant. He doesn’t care about making money. He makes very little money. But he wants to build parks. And now his Long Island dream is pretty much safe. But he’s actually accomplished even more than it seems because while he’s been building all this Long Island stuff, he’s been buying up land and preserving parks upstate in New York also. There’s all this land around Lake George. And almost none of it is owned by the state, and it’s been opened up to development logging. And he persuades some of the rich old men there to give him 11,000 acres of land for the bargain basement price of $75,000. And he’s preserving Revolutionary War battlefields at Fort Stanton and at Saratoga–over 10,000 acres of Whiteface Mountain. And he’s absorbed 70 parks that were kind of already there but not run on a professional basis. For another 125,000 acres, he’s buying up land in the Adirondacks and the Catskills–or at least obtaining it. And he’s building facilities in these places. But since the people upstate don’t care about Long Island parks–they don’t use those–and the people in New York City don’t care about the upstate parks, nobody but Moses really seems to have a total understanding of just how much land he’s now made into public parks and how much land is now under his personal control. 

Roman Mars: Yeah, and they don’t really understand how much all of this success has changed him. 

Elliott Kalan: Yes. Right. And Caro ends this chapter talking about how amazing it is. The most remarkable thing, maybe, is that these parks and parkways are so close to the plans that he first presented in the early 1920s. In this short amount of time, he has made his dream either a reality or about to become a reality purely through the power of political sliminess and pushing people really hard and lying to people and… 

Roman Mars: Suing them into oblivion, not showing up to his own depositions–you know–things like that. Yeah. 

Elliott Kalan: We skipped over that. But there’s a part during the lawsuit that Macy has against him where he’s not showing up because he’s too busy. And then also his lawyer just stays away for one day. He says, “I’m too busy, I can’t show up at court.” And then when the court reconvenes, he’s like, “Well, certainly we can’t… I wasn’t even here yet last time. We can’t do anything now!”

David Sims: “What kind of a court is this–having the trial without me even present?”

Roman Mars: “I wasn’t even here!”

David Sims: “This is outrageous!”

Roman Mars: All right. Moving on. Next chapter is Chapter 14: Changing. Elliott, what is Caro referring to when he says “Changing “here? 

Elliott Kalan: Well, everyone knows that ch-ch-ch-changes– Time may change you, but you can’t change time. And in this case, power can also change you. But you can’t change power, I guess. Robert Moses is, before our very eyes, through Caro’s eyes, changing as a result of suddenly having power. All the negative traits that he had before have become enlarged and kind of enhanced because people can’t say no to him. So, the arrogance, the impatience, the condescension, his refusal to compromise–those were all there in his character. Again, he was Bella Cohen’s son. He has her qualities, but now he also has the power that means he doesn’t have to hide those qualities. He doesn’t have to temper them. And his earlier idealism is giving away to the easier way to do things–the more effective way to do things. He no longer has as much of a positive path set before him to follow. He has power now, and he’s determined to do things his own way no matter what. And so, he starts lashing out at people who disagree with them. If you’re on the phone with him and you disagree with me, he’ll just hang up on you. He doesn’t care who you are. He ignores the press. He insults legislators to their faces. There’s one particular passage here that I’d love, Roman, if you and I could talk about, when a particular legislator named, Jeremiah F. Twomey, the Senate Finance Committee chairman–he represents Brooklyn–stops by to talk to Moses about a bill that Moses has that might provide some patronage. And it was reported to Caro as happening this way. Roman, would you prefer to be Mr. Moses or Mr. Twomey in this? 

Roman Mars: I don’t know. I don’t know. Let me do Bob Moses. 

Elliott Kalan: Okay. You’ll take the plum part? That’s fine. You know, you’re the boss. That’s okay. Very Moses move to do that. So, this is how apparently Twomey told the story. “Twomey says, ‘Bob, it looks like there’ll be a lot of jobs out there. And I was wondering if we could get a couple.'”

Roman Mars: “‘Well, what did you have in mind, Jerry?'”

Elliott Kalan: “Jerry mentions one job, and Moses says very softly, very politely,”

Roman Mars: “‘Do you have anything else in mind, Jerry?'”

Elliott Kalan: “Jerry, completely taken in, thinking that for once this fellow was going to be reasonable, mentions a couple of other jobs, and Moses says,”

Roman Mars: “‘Do you have anything else in your mind, Jerry?'”

Elliott Kalan: “Jerry says, ‘Well, that’s about all.’ And Moses says,”

Roman Mars: “‘Jerry, you can take that bill and stick it up your ass.'”

Elliott Kalan: Perfectly done. So that’s the way he talks to the legislators that he’s working with. “Yeah, yeah, sure. Yeah. Okay. Yeah. Of course. Anything else you want? Well, you get the hell out of my office!” I love not just that he yelled at him but that he led him along–took him down the garden path, you know, to get there. 

David Sims: I think that he projects such invincibility. You guys were asking Caro about this–why didn’t people just fire him or accept his resignations eventually? His psychic armor is only growing more powerful.

Roman Mars: Yeah, yeah, yeah. 

