The Power Broker #05: Brandy Zadrozny

ROMAN MARS: This is the 99% Invisible Breakdown of the Power Broker. I’m Roman Mars.

ELLIOTT KALAN: And I’m Elliott Kalan.

ROMAN MARS: Today, we’re covering Part Four, the end of the section called the Use of Power. That’s chapters 21 through 24. And in my book, those are pages 402 to 495. Later on, our guest for this episode will be Brandy Zadrozny. She’s a senior reporter for NBC News who covers misinformation, conspiracy theories, and the internet. She recently finished The Power Broker, and she’s got a great perspective on what the book says about the press and its relationship to power, what has changed in journalism, and what remains the same. So when we last left The Power Broker, the depression is dawning. Robert Moses keeps opening state park projects to great public acclaim–he’s just a hero. Moses gets Governor Lehman and Mayor La Guardia to give him total control over anything remotely park related in New York City and passes a new law where a state person and a city person can do all this stuff at once. He immediately refurbishes New York City’s major parks. He’s unveiled this massive plan for building expressways and bridges through and around the city, so that people don’t have to go through Manhattan to get to places on either side anymore. And the Triborough Bridge Authority has begun to actually start building the Triborough Bridge, which will become the centerpiece and provide all the funding for his empire as well. But there’s a little bit going on here where his pettiness is starting to seep out to people who are his staunchest allies. So he destroys the Central Park Casino just because it was Jimmy Walker’s playground. And he just–out of spite–wants to level it instead of turning into something equally good or better. And so that’s where we are. So he’s still in that phase where he’s getting a lot done. Most people are on his side, but that is about to take a turn right now with Chapter 21: The Candidate. And so, Elliott, I love this opening line. Could you read the opening line to The Candidate?

ELLIOTT KALAN: Oh, it’s wonderful. The candidate begins thusly: “There had been a day in 1934 on which the cheering had stopped. It was the day Robert Moses started running for governor.” It’s like, “Oh boy, that’s not a good sign.” He’s used to everyone loving him. And he’s like, “Great, I’m going to run for public office.” And it is almost as if he decides to do everything he possibly can to undo every good thing about his reputation during this very brief run for governor. It’s amazing. And this pettiness that you were talking about–it’s starting to seep out. It’s almost like it starts gushing at this point. The faucet gets stuck open, and he’ll fix that leaky pettiness faucet, but it takes him a little bit of time. And it’s just amazing. So Caro points out that in later years, Moses would tell people after he knew that he had lost the governorship– Spoiler alert, he does not become governor–I’ll just tell you right now. He’ll tell people later, “I did it reluctantly. I was just trying to hold the party together.” But the people around him tell Caro that he was hungry for it. And he gets offered the nomination by our old friend, Trubee Davison, the wealthy young state legislature who–years earlier–Moses had tricked into sponsoring his state parks bill that made him the most powerful man in New York State. And there’s a little bit here about how Davison was working for the old guard of the state GOP. And those are the rich barons. They want someone who will stand for them against the New Deal and against Mayor La Guardia and that kind of stuff. And they also want a governor who’s finally going to take all these public power sources, like Niagara, and turn them over to private companies that, just by an amazing coincidence, many of the old guard GOP members own stock in. This is just regular government stuff. It’s fine. And Caro goes a little bit into the interior fighting in the GOP that Moses’ old enemy W. Kingsland Macy was fighting with the old guard about who was going to be the nominee. And it makes it sound like there’s, like, eight people who run the city and state government and they’re always butting heads. And that’s kind of what it’s like. When you read about even federal politics, it’s the same names over and over again. This is a big country. It’s amazing there are so few people. There’s one sentence here that is not super important, but I just want to read it because it’s maybe my favorite sentence in the book just for how much, I have to assume, deliberate satire Caro gets into this one sentence. So he is relating a quote that Trubee Davison as an older man, years later, is telling him about how Kingsland Macy wanted Judge Seabury to be the nominee for governor. And Seabury is not even a Republican, and he’s a reformer anyway. “‘Well, that was all we had to hear,’ Trubee Davison would growl three decades later, sitting with one gouty leg propped on a footstool in the 30 foot high study of his mansion on Peacock Point, topping off with cherries jubilee, a light lunch served by a white coated butler, and staring out across the Davison compounds half mile long terrace croquet court.” It’s one sentence just describing his house when Caro, I assume, went to talk to him. And there’s so much Succession just crammed into that one sentence. I love it so much. It’s just amazing and a good way of getting across, “These are the people who are backing Moses at this point.”

ROMAN MARS: And these are the people where he built his reputation fighting these very same people–in fact, the exact same people.

ELLIOTT KALAN: The exact same people, who he was like, “They’re the power, and I’m for the people.” These are the same people who are now like, “Hey, why don’t you be our candidate for governor?” because they’ve started to realize something about Robert Moses–that when he was hostile to them earlier, it wasn’t because he was this radical liberal but because he was a man who knew he had power because Al Smith was backing him. And when he lost that backing, he started becoming more accommodating. And the old guard realizes, “This guy also hates Roosevelt. He also thinks the lower classes need to stay in their place and the upper classes need to get special stuff. But–and this is the greatest gift in the history of state politics, you would think–he is a reactionary conservative who the voting public believes is a radical liberal.” He spent all these years building himself up as this liberal force, but in reality he’s not. And they’re like, “This is amazing.” And Moses accepts the nomination, and the press is fully taken in. And they say, “This is a surprising turn of events. The liberal enemy of the old guard is now their candidate. Huh.” It should have worked beautifully. There’s only one big problem. I mean, there’s two big problems. It’s a New Deal year. The depression is still going on. But the big problem is that Robert Moses is maybe the worst political campaigner in American history. He’s so bad at it. And this is old style campaigning where the campaign is only five weeks long. So you don’t have this long buildup where you can outspend your opponent, like we have now thankfully. Thankfully, we’ve gotten to the point where only rich people can run because you need so much money to do it. I’m so glad we’re away from this time when the campaign was only five weeks and then you just made a decision. And he spends all those five weeks antagonizing everybody, starting with his own supporters. And Caro talks about how he goes to speak to an audience of young Republicans who were enthusiastic about him, and it somehow turns into a shouting match between Moses and his base, where they’re calling each other names. And he’s running against his boss, Governor Lehman. So the people he considers colleagues–they’re mostly Democrats–they’re loyal to the Governor. They will not support him, but he expects their support anyway. And he gets mad when they don’t do it. And Caro talks about how Henry Moskowitz–he goes, “I’m supporting Governor Lehman.” And Moses never talks to him again and doesn’t even attend his funeral, which is pretty big. The press–they used to love Moses. We know that, right? The press is always talking about how great Moses is. He’s in the paper more often than Albert Einstein. He’s in the paper more often than J. Edgar Hoover. They love him! But literally after the first question in the first press conference he gives as a candidate–the question is whether he’s a protege of the old guard–Moses gives them an angry speech about “You’re not doing your job right! You need to ask the right questions! You need to say the right things!” And it’s like a Brewster’s Millions type Shoot the Moon strategy where it’s like, “Oh, if I have no votes, maybe I’ll instantly become governor.” It’s just astounding. Moses–he does everything wrong. He announces to the press, “La Guardia is going to give me his endorsement. I am calling a press conference.” But he didn’t bother to check with La Guardia first. And La Guardia’s pissed off, and he stays out of the campaign. Moses won’t campaign for ethnic votes, which you have to do in the New York area. One of the great things about New York City especially is there’s people from every part of the world there, and they want you to go to their street fairs and eat their local foods. And he refuses to do that. He won’t even go outside of large cities. His entire public appearance strategy is 12 formal speeches. And Caro quotes Paul Windels, who was the New York City Corporation Council, which is one of those… It’s a job that I don’t know exactly how it fits into the New York City hierarchy, but it’s powerful and influential. He’s a lawyer who does stuff for the city. He says to Caro, “Every time he opened his mouth, he lost 10,000 votes.” And votes that should have been his–he should get the Jewish vote. I mean, Lehman is Jewish also. But Moses–maybe they’ll split the Jewish vote. They’re both Jewish. But Moses says publicly, “I’m not Jewish.” He hasn’t been bar mitzvahed, and he hasn’t been circumcised. And Caro has a footnote about the rabbinical aspects of this–whether those things are necessary to be considered Jewish or not–which is the most Jewish moment in this very New York book. It’s that little footnote. But he refuses to be considered Jewish or called Jewish. And this is at a time when New York Jews find it especially important to reaffirm they’re being Jewish. This is the 1930s. This is maybe the most dangerous time for Jews in the world in centuries. And so for Moses to be denying that–they take that as a personal affront. And so Moses is like, “The only one route to becoming governor because I am so unliked and so unlikeable–I have to destroy the public image of Governor Herbert H. Lehman,” who at this point is famous for both being a New Deal liberal and for his impeccable principles. He is famous for his honesty. He’s famous for how much he hews to the rules. And Moses launches just attack after attack that are clearly false. Lehman is well known as a reformer. And Moses is like, “This Tammany puppet–he’s stupid. He’s weak. He’s bowing down to the Tammany bosses because he’s afraid they’re going to beat him up.” Literally, he’s physically afraid that they’re going to beat ’em up. It is bonkers. And after the campaign, Caro’s like, “Later on, Moses would say Lehman is a distinguished governor of fine character.” Moses knows this is not true. And Lehman does the smart thing, which is he just ignores Moses and he campaigns everywhere and campaigns on his own record. And this is how we want politics to work to a certain extent, which is that the guy who has a good record and is putting his all into it is doing well, and the guy who is a big liar, who is just mean, is doing poorly. And he makes a lot of these baseless attacks. One of the examples I want to highlight is he says, “He accused Lehman of being responsible for corruption in the court of claims–an accusation which ignored the fact that the court was not under the Governor’s control and which was not strengthened by the fact that to document the court’s incompetence, Moses accused of drunkenness a judge who actually had been dead for more than a year.” So Moses is just throwing out wild things. He accuses Lehman of being in bed with the utility companies, which is exactly what Moses is doing at this point. And finally goes a step too far, and he calls Lehman a liar, which shocks people. It’s hard to overstate how strong Caro makes the reaction to this charge or describes it, where that’s when he starts losing support, other Republicans say he’s unfit for office, and there’s a radio station service that says, “We will not run Moses’ speeches unless the party takes out libel insurance that covers every time he speaks.” I hate to look at the past with rose-colored glasses because there was a lot of bad stuff going on and the political system was far from fully equitable or good or non-corrupt. But this whole section–it’s just so hard to read it now and not be like, “Oh, things have really changed.”

ROMAN MARS: And what’s interesting here to me is that even though Moses was a sort of lifelong Republican, except for the time when he changed his party affiliation–

ELLIOTT KALAN: Briefly when he thought it would help him become governor.

ROMAN MARS: Exactly, when Al Smith was running for president. You know, it’s interesting because he has surrounded himself with Democrats. He’s always worked with Democrats up to this point. In fact, his mentor and big brother in all this is Al Smith. It’s only recently in La Guardia that he has worked with a Republican pretty much at all. And everyone turns their back on him. I mean, they don’t try to be mean about it, but they’re just like, “Listen, I’m a Democrat.”

ELLIOTT KALAN: Yeah, even when he goes to Al Smith. He goes to Al Smith, he asks for support, and Al Smith says, “I play this game like a regular.” And Moses is stung by it. And Caro describes how someone tells him about Moses recalling this 30 years later, and it’s still clearly hurting him. But you’re right. He’s surrounded by– He’s always called himself an “Independent Republican,” but he has been a fixture in Democratic administrations and working with Democratic officials. And it is foolish of him–this guy who understands the political mechanisms so well–to expect that they like him so much personally that they will turn their back on this party and also, to be honest, in this case, principles that they’ve stood by for all this time. And I hadn’t thought about this until just now, Roman. You’ve led me to this realization that one of the themes throughout the first parts of the book is Robert Moses finding sources of power that other people had discounted earlier or not noticed because they were outside of the official sources of power. And I wonder if here is one of those cases where he makes that gamble. He says, “The Democratic party is more powerful in this region than the Republican party. I’m going to be able to go in there and turn that into my source of power then.” And that gamble doesn’t pay off this time. He’s not able to do it.

ROMAN MARS: Yeah. I also think that, like you said, that is his superpower–turning sort of ignored positions that are not thought of as very powerful into powerful positions. Whereas running for governor is, like, good old fashioned, normal stuff. He’s not going to reinvent anything here. He’s not going to find some law that he can write to make this better for him or easier for him. He has to do all the things. This stuff has been worked out. He’s not going to get around it. And his unwillingness to play ball in the way that everyone else does to create a successful campaign is just… He’s just naive. He’s never walked a path that other people have walked ahead of him. He’s only sort of forged his own way through all these new ways of looking at the government and the world and municipal structures. And this tried and true way–he’s just bad at it.

ELLIOTT KALAN: There’s something about… Maybe one of the beautiful things about electoral politics is that it can really humble people who are used to not being humble because suddenly they need the people who they don’t care about to give them their approval. They need the approval of the people that previously they saw as beneath them. And I mean, it goes back in some ways to the original founding of the country, where it was like, “This king’s used to telling us what to do. Well, what if we chose the king and he had to pay attention to us once every four years?” It’s a real guardrail of democracy that Moses is coming up against. Moses–to his credit–he does not hold a grudge against Al Smith. This is before Moses opens the Central Park Zoo, which is basically his love present to Al Smith. So that’s the one relationship that he will never let go of.

