The Power Broker by Robert Caro: Summary & Notes

Front cover of The Power Broker by Robert A. Caro.

In short

The Power Broker is one of the most detailed, best researched (and longest!) biographies I’ve ever read. It’s no surprise it won a Pulitzer price, that it’s often listen as one of the best books of the 20th century, and why it continues to be popular with politicians (even Barack Obama says the book shaped his thinking on politics).

The book chronicles the life of Robert Moses, who was known as the “master builder” of New York for close to 40 years. To Moses the accumulation of power was always the end goal, and the way to accumulate power was to build infrastructure. Elected officials, who wanted to show results to the voters, relied heavily on him to get things done – and this he did.

But as the saying goes: all power corrupts, and this is certainly true in the case of Moses. For most of his life his public image was pristine and he could count on popular support, but behind the facade the true face of power was shown: favors, bribing, intimidation and blackmail were all part of the ‘getting things done’ strategy.

The Power Broker is a massive book at 1,336 pages, but if you want to get a better understanding of politics, city building, power, and corruption this book is surpassed by none.

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Book Summary & Notes

All text between quotation marks is taken directly from the book.

“The whole life of Robert Moses, in fact, has been a drama of the interplay of power and personality.” In the beginning he was idealistic, even wanting to dedicate his life to public service. But idealism got him nowhere and after years of fighting for genuine public improvements, he was left with nothing at age 30. For the rest of his life he understood that “ideas – dreams – were useless without the power to transform them into reality.” For the rest of his life Moses would be amassing power.

Moses could for the majority of his career (right up to the very end) count on favorable public opinion and support. The public accepted his legend as a doer, as an incorruptible public servant, as fact. All the records of his public authorities were sealed so there was no way they could look into them anyway. But as is clear, he was not as prudent, efficient and economical as the public thought him to be. He spent massive amounts on wasteful things that got him power (e.g. loans never to be repaid), and made himself a political boss by oiling the political machine with money.

“In the beginning – and for decades of his career – the power Robert Moses amassed was the servant of his dreams, amassed for their sake, so that his gigantic city-shaping visions could become reality. But power is not an instrument that its possessor can use with impunity. It is a drug that creates in the user a need for larger and larger dosages. And