Elliott Kalan: And that’s how Moses is dealing with his ostensible opponents. These are, like, the Republicans in the legislature. But he’s also dealing with his ostensible allies that way. One of the ways he was able to get his bill passed that gave all this power was because he had the support of the people who would become the members of the State Parks Council. These older men–they’re pillars of their communities all over the state, and they run little parks. And they don’t like how fast he’s moving. They see that “This land–when we change it, we can never go back. We can never undo these changes. So, let’s take our time with it.” They don’t like his methods for taking land. They don’t want to lose control of their own individual parks. And he had promised them–the State Parks Council–this is an advisory council. This is not a supervisory council. And they soon learned that’s not the case anymore. Now that he doesn’t need their support. He starts refusing their budget requests. He’s rude to them. And they, like everybody, finally read the law that they helped him pass. And they go, “Oh…” That’s not what they wanted. And they cannot stop him from putting his own projects through. He controls enough votes on the council. They can’t stop him from being elected as chairman of the council. And some of this is genuine philosophical differences about how land should be used–whether it should be conservation or recreation. But others are just about power. And there’s one story in particular that Caro tells that we’ll go over quickly, where the treatment of two members of the Niagara State Park Commission, the elderly Judge Clearwater and the also elderly Ansley Wilcox. Judge Clearwater is a former political power in New York State, and he was semi-retired. But he went to lobby on Moses’ behalf during the Taylor estate fight. Ansley Wilcox–Caro presents him as almost single-handedly responsible for making Niagara State Park a thing. When he was a young man, he surveyed on his own and then lobbied to get it made a park and has caretaken it for years. And they also want to develop the park. They’re not disagreeing with Moses about developing the park in some way. Wilcox is dying of cancer. He wants to see this park finished and used before he dies. So, they agree with Moses’ plans on the most part, but they want to control it. This is their park. They’ve been running it for a long time now. They don’t agree with all of Moses’ individual decisions, and they don’t really care about this larger parkway system that Moses sees this as a piece of. They’re not part of that. They just like this Niagara Park. They’ve arranged for the Niagara Power Company to buy a little bit of land that the park needs for its roads and to donate that land to the park. And Moses uses this benevolent thing that they’ve done in order to start rumors about Wilcox and Clearwater, who at this point–Caro really lays it on–are very sick, old men. They’re both sick. They can’t even go to all the meetings. Moses uses that to start rumors that they are colluding with the power company for profit. And there’s a bunch of machinations. There’s an investigative hearing, where during the hearing, they refuse to admit that there are charges they’re investigating. And then a report gets written that says, “There’s no problem here.” And the report doesn’t get released. But Wilcox keeps saying, “Can you send me the report so I can clear my name?” And Moses sends around a letter that’s meant as a reply to Wilcox without sending Wilcox his letter, where it’s like, “I don’t know why you sent this insulting letter to us. I don’t know why you have to take this abusive tone.” And Wilcox is in such bad health that it takes him five days to dictate this ten-page letter, laying out the facts of what happened and accusing Moses of abusing his power. And at the end of the letter, he says, “Few will read this letter and fewer still won’t understand it.” And Caro says that he was right. And on page 254 he goes, “The old man was right. His letter lay unread in an unopened folder in a dusty Albany warehouse for 42 years. And although, in the 43rd year, the folder was opened (by the author) and the letter was read, and although it provided the first detailed account of the changes wrought in Robert Moses by his hunger for power, he could not write the worst of all the injustices Moses perpetrated by Ansley Wilcox.” And he says that Moses has removed all the plaques from the park that mention Wilcox’s name and replaced them with plaques that mention Moses’ name. And the parkway that gets built there is Robert Moses Parkway. The dam that will someday be built there–this huge power dam–will be the Robert Moses Dam. He has erased Wilcox’s memory from the park he created. And it’s like, “What? Come on. Why are you doing that? What are you doing it to this old man for?”

Roman Mars: Yeah. I mean, there’s a kind of cruelty to it that is really present here that is hard to get over. 

Elliott Kalan: Yes. And Robert Caro has a habit in his books of kind of lionizing and sanctifying old men who represent a previous way of doing things and whose passing symbolizes the passing of the old way and the rise of the main character’s way of doing things. He’s been criticized for the way he handled Coke Stevenson, who was running against Lyndon Johnson for the Senate in the book Means of a Senate. But here it’s kind of hard to see what the negative side is of these two guys. And it just shows how unnecessarily cruel Moses’ treatment of them is–what little threat they were to his plans and how he had to do this. And I love that Caro gets in that little bit of, you know, Indiana Jones hero action by being like, “I’m the one who found that letter in that dusty folder in the warehouse.”

Roman Mars: It’s so good. I like when he reveals a little bit of his process, and it comes through. And there’s no other way to really talk about it. He does this in the Lyndon Johnson books, too, which is, like, he gets the notebook of the guy who fixed all the ballots when he won his first Senate seat. It has the same thing. What really turns your stomach is the Kafkaesque trial quality to this–that they get accused of something, but then they say they’re not really accused, so they can’t really fight it. And then they get stuck in these weird, vague accusations that they’re colluding with someone in this weird way. And it’s just sort of gross how someone with a mission can just totally, like, undermine someone who has been acting in good faith most of his life.

David Sims: It also emphasizes what Moses thinks matters, which is having your name on a place, right? He’s like, “I’ll take that away from him. That’ll be the sort of ultimate punishment.” Amazing that it took this many people to figure out that there should be a park where Niagara Falls is.” This guy is like, “You know, we should put a park here. These waterfalls are very pretty.”

Roman Mars: “We could have a place to stand to look at them.”

Elliott Kalan: It shows you how much they took for granted–these things will always be around and always be here. And I think it isn’t until Niagara Falls becomes a tourist spot and gets really kind of gross– I don’t know if you’ve been to Niagara Falls, but it’s…

David Sims: It’s a little gross.

Elliott Kalan: Aside from the falls! Maybe it’s different. When I was a kid, I remember it was like, “There’s Niagara Falls. And there is Ripley’s Odditorium,” where they had, like, the sideshow animals. But it is funny that they’re like, “Wait a minute. Wait a minute. You know, this is nice land. Maybe it should be a park here.” But every idea has to start with someone. And the other old men of the parks commission are like, “Governor Smith, fire Moses.” And the legislators are like, “Fire Moses.” And Smith refuses. First, parks are good vote getters. Second, Smith is all about loyalty. “He’s loyal to me. I’m loyal to him.” And third, nobody works harder for Al Smith than Robert Moses. And Al Smith can see the work that Moses is doing. He can see those parks. Last episode I talked about my slogan. Noticeably Improve People’s Lives. NIPL. This is NIPL in action. Moses is all about NIPL. And Smith recognizes that NIPL. And it’s possible that Smith is not aware of some of Moses’ worst methods, but he knows Moses is a fighter. He likes that he is a fighter. And no matter how Moses treats everyone else, he always shows respect to Al Smith. He calls him “governor.” And he refers to nobody else ever as “governor”–no other governor he works with. He calls them all by his first name. As Caro says, “For Robert Moses, there would always be only one governor.” And again, this is personalities. Al Smith just likes Robert Moses. They hang out together. He likes singing with him. It’s hard to overstate–in any industry, business, or organization–how much you can let someone get away with when you like them and you’re like, “Eh, but I like being around that person,” and how much you can get away with when people like to be around you. 

David Sims: There are so few bosses I have sung with in my life. There’s an intimacy to “we sing together.”