ROMAN MARS: It’s pretty interesting that this is happening simultaneously to that chapter that we read earlier about that ceremony and giving him the key and all that sort of stuff that meant so much to Al Smith. It does, however, make me think that him missing that ceremony–there might be something a little bit more to that because he wasn’t there for that.

ELLIOTT KALAN: And he says it was because he’s sick. Yeah, maybe he couldn’t handle it, or maybe he just wasn’t ready or– It’s possible.

ROMAN MARS: Do wonder that. But as you said, these guardrails of democracy–Robert Moses just goes head first into a guardrail of democracy. And he ends up with the smallest percentage of the vote of any major party candidate in the history of New York state up until that point.

ELLIOTT KALAN: Up until that point. Since then, some enterprising candidates have beaten that record and gotten less. But yeah, Moses ends up with 35% of the vote, which in a two-party competition is pretty abysmal. And the GOP lose both houses of the legislature for the first time in 21 years. He even loses in what are usually the solidly Republican upstate districts; those go for Lehman. And Moses of course takes no responsibility. He’s like, “It was 1934. The New Deal candidate was always going to win. I couldn’t do it.” But the political insiders are like, “Yeah, but the election could have been closer.” And it’s interesting that either Moses doesn’t care or forgets or doesn’t think about it. When you have an election year, the person at the head of the ticket–part of their job is to draw support for the people lower down on the ticket. So even if he had run better–even if he had lost–perhaps his party would’ve kept control of part of the legislature or just wouldn’t have lost so many seats. But Moses also, I’m sure, doesn’t care. He doesn’t care about how the rest of the parties– I mean he doesn’t care about the party. It’s not like, from this point on, he’s really involved in GOP politics. When he loses, he drops it.

ROMAN MARS: And this is a moment where Lehman–to his credit–it would be, I think, politically reasonable to get rid of Moses at this moment because he just was in a competition for the same job and called him a liar and all these nasty things.

ELLIOTT KALAN: Offended most of the state–just made most of the state not like him.

ROMAN MARS: But to his credit, Lehman doesn’t do it. He keeps him on.

ELLIOTT KALAN: Yeah, he says, “This guy’s great at his job. He’s doing work nobody else can do. Just because he called me a liar doesn’t mean I should fire him.” It is one of those moments where someone does the principled thing and does ostensibly the right thing–but in the long run, you’re like, “Ugh! What a missed opportunity!”

ROMAN MARS: I know. This would’ve been the moment.

ELLIOTT KALAN: The silver lining is that if he had fired Moses, then there’s no way Robert Carro ever would’ve written this, a wonderful book that we’re enjoying so much because the story of the man who was briefly the most powerful person in New York as Parks Commissioner is, let’s say, not as much of a book as the guy who did it for years and years. And Caro goes does a little bit of analysis here where he is saying, “why did Moses do such a bad job at this–this guy who is usually so good at using the press–who is so good at presenting himself and at positioning himself on the right side of issues?” And what Caro says is his theory is that part of it’s because Moses was kind of lucky to always have a popular issue before now. He was tied to park building. People didn’t have to like him as a person–they just had to the fact that he was for parks. But in a political campaign, he can’t say, “I’m the parks guy!” I mean he could have. If he was a better campaigner, he could have said, “I’m the parks guy.” But his actual character had to come out, and people did not like it. And Caro says, “Why couldn’t he charm the voters the way he charmed the powerful people whose support he needed–the people in the GOP party or, as we’ll see later, in newspapers?” And Caro theorizes that Moses gets a little psychoanalytic in a way that I’m not sure I fully buy into. But he says that Moses is so arrogant and so entitled that he literally is incapable of pretending to care about what other people think–and that he actually derives pleasure from being able to express the contempt that he holds other people in. And so he needs to display his superiority, and he needs to destroy anyone who opposes him. And that’s Caro’s, like, “I can’t think of another reason why Moses would have antagonized press.” He was so good at manipulating, but now he felt like he needed to show he was better and smarter. And he can’t just defeat his enemies, he has to destroy them. And what do you think? I’m not sure if it’s that or if it’s that just Moses is just really good at fawning over people who he feels he needs something from. And as much as he knows he needs the voters, he thinks of them as a mass. And he thinks of individual voters as nobodies. And he doesn’t feel the need to fawn over them because individually they’re powerless. That’s my theory. What do you think?

ROMAN MARS: I mean, I think it could be both of those things.

ELLIOTT KALAN: Gotta pick one. Gotta pick one, Roman. Alright, I’ll let you forge the middle path. That’s fine. Yeah.

ROMAN MARS: Well, I think it’s also just that Robert Moses is really great at creating the conditions where he is doing everything for the first time. All of his whipsawing and his sort of lying and then stake driving and all his stuff–he is the best because there’s no precedent for him. And this just is not an unprecedented job–to be a politician in this way. And he is finding that he cannot bend his character to do any of these things. It just is anathema to his existence. And he’s never had to because he’s always done things his own way. And I just think he’s incapable of it. And when you’re in the confidence of someone and they say something mean, you feel very warm to them sometimes because you’re like, “Oh, they’re being mean to that person, and they like me.” I think he plays on that in a small room or with just a small group of people that he shares a kinship with. But the bigger and bigger that room is, then you’re just shouting at people. And it is not fun at all to watch someone just be mean to someone in a large room. And I think he just sort of traffics in a kind of gossip and chumminess and being nice to you and mean to you in unpredictable ways so that his sort of abuses and control over you is strengthened by that. And you just can’t do that in a broad scale to people–to a mass of people.

ELLIOTT KALAN: I guess it goes to show too that there’s certain types of people whose personalities react to other personalities. And Moses for some reason in public and on a large scale had the kind of personality that nobody reacted well to–that it just didn’t mesh with anybody.

ROMAN MARS: Not at all, except for when he could put up a ceremony somewhat. But that’s it. He kind of knew the details of how to make people have a good time when he was opening something or doing something grand. But when he spoke, it was pretty uninspiring. It is really fascinating. That’s not what his strength was. And so at this point, he’s kind of at his lowest that we’ve seen him since his initial ascendancy.

ELLIOTT KALAN: This is the lowest he’s been since he was a 30-year-old guy who could not get a job in government. I mean, he has two amazing jobs, but he actually has, like, 11 amazing jobs. But people don’t like him. The shine is off the star. The bloom is off the rose. There’s halos hanging by a thread. I don’t know how many different messed up metaphors… Unfortunately for us and fortunately for him, a strange savior is about to enter the scene as we roll into Chapter 22, as Moses’ oldest foe is about to become his inadvertent support beam. I couldn’t come up with the right metaphor for that either.

ROMAN MARS: We’ll do that one with Chapter 22: Order #129 after this break. This next chapter is Chapter 22. It’s called Order #129. And this is when Robert Moses is at his lowest. His old foe, Franklin Roosevelt–who’s now the president of the United States–he decides that he’s going to take his revenge on him. And this is such a misfire–it’s so colossal of a mistake.

ELLIOTT KALAN: It’s a Moses running for governor level of misfire from the President of the United States. And it has the exact opposite effect of what the President is hoping. Technically this revenge starts before the gubernatorial campaign. In February of 1934, we have this scene, Caro describes, where La Guardia is crying to Paul Windels, New York City Corporation Counsel. Again, I don’t know what the job is, but he’s around a lot in this book. He realizes that the guy he picked as his federal money guy–the city’s interface between its needs and the federal government’s largesse–is Robert Moses, the one guy the president hates most in the world other than Hitler, I guess. And there’s a quote that I love here–I want to do it in an accent, but I know I can’t do justice–where Windels says to Caro, “I got in the car, and no sooner did I sit down did he cut loose. ‘Jesus Christ, of all the people in the city of New York, I had to pick the one man who Roosevelt won’t stand for. And he won’t give me any more money unless I get rid of him. Jesus Christ, I had to pick the one that he hated. Jesus Christ.’ He was shaking his fist in the air and shouting, ‘Jesus Christ! Jesus Christ! 7 million people in the city, and I had to pick the one Roosevelt can’t stand!'” And I just love that. It’s so amazing. My favorite movie of all time is The Taking of Pelham One Two Three. And La Guardia sounds like the mayor in that movie at that moment where he’s just, like, overcome with his troubles. And so this is the case. Interior Secretary Harold Ickes has made it clear to La Guardia that until Moses is fired from the Triborough Authority Board, the Public Works Administration–which Harold Ickess oversees in the Department of the Interior–will give no money to New York City until Moses fired. And La Guardia is like, “I can’t legally fire Moses from Triborough. I can’t legally do it. But maybe I can get him to resign by threatening to fire him as the Parks Commissioner, which I can do.” And Moses, of course, knows there’s only one tool that gets to what you want, which is a bigger resignation thread. So he goes, “Yeah, I’ll resign from Triborough. I’ll also resign from the park jobs. And then I’ll tell everyone publicly that you made me resign because the federal government told you to.” And Windels tells La Guardia, “If that happens, everyone will see you as weak–if publicly you’re seen as bowing to federal pressure.” And La Guardia tries to stall, and Roosevelt’s losing his patience. And as soon as the governor’s race is over, Roosevelt is like, “Nobody likes this guy anymore. Let’s do it.” And they turn off the PWA money faucet until the day when Moses is cut loose. And Caro–it’s worth looking up on page 429–Caro goes through this ridiculously melodramatic description of the whole thing as a stage play and which parts everyone’s playing. And it is this metaphor that goes way too far. So I love it. It goes beautifully too far. So it’s too long to read here, but go open up your hymnals to page 429, and take a look at it. And La Guardia is in a bind. He needs this money to improve the city. He has big plans for the city. He wants to do the things that Moses is trying to get done, but he can’t be seen as giving into Roosevelt. And then on December 26th, 1934–a date which will live on in bureaucracy–Ickes issues PWA Administrative Order #129, the very order that gives this chapter its title, drafted in part by Roosevelt, stating, “The PWA will give no money to an independent entity that has a project entirely in one city if the governing board of that entity has anyone on it who also holds public office in that city.” It’s so specifically worded. It’s so clearly describing Moses’s situation. But it happens to affect another guy too, Tenement House Commissioner Langdon W. Post. And Ickes is like, “Confidentially, don’t worry about him. It doesn’t matter. We don’t care about him.” And Post is actually on a cruise at that moment, so he doesn’t even know any of this is happening.

ROMAN MARS: They should have written in that in addition to “give no money to an independent entity that has a project entirely in one city, if that governing board has an entity, has anyone who hold public office in that city, and your name rhymes with Povert Poses.”

ELLIOTT KALAN: La Guardia’s like, “My hands are tied. Sorry. You and Shobert Shoses have to leave the government. I apologize.” And La Guardia does a foolish thing here, which is in order to show Moses, he has to give in. He shows the order to Moses. And Moses is like, “Huh, interesting, interesting. Press, can I leak something to you?” And he goes, “I’m revealing this purely because the public deserves transparency.” And the press are unaware that Roosevelt and Moses have hated each other for years. This feud is common knowledge among the political types, but it’s not public knowledge. And so the press portrays it as the president is trying to force a public servant out of his job purely because, while he was running for governor, he criticized the New Deal. This is political partisan payback of the worst type. And suddenly Ickes is being asked about whether Roosevelt knew about the order and La Guardia is on a train to D.C. and doesn’t know that Moses leaked it. And as soon as he gets off the train, he’s mobbed by reporters. And I really love… There’s something about how old-world this all is, where if you are traveling, you do not know what is happening outside of the container that you are in. So if you’re on a cruise ship, you don’t know. If you’re on a train, you don’t know. Whereas now the scene would be like his aide’s cell phone suddenly buzzes. And he’d go, “Uh, sir, we’ll have to take a look at this.” And then by the time they are getting off the train, he’s got a statement prepared. Instead, he’s just totally taken by surprise. He has no idea what’s been happening. He was on a train.

ROMAN MARS: I love that. And the image of a flustered La Guardia is an image I kind of love conjuring in my mind. You can totally imagine his sweaty face.

ELLIOTT KALAN: He already looks like he just rolled out of bed. So even more now, he’s like, “Um… Uh…” I have to imagine this is a guy who runs his fingers through his hair a lot when he’s stressed out and thinking and makes it all poof out and… Yeah, I love it.

ROMAN MARS: And he’s just like, “What the fuck has this guy done to me now?”