Roman Mars: And now we’re getting to the most strange section of the book, which is Robert Moses’ dalliance with boxing. We’re gonna handle that after the break. Walmart+ is the membership that saves you time and money on the stuff you’d expect–plus the stuff you don’t, like gas. Save on gas while you drive the kiddos to soccer practice. Plus, visit your in-laws. Plus, venture into the wilderness, plus wherever else you want to go. Plus, take some guilt free time on the couch because Walmart+ also saves you time and money with free delivery. Perfect for ordering new remote batteries, plus more coffee when somebody finishes it without telling you, plus snacks for movie night. Plus, save on actual movies with a Paramount+ subscription stream Top Gun Maverick, plus Mean Girls, plus Jack Reacher, plus so much more because savings is what the whole Walmart+ membership is all about anyways. Remember to save on gas, plus free delivery, plus Paramount+, plus so much more. Start a free 30-day trial at See Walmart+ terms and conditions. $35 order minimum. Paramount+ Essential plan only. Separate registration required. Better work presentations are possible. They are called Canva presentations. You can supercharge your work decks with AI powered Canva presentations. Just start with a prompt, and Canva presentations will generate captivating slides in seconds. Or start with a stunning template, and add images, graphics, charts, and data visualizations from their massive media library. You can save time and time wow your audience. There’s a reason why Canva is used by 90% of the Fortune 500 companies, so nail your next work presentation with Canva presentations by heading to Designed for work. This episode is brought to you by Progressive, where drivers who save by switching save nearly $750 on average. Plus, auto customers qualify for an average of seven discounts. Quote now at to see if you could save. Progressive Casualty Insurance Company and Affiliates. National average 12-month savings of $744 by new customers surveyed who save with progressive between June 2022 and May 2023. Potential savings will vary. Discounts are available in all states and situations. So, the next chapter we’re covering and the last ever we’re covering today is Chapter 15, The Curator of Cauliflowers, which is a cryptic name to say the least. But we will explain it as we get there. 

Elliott Kalan: Not if you’re a boxing fan. Not if you’re a fan of the sweet science. By 1928, everything in Moses’ 1919 state government reorganization plan has basically become law. The governor still doesn’t have a four-year term. That happens in 1932 eventually. But he has drastically reshaped the governance of the state. He’s been a big part of fighting to get it passed. And finally, the governor of New York has real executive power. And Smith has been using that to push through labor reforms–welfare reforms. He’s made the state more responsive to the needs of voters. He’s cut taxes. He’s done a lot of good work for the people of New York. 

Roman Mars: And he’s streamlined what used to be, like, 150 departments into eight departments. It’s really something. And when people talk about– Maybe people who are not really thinking about the things that Robert Moses built. But if you were to sort of put some of that stuff aside–all the NIPL things…

Elliott Kalan: If you could take your eyes off the NIPL for a moment. Yeah. 

Roman Mars: You could argue that this moment of state governance reform, which is, you know, like, repeated all across the nation, is maybe one of the biggest significant acts of Robert Moses’ life. 

Elliott Kalan: Yes, the same type of work he’s doing in the physical world he has done in the world of institutional organization, which doesn’t sound as exciting maybe to most people. But it does to me. The functioning of government–the mechanics of government–has now been also molded in the way he thinks it should be done. And just as with his parks and roads, we’re still living with that effect, you know, for better or ill, in different ways. 

Roman Mars: Mostly this is for good. And this is really one of those ones where I don’t know if there’s a real downside to any of this stuff. 

Elliott Kalan: The downside is now it’s harder for an Al Smith to get into that place because, like we were talking about with Jamelle last time, you need a kind of technical knowledge of government that maybe you didn’t have before. You can get elected to office. And there’s plenty of clowns in Congress who don’t have the knowledge of what they’re doing. But to get things done now, it’s no longer a matter of being in touch with people at the local level and making those decisions. You need to know the systems. But in most ways, it works much better. I mean, the days of you need to pay someone off to get something done in the United States are–for most to the most part–not around anymore. You know, the idea that, to get a job, you no longer need to pay your ward boss a certain amount or kickback part of your salary. Those things, as a big result of this organization, are not an issue anymore. It is hard to say that there’s a bad side to that. 

Roman Mars: Yeah. But there’s all this stuff that comes with this. Better labor relations and better welfare reforms–all this sort of stuff happens. The professionalization of the government at this level was quite good.

David Sims: Right. This is good. 

Roman Mars: And this moment is kind of the golden moment of this. There’s enough professionalization to knock out the sloppiness and the sort of basic level corruption on the street. But there’s still kind of that idea of a little bit of patronage, a little bit of earmarks, a little bit of horse trading, so that you can sort of swallow a pill of something that you don’t necessarily agree with if it’s going to just, you know, mostly make your life better or maybe the people in your district better. I think that push and pull is when government is probably acting at its most powerful–to have a little bit of all this stuff. 

Elliott Kalan: Yeah. When there’s a system that’s tempered by a kind of almost folk culture of politics and there’s ideologies that are tempered by realistic practicalities, that’s that sweet spot. Al Smith is sitting right in that sweet spot. And one of the changes of that reorganization is that Secretary of State is now an appointed position, not an elected position. Who is Al Smith going to appoint into that job? There’s no other option. It’s gotta be the guy who fights the hardest for him and does the most: Robert Moses. And the Department of State that he now oversees–it handles everything that kind of doesn’t fit into other departments. If you’re filing incorporation papers, you gotta file with the Department of State. If you’re compiling the results of an election, it’s the Department of State. If you’re an auctioneer and you need a license or you’re a private detective and need a license, it’s the Department of State. And also, very importantly for this chapter and the title thereof–but also kind of random because Secretary of State is apparently the most random job in New York state–the Secretary of State also had control over New York’s athletic commission, which oversaw boxing in the state. And this means the Secretary of State controls a lot of patronage. There’s all those people who want private detective licenses. They’re going to have to, you know, get those jobs to license them. And Smith wants this to be the person who coordinates all of the state’s construction and also coordinates the state’s cabinet. So, it’s a hugely powerful position. And Albany does not want Robert Moses to have that power. They hate him, but Smith is too popular. The newspapers are too eager to present this as the fat cats versus the parks man for them to actually vote against Moses’ appointment. And now the big repercussion of this–the big immediate consequence: Moses finally has a job that pays a decent living. He’s finally making $12,000 a year, and his mom is like, “At last. At last, he’s going to start earning a living.” All of his mother’s work for decades has finally led to this moment. She doesn’t care that he’s powerful. He can finally support himself and his wife. It must be amazing if you’re reading the newspapers about your son who is building these structures all over the state. And then he’s like, “Mom, can you help me pay the rent?” And she’s like, “Yeah, I guess I’ll do that.” And Moses presents himself to the press. He’s gonna be a crusading secretary. He goes personally to strip the licenses from unscrupulous business operators and detectives. But he goes too far. He tries to regulate the corrupt ticket sales involved in boxing matches. He really doesn’t understand the boxing industry. At one point, he says that if the judges at a boxing match can’t decide, he will step in and make the decision, which is a bonkers thing to do.

Roman Mars: “Call the Secretary of State and see who wins.”

David Sims: “Which of you men enjoy the beach more? All right. You’re the winner.”

Elliott Kalan: And his reign as the “Curator of Cauliflowers,” as the press calls him, is quickly over. It’s mercifully brief. When we said he was getting into boxing, I know everyone thought that he was going to get in the ring. But–no–that’s the extent of it. 

Roman Mars: Well, one of his big snafus is he’s tired of people, you know, giving out all these boxing match tickets as political favors. And so, he’s like, “Enough with that. We’re just going to sell tickets so that the normal average Joe can buy tickets.” And it turns out that the ticket box office can’t handle all the people buying tickets. And so, these boxing matches are one third full because people are standing outside, still trying to get in. And then he realizes for the first time, I think, and maybe the only time in this book that he’s just in over his head. And he’s just like, “I don’t want to deal with this.”

David Sims: And he probably just doesn’t care enough.

Elliott Kalan: He does the calculus. He’s like, “People care about parks. That’s a source of power. People don’t really care that much about whether the boxing industry is slimy or not.” I think he kind of accepts it. And at a certain point, you have to think he’s like, “They could punch me if I keep pushing this. I’m dealing with people who punch other men for a living.”

Roman Mars: And so, for our younger listeners–and I mean listeners under the age of 80–what does “cauliflower” mean when it comes to boxing?

Elliott Kalan: So, I should have done research on this. My assumption always, since I’ve read it, is that they’re talking about cauliflower ears. Boxers’ ears become deformed. And it’s just a sign of the times in the ’20s that they’re like, “Your ears are becoming malformed from being hit in the face as part of your job. Let’s give it a cute name. Let’s call it a ‘cauliflower ear.’ That’s kind of what it looks like.” At no point are they like, “The Curator of Cauliflowers should stop people from having their ears ruined from boxing. We’ll just give him a nickname that’s based on it.” You know, they just kind of understood it. So that’s why it was not actual literal cauliflowers. He was not running a museum of vegetables and curating the cauliflower department. But, again, Robert Caro’s writing this in the ’70s. He doesn’t feel the need, I think, to define it, does he? 

Roman Mars: No. It’s one of those ones where, again, it feels like a non-sequitur to us 50 years later. It is a complete sequitur in 1974. So, this reign of being the curator of cauliflowers is sort of quickly over, but he’s still doing a bunch of other stuff as Secretary of State. 

Elliott Kalan: Yes. He is in charge of making the construction of new prisons and mental hospitals. It goes faster. At times he’s going to do park building work, and the governor will literally send state troopers to get him and force him to go to the nearest telephone so that the governor can make him do more things. And he is essentially co-running the government at this point for Al Smith. And he has no time for personal life. So, at this point Caro says Moses doesn’t do sports except for swimming at night. He has no hobbies. He has no socializing. He can’t go out to buy his own clothes. His wife has to do that. He can’t go to the barber. The barbers have to come to his apartment to cut his hair. And he’s always done a little bit of work in the back of his limousine. Now he is literally turning the back of his car into an office. It has extra seats. He has his secretary, Hazel Tappan, riding with him, taking dictation in the car. He holds meetings in the car. And there’s another chauffeured car that’s always following his car so that when he’s done telling the secretary what to do, she can get out, get in that car, and be driven immediately back to the office with those new orders. And both cars are staffed with three drivers each, working in eight-hour shifts, so they have 24 hour driving coverage. He is always working, and he’s always on the move. He replaces his office phone with a single line that just goes to a secretary. The phone has no buttons on it. He cannot call out from it. It can only come in and only when a secretary lets someone through. And if you are not Governor Smith, if you call, you’re going to wait until he’s ready for you. He will not just interrupt things to pick up the phone. Every governor after Smith and every mayor of New York has to wait. Moses will not drop anything. They have to wait for Moses to take their call. He installs his buzzer system in his desk that connects to each of his executives’ offices, so he can call them individually right away. And as soon as he pushes the button, they know they have to drop whatever they’re doing and go right to his office right away. It’s the ’20s, but it feels like it is the parody of, like, a 1950s boss office, where it’s just, like, the special phone line… But, I mean, only Commissioner Gordon really has a special phone like that usually, right? Like, it’s the president’s hotline to Russia. And it’s Commissioner Gordon’s hotline to Batman. He refuses to have a desk. He just has a table because he doesn’t want work shoved into drawers and forgotten about. He wants that table cleared off of work at the end of every day. And he’s just constantly working. And just reading this part stresses me out so badly. I don’t know if you have the same feeling. 

Roman Mars: Except he has his daily swimming routine. David, I know you have the same thing.

David Sims: I do. Well, I swim laps in a gym pool. I feel like what he does is he, like, drives to the beach and just runs into it every morning at, like, the crack of dawn. Like, it’s kind of amazing. It says he changes in his car, right? And then he just, like, jumps out of his car. I remember that. 

Roman Mars: So, tell me–as a sort of an equally powerful man, you know, dedicated to swimming every day–if you could put us in the mind of Robert Moses, what is the swimming doing for him? 

David Sims: Well, if you are unable to listen to podcasts… I currently listen to podcasts while I swim. I don’t think Robert Moses had that technology available to him. So, like, you do zone out. My joke is that you think of death but, like, in a fun way, right? You just start meditating on the universe as you’re kind of just, like, back and forth, back and forth, counting the laps. I find swimming to be incredibly pleasant, but I don’t swim in the ocean, which is very cold and has powerful waves and currents every morning. Maybe I should do that. 

Elliott Kalan: And he swims at night, too. It talks about how sometimes on the way home, he’ll tell the driver to take him to Jones Beach so he can run into the water and just swim out into the darkness. He loves swimming. He’s more fish than man at times. 

David Sims: Aren’t there stories where people are like, “Is he dead?” And then he finally, like, returns. He’s gone in the ocean for so long that they’re like, “Should we call the Coast Guard? Where is Robert?”