ELLIOTT KALAN: “Oh, Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ.” You have to imagine every press report because back then they would kind of clean up a politician’s answers to make them look better. Every press report–they’re just blacking out the words “Jesus Christ” in the transcript. But editorials are written about this. They’re attacking La Guardia. They’re attacking Ickes. Suddenly dozens of business and civic organizations are issuing resolutions in support of Moses. He’s a hero again–suddenly he’s a hero. And there’s this long list of different organizations–different local civic and business groups–that are going out of their way to issue public resolutions in support of Moses. And everyone’s trying to stonewall. La Guardia’s like, “This problem doesn’t exist.” But Moses keeps the fight in the press. Every week he’s announcing how little money they have left on hand to complete building the Triborough Bridge because the federal government’s not giving them any. And Roosevelt finally admits to reporters that he was aware of Order 129. And then 147 different civic organizations meet, and they basically make a show of reaccepting Moses as a member of the civic reform community. They want to support the principle of independent local government–this principle of balance of powers and local control of things that is so, so fundamental to the founding blah, blah, blah and et cetera, et cetera. And Moses is now the symbol of that. And by 1935, it’s a national issue, and people are like, “The New Deal funds are being used for political purposes. This is not okay.” And Republicans want to investigate it. La Guardia finally comes up with a solution. It’s months later–after he has been going, “Oh, Jesus Christ,” to anybody who will listen. He sends a letter to the government saying, “I will abide by the order, but it would cause so much trouble to apply it retroactively because I cannot lose Langdon Post from the tenement housing position. I can’t do it. He’s just too important–this guy who was on vacation when all this is going down. He’s just… I’m sorry, it’s too much to ask. Oh, and PS: this would also apply to Robert Moses in addition. But Langdon Post is really why I’m doing this.” And Al Smith–who’s been kind of biding his time waiting for the right moment to step in–this is when he does step in. He says, “Now’s the time to put my finger on a scale.” And he gives a speech talking about how necessary it is that Moses stay at the Triborough Authority, so his big roads plan can go through. And that’s presented by Caro as the final kind of feather on the scale. That’s the straw that breaks the camel’s back on trying to get more metaphors into this. And so Roosevelt–he has Ickes write a letter to La Guardia accepting this non-retroactive reading. But they predate the letter to one day before Smith’s speech so that it won’t look like it was because of the speech that they did it. And the press immediately sees through it, and they’re like, “Moses beats Ickes! They did it.” And Ickes–who at this point, has just been doing what the president has been telling him to do–he doesn’t have a personal stake in this. He’s very hurt by it, but he still kind of gives props to Moses for handling the fight in such a powerful way. And the most important thing of all is with this action, Moses now has his halo back. Now he is no longer the mean guy who calls people a liar, running to support the old guard. He’s, again, the defender of the people that the bigger guy is trying to crush. And this is the halo that stays on him pretty much for decades.

ROMAN MARS: Pretty much the rest of the time. Yeah, it’s pretty amazing. This is a real, like, “if you come at the king, you best not miss” kind of scenario. And they really missed, and it really resurrected him in every way possible.

ELLIOTT KALAN: It’s like the bullet missed the king, bounced off the wall, and hit a bottle of super medicine that then tipped into the king’s mouth and made him stronger. That’s how badly they missed.

ROMAN MARS: And so much so that they eventually share a stage when the opening of the Triborough Bridge happens. And this is one of my favorite things–Moses can’t accept that he just won this completely. He won this so thoroughly, it is almost embarrassing. It’s embarrassing to Roosevelt. But the pettiness continues because when the Triborough Bridge opens, the ceremony happens. And he’s smart enough to know that he has to invite Roosevelt. I mean, this is a big federal project. But he only allows him five minutes to speak.

ELLIOTT KALAN: The President of the United States of America.

ROMAN MARS: Exactly.

ELLIOTT KALAN: And this is happening in 1936, so the President is also running for reelection that year. Like, the President’s going to want to talk for more than five minutes.

ROMAN MARS: And so La Guardia tells him, “He’s got to talk more than five minutes.” And Moses says, “Okay. He can talk for six minutes.”

ELLIOTT KALAN: It’s so ridiculously petty. And I was looking over this again. I was thinking back to our talk with AOC last episode–go back and listen to it if you didn’t hear it–where she was talking about how this happens. This is how decisions get made often is, “I don’t like that guy. I’m not going to do this. Ugh! I just cannot have to poke this guy.” And so he goes, “All right, I’ll give him one more minute to talk.” And also Ickes is invited as a general spectator, and he’s really mad that he isn’t going to get to speak. And finally he does. And Roosevelt and Ickes–they give their speeches that do not mention Moses. And Moses in his speech does not mention the President, but he indulges… And this is classic Moses. I feel it’s the perfect way to end this chapter and the duo of the Candidate chapter and this one because it’s Moses falling back in his bad habits again. As part of his speech, he has this incredibly oblique insult towards Roosevelt–this veiled insult–that is based around knowing an anecdote from the life of Samuel Johnson. And it flies completely under the radar because nobody knows what he’s talking about. And Caro has to take time to explain what this insult is and what it means. But Moses cannot help being like, “I know I won. I’m going to try to be gracious in public. But secretly, I’m going to insult him in this way that nobody but me will understand.” It’s almost as if he is like, “The first letter of every sentence of my speech–if you add it up, it says, ‘Roosevelt sucks.’ No one will know but me.” And it’s just so incredible. They’re such children. They’re such petty children. And they have the lives of millions in their hands. I mean, I love looking back on it, reading a book. But knowing that this is still how the world operates, I’m like, “Ugh, it’s so frustrating.”

ROMAN MARS: It is a little painful. Although I’m always having this sort of pang of wanting to see the downfall of Robert Moses before it actually happens. You know what I mean? So when you hit these petty squabbles, I’m mainly on FDR’s side in these things.

ELLIOTT KALAN: Sure. Yeah. At this point.

ROMAN MARS: And it just is rough. It’s just rough to witness it.

ELLIOTT KALAN: It’s the same thing– I mean, it’s not as bad as this. The worst version of this for me is I read a lot about Abraham Lincoln. I read a lot of Abraham Lincoln books because I think he’s the greatest person who ever lived. We don’t have to talk about that. This is a Robert Moses podcast. But every time I’m reading a biography of him and it’s getting closer and closer to him going to Ford’s Theatre, I’m always like, “Don’t go! Don’t do it!” And then his bodyguard leaves to get a drink in the middle of the show, and I’m like, “What are you doing?” You know it’s going to happen. I mean, it’s what happens when you watch a movie over again, too. You know it’s going to happen, but you’re hoping it doesn’t happen. But that’s part of the thrill of history, I guess. It’s knowing that it could have gone differently, but it’s too late now. It’s not going to go differently ever again.

ROMAN MARS: But because of these petty machinations of FDR, Moses is sort of back on top and doing what he’s doing. He is back in the saddle, which is the title of Chapter 23: In the Saddle. And it starts with this description of La Guardia being just hilariously omnipresent in New York City. Everywhere that something is happening, La Guardia is there, just having fun showing off, trying to make everyone love him. It’s hilarious.

ELLIOTT KALAN: Caro makes it sound like there are 17 La Guardias running around the city at any given point. It’s like, “He’s over there. He is personally inspecting the treatment of people in public housing. There he is over there. He’s at the Bronx Terminal Market. There’s been stories of artichoke racketeering, so he’s personally banning artichokes from the Bronx Terminal Market. Uh Oh, firefighters are trapped under a collapsed wall? He’s going to go whisper encouragement to them while they’re being saved.” He’s everywhere. And at the same time, he’s slashing non-essential jobs in city budget. He’s pushing back on local corruption. He’s bullying the city into submission, but he’s also bullying his staff. He loves to yell at his staff. He loves to fire his staff. This is not entirely all positive. But yeah, it just presents him as zooming around like a cartoon character–just puffs of smoke appearing where he used to be as he runs off. And the person who can always stand up to him is Moses. And they fight. They shout. Moses is deliberately rude to him. He calls him by Italian slurs both behind his back and in front of his back. He’s always threatening to resign to the point where– I love this so much. This makes me love La Guardia. He has a pad printed up with forms on it that say, “I, Robert Moses do hereby resign as blank, effective blank.” And the next time Moses resigns, he hands him the pad. And Moses gets really mad about it.

ROMAN MARS: And it totally wins. He blunts that as a thing, and Robert Moses doesn’t do it to him anymore. They have figured out this way of complimentary abuse that somehow fosters this kind of mutual respect that just kind of works for them. It’s amazing. But it does.

ELLIOTT KALAN: Yeah. But it means they’re constantly butting heads against each other, even though in the grand scheme of things, they agree on the major goals. But they’re always butting heads. And there are a couple of fights that Caro goes into. My favorite of them–but I find it very sad–is in 1936 Moses wants the land that’s currently being held by the terminal for a ferry that goes between Astoria and Manhattan. And you’re like, “Oh, I’d like to go take that ferry.” You can’t. It’s not there anymore. Don’t even try. I’ll tell you why it’s not there. La Guardia’s like, “You should wait. The commuters are not ready to lose it. It’s a five cent ferry trip, which is more pleasant and cheaper than riding on what’s going to be a 50 cent toll road.” And Caro paints it as the kind of endearing, antiquated piece of old New York–this rusty, old ferry that modern New York is doing its best to just throw away as fast as possible. Moses is impatient. So literally as soon as the ferry leaves the dock one day, he just sends his workers in and they start smashing up the dock and smashing up the ferry terminal building and even tearing up the road leading to the ferry terminal building. And La Guardia has to send the police to arrest the parks workers who are doing this. And then a week later, Moses just gets the land, and he tears down the ferry house completely.

ROMAN MARS: Yeah. It’s crazy. He calls the police on his own park’s guy. And it’s just sort of like they’re playing a game of chess, and there’s all these people caught in the middle of it, where a policeman has to arrest a worker who’s just being told, “Don’t stop for anybody,” because this jerk Robert Moses tells him not to stop for anybody. And the cops come. And it’s just a nightmare. And then they have to– There’s a boat out that has nowhere to go.

ELLIOTT KALAN: It has to find another place to dock because he tore the dock up. He just doesn’t care. There’s people on that boat. They can’t live on it.

ROMAN MARS: It’s crazy how much he doesn’t think about individuals, and it’s just sort of stunning. I’m sort of like, “This is real villainy.”

ELLIOTT KALAN: Yeah. Well, he knows that–and this will become clear more and more in this section of the book as we’re talking–his goals, he believes, are the best and only useful goals. And so anything that has to be done to get those goals as quickly and as effectively as possible–he’ll do it. In 1937–so the next year–La Guardia’s got to call the police out on him again because La Guardia’s like, “We’ve got to move 2,000 of the laborers–the federal workers who are working for you–we got to reassign them from your projects to other projects.” He goes, “Okay, we’ll reassign the playground supervisors.” And he fires 2,000 playgrounds supervisors, and he locks shut over 140 playgrounds and removes the playground equipment, so they can’t be reopened. And moms with kids start protesting because they went to their playground and they found that the police have chained it shut, and there’s no equipment. And he’s got to call out the police again to try to get him to stop closing these playgrounds. And every time this happens, Moses is able to spin it so that they blame the city or they blame La Guardia rather than Moses. And Caro starts to theorize that Moses got away with this partly because La Guardia respected people who would stand up to him and fight him and partly because they both wanted the same thing ultimately. La Guardia wants New York to be a beautiful city. He wants it to be a new, functioning, gleaming city. And he loves engineering. He’s hugely in awe of large scale construction. He’s like a child. He likes to wear a construction hat or a hard hat and go to a construction site and go, “Wow! Look at those big machines! Wow, look at that!” And at one point, La Guardia calls Moses the “greatest engineer in the world.” And Moses is not technically an engineer. He doesn’t have an engineering degree. He doesn’t know how to draw up plans. But he has the staff that can drop plans, and he’s the only person who has it. So the third part of it– I don’t remember how many. I haven’t counted. The final leg in the stool of however many legs is that they need this federal money to do it. And Moses is the only guy who can get that federal money because he can create the plans. He has the people who can create the plans to get it.

ROMAN MARS: He has shovel-ready projects that allow them to pass through the PWA system, and he can keep getting money and money and money. He’s just always ready–always on the ball. Also, when it comes to these types of arguments and the rough tactics which they use against each other, Moses sort of lacks compunction. I think they fight over these things, and La Guardia wants a lot of the same things Moses wants. But the reason why Moses wins in each of these moments is because he does not care about these people. And La Guardia actually does. And it’s just infuriating to watch. I mean, it just makes me so mad to read about it.

ELLIOTT KALAN: It’s a little bit like the story of Solomon and the two mothers and the baby if Solomon had said, “We’re going to have to cut this baby in half,” and the one mother said, “Okay, go ahead, do it,” and Solomon said, “I admire your guts. Yeah, you take the baby. You stood up, and you wouldn’t compromise. You take this baby.” It feels unjust. It feels like things go the wrong way when Moses just bullies his way into getting stuff done. But that happens in politics still–that there’s a certain respect for the ability to not care in that you’re unstoppable. You won’t let anyone stand in your way. And it’s the person who cares too much who is more easily held hostage because, if things go bad, they’ll be upset. But if the other side of things goes bad, they don’t care. It doesn’t matter to them.

ROMAN MARS: They don’t care at all. And I think the other part that keeps Moses sort of buttressed in these fights is he has such a tight relationship with the press. So none of this would leak out. Him being the person that moved the park workers and fired them so that the parks would be shut down–none of that leaks out because he just has cultivated this relationship with the press where there’s just no light between them.

ELLIOTT KALAN: He’s very good at wooing the press. He takes publishers and editors and reporters– At this point, there’s 13 daily newspapers in New York City, which is astonishing to me. It’s just incredible. And he takes the publishers and the editors and reporters on banquets. He’ll take them on yacht trips. He’ll throw parties for them at Jones Beach. And there’s a chapter much later in the book where it kind of gives you a firsthand look at the luxury lifestyle that lavishes in the RM chapter. I’m so looking forward to that one. It’s amazing. But he’s also personal friends with some of the most powerful newspaper owners in the city. He’s friends with Ogden Mills Reid of the Herald Tribune. You may remember Ogden Mills Reid as the guy that Moses was going to con money out of when he was a Yale student. Reid never found out about that, so he is still his friend. But most importantly, he’s friends with the Sulzbergers, the owners of the New York Times. At the time, as is now, it’s the most influential paper in the country. And two thirds of the Times stock is owned by Iphigene Ochs Sulzberger. Such an amazing name. And she loves public parks. She loves parks, and she worships Moses, too, as the guy can make parks. And she doesn’t always agree with him. She’s the one that Caro quotes as saying that engineers are “straight line crazy,” which becomes the name of the David Hare play about Robert Moses. So she wants parks that are grass. She doesn’t want concrete facilities. And she thinks Moses is doing the wrong way–but even if he’s doing the wrong way, he’s still building parks. A concrete park is better than no park. And so that’s what she cares about. And there’s a part where she disagrees with Moses, and he sends her an insulting letter. And the New York Times prints her apology–her public apology for disagreeing with him. And the reporters at the Times–they’re never told by her, “You have to support Robert Moses.” But they know how to keep the boss happy. When you work for someone, you know how to keep ’em happy. You know what they want, and you know what things they’re going to like. And so when Moses says something, the Times–but also the other papers, but especially the Times–takes it as truth. He’s the guy who’s telling the truth, and his side is the one that deserves reporting. So La Guardia can’t fire him. The most powerful newspaper at a time when newspapers were so much more powerful than they are now–it’s the way most people still got their information about the world around them–will give him hell if he fires Moses. And so at a certain point, La Guardia is not even bringing up complaints to Moses. And he learns that he’s got to argue with Moses in private but then let Moses have his way and then pretend in public that there was no disagreement between the two of them because Moses is just untouchable because of his relationship to the press.

ROMAN MARS: And he is also untouchable because he holds this sort of role getting money from the federal government. He holds this role in the city. And he also has this role in the state government. And this is the reason why there was a law that made that illegal because it is a very easy way to make someone more powerful than the mayor.

ELLIOTT KALAN: Yes, which is exactly what happens because Moses has access to the federal money. He’s not using city money to build his projects usually. So he doesn’t need the city’s approval. And it doesn’t matter what the voters in the city necessarily think because he’s not listening to them. And if the mayor says, “Hey, you shouldn’t do that. The people in the city aren’t going to like it,” he can say to the people in the state government, “Make some trouble for La Guardia. I don’t want things to go easy for him while he’s making it difficult for me.” Or he can approve his own projects when it needs state approval. And it’s as if my children had outside money coming in and also then had a relationship with my parents where I’d be like, “It’s time to go to bed. You got to go to bed right now,” and they’re like, “Oh, interesting. Well, why don’t I call up grandpa and have him get mad at you? Why don’t I have grandpa yell at you over the phone?” And I’m like, “Well, then you’re not going to get your allowance.” And they’re like, “That’s cool because the federal government is giving me a billion dollars, so I don’t need this allowance money.” I think I’m going to stay up until midnight tonight. “But you have school tomorrow!” “Do I? Do I have to call grandpa again?” That’s the situation. And so yeah, ostensibly the guy who works for the mayor is more powerful than the mayor and is running things. And so Caro makes the point. And he goes into a lot of detail about it, but we can skim. More money is being spent in the city than ever before to rebuild the city, but it’s not the city’s money. And so Moses has so much say in rebuilding the city–more say than the mayor does and more say than the voters do–all because he’s constructed this power organization that is beholden to no one elected figure who is supposed to have oversight over him.

ROMAN MARS: And this actually just gets worse because pretty soon he’s going to get all that toll money, too, to do the same thing. But right now he is just balancing all these different forces that he has his tentacles in. And he can just lean on one, get money from another, and circumvent another. And he just is this operator just taking advantage of the gaps between these different organizations and how they cannot work together.

ELLIOTT KALAN: Exactly. And the things that he saw as impossible to do before, like trading political favors to get support, he’s now totally fine with doing. And whereas before he used to tell people, “Go to hell if you want patronage,” now he’s like, “Does your kid need a summer job as a lifeguard? Well, give me your vote. He’s got that job.” He’s very happy to do that. And at this point, Moses–as we mentioned before–he has more in common with the Republicans in the state legislature than La Guardia, who is ostensibly the Republican mayor. La Guardia’s the original RINO. He’s basically a New Deal liberal who just happens to be a Republican. And he just has so much power. And the ultimate point of this that Caro is trying to make throughout the book is that, in theory, the purpose of a democracy is so that the people have ultimate control and ultimate say over how they are governed and how their municipalities exist–what’s built and what’s not built and things like that. And Moses has hacked the system in a way that takes him completely out of that accountability control. And is that the way that a city government or a state government or a federal government should be operating?

ROMAN MARS: No, sir.

ELLIOTT KALAN: No sir. Not at all. And yet?

ROMAN MARS: That’s the way it is.

ELLIOTT KALAN: The cracks are there. Yeah.

ROMAN MARS: Yeah, yeah. This is really it. His knowledge of all these different systems–it just allows him to exploit and wheedle his way through and strong arm in some places and acquiesce in others when it’s appropriate. He just is thinking around these people in ways that are just like the system wasn’t built to stop a Moses. He just has this ability to work around it. And he really does it because of the halo effect of the parks and then the halo effect of the integrity of local governance, I guess.

ELLIOTT KALAN: And that’s one of the things that’s so ironic about it. It’s like, “We’ve got to support Moses because supporting Moses means supporting the independence of the New York City government.” And then it’s like if there’s one guy who is doing an end run around the New York City government, it is Robert Moses. So many times, I feel like, throughout the book, in the public’s eye, he’s the champion of the exact thing that he is not doing or the exact danger that he has. And it’s just astounding. It’s like they put a card counter in charge of the casino, and he’s like, “Yeah, yeah, I’m just making sure nobody’s counting cards around here,” while he’s just keeping track of everything. And it’s astonishing. And he’s going to make greater and greater use of that as we go into the next chapter.

ROMAN MARS: Yes. The next chapter is Driving. We’ll get to that after this break. So we’re up to Chapter 24. It’s called Driving. It’s another chapter called Driving.

ELLIOTT KALAN: So one of the things that I’m always impressed by about this book is the structure. It’s a long book, and it’s structured in a way that is not straightforward chronology–which can be confusing sometimes–but is often thematically illuminating. And Caro is returning to themes and finding new layers to them or new meanings to the same words. And it’s a book that exists on a literary level in addition to existing on a historical nonfiction level. And so this is one of the driving chapters. “Changing” is a chapter title he likes to use. “Driving” is a chapter title he likes to use. For some reason, “The Curator of Cauliflowers” is a – title chapter.

ROMAN MARS: I would’ve used that one twice for sure.

ELLIOTT KALAN: The last line of the book should have been: “Now, truly, the curator had now been cauliflowered. The cauliflowers are curating him.” It would really drive it home–but missed opportunity. It’s a big book. You can’t hit ’em all. You’d think Moses is on top of the world, right? But no, he’s still gotta rush. He’s always gotta rush because the position he’s put himself in is that if he’s dependent on one thing at the moment before, as you’re saying, the Triborough Bridge is really bringing in a lot of money, he’s dependent on that federal money. And the federal government is not ultrareliable because whenever the economy looks like it’s getting a little better, the conservatives in Congress want to cut that federal money that’s being poured out. Every time the economy gets better, things get worse for Moses. In a very real sense, his success has an inverse relationship to the economic health of the entire United States of America. So he’s got to work fast. He can’t let anyone get in his way. And because he’s written his own laws that give him power, he’s not beholden to some laws. In other ones, he ignores them. He’s very big on submitting plans to be examined on the day that the construction starts or when things are almost finished. He starts employing what he calls his “bloodhounds,” who are digging up compromising personal information on reluctant officials that he can use to pressure them–just out and out blackmail. And if a civil servant resists him and there’s no blackmail material, he can use the press to smear them to make them seem like a hack who’s getting in the way. And that didn’t work against Governor Lehman because Governor Lehman is famous. Everybody knows who he is. But if you’re the deputy comptroller and the papers start talking about what a bad dude you are–what a troublemaker you are–no one knows anything about you. You’re going to have to resign because of that pressure.

ROMAN MARS: And the first level of this is just like, “Oh, these are just namby-pamby bureaucrats who can’t get anything done, and I get things done. And if we had to wait for this Board of Estimate to do something, we will never get anything done.” And that gets him pretty far. But then when that doesn’t work, it gets pretty ugly. And he’s a very, very early kind of McCarthyist when it comes to labeling people as communists.

ELLIOTT KALAN: Yep. Caro writes, “If Robert Moses was a pioneer in the fields of parks and highways, he was also a pioneer in McCarthyism 20 years before McCarthy.” This is the 1930s. And he was always already saying, “This guy doesn’t agree with me. He’s probably a red. This guy’s probably a radical. This guy’s a socialist.” And he already doesn’t like the idea of a classless society, so he’s using his own beliefs as a weapon in a mercenary way. And Caro tells the story of La Guardia’s law secretary Paul J. Kern, who was kind of building the kind of relationship with La Guardia that Moses had with Al Smith. Kern likes Moses, but when he tries to keep Moses from circumventing civil service hiring regulations–the kind of laws that Moses was the champion of in his younger days–Moses is like, “Nope!” And he is like, “La Guardia, Kern is saying bad things about you. This is really terrible.” He’s just lying to him about ’em. And then Kern says, “I’m going to start a system where workers are rewarded for reporting violations in the workplace.” And Moses goes to the press and says, “A Soviet style secret police. Well, I guess Kern the Communist is causing this.” And La Guardia, as a New Deal Republican, is so afraid of being accused of being a communist that he just fires Kern. And Caro notes that until Moses stopped as Parks Commissioner in 1960, no civil service commissioner ever interfered with his hiring practices again. It was just clear he’s so good at bullying people. Maybe if you’re powerful enough, you can push back on him. If you stand up to him, maybe he’ll back down a little bit and respect your strength. But otherwise he’ll just run all over you. He’s supposed to have a weekly luncheon of all the commissioners on the mayor’s administration, and Moses hates going to it. He sees it as a waste of time, so he always sends a potted plant in his place to sit at the lunches. The Commissioner’s so mad at him, but they’re afraid of doing anything about it. And Moses would say to the other commissioners, “You should designate one of your people as an official liaison to my department.” And then he would cultivate that worker and basically make them his mole in the other commission. So he’s just so good at–as you were saying before–outthinking people. He’s good at bullying them. And he’s got all those techniques that we’ve come to know and love so well. Stakedriving–when you start a project before you have permission. By the time they’re answering questions about it, it’s too late. It’s already started. Whipsawing. You go to the city, and you go, “Oh, the federal government said I would get this money, so why don’t you give me a little bit?” And then he goes to the federal government and says, “Oh, the city is going to give me this money, so why don’t you give me the rest of it?” He doesn’t have the money, but he’s telling both sides that he has it. Wedgedriving–you go, “Can I have a little bit of money? Okay, that’s all it’s going to take.” And then a year later: “I’m going to need more money. You have to give it to me now.” And deception–he just lies about things. If he’s told don’t do something, he starts doing it. He wants to build a marine park in Brooklyn. He goes, “I need $6 million. That’s the whole cost.” And then when that’s spent, he goes, “I need another $6 million. You going to let that last $6 million go to waste because you didn’t check that what I was telling you was true? Alright, if you want to tell this to the people of the city–that you got tricked by Moses again.” It’s such trickster rabbit type stuff. My favorite one is when he wants to build a stadium on Randall’s Island and he goes to the board of the city and he goes, “The WPA is going to pay for it. I don’t need any money from the city. Well, I need $250,000, but that’s all the money that the entire Triborough project is going to cost the city.” And then he comes back, and he goes, “I need $8 million. I didn’t mean the land for the approach roads to the bridge. You were foolish if, when I said the ‘whole project,’ you thought I meant everything in the project.” And if they push back on him, he is abusive–he’s verbally abusive in the way he was to crowds. And the crowds wouldn’t take it, but these individuals will in these smaller rooms, even though ostensibly they have more power than he does. But really he has more power than they do. He’s The Power Broker.

ROMAN MARS: Yeah. And this just becomes his source of power is that he does not care about people. He will destroy them. He’ll destroy these sort of somewhat nameless bureaucrats inside these organizations, but he really does not care about the humans inside of a city at all.

ELLIOTT KALAN: There’s an enormous strength in being able to rewrite the rules to your liking–but also in having the freedom to ignore the rules. Every now and then, it feels like someone comes along and people are like, “This guy is playing chess on a whole other level. He’s outthinking everybody.” And their secret is just that they’re being bad. They’re just refusing to play by the rules of the game. You can win at Monopoly if you’re allowed to rob the other players and just throw free hotels onto your properties. If you don’t play by the rules, it’s a lot easier to win the game. And that’s what he does.

ROMAN MARS: That’s right. And he’s also built up his sort of portfolio of accomplishments in these places like Long Island where there are fewer people to get angry. These places–mostly that land was empty land–it was owned by someone. Maybe there’s an occasional farmer that he destroys without any regard.

ELLIOTT KALAN: Just the occasional small farmer. The occasional wealthy baron that he has to accommodate slightly.

ROMAN MARS: But now he’s building all this stuff in densely populated New York City, where these things have a big effect on what’s going to happen in these people’s lives. And it’s just causing a bit of complication. And he’s like a startup or something. He needs to go at that same rate of increase that he’s just sort of required to go at. He notices the rules are changing and the easy land where he can grow has now been exploited to the extent that it can be. And now he has to work in these neighborhoods that are more complicated, where you cannot just lay down Jones Beach because nothing is there. Now there’s lots of stuff there.