Elliott Kalan: These are the parts that are, like, mythic. And the swimming is not enough to stop the strain. He’s starting for the first time to really show the strain of all this work. And there’s a section here just about his temper that’s starting up here. It says, “The fuse, always short, that ignited his temper had been chopped down to a nub. The broad smile with which he greets underlings could disappear in an instant if the reports displeased him. The hard mask that replaced it would turn pale, almost white, as his rage mounted. And then a wave of deep red, almost purple, would seep up out of his collar and over his face. The palm of his big right hand would begin to smack down on the table as he talked. And the secretaries listening outside the closed door to his office, trying to smile at each other, would hear his voice begin to rise. Lunging out of his chair, he would stride around the room, bellowing, his eyes wild. And sometimes as he walked, he pounded his clenched fist into the walls so hard the skin was ripped from his knuckles. Oblivious to the pain, he would sit back down at his desk and grab the next batch of papers with bleeding hands.” And it’s like… The stuff with the colors and everything? I bet Robert Caro saw some of this while he was interviewing him. I bet he saw him get mad and saw this because it’s so specific and so detailed. But it’s like, “If you’re in a room with that guy, it’s frightening. I’m sure you’ll do whatever he says, you know, to get out of that room.”

Roman Mars: And the people who work under him–they talk about how, because of this intercom system, they eat at their desks and they’ll put anything away to go deal with him. It’s not that he’s calling on them all the time. He just has such complete control over them that they can’t do anything else because they’re waiting for him to call on them. There’s no leaving. There’s no this. There’s no that. If someone’s having a barbecue, it’s like, “When can you be there?” “I’ll be there in 45 minutes.” And he’s there in 40. You know, they’re always on call. And I can’t imagine the stress of that. 

Elliott Kalan: It’s incredibly stressful. And some of the Moses men–they start being called “Moses men”– they call him “RM.” they start to crack under the strain. Caro talks about how more than one becomes an alcoholic. Some have nervous breakdowns. Some have marital problems. There’s at least one suicide. Although Carol does not mention that person by name. In the notes in the back, he says that he’s kept that man’s identity private out of sensitivity to the man’s mother, which is also a very kind of old-fashioned way to do something in a book. But for all the people who are inspired by Moses and are being pushed to do their best work and being molded by him into men they want to be, there are workers for him who are cracking under this strain because it is, like you’re saying, so overwhelming. They are on call all the time, so even when they are not being talked to by him, they know that at any moment he might need them. And they’re going to be expected to drop everything and go right towards him. But at the same time, there are some perks to working in the Moses man world. 

Roman Mars: Yes. Yes, because you have all this land, and you have all these people who can build things. And so, he just starts building houses for them. 

Elliott Kalan: Yeah. He uses parks department resources to build houses for them on park land. The parks department pays for the utilities for the houses. If he feels like someone is not making enough money but the civil service regulations mean he can’t give them a raise, he’ll put their wives on the payroll so that they have a little bit of extra cash. It’s a real carrot and stick thing. He’s really taking care of them in some ways and brutalizing them in others. 

Roman Mars: And he also really trusts his people. When he finds people that he can delegate to, he will let them do the job. And that’s why he’s able to get so much done so quickly because there’s whole parts of his, like, empire building that he can’t possibly be present for every moment of it. But they handle it for him. 

Elliott Kalan: Yes, he has a real eye for talent, and he’s good at picking people and saying, “You can do this. Now, you do it,” and then leaving it up to them. 

David Sims: I mean, Henry Stern, who ran the parks around for years, was one of his sort of little proteges. And he ran things that way, too. And you would hear that about Bloomberg–who I covered as the mayor for a long time–if he delegated to you, you got to do whatever you want. He would sort of invest an incredible amount, which could be good or bad, obviously, depending on how you felt about the power being delegated, which is probably true here, too. But I think it’s classic municipal stuff, right? Yeah. You can’t pull every lever yourself. 

Elliott Kalan: Yes. And at this point, Moses has become the second most powerful person in the government. And there’s newspaper articles about it. He can do whatever he wants, basically. And Smith has his back. And Robert Caro takes a moment to quote two speeches that Moses gave in 1927 to associations of Long Island real estate brokers, where he seems to very kind of blatantly lay out his feelings about things. And he says, “The future of Long Island is as a recreational community for New Yorkers. You can’t go any farther east around here because you hit the ocean. You can only go west to the city. So that’s where you have to look to for a future. That’s going to require a lot of zoning and development. Your local governments–they’re not equipped to handle it. So, we’re going to do it for you. And if you’re opposed to what we’re going to do, we’re going to defeat you because your opposition is stupid because all the things that we’re doing mean a lot of money going into your places. And if you don’t like it, the money will go somewhere else. It doesn’t have to go to Long Island. And so, if you’re opposing me, you’re opposing money coming to you. And if some people get hurt along the way, you can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs. And he says he’s like people who don’t like the things we’re doing. They can always go west. They can move to the Rockies if they want to, which is such a mean but also funny way to look at things. Like, “You don’t like this new park–this new parkway in Long Island? Go to the Rocky Mountains. No one’s developing that area.” And in this second speech, he talks about how sometimes to do the right thing, you have to do other things that might technically overstep the law. And he’s becoming more and more comfortable with that–and not only comfortable with doing it but comfortable with pushing back aggressively against anyone who tries to stop him. And Caro quotes Frances Perkins, who–we remember–has known Moses for years now. They were young reformers together. She’s working in the state government, and she says she calls him and says, “Moses, you’re using nonunion labor to build these bathhouses on Long Island. By law, you’re only supposed to use union labor. You’re being naughty.” I think she uses the word “naughty” in it. And she’s acting as a public official. She’s calling him on breaking the law as part of her job. And he instantly becomes abusive and is like, “I’m going to build these bathhouses, and no one’s going to stop me! These are for the people!” And she says, “We have known each other for years informally, and he’s talking to me this way. And by the time he is eventually rebuked by a court for using nonunion labor, again, as we say, it doesn’t matter. The bathhouses are being used. You can tear them down. People are already in there changing. People would see them changing if you tore those bathhouses down while they’re still inside. And he’s becoming more like a bully. When he drives around Long Island, his car is speeding over the speed limit. He has motorcycle troopers around his car that push other cars off the road so that he can get where he’s going. And he’s now using his power to make life easier for him because, in his mind, it all counts towards this end goal of getting this stuff done. 

Roman Mars: Yeah. 

Elliott Kalan: But there are times when one power meets a greater power. 