ELLIOTT KALAN: The secret to success was finding unused land and taking advantage of it. And Caro talks a lot about this here that you can’t do that in New York City. You can’t. It’s a city. And he compares building on Long Island to painting on a blank canvas. And he compares building in New York City to painting in a mural that already exists. And he has this very beautiful section about kind of describing the mural and– I’ll read you just a little bit of that. He goes, “A mural whose brushstrokes were tiny and intricate and often, when one looked closely, quite wonderful, lending to the vast, urban, panorama, subtle shadings and delicate tints in an endless variety, so that if it was crowded and confused and ugly, it was also full of life and very human. So much so, in fact, that while the painting as a whole might lack beauty, order, balance, perspective, a unifying principle in an overall effect commensurate with its size, it nonetheless possessed many charming little touches and an overall vitality–a brio–that made it unique and should not be lost. I think that’s so beautiful–the idea of New York as this really messy piece of work. But the closer you get to it, the more you see the beautiful details in it and the things you don’t want to lose. But all Moses can see is the full canvas. And he’s like, “Well, let’s put a road here.” He just puts a huge thing of paint over people’s homes, lives, and neighborhoods. And comparing it to a startup is such a good parallel because often a startup will… Their whole point is they’re doing a new thing that hasn’t been done before. And maybe they have to move fast or maybe they have to kind of overreach because nobody’s done this thing before. And it feels like so many of those companies–when they get big–they’re like, “Well, the only way to grow now is to take over something that already exists,” or to take its customer base and then monetize that. And they stop being their customers and start being their product for larger companies. And it feels like Moses is doing pretty much that. He’s like, “The thing that I did here–I have to do it bigger. And I did it in theory. I built these parks for people to come and enjoy. Now, I have a place that’s full of people. And I’m going to build roads for the people who live outside of this community for their convenience to a great extent–and not for the people who ostensibly are my customers. They are now–if not a product exactly–an obstacle.” Well, you had a really great parallel, and I really messed it up. I really found out how to overcomplicate that much like a beautiful mural that maybe, in the aggregate, is messy. But there’s lots of little points that are still beautiful. And Caro talks about how in Long Island you can open up land to public development by running a road there. But in a city, if you open up land that hasn’t been fully developed before the city is prepared to provide the services that a city provides to a neighborhood, then it’s going to lead to a mess. And Caro bounces a little bit. He says that Moses’ drive–his drive to get things done–the very driving that is the title of this chapter and his ability to cut through red tape and to force things are not necessarily bad. And they’re not necessarily unneeded. A city needs to build big things. It needs to get them done. It needs to have someone whose ability to get them done is, if not unquestioned, at least a high level. It needs someone who’s able to make these things, but it needs to include humanity into those decisions. It needs to include an understanding of the smaller groups of people. And Moses either cannot think on that smaller, granular scale or just doesn’t care. The scale of a single neighborhood means nothing to a guy who is now used to building only enormous things.

ROMAN MARS: I think that’s right.

ELLIOTT KALAN: He could go to that neighborhood and say, “What do you need? What’s the best thing about this?” But he doesn’t want to do that. He doesn’t care. And he’s also so focused on the idea of active recreation because he’s an active guy–he likes to swim and do things–that the idea of peaceful conservation, a place for someone to sit, or a place for someone to be in the shade of a tree is uninteresting to him. He’s not interested in preserving things. He’s interested in building things. There’s a certain level at Moses’ character where he can’t point to a forest that he’s preserved and be like, “Look at that. Isn’t that an achievement? Because it’s not.” To him, he’s like, “I didn’t do that. I guess God built that. I want to build something. I’m going to put a stadium there. I’m going to put a band shell. I’m going to put something I could put my name on.”

ROMAN MARS: He’s really interested in building big things. And when you have this mural of intricate brushstrokes, little things matter. Each of those brushstrokes matter. And a tiny park that’s only two acres matters a lot to the people right near there. And it just does not matter to Moses. When Caro talks about a kind of planning genius that he witnessed where he holds his hand out and he gets a rolled up map and he rolls it out and he starts drawing on it, he sees big things really, really well. But he’s very, very blind to small things. And I think it’s because there’s something wrong with his soul.

ELLIOTT KALAN: I mean, I’m going to be a little bit nicer to him. I’m going to play devil’s advocate again. I’m going to say that it’s a sort of a… I think it’s called a “hedonic adaptation” or something, where the standard that was new and exciting before becomes normal to you now. I think as he’s been working on these larger and larger scale things, he just doesn’t connect with that stuff anymore. That’s normal to him. It’s normal to him to build a road that displaces thousands of people or to tear up buildings and not care about the people who are there because he’s just gotten so used to it. And there are all these choices that need to be made when it comes to a project and especially a public work. Who is it serving? How is it serving them? What needs need to be met? What needs can’t be met? If the nature of driving is different–if it’s not about leisure anymore and it’s about going from point A to point B–why should the best scenery be preserved for people in cars instead of people on foot? And what kind of park does a neighborhood need rather than what kind of park does Robert Moses feel like building? And all that stuff needs to be discussed. But Moses is not interested in discussing things. And where he used to kind of spar with his staff a little bit and let them challenge him slightly when it came to ideas and he would push them to do their best, now he just doesn’t care about other people’s opinions. He’s surrounded himself by yes men. Whatever RM says, that’s what it’s going to be. And Caro–in a very nice and a very subtle way–continues this metaphor or analogy… I don’t know. I’m not an English professor. This whatever it is of Moses as an artist by saying how Moses has cut himself off from new information and new ideas. His understanding of himself as the master builder stands between him and the world. And he could overcome this obstacle maybe if he was giving the work he was doing the kind of deep sustained thought that he used to when he was spending hours tromping through Long Island, tromping around the city, thinking of ideas, looking at real life, and thinking about how to fix it instead of just looking at maps. And he can’t do that anymore. He doesn’t have the time. He’s taken on so much work. He’s overloaded. He’s doing all the New York City parks. He’s doing the Long Island parks. He’s building the state parkways. He’s building his dam at Niagara. He’s added so much work that–Caro mentions this, but he doesn’t go into detail–he nearly has a nervous breakdown by the end of 1934. He’s so overworked, and he cannot give his attention to each of these projects. And so they’re starting to become banal. Instead of making individual decisions, he has a standardized form that just gets reused. And like a great artist who loses connection with the reality–with the real world–and only knows art, his work starts to become a repetition or a comment on itself rather than something that really relates to the lives and needs and emotions of people. And it’s something that happens to anyone who’s in a sort of creative field. And Moses is very much working in a creative way. It happens to anyone who only knows their own bubble and doesn’t really ever get out of it and see the outside world. And you see a lot in the way that moviemakers at a certain point start making movies that feel more like they’re about other movies. Or stand-up comedians will start doing jokes about ordinary life. And then if they get famous enough, all their routines become about being a famous person and what it’s like to be famous. Or it was pointed out to me once that if you read Stephen King’s books in order, the characters go from being kind of, like, bluecollar, ordinary people to being writers and then college professors, which to a certain point makes sense. You lose touch with that part of your history, and so you’re no longer inspired by it. I’m not saying this about Stephen King; he still comes out with great work. But Robert Moses’ work is less and less connected to reality and more and more just connected to his preset conceived notions about what a park is.

ROMAN MARS: That’s right. It hasn’t evolved much at all. He had some good ideas in the beginning, and he had the canvas to make it. He had the ingenuity to make it all happen. And now that’s not available. But his ideas have not modified or changed at all. The city has changed a lot, but he hasn’t changed. And therefore he’s not interested in solving these problems. He’s not interested in the details. He’s not interested in providing gaiety to people who arrive at these parks like he did when Jones Beach was being designed. He has the most power he’s ever had to get things done. And his disconnect with the job he’s doing is so much greater that it makes more of these just messy, thoughtless, and even cruel decisions.

ELLIOTT KALAN: And we’ll see in later chapters how he’s really destroying people’s lives through his construction of work. But there are even little things that Caro mentions here. He mentions how he uses the same design for parks in the city that he would use for parks in Long Island where people are going to drive to the parks rather than small parks and playgrounds. So he has steps where, in the city, if you’re a parent pushing your baby in a baby carriage or a stroller, you got to deal with all these steps. in a Long Island park, you drive your kid there in a car and you just take ’em out and carry ’em around or they walk. But in the city, you need to be pushing a carriage. It’s just a small instance of these parks are not being designed for the people who are actually using them because Moses is just repeating the same things he’s been doing over and over again. You hear it a lot with chefs, I guess, when they open a restaurant and they’re like, “Oh, it’s just the same slate of dishes they’ve been doing for years. Where’s the new ideas?” And part of that is also you can do more whimsical stuff outside of a city than you can in a city. And Caro talks about how the early Central Park playgrounds, when Moses was redoing Central Park, were much more whimsical. But it meant you had all these kind of hidden spaces for animals or perverts to do what they wanted to do with the space, which was not great, which was not what needed to be done. And Caro’s style throughout the section is a little repetitive–but I think in a way that’s purposeful–where he is giving you slight variations on kind of similar ideas about Moses’ limitations here, almost as if he is also laying down brushstroke after brushstroke and layers of paint to kind of build up this argument in your mind until, by the end of the chapter, you fully understand what he’s talking about. Rather than just stating it and then moving on, he’s really hammering it home. And the thing that he starts to hammer home here, which we’ll talk about in even more depth next episode, is that Moses is not just uninterested in individual neighborhoods and how individuals react. He’s particularly personally uninterested in a certain type of person. And that person is, for lack of a better word, poor. And that type of person is, for lack of a better word, Black or Puerto Rican. He’s making the point that there are all these opportunities to build these small parks in slum areas, in areas where people don’t have money, or in areas where it is a majority non-white population. And the Black population of the city has grown very quickly. In 1900, it’s 60,000 people. In 1940, right after the period we’re talking about now, it’s 458,000 people. And that part of the city’s population–those residents–are shut out of much of the mainstream of economic and recreational life. They do not have the things that the rest of the city is taking for granted now that Moses is sprinkling parks and playgrounds all over the place. And these are people who feel unwelcome in the parts of the city that now have parks and playgrounds. They need places to play. And we’re going to talk about this more in the next chapter because Caro brings it up in more detail. But Moses is not interested in providing those services to them and providing their children with places to play. And this means that the kids in those areas are forced to play in the streets–playing in places that are not safe for them or are dirty or dangerous. But it sends the message to that large part of the city’s population that the city does not care about them. And the reformers who are now kind of turning on Moses slightly–a little bit at a time–they see that Moses has effectively barred poor Black New Yorkers from his parks through their lack of public transportation going to them. And now he won’t even provide little parks in their neighborhoods for them. He’s just not interested in doing it. And Moses pushes back a little bit, and he says, “Well, they can always go to Randall’s Island or Riverside Park.” And he also says, “Eh, the smallest a park should be is three acres. It’s not really financial sense to make a park that’s smaller than three acres.” And the reformers are like, “But you could make one that’s smaller than three acres.”

ROMAN MARS: “We could do that. It would be nice.”

ELLIOTT KALAN: And also, because Moses doesn’t want bus service to Randall’s Island where he has these facilities that he says Black New Yorkers can go to, it means that to get there from Harlem or the South Bronx, where much of New York’s black population is centered, you have to walk anywhere from three quarters of a mile to two miles. And that’s an insane idea to say, “Yeah, they’ve got park facilities. They just have to walk two miles to get to them in one of the most crowded cities in the United States of America.” It’s not like it’s a pleasant walk for all that time. I mean, to be honest, I like walking through cities. So I mean, in some ways it’s a pleasant walk. But they’re not walking through the best areas probably.

ROMAN MARS: You don’t do it daily after school. You don’t walk two miles to get home.

ELLIOTT KALAN: Exactly. Or on a weekend when you’ve been working all week and your children want to go play, it’s hard to get up. You’ve gone places with children, Roman. You know you got to bring food with you–bring stuff for them to do.

ROMAN MARS: It’s like the storming of Normandy. It sucks.

ELLIOTT KALAN: Yeah, it’s the worst–bringing children anywhere. And the press will print the letters to the editor from these reformers about this stuff, but they’ll also print Moses’s rebuttals. And they won’t put their editorial support. And we are getting to this point now where Moses had the support of a lot of reformers because he was preserving all this woodland around the city. And they were like, “He’s doing it! Yeah!” And now they’re watching as he is cutting down that woodland. He’s chopping it down to replace it with ballfields and things like that. And they’re only starting to realize again… And this happens throughout the book, and it’s very frustrating. And I don’t know if it’s how it happened in real life or it’s the way Caro organized it. But the reformers are always like, “Wait a minute. He did this thing. Maybe he’s not so great. So he tore down the casino. That wasn’t so great. Now he’s cutting down these forests. Wait a minute, that’s not so great.” Later we’ll see him attack a genuinely historically important building and for no real reason. And they’re like, “Wait a minute, that’s not so great.” And Caro says here that no one was putting the pieces together–that this is an overarching ideology for Moses–because they’re still enthralled to his image, but also they’re only really paying attention to their local parks. They don’t see that the same thing is happening all over.

ROMAN MARS: And they probably have the same blindspots that he has. I mean, they’re probably not really aware of people that are different from them. And they see the good parts of him. And they don’t have to experience the bad parts of him because he’s not running a road through their house and he’s not putting up parks in their neighborhoods. They probably just don’t really connect with the suffering that he’s causing, even at this point.

ELLIOTT KALAN: Not yet. But look… “He put roads through the other neighborhoods, and I said nothing because it wasn’t my neighborhood. And then he tore down a park in this other neighborhood, and I didn’t say anything.” I really should have had the details for this thing before I said it. Anyway, “Eventually, he came for me.” That’s the end. “Eventually, he came from my neighborhood,” which does start to happen. And as we’ll see, the turning point doesn’t come until years later when he does start doing things in middle class neighborhoods that have kind of a louder, more powerful voice. But also one of their flaws is they have the classic flaw of all liberals. All liberals have this flaw. I have it. Roman, I don’t know you super well, but I’m sure you have it, too.

ROMAN MARS: I probably do.

ELLIOTT KALAN: This belief that if I just sat down and discussed this with him and just explained to him why this was not going to work, he would say, “Oh yeah, you’re right. I was wrong to do that. We will do it the other way. Let’s come to a compromise.” Whenever anyone’s like, “We need a national conversation on this,” as if a conversation has ever made anything better… It almost never does. But they’re like, “If we can just discuss this with him–if we can just get in there and talk to him about it–we’re sure we could show him the truth.” And that’s how Caro leads into the end of the chapter, which is chilling. He says, “But Moses no longer had to discuss. He had long had great dreams for the city, and now he had learned how to make dreams come true. He had learned the technique of stakedriving and of whipsawing. He had learned how to mislead and conceal and deceive–how to lie to men and bully them–how to ruin their reputations. And he used all these methods to bring the dream to reality.” Then there’s a little space, indent, indent, indent… “Or was it all for the dream?” And that’s how he ends that chapter. That’s how Chapter 24: Driving ends, and it is where this section ends. Was it for the dream or are there darker desires? Well, the next part, Part Five, is entitled The Love of Power. So that’s a little spoiler.

ROMAN MARS: I think that tells you what it’s about. We’ll cover the Love of Power on the next episode. That’s only two chapters. It’s pages 499 to 606, Chapters 25 and 26.

ELLIOTT KALAN: You may be wondering how only two chapters can be a longer section of the book than the one we covered in this episode. One of them is a very long chapter. It’s only two chapters, but it feels like a Robert Moses type thing to be like, “It’s only two chapters. By the way, one of those chapters is 75 pages long. I didn’t tell you that.” But they’re very good chapters. I’m very, very excited for the next episode.

ROMAN MARS: Coming up, our conversation with investigative journalist Brandy Zadrozny. Our Power Broker Book Club guest for this week is Brandy Zadrozny.

BRANDY ZADROZNY: I am a reporter for NBC News. I cover misinformation, disinformation, extremism, the internet platforms, politics, people– It sort of runs the gambit.

ROMAN MARS: BrandY mostly works on longer investigative pieces, where her research background as a reference librarian comes in handy. One of her recent stories is about how a farright sheriff’s group is urging local law enforcement agencies to investigate baseless claims of voter fraud. She also hosted this great podcast called Tiffany Dover Is Dead* about a nurse in Tennessee who passed out on live television after receiving the COVID vaccine in December of 2020 and then became the center of an anti-vax conspiracy. It’s really compelling stuff and infuriating and compelling at the same time. Somehow Brandy also found time to read The Power Broker.

BRANDY ZADROZNY: What struck me about this book from the beginning was I knew who Robert Caro was. I had never read his books, but I had known a little bit about his story. And so the very first thing is just he’s realizing a dream for so many of us. The idea of turning every page is a real luxury. And so I think he started this series because he was a reporter on Long Island. He was doing a story on some piece of infrastructure, and then he thought, “Wow, that’s really strange. How did this guy amass all this power?” And we have a million questions like that when doing any story, but you never really get the time to keep going. You’re sort of onto the next story or onto the next beat of that story, and no one has the time to turn every page. So the fact that he said, “I’m going to,” and did the thing for however many years it took him to do that. It’s just so aspirational. And then when you get in it from the very beginning, you’re like, “He’s going to do this thing. There is nothing left. And it’s just great.”

ELLIOTT KALAN: You’re saying you would love to come to your editor and say, “I have this story. It’s amazing,” and they say, “How long is it going to take for you to work on the story?” and you say, “Seven years,” and for them to say, “Yes, go for it.”

ROMAN MARS: And then you go and talk to your spouse, and you say, “Okay, we’re going to sell the house, and we’re going to get real poor for a time period. And then it’s going to pay off because a bunch of nerds are going to about it 50 years later.”

BRANDY ZADROZNY: Well, my conversation with my editor is always like, “How many words do you think this is going to be, Brandy?” And I’m like, “10,000.” She’s like, “Try five.” And then you get into a place where you’re like, “Ha ha! I snuck six. And that’s a big win.” I can’t even imagine being able to do that. And also the details that I think are so interesting about these stories are often cut by my editor who’s like, “Superfluous! Boring!” And it’s like, “But that’s what the fun thing is. That’s really interesting.” And interesting, doesn’t always make it into the final cut.

ROMAN MARS: I mean, a lot of what Robert Caro is doing–I don’t know if he just intuited this or this is the writer he is–is about building a gestalt through lots of information, so that it sort of fills in your foundation. And then what he’s making is this really bold case, which is changing the mind of a bunch of people who think this man is a saint for decades of his professional existence.

BRANDY ZADROZNY: Well, narratives are really strong, and people don’t read. I mean, I say that with the heavy sigh because I will write some revelatory piece on someone that really pulls the mask off who they are. And then the next day, they’re sitting in front of a house judiciary committee. And I’m like, “Don’t you know who this is? I told you!” So I can only imagine someone with sort of the heft and a reputation that Moses had–just that not getting through until this thing happened.

ROMAN MARS: So when you investigate things, I mean, I suppose–since you cover stuff sort of in the modern era of misinformation and lots of online things–your archive is the world of the internet and then talking to people and stuff like this. How did it strike you when you picture Robert Caro in these basements on Randall’s Island and things like this? Does this make you feel envious, or does it make you just admire it? What is your take on it?

BRANDY ZADROZNY: I was actually thinking about this last night as I was trying to remind myself of what happened in the chapters that y’all are going to discuss. And I just started looking through the New York Times TimesMachine because they have all their archives up. And so I was looking at, in the ’30s, what were the letters to the editor and all this stuff. And I was just literally thinking, “Oh, he must have been in a library for this. He must have been in the stacks. That’s so interesting.” I did a pretty clean sweep in a couple hours before bed, and that’s really great that we have the opportunity to do that. But so much is lost because we think everything is online. There are a lot of things that if you just walk down to the courthouse– I was doing a story on Trump in 2016 and walked down to the New York courthouse–the New York City courthouse–and got a large portion of his divorce records, which we weren’t supposed to get. But because it was a real person and there were real papers, we got a bunch of things. And I remember for that story specifically, a friend at a different outlet wanted to go down to the courthouse, but they wouldn’t let her leave her desk. And it was like, “Oh, you can still get so much by using those sort of old school reporting techniques and going to the place and trying to get the things.”

ROMAN MARS: Yeah, I think that’s really true. That’s so much fun to think about, and that’s what I love. I mean, just the excitement of that hunt is so enjoyable, especially when it takes place in a physical location when you’re opening up files and stuff like that. I just love archive research so much.

BRANDY ZADROZNY: Yeah, the scariest part of a story is not having one. And once you have a story that you’re like, “This is a story that I’m working on,” and you can just dig and dig and dig and dig and dig–that’s all the fun stuff. Needing a story and then actually writing the story–that’s what terrifies me. The rest is the best part.

ELLIOTT KALAN: That’s what Caro told us. Caro told us basically that if he could get away with just doing all the research and not writing the book–he’d be very happy if he could just do the research all the time.

BRANDY ZADROZNY: Yeah. I had an editor who refused to let me talk to him about my work when I’d be like, “Oh my gosh.” He’s like, “Nope,” because once you say it–once you communicate it–then you won’t get it out. You won’t write the thing. And they were right.

ROMAN MARS: So, in this episode, we talk about a lot how Moses has great success using the press to get what he wants. And the one of the main things that he does is he just puts out press releases or he has lots of familiarity with a lot of press people. And his story becomes the story. I’m curious about this. When you talk or you report on how a mainstream media outlet reports a thing–how a “citizen journalist,” in quotes, reports a thing–what does it strike you about that time period and how information is spread and how the press is used in these ways?

BRANDY ZADROZNY: I think it still works that way for the most part. I mean, when you go to a website or when you open the paper, you’re mostly reading commodity news. You’re mostly reading the kind of news that you get anywhere because a thing has happened. “There is an unveiling.” “There is a crime.” And the police have told the police beat reporter about that crime. You get into this rhythm as a reporter where you’re like, “This is my beat. These are the sources for my beat, and here’s how I report that out day to day.” And especially if you’re in a paper, if you’re broadcasting where you have to have something every single day–you have to fill that space–then you rely on these people that you know are good for factual stories that people like and your editors like. And so I don’t think that that has changed much. There are still bazillions of publicists who make their living on getting a story to a reporter who takes that press release and writes it up and makes it a story. So that’s not very different at all. What’s funny about this book and what is leading, I think, to your question, is that it feels very today–all of it. The way that he manipulates the press with these events, with leaking to them, with befriending them and bringing them to nice events, with the way the New York Times operates–all of this feels very of the moment.

ROMAN MARS: And he used it to such great effect. I mean, Moses in this moment has just spectacularly lost running for governor–just is completely on his ass. And FDR concocts this Order 129 to do this sort of final blow and take him out. And Moses leaks that to the press and it totally revives his career, which sets up the entire rest of the book. I mean, it really is, like, his resurrection that makes him stronger than ever. And that comes about because the press just take Moses’ side of this at face value.

ELLIOTT KALAN: Moses seems to have discovered that newspapers need material. They need things to print. And so if he can provide that in the form of press releases or leaked documents or “We’re opening a park” or “We’re opening a pool,” then they’re not going to say, “Eh, let’s double check this before we actually put it in the newspaper.”

BRANDY ZADROZNY: Well, we love a leak. We love a leak, we love a whistleblower, and that’s just human nature because that makes a good story. Like, “Ooh, this is secret. This is secret information that I’m giving you that nobody knows about. That is what we live for.” And so that makes sense. I think the other part of it is sort of human nature, and I try to think about this all the time about my just human biases and narrative and the way that when sources approach me because my sources are not all good guys. I have sources who are literal white supremacists, who are not people that I’d want to have tea with, but who have given me information that is true and helps me explain this world that we live in right now. But the point of that is that when someone comes to you with a narrative, it might be like when my child comes to me and says that my other child hit them. Then now I’m investigating “My child hit me.” And that’s the narrative that has been started. “Roosevelt hit me.” “Okay, that is what I understand the facts to be.” And so I might go–as they did–to Roosevelt’s team and say, “why did you do this?” But then they’re on the defensive, and I’ve already set up that narrative. That is the narrative that I’ve established–and that is very, very powerful. It’s hard to come back from that, which is why, again, he’s so good on offense and less so on defense.

ROMAN MARS: So I’ve been checking out your work. and I love your podcast. Tiffany Dover Is Dead*. A lot of the time it makes me really angry because I have this just complete disdain for conspiracy theorists. And then I started thinking about this book, The Power Broker. And if you take a 30,000 foot view of this–you squint really hard–it kind of has the vague shape of a conspiracy theory. Instead of infrastructure being done by committee and through goodwill and trying to make the world a better place, this is 1,300 pages of Robert Caro convincing you that there’s this man behind it all–Robert Moses–and this man has evil intent and he did bad things. And this feels like it’s a conspiracy theory, and it kind of blew my mind. So I’ve been thinking about what makes the difference between an investigative piece that reveals something–sinister intent by a small group of people–versus conspiracy theories that are completely out the airlock and completely crazy and just trying to reconcile that and how you reconcile that in your work.

BRANDY ZADROZNY: Well, no, I’ve been thinking about that. The deep state is real, and it is Robert Moses. He is the man who, by his great machinations and money and power, is literally choosing what children get sunlight and what children don’t–who gets access to the water and who doesn’t. It’s stuff that rings very true in conspiracy land, and conspiracy theories are great because conspiracies are real and conspiracies happen, especially at the local government. But what’s interesting about this is that the truth is that real conspiracies operate like this–in sort of banal ways, in paperpushing, in behind-the-scenes meetings, and through the New York Times. And it takes however many pages… Several hundred? Over a thousand? I listened to the audiobook. 60+ hours of pages to explain, in fact, how this conspiracy worked because it’s boring. It’s not like one secret meeting at a CDC in Georgia, which determined that everybody’s going to get autism.

ELLIOTT KALAN: Well, and also that the ends are banal. The ends are “I don’t want poor people to be able to take the bus to these communities on Long Island, and so I’m going to do everything I can to block that,” as opposed to the fun conspiracies where helicopters are going to round us up and make us slaves to it’s transdimensional reptiles and things like that. Those are the fun conspiracies. And this feels like the real conspiracies are harder maybe to get people to see because they’re not as exciting.

BRANDY ZADROZNY: Ones that are rooted in things like institutional racism and rich people not liking poor people and not thinking they are deserving of the same things. It’s stuff like that that’s like, “That’s the real thing. You want something to be mad about? Go be mad about that–not your fake Guantanamo Bay stuff.”

ROMAN MARS: It doesn’t strike me that these conspiracies of Robert Moses and the Moses men are all that hidden. And they’re not really about a conspiracy of action and deed. They’re kind of a conspiracy of shared values. They all agree on a thing. They tacitly or explicitly express those things and create the world that they see fit. But it’s not like they’re secretly doing a whole lot. You know what I mean? Because when Robert Caro goes and talks to him and talks about the bridges and when you investigate it today, you go, “How did you know that Robert Moses really did make the bridges shorter?” And he was like, “His assistant told me.”

BRANDY ZADROZNY: Yeah. I mean, how easy would it have been for a reporter to go into some of the communities that were being raised to build these new expressways or to clear these slums and go talk to those people? That was a story in plain sight. That was thousands and thousands of people being displaced–communities being destroyed–over and over and over again. So why weren’t those stories bigger than the man Robert Moses? Why didn’t those stories get more play? It’s because, I would venture to say, those people were not cared about in the same way. They were not valorized. They weren’t important in the same way that Robert Moses was.