Roman Mars: Oh, yeah, an immovable force. 

Elliott Kalan: Exactly. When an unstoppable parks builder meets an immovable land baron. 

Roman Mars: And in this case, like, he does something that we don’t see a lot. He compromises because of probably his familial association with Otto Kahn.

Elliott Kalan: Yes. He’s had to make deals with Long Island barons about the routes of his parkways. Usually it’s like, “Hey, instead of running a road right next to my house, can you put it, like, on the edge of my estate?” And he’s like, “That’s fine.” “Can you make sure there’s not an exit on the road near my property?” “Yeah, we could do that.” But there’s one instance, particularly: Otto Kahn, who is married to one of Moses’s cousins. And Otto Kahn is one of these people who I know of as a rich person. But again, I don’t know what his money came from. 

Roman Mars: What is it, David? Is it Zinc or what? Let’s find out. How did Otto Kahn get his money? 

David Sims: Let’s see. He was known as the King of New York. Pretty good title to get, I would say. It’s that old classic: banking. 

Elliott Kalan: Banking!

David Sims: The man had banks. I think he did a lot of railroad stuff with his money. He was the “ablest reorganizer of railroads.” What does that mean? Oh, I guess he would, like, take over failing railroads. He was the Mitt Romney of his day, right? Except he would probably just be like, “Crush these workers!” I don’t mean to impugn him. I don’t know if he said to crush workers. 

Elliott Kalan: Probably. I assume he did. But he was also a patron of the Metropolitan Opera. So, you know, let’s give him that. It’s the same way that… Is it David Koch who is like, “I’m evil, but I love the ballet, so I will keep the ballet running”?

David Sims: He does love the dang ballet. And as a devoted viewer of the Gilded Age, I now have learned that the Metropolitan Opera was basically a Netflix style deficit-spending scheme founded by new money because they didn’t like their box seats at the old opera, the Academy, which was wonderful to learn. 

Roman Mars: I’m looking at this picture of Otto Kahn on Wikipedia, and he looks like a child with a fake mustache on. 

David Sims: He has the most triangular mustache I have ever seen. 

Elliott Kalan: It’s a real whisk broom of a mustache. 

Roman Mars: It’s, like, curling up on the sides. But he looks like he has a real Richie Rich kind of vibe. And then he has this big, black mustache on his face. 

David Sims: You know, I always look at these guys, and I think, “God, they had so much money. They controlled so much land.” They didn’t have, like, air conditioning though. You know, how good was life for an Otto Kahn? 

Roman Mars: I totally agree. They didn’t have air conditioning. 

David Sims: They didn’t have, like, Tylenol. 

Roman Mars: Exactly. 

Elliott Kalan: It’s like when you read about rich people hundreds of years ago and they’re still complaining about bedbugs. I guess you knew you were going to eat. That was the basic benefit of being rich in the past.

David Sims: To be clear, there were benefits. It was good. 

Roman Mars: They liked it when somebody asked Gore Vidal, the sort of noted historian and writer of history books, “What is the time that you’ve, you know, written about that you would want to live in?” And he’s like, “Now! I’ll tell you one word. Anesthetic. Anesthetic is enough of a reason to live now and not any other time in history.”

Elliott Kalan: Yeah. 

Roman Mars: So, Otto Kahn finally has this golf course, I guess. Right? He’s the golf course guy?

Elliott Kalan: He has a golf course in Long Island, and the Northern State Parkway is going to go through it. And he says to Moses, “I’ll give you $10,000 to fund surveys for the land if you don’t cross my golf course.” And Moses goes, “Sure, I’ll do it.” And that means shifting the route a little farther south, which goes through the estates of two other rich powerful men. And they say, “We don’t want that.” He goes, “Okay.” And he ships it further south to the estates of other powerful men. I cannot begin to tell you how much of Long Island was owned by rich, powerful men at this time. And he shifts it further south. And now it runs to the land of a farmer named James Roth. And Roth and wife–they had bought this land in 1922. They cleared it of trees and rocks themselves. They haven’t even owned it that long. By now, it’s 1927. They’ve been working for five years nonstop. The farm is just beginning to pay off. They can’t support themselves on the farm. When a parks official goes to tell Ross, “The parkway is going to go through your land.” And he says, “Can you move it 400ft south so that it’ll go through the less fertile part of my fields? I will still love my fields but not the part that I need to farm.” And he’s told, “That’s impossible. This road has been laid out on the basis of engineering considerations. This is where it has to go.” Moses will shift the road over three miles for the rich and the wealthy. But for a farmer, he will not shift at 400ft. The road is built. It cuts the farm in two. And now, just to plant his fields and harvest his fields, he has to make a 50-minute both ways round trip across the road to get to the other part of this field. And the farm is no longer profitable. They can’t even sell it because instead of one big field, it’s now two small fields. And the only consolation that he and these other farmers that this happened to have is that “at least we know the road couldn’t have gone anywhere else.” It was the only place they could have built this road. And Caro again inserts himself and says, “Not until the author talked to them and the other farmers 40 years later did they think at any point that it could have gone to the rich estates instead of their own fields.” And it’s just Moses again being willing to do whatever it takes to get his projects done. And if that means crushing farmers so that he can accommodate the wealthy, then he will do that. And it’s so against the old Moses that we used to know. And it’s hard in this part because he’s still doing this ostensibly for, like, a good thing, right? Like, it’s still for the parks and getting to the parks. 

Roman Mars: Well, it’s a road. I mean, less so. But you do need to get there. But it is one of these things that he uses–kind of expertise and engineering and science–as this cudgel to, you know, get through what he wants because he’ll often rest on this. Somebody will say, “Well, why can’t you build it over here? Why can’t you do this?” And he’ll just be like, “Engineers, man. They told us this is where it has to be,” which is almost never the case. But he really does use that. For people who won’t stand against him, that’s a really powerful argument of just, like, “I guess this is the way the world works.” But rich people know that that’s not the way the world works. You know? You can pay enough money to build around a thing if you want to. But these farmers don’t have a concept of this, and they really suffer because of that. 

Elliott Kalan: And it’s a foreshadowing. Again, it’s so much foreshadowing because Moses’ life lives in cycles. It’s a foreshadowing of what’s going to happen later on with his larger projects within New York City and especially what he does to the East Tremont neighborhood of the Bronx much later to build the Cross Bronx Expressway. 

Roman Mars: One thing that’s also notable about this Otto Kahn moment is the moment where Robert Caro talks about interviewing Robert Moses. And he mentions the name Otto Kahn, and Robert Moses was like, “This interview is over.” He knows immediately. 

David Sims: That’s when he sniffs it out. He’s like, “Oh, wait a second. You’re not just writing about how great I am?” 

Elliott Kalan: Yeah. After hours and hours of Caro sitting there while Moses regales him with tales of his amazing projects and “Shouldn’t there be a road over there? There should be,” this is the name that Caro mentions, and Moses says, “Our time is over.” The music’s playing. You’re gonna have to leave. 

Roman Mars: And it’s interesting because it is kind of such a minor transgression on his part–taking $10,000 to kind of move this–compared to so many other things that he does that is so awful. But I think it has a kind of taint of corruption that Robert Moses is really allergic to. I think that that’s the nature of it. Like, he’ll say stuff like, “Oh, you know, the rabble got upset when I was going to move 500,000 of them out of their neighborhood. But we just ignored them.” And he has no compunction when it comes to that sort of thing. But this little payoff really sort of gets under his skin, I think. 

Elliott Kalan: This is me armchair psychologizing thing, even though I’m sitting in an office chair not an armchair. I wish I was sitting in an armchair; it would be more comfortable than this swivel chair, man. I wonder if this is a moment that he looked back on as, “This is the beginning of when I really changed for myself. Before I could say, ‘I am breaking the law, but I’m doing it to keep the rich from stopping me from building things for regular people.’ And this is the moment where I’m hurting regular people to help the rich–something that I had not really done before.” And I wonder if it had some kind of psychological importance for him as a, you know, kind of original sin that he cannot explain away or rationalize with his other stuff.

Roman Mars: Yeah. I mean, I like that explanation for it. I mean, this is what a book club is for. It’s to figure out, like, what do you think of these meanings? But that makes sense to me because it strikes me as, you know, just surprisingly mild for all the things that he has done for this to be the thing where Robert Moses realized, “Oh, I don’t want to talk to this Robert Caro guy anymore because he brought up this one transaction.” It’s really something. 

David Sims: No, he just must think of it as, like, a time he didn’t lose, per se, but he, you know, couldn’t just run roughshod and… Yeah, maybe it still irked him. 

Elliott Kalan: It’s also possible that he saw that as the one loose thread that Caro could pull that he’s like, “Oh, if you know about that, you must know about all this other stuff. We cannot talk anymore.”

Roman Mars: Totally. 100%. 

Roman Mars: “You must have found the Wilcox letter.”

David Sims: “Who told you that someone ever defied me? Wait a second. That’s supposed to be top secret!”

Elliott Kalan: Robert Moses in ensconced. He has power. And he has something that Caro doesn’t get into here, but I was kind of reading the underlying subtext of it. It’s this moment where Robert Moses almost gets access to even greater power because it’s 1928, June. Al Smith wins the Democratic nomination for president, and Moses is there with him and Belle Moskowitz. They’re celebrating the news. Moses isn’t involved with the campaign because Al Smith has basically said, “You are governor while I’m running for president.” And Al Smith, for people who are not familiar with his life story, does not win the presidency in a very large part because he would have been the first Catholic president. And there is still this intense anti-Catholic prejudice. You know, 32 years later, when John F. Kennedy is running for president, he still has to deal with the fact that a lot of Americans do not trust Catholics. And Al Smith, for the rest of his life, is kind of bitter about how he was denied this thing because of who he was. And Caro doesn’t talk about it, but if he was president, you have to imagine he might have tried to get Moses to come with him. Jamelle was saying in the last episode, “You get into office, and you bring the people that you trust with you–get them jobs.” And I wonder if Moses ever wondered about what he might have been if the man who trusted him more than anything else and who always relied on him and he could always rely on became the president of the United States of America–especially because, as we’ll see, one of his diehard enemies does become president later. And it doesn’t stop him that much, but it annoys him quite a bit. 

David Sims: It stops things for him, right? There are certain things. 

Elliott Kalan: Certain things. Yes. Small things. We’ll get into those details. But Moses is like, “There’s still so much left to do. I’m the acting governor right now, but there’s still so much left to do. I’ve got to finish the Southern State Parkway before the next governor comes in, so people can see how great it is. And the new governor won’t be able to stop me from doing more. And I got to complete this road to Jones Beach so people can see how great that is.” And as 1928 ends, he’s still sending out workers at this furious pace. He’s got to do more work on these roads. And the chapter ends thusly on page 282: “Those close to Robert Moses knew that there was justification for his urgency, a reason for the desperation, which now seem to underlie his haste. ‘Without his loyalty to me,’ Moses was to say about Al Smith, ‘I could have done nothing.’ He had had Al Smith and his loyalty for ten years, but now he was to have Al Smith no more. And the man who was to follow Moses’ greatest friend into the governor’s chair was Moses’ deadliest enemy.” End of Chapter 15!

David Sims: So, New York elected Skeletor, correct? 

Elliott Kalan: Yes. New York was really ahead of the rest of the country because the rest of the country wouldn’t elect a Catholic, and New York would elect an evil skeleton warlock from Eternia–not even born in the United States. 

David Sims: Oh, God. It’s just so funny that, like, Caro is doing this about, like, you know, a genteel politician in many ways–although a very powerful one. 

Elliott Kalan: So, the next episode of The Power Broker Breakdown show, we’re going to find out who is Moses’ deadliest enemy. I’ll give you a hint. His initials are FDR. And then what else is going to happen? Moses is going to take Manhattan, and he’s going to have such a more lasting impact than the Muppets had when they took Manhattan. We’re finally going to get to see more of Jimmy Walker, the slimy, dandy politician. He’s mayor now, and he’s got his own casino in Central Park. We’re finally going to get into the genuine accusations of racism that Caro has for Moses. And Al Smith–after his governorship–he’s going to get his own key to the Central Park Zoo in what is, I find to be, such a beautiful and touching moment. It doesn’t make up for the accusations of racism that Moses has, but Moses has to keep taking care of the governor. That’s going to be all that and so much more. Roman, what pages are we covering in the next episode. 

Roman Mars: We’ll be covering pages 283 to 401 from Chapter 16: The Feather Duster to Chapter 20: One Year. And that’s the next episode of the 99% Invisible Breakdown of The Power Broker. David Sims, it was such a pleasure to have you here. 

David Sims: It’s been delightful. And thank you for making me crack this book open for the first time in, like, 15 years. I’m going to be reading along with you eagerly for the rest of this series. And I’m honored to be, you know, considered. The way this works is that I’m considered an equal of Robert Caro, right?

Roman Mars: Yeah. That’s exactly how that works.

Elliott Kalan: Yeah, yeah, you can say that. Yeah. You, Jamelle, Conan O’Brien–you’re all on the same level. 

David Sims: Right. We’re peers. 

Roman Mars: That’s right. Can I ask you while we have you…? You know, you watch a lot of movies. You’re a movie critic. There’s been numerous attempts… Or at least, you know, people have optioned the rights to this book and have tried to tell the story of Robert Moses in different ways. What do you think it would take for this to be a good piece of filmed entertainment? 

David Sims: I mean, I don’t know that it’s possible. And I also would fear that, of course, it would be turned into a sort of sludgy, ten-episode, prestige streaming drama–not that that would be necessarily bad, obviously, given that it’s, like, a large story to tell. When you think of, like, the Clint Eastwood J. Edgar Hoover movie… Like, J. Edgar Hoover is a sort of very similar figure to Robert Caro in American life. 

Roman Mars: Robert Moses.

David Sims: Robert Moses, not Robert Caro. J. Edgar Hoover and Robert Caro have very little in common. I want to be clear about that.

Elliott Kalan: They’re investigators. They find secret information. 

David Sims: Like, you know, I read G-Man, which is this big biography of Hoover, a couple of years ago. And he’s another guy where sort of, at a certain point, people are like, “How do you know everything and know everyone, and I can’t get rid of you and every subsequent president has to kiss his hand versus the other way around? Like, why does it work this way?” And Clint Eastwood’s movie just tries to do, like, “Okay, well, J. Edgar Hoover was a young man, and he aged into an old man. We’re just going to rush through it.” I would probably try to do more of a, like, “Let’s concentrate on Moses at the end, in the ’60s, when he’s like, ‘I don’t think there should be Shakespeare in the park! Yeah!” when he’s, like, you know, finally turned into an actual cartoon villain, and parallel it with this time in his life with the accumulation of power in the ’20s and the ways in which he’s maybe started out somewhat idealistically and figured out the best ways to get things done was not very idealistic. I don’t know. That’s probably the approach. But it’s a really hard story to tell in less than 1,300 pages, which is what Robert Caro learned when he wrote this book. 

Elliott Kalan: It’s so hard to get across the scope and those details while boiling it down. And this is something I only thought about just now, so tell me if I’m off my rocker with this. The only movie I can think of that gets across this same kind of feeling is a section of the Russian movie Andrei Rublev–it’s a Tarkovsky movie from 1966–where this young guy is put in charge of making an enormous bell for his town’s church. And to get it done, he is pushing the workers so hard, and he becomes a tyrant. And they’re like, “This isn’t how your dad, who we worked for, used to do it.” He’s like, “This is how I do it now!” And he is in such tension, hoping that the bell doesn’t fail when it’s finished because it’s the end of his life if this bell doesn’t work. And I feel like that movie was the only time I’ve seen something that gets across the idea of someone who is so invested in a construction building project that they’re giving up everything and they’re pushing people to their limits and it becomes their entire life and their whole being. And all they’re focused on is the endpoint, and they don’t care how they get there. I mean, there’s other movies that do that, but I feel like it does it in a very concentrated way. And you don’t have to watch the rest of the movie if you don’t want to. You can just skip ahead to that part. It’s in chapters. But I feel like that gets it across. 

David Sims: It’s the last chapter, from what I remember.

Roman Mars: Yeah. 

Elliott Kalan: So maybe if we can bring Andrei Tarkovsky back to life–he died in 1986–maybe he can do it. I don’t know. 

David Sims: That would be great. I would love Tarkovsky to be revived, told all about Robert Moses, who he might not know too much about, and then set to work on recreating his life. 

Elliott Kalan: “Can I see my family? Can I see how they turned out?” “No. Get to work on the movie.”

David Sims: “How’s Russia doing?” “Don’t worry about it, Andrei! We need you to read this book!”

Roman Mars: Again, David, it was a pleasure. Can you tell people where they can find your work and find you? 

David Sims: Yes, of course. I’m a film critic at the Atlantic, where you can read my reviews of films and such. And I host the podcast Blank Check with Griffin and David, with my co-host Griffin Newman, where we tackle directors’ filmographies, movie by movie–directors who have gotten a Moses-esque blank check to make a crazy passion project at some point in their life. And Roman and Elliott have both been on, and both should return. 

Roman Mars: I would love to. I love your show. It is my favorite good movie podcast. 

Elliott Kalan: Good save. Good save, Roman.

David Sims: Of course. Of course!

Elliott Kalan: I saw you about to say, “Favorite movie podcast.” And you caught yourself, and you saw me glaring at you. 

Roman Mars: But again, it was great to have you here. Thank you so much. 

David Sims: Thank you, guys. Seriously. 

Elliott Kalan: That’s it for this episode. Again, next month we’ll be covering Chapters 16 through 20. That’s the middle chunk of Part Four: The Use of Power. 

Roman Mars: And remember to join our Discord server. You’ll be able to connect with other Power Broker fans and keep the discussion going. The link is on our website. Or you can go to We did an AMA there a couple weeks ago, and it was so fun. So, keep an eye out for other events. 

Elliott Kalan: And as always, you can check me out on my other podcast, The Flop House, which I must assume is Roman’s favorite bad movie podcast. 

Roman Mars: It absolutely is my favorite bad movie podcast. 

Elliott Kalan: The 99% Invisible Breakdown of The Power Broker is produced by Isabel Angell, edited by committee, music by Swan Real, mixed by Dara Hirsch. 

Roman Mars: 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 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 us on all the normal social media sites as well as our Discord server–the aforementioned Discord server–which is our favorite place to hang out right now. You can find a link to that and every past episode of 99PI at 

Elliott Kalan: It’s too bad you picked the one fictional universe I don’t know well enough to talk in. I mean, if we want to talk about it in terms of the Dune world, we could talk about it that way. But anyway–

David Sims: Okay, well, I mean… No. No. I’m sorry. Go on. 

Elliott Kalan: So, he’s like the Melange spice that you need for navigation, you know? 


The 99% Invisible Breakdown of The Power Broker is produced by Isabel Angell, edited by committee, music by Swan Real, mixed by Dara Hirsch.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

All Categories

Minimize Maximize