ROMAN MARS: And the reporters were more like Robert Moses than they were the people.

BRANDY ZADROZNY: Yeah, they were all the same people. They hung out at lunch. I mean, the owner of the New York Times loved him so very, very much. I’ve been trying to think a lot about corollaries–and just selfishly and maybe because living aspirationally through Robert Caro’s work. But I’m like, “Who is the Robert Moses of our time? Who is the person who is doing the things that we should be looking at right now that we’re all missing?” I haven’t thought about it, but listeners can please contact me.

ELLIOTT KALAN: It’s kind of one of those things where if we knew about it, it wouldn’t necessarily be the same thing because he was so good at presenting a different version of himself than was actually taking action. You need some kind of amazing whistleblower leaker that can meet you in a parking garage somewhere, I guess, and give you the information. Although something I like so much about the book is that Robert Caro is consistently not dramatizing his own investigation or his own research. There’s not a lot of, like, “And then I did something that was really exciting.” At most, he’ll say, as he does in this episode, “Well, when I talked to this guy in his house, he told me this,” or, “I went to this guy’s office, and this is what he said.” He’s not creating the suspense around himself during the story.

BRANDY ZADROZNY: No, I wasn’t even aware–maybe because I missed it–while I was listening that he had actually spoken with Moses. He had gotten the Moses interview. And at the end I was sort of like, “Wait, what? Oh, okay.” Which is bold and the best choice.

ROMAN MARS: It’s a very old school choice. I mean, it’s not the current sort of fashion for sure. If I were to do this story, it would be all about how amazing it was that I did this story–that I did this for seven years. That would be the opening line.

BRANDY ZADROZNY: “Can you believe what I did?”

ROMAN MARS: Exactly.

BRANDY ZADROZNY: Yeah. I appreciated it as I appreciate something old that I read. I see it–but at the same time, you see those little… He does it in his own way. There is a quiet bragging that goes on here where he is talking about the forming of Long Island and–even at the beginning–where it is like, “Okay, you know all the roads. You’ve done it. I get it.” So it’s different. And I sort of like the narrator. I like knowing a little bit about the narrator who’s leading me through something. I appreciate the modernization of that a little bit. I think what it felt like to me–and I think this is true, regardless of the little flair that he would insert about himself as the author–is it’s another sort of brick in the house that shows me that he cares about story and about the factual tale of this person more than anything.

ROMAN MARS: What I also love about Caro is… And I think this is the next thing I want to talk to him about when I talk to him. What made him so empathic in regards to the people that… He really feels the destruction of Moses. He’s going into it with that in mind, and I find that very fascinating. And I wonder, when you think about your work, what tunes you into wanting to tell the story of who the victim is in a certain story and where your sensitivities lie and who you are fighting for or fighting to tell the story of? I think Robert Caro has a real old school liberal just, like… He wants to take care of these people. He wants to make sure that their story is told. There’s just something noble and interesting about that that I like. He doesn’t really go out and say it, but I can just feel it.

BRANDY ZADROZNY: This is going to seem disjointed, but I swear I have a point. So I will often say that I fall in love with every person that I interview. And I will go to an interview with, you know, “bad guys,” conspiracy theorists, and just not always the nicest people. But every time I talk to someone, I feel like I’m nodding along with them like, “Oh, that makes sense why you would be doing this thing.” Most people, I think, are sincere in their wants and in their beliefs. Moses probably was where he thought he was doing what was ultimately best for the city. And so I think people are typically sincere, and I believe them each time we talk. And then I believe sort of everyone. And then I will go home, and I will say, “I’ve talked to everyone I need to, I have all the documents I need to, and now I’m going to write this story.” And then after the story is written and is published, although none of the facts in it surprised anyone, the people that I speak to will call me back and say, “I’m not so happy with the way that this came out. I felt like you really understood where I was coming from and my point of view, but then you were too kind to this other group.” And so I will joke that, at the end of a story, if everybody’s a little mad at me, then I’ve probably done a good job. But I do feel there is a certain group or a certain type of source that you do feel like, “I am the only way this person is going to get this story out. Nobody seems to care about this group of people–about autistic kids and their mothers who are being fed misinformation or being scammed in this way.” And so you feel an affinity for people whose voices aren’t being heard. And there’s so much power in the press. We have so much power to elevate certain voices, and those are always a choice. It’s always a choice who we choose to elevate and how we tell this narrative. And there’s a lot of responsibility that comes with that. And I got that very much–that feeling–from Caro as well.

ROMAN MARS: Yeah. I also have that issue when I interview people. I mean, I don’t talk to quite the extremists you do, so I don’t know what that situation is like.

BRANDY ZADROZNY: You talk to a lot of people with extreme views about architecture.

ROMAN MARS: Exactly. But I’m always like, “Yeah, okay.” And then I have to go back and assess it. When you take all that stuff in and then you recalibrate to form this narrative, how do you adjust that? How do you pull yourself back from the emotional sort of seduction of their passion and turn the dials to make it into what you’re presenting as the truth?

BRANDY ZADROZNY: I mean, it’s probably some sort of emotional disability or something. I don’t know if it’s a good thing, but I remember what’s in front of my face, or I emotionally connect with what’s in front of my face right at that moment. And then when I leave–even walking to my car–I’m like, “Wait a minute, that guy was full of bologna. That’s not true. I don’t believe that. Why was I nodding along?” Sometimes I’ll actually have a post-it if I’m doing a phone interview that says, “Stop nodding along or stop smiling,” because you want to connect. So much of this is about connection, but ultimately the responsibility when you get home is to say, “What is real? What is the truth? And how can I accurately reflect that in a piece of writing or a video or whatever it is that we’re doing?”

ELLIOTT KALAN: I wonder if you see that in the book also. I feel like I see it a little bit where you can tell–sometimes when Caro is talking about Moses or implying the times that he saw Moses–that he does find him very impressive and that he is falling under the spell a little bit. And maybe it’s only the knowledge of the people that he’s met whose lives were affected by him that pulls him back from. He talked to us about having the same experience that you had where Moses is showing him, through the windows, Long Island. He is saying, “Don’t you believe there should be a road right there?” And he’s like, “Uh-huh. Uh-huh.” And then he’s leaving, and he’s like, “Wait a minute. That’s not a good place for a road.” And I wonder if it is only that ability to hold onto that compassion for the people he is talked to–who he does believe have been wronged–that helps him to pull back. Do you ever feel like that where you have to make the choice of who is worth maintaining that sympathy towards in your writing?

BRANDY ZADROZNY: And usually the ones that deserve that remain, right? You get home, and you’re like, “oh, I still feel this way.” But people are intoxicating. People with power are incredibly intoxicating. And so you get drawn up in that orbit. And I appreciated the building of him only if it was that much further for him to fall. But I appreciated all the physical descriptions of him swimming across the ocean. And I’m like his booming voice; I’m like, “This is a guy. He has got it.” And so I imagine when you’re in his presence, you would feel that way, too. Again, I feel that way all the time. I am a girl from Florida, Georgia.

ELLIOTT KALAN: Two different states in one place. Yeah.

BRANDY ZADROZNY: I know. It’s amazing. But I’m not a New York City elite despite what the folks who read my work sometimes would have you believe. So I’m constantly impressed by people and things. I went to visit this very fancy lawyer once, and he invited me into his office across from Lincoln Center. And he went in, and the whole building was–floor to ceiling–marble and gold. And I was just like, “This is so fancy.” And I said that. And he’s like, “Don’t say that.” “Oh, okay… I will not.” So I try to temper some of my bumpkin tendencies, but generally I am impressed by so much. And thank God that we have that time so much to go home and recalibrate and say, “Wait a minute, you do not have to be in this person’s spell.” I think the thing is that there are folks in my profession who never get that moment or never take that moment to say, “Pause… Who am I serving with my journalism? Am I writing about the right thing? Am I writing this the right way? Am I questioning power, or am I helping prop it up?”

ROMAN MARS: So you cover a conspiracy theory and a lot of that is to illuminate this world that is happening to people like me who don’t buy into those conspiracy theories. But I get a sense of some of your work that you are trying to present the world as it is or as you report it to those believers to just kind of maybe move them off of their comfortable spot a little bit. And what are the methods to change people’s minds when it comes to sort of moving them off things that they really believe in their soul?

BRANDY ZADROZNY: I don’t know how to change people’s minds. I think I know how to write and report for people who may wander or may dip a toe into a specific conspiracy theory. Everybody believes a conspiracy theory. My favorite conversation at parties–which I don’t go to very much anymore–but is to ask, “What conspiracy theory do you believe in?” And I’ve yet, I think, to meet one person who doesn’t believe something that is probably not true. Lots of people believe that your cell phone is giving you ear cancer. Lots of people believe the Kennedy assassination–probably the most people. I’ve met some very reasonable people whose children play with my children who believe that we did not land on the moon. I just think that there’s a lot of folks out there. How you change someone’s mind if they already believe something–I think that’s almost impossible. What I do think works–and this is only anecdotal, so maybe there’ll be some research on it somewhere, but I don’t know of it–is reporting on the people behind a conspiracy theory, so either the people who are profiting from that conspiracy theory, the people who have created the conspiracy theory… So you get an idea of– If I just tell people that vaccines aren’t causing autism, they can’t believe that. If I report on research that shows vaccines don’t cause autism, they don’t believe that. But if I report on a man named Del Bigtree who lives in Austin, Texas, and he makes an exorbitant amount of money off of this anti-vax rhetoric–spreading this lie–and here’s what he buys with that, here’s the house that he lives in with his wife, here are the stories about this person who goes and travels all over the country to weaken vaccine laws, and here is him wearing a Star of David, trying to liken himself to Jews during the Holocaust… Here are all the things that can make you look at this man and say, “I don’t believe him.” So that’s something that I’ve found that, I think, seems to be impactful.

ELLIOTT KALAN: It’s almost like you are vaccinating someone against that conspiracy theory with another conspiracy that is kind of a dead conspiracy. It’s not as damaging. You’re like, “There isn’t some big conspiracy by the medical organization–whoever they are–to lie to you. It’s a conspiracy by this guy and other people who are making money off of these lies.” Maybe that’s effective because people are like, “Now I have a new thing to not like!”

BRANDY ZADROZNY: It’s not a conspiracy, it’s a plan.

ROMAN MARS: That’s right. I mean, it’s a kind of Occam’s razor approach to why do you have to have these Byzantine turns of who profits and who does this and why do this when the simplest motive of a single man getting rich off of lying is a pretty good one to believe? And that’s a foundational text in our history as humans.

BRANDY ZADROZNY: Really easy story to find as a journalist–the single dude getting rich off of a bunch of people who believe a lie.

ROMAN MARS: Yeah, that is interesting. And when I think about what Caro is doing here to change people’s minds about this man, I’m trying to think of where his interests lie and what the best story is or whatever. A lot of people who I know think about this book as the tale of urbanism and how cities are made. I really do think Caro… I mean, there’s a reason why it’s called The Power Broker and not The City Builder or something like that. I think he’s really fascinated by the same kind of personal story and using that personal story of a person who has this sort of rapacious desire for power. And he kind of uses that to unseat him as this holy saint of the builder of things versus necessarily… He definitely talks about the merits and the lack of merits of the things that he built, but the foundation running through it is kind of that same foundation that you talk about when you talk about your anti-vax guy. Moses didn’t get rich, but Moses got rich with power and he’s making a statement that this very base need of this man is the driving force for all of this stuff. And he definitely talks about all the things that he built, but it seems like there’s a parallel in that in a way of constructing a story to change people’s minds around the idea of the man and not just refuting it idea by idea. That’s kind of fascinating. I think it’s similar.

BRANDY ZADROZNY: I totally believe that people only care about stories about people. Everything else is just sort of boring. A “Hey, Martha” story is a “Oh my gosh, this guy did this thing! Can you believe it?” You need a character. And without it, I think it’s very, very difficult, which is why I sort of give the journalists at the time a little bit of a break because it was hard to tell the story of Robert Moses at the time. How does an investigative journalist–? What documents can prop up an idea of this guy has too much power or is power hungry or power mad, and that’s driving it? That’s a very hard story to tell. You need 1,200 pages, and so it is just really difficult.

ELLIOTT KALAN: And you have to imagine… I wonder, as someone who’s a working journalist, if you see it this way too. Caro has the benefit of talking to these people many years after the events have happened. And so there’s no longer the same danger necessarily. And he did have trouble getting close to Moses’ circle for a while, but people don’t need to worry quite as much about their livelihoods being ruined–their name being dragged through the press. And some of them might even be eager to now tell the things that they did back then in the shadows to get the credit for them or to share them. When you’re interviewing people, do you ever wish, “I wish I could talk to you in the future when you’ll be more eager to share this stuff with me because it won’t be as much of a live issue”?

BRANDY ZADROZNY: We say in the biz–which is a phrase I’ve never said before–but we say often, “You want to be first or last.” Either you’re first to a score and it’s a scoop and it’s exclusive and that’s how you make it. Or you’re with a pack of other reporters often, trying to all tell the same story and reaching out to the same sources. And even if it is exclusive, you’re right. In the moment, people are very hesitant to talk to you, especially in this moment where people distrust the press and the mainstream media is a dirty word for 50% of the population. It’s really, really hard to do this job. I will say, in the podcast that I did, it was an utter failure. I was trying to reach this person who did not want to talk to media, and she didn’t. I couldn’t talk to her. And not until a year after our podcast ended did she reach back out to me, and she said, “Now I’m ready to talk.” And that happens all the time. People who I’m working with on a story… I do this thing with my subjects because some of them are vulnerable–conspiracy theorists or people who’ve been wrapped up in something like that–where I read them, like, the Miranda Rights and say, “This is the story that I’ve got now, and let’s talk about the worst thing that might happen to you if I publish this story. What are some things that you’re afraid of?” And sometimes at the end of this long talk, they say, “Maybe jobs won’t want to hire me. Maybe my wife will get mad at me. Maybe the police will come and want to arrest me.” There are lots of things that might come from this. “Do you still want to go?” And several people have told me, “Actually, nevermind.” I’ve had whole stories ready to go, and people will say, “I changed my mind.” But sometimes… For example, I did this story about this man who was at the Capitol on January 6th, and he told me his whole story and what brought him there. And he said, “No.” And then a year later, he said, “You know what? I’m ready now.” And so we went ahead and published, and that’s their story. That’s their right. But I think that, like you said, if you had the time to just get people to know you… I’m sure there were examples where Caro went to someone and they said no and then he just kept on reporting and kept on reporting and then they came back to him and said, “Actually, I’ll talk to you,” or he kept at it and kept on their doorstep and they said, “Okay, come on in,” or whatever it is. But yeah, time is such a luxury. I can’t imagine what you could do with it.

ELLIOTT KALAN: Yeah, he really was able to go back multiple times to try people. And I mean, the ultimate version of that, as anyone who read the Lyndon Johnson books knows, is he goes, “Well, I guess I’m going to have to live in the neighborhood that these people live in for three years and just let them know me as a neighbor before I can even ask them any questions as a reporter.”

BRANDY ZADROZNY: I saw the documentary and I was just like, “This is insane.”

ROMAN MARS: It’s pretty amazing. And one of the things I love about the different volumes of the LBJ books is by the time the second LBJ book comes out, the first one has already been out. And so he’s talking to them, and they’ll reference the fact that they read the first book. And surprisingly, it makes them more likely to talk to him, I think. I don’t know why, but it just seems to. And it’s incredibly fascinating.

BRANDY ZADROZNY: But that is true. When I’ll publish a story that’s sort of a beat story and then reach out again and say, “I just wanted to let you know I published this story,” it makes people understand that you care about the story, even if they don’t necessarily agree with where you’re coming from or everything that you’ve written. It gives them a chance to see that you’re invested and it matters in a way that you’re not a fly by night reporter parachuting into somewhere and going to mess up the story–that you care. And then everybody wants to tell their story. Everybody wants to talk and talk about their point of view and their lives, especially as you get a little older. You probably want these things down for the record.

ROMAN MARS: So when you report on things, you report on extremists and people who come back at you–or maybe not the people you actually report on but their allies in some way. What is that like–to be under threat from people who do not like what you say in your stories?

BRANDY ZADROZNY: I have a very thin skin. I’m very sensitive. I cry all the time. The Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee–just a couple of weeks ago, I did this story on the weaponization of social media and this bullshit subcommittee led by Jim Jordan. I’m not allowed to say “bullshit.” I’m sorry.

ELLIOTT KALAN: It’s okay. This is a freewheeling podcast. Hi. If the word is used in the book, we can use it on the podcast. So I think we’re okay.

BRANDY ZADROZNY: So I reported on this committee, and Jim Jordan’s flack reached out to me and was just irate. “How could you? You’re a joke.” And so they did this huge tweet thread about me and how awful I am. And it will not surprise you to learn that lots of people got very angry at me about that. So generally it feels bad. And that’s sort of one of the nicest responses that I’ve had. I’ve had Tucker Carlson segments on about me about how I’m the, quote, “face of the fascist left” and things of that. It’s very weird and nonsensical and not based in fact. So I can’t explain it any further than that. But it breeds a lot of hatred and animosity. And I am–much like Robert Caro–just a simple person. No, but I’m a normal person. I have kids. I have a husband who doesn’t go on the internet and doesn’t understand what I do, which is great. I highly recommend doing that. But it’s hard. It’s really sad. I think it’s really important to have a life outside of this kind of reporting so that when I close my laptop and I’m with my children or with my neighbors on my street who think I’m great, it doesn’t feel like I live in this world where bullshit artists and people who make money lying about other people can get to me.

ROMAN MARS: I mean, there’s a story that Robert Carroll tells of doing his archive research, and this is about the time where it’s starting to get out that he’s going to write a very critical book of Robert Moses. For a long time, people don’t really know what his take is going to be. But Robert Moses cottons onto it, and he figures it out. And so these people who allied with Moses take away the light bulbs in the basement archives so that he can’t do his work. And so he just brings a light bulb instead. And I am so anti-confrontational that I’d be like, “Okay, that’s it. I’m going to be out because someone’s going to beat me up in the dark.” So what makes you keep going into this fray when there’s so much nastiness coming back at you from people who disagree with you?

BRANDY ZADROZNY: Okay, you say that, but I don’t ever send things back in restaurants. I hate to complain. I don’t want anyone to think I’m a mean person if I say, “I’m allergic to shellfish. I might die. Please take it back.” I’ll just sit there quietly and deal with it. when I get home. I’ll just eat a PB&J and I’ll be like, “I’ll just take it. It was delicious. I’m just not hungry anymore. Thank you.” I think a lot about “judge a man by his enemies.” When you have a story that’s shining a light on vulnerable people or people who are being harmed or people that just don’t have a chance to tell their story, and there are people with power trying to get you to stop that, that is very electric in this way that I feel a lot like, “How dare you?” And it is energizing, and it is a spiritual, beautiful, beautiful thing. And even if you don’t think that you like to be antagonistic, there is that moment where I really like it. And I get a little high when I’m about to call someone who doesn’t want to talk to me and this is the moment when they’re going to. There’s something very, very fun about that. If they’re taking the lightbulbs away from you, you’re doing something right. That’s great. “Thank you so much for making sure that I knew that my work has been appreciated and I’m on the right track and time to keep going.” The worst thing is if you’re just ignored, right? If nobody cares about what you’re doing, then that probably shows that you don’t have a very good story.

ELLIOTT KALAN: Brandy, before you were a reporter, you were a reference librarian, correct?

BRANDY ZADROZNY: True. True fact.

ELLIOTT KALAN: And I come from a line of librarians. My mom’s a reference librarian. My grandmother’s a librarian. My wife’s a librarian, and she went to the same school you went to get her MLS. And so I really wanted to ask you… We’ve heard from the investigative reporter side of you about Robert Caro’s methods, but what about from the reference librarian side of you? How he goes about finding information–what he does–how do you feel about that as a reference librarian?

BRANDY ZADROZNY: Oh my God, it makes me teary a little bit. Caro is the person who we all sort of dream about coming down into the dusty stacks with this big idea. And as a reference librarian, you become a partner in that search. It’s not just, “I’m looking for this exact book.” It doesn’t work like that, right? You say, “I’m looking for all of these things.” And then research librarians really research on their own, and then they bring you, “Maybe you’ll like this. Maybe this will help.” And it becomes this sort of partnership. So I absolutely love that. And I thought a lot about it when we were talking earlier about going down into the dusty stacks or whatever it is. And I spent so much time pouring over special collections at NYPL and doing that work. And there’s something just so visceral and important and romantic about flipping through these pages and looking through these old boxes and the moments where you find a letter that’s been sitting in a filing cabinet for 40 years and that moment of aha that we don’t get so much in this world. And librarians are such an important part of that process. So going through all of these things and imagining sort of the librarians along the way–I have thought about that often.

ELLIOTT KALAN: It’s something I wonder… My mother–when she gets a question from somebody to research–she really goes all out, and she gets very excited about it and then tells me about all the things she found. And there’s often a point where she is more interested in it at a certain point than the person who asked her the question in the beginning. She’s got the information they were looking for, but she has all this more information that she wants to give them, and they don’t really need it. And I wonder if maybe Robert Caro is the dream client because he comes in and the librarians could say, “And we found this,” and he would be like, “Yeah! Yeah, bring me everything. Anything that I can look at, I would look at it.” I know my mother yearns for people to come like that to the library.

BRANDY ZADROZNY: I know. He did a talk at, I think, the New York Historical Society or something. And I was like, “Oh, I want to talk to the librarians at the New York Historical Society, and I want that story.” Yeah, I’m sure it was kind of a magical time.

ROMAN MARS: So one of the reasons why we got in touch and we wanted to talk to you is when you tweeted this thing that I would love to interrogate, which is “I just finished reading The Power Broker, and the central theme is that men are huge babies.” Can you unpack that for me? What were you thinking about when you wrote that?

BRANDY ZADROZNY: So I was thinking about every single time Robert Moses threatened to resign, I imagined myself leaving my body and going back in time and somehow being in the bodies of these men and just being like, “Cool. Out the door.” He’s not anything. I mean, he is, but he’s actually not, right? “The world would be fine without you. This office would be fine without you. The swim team was fine without you, and we will survive. Get to going.” And I know it got more complicated as he amassed more power and more responsibilities and job titles later on. But even then… Like, quitting a job–you feel like, “Oh, I could never do it. This is what I do forever.” And then you quit, and you’re like, “Oh… I could just do that the whole time?” But yeah, I couldn’t believe that he was able to offer his resignation so many times and that nobody took him up on it. Oh, it just irked me so much. It drives me crazy. What a big baby. I mean, I’ve been around men like this–and I’m sorry, it’s always men–who do this sort of thing. And I’m just like, “Get away. Grow up.”

ROMAN MARS: I think that’s my experience of when my passions are lit up the most in the book is every one of those resignations because you just wish you could go back in time and just take over the body of Fiorella La Guardia.

BRANDY ZADROZNY: And these are, like, mayors! “You’re the mayor! You’re the governor! You run a city! Come on! Find it!”

ELLIOTT KALAN: Well, especially–in this episode too–it always strikes me that Moses is a huge baby but also that Roosevelt has so much going on with him. And he’s still like, “Got to get rid of Moses. I cannot miss this opportunity to take him out.” And it’s like, “You should be on a higher level at this point. You’re the president of the United States. Why do you care so much?”

BRANDY ZADROZNY: “Try to fix the depression.’

ELLIOTT KALAN: “Yeah, the depression is going on. It looks like there’s going to be a war in Europe. You could forget about this guy you used to not like who’s in charge of the parks in the New York area.” But he can’t do it.

BRANDY ZADROZNY: My God, you can never underestimate people’s ability to be petty. It’s amazing.

ROMAN MARS: Well, this is great. It’s been so much fun talking with you, Brandy. I really appreciate you coming on and being part of the book club.

BRANDY ZADROZNY: Oh my God, it’s my absolute pleasure. I will be with y’all for the remaining episodes. And thank you so much.

ELLIOTT KALAN: Thank you for joining us on this month’s episode of the 99% Invisible Breakdown of The Power Broker. Next month, we’ll be back with Part Five: The Love of Power. We’re covering Chapters 25 and 26 next month. That’s pages 499 through 606 in my book. And hey, look, if you’re tired of learning things and just want to hear a bunch of nonsense, why not check out my other podcast, The Flop House? I promise you will learn nothing. And if you want to read about an ancient Greek hero having adventures, why not try my new Hercules comic book series from Dynamite–even less related to what we’re talking about today than The Flop House is.

ROMAN MARS: There is a lot of great discussion going on on our Discord. To join in, the link is on our website or go to And if for some reason you’re just joining us for these Power Broker Breakdowns and not listening to the regular show, 99% Invisible, I really urge you to check it out. One of our producers, Lasha Madan went to India and filed this amazing story called Towers of Silence that I just want everyone in the world to check out. So if you don’t listen to all the different 99% Invisible episodes already, take some time, and listen to one or two of ’em now. And I think you’ll like it.

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

ROMAN MARS: 99% Invisible’s executive producer is Kathy Tu. Our senior editor is Delaney Hall. Kurt Kohlstedt is the digital director. The rest of the team includes Sarah Baik, Chris Berube, Jayson De Leon, Emmet FitzGerald, Gabriella Gladney, Martín Gonzalez, Christopher Johnson, Vivian Le, Lasha Madan, Jeyca Maldonado-Medina, Kelly Prime, Joe Rosenberg, Neena Pathak, and me, Roman Mars. The 99% Invisible logo was created by Stefan Lawrence. The art for this series was created by Aaron Nestor. We are part of the Stitcher and SiriusXM podcast family, now record six blocks north in the Pandora Building… in beautiful… uptown… Oakland, California. You can find the show on the usual social media sites as well as our own Discord server, where we talk about The Power Broker, architecture, movies, music, all kinds of good stuff. It’s where I’m hanging out the most these days. You can find a link to the Discord server as well as every past episode of 99PI at Sometimes when I interview people and they’re southern, my southern accent comes out just to build some affinity. Do you ever do that?

BRANDY ZADROZNY: Okay. Do I have a southern accent? Yes, I do. Have I maybe whipped it out a little sooner than it would’ve naturally come? Potentially. Possibly. Perhaps. Would I do it again? Absolutely.

ELLIOTT KALAN: And I bet when Robert Caro is going to Texas to get a Lyndon Johnson story, it’s going to take three years because his accent is unhideable. There’s no mistaking that accent for exactly where he’s from.

BRANDY ZADROZNY: I know. Although we would find it endearing. That would be a thing that you’re sort of known for that we would enjoy. Bless his heart.

ROMAN MARS: Yeah, exactly. Bless his heart indeed.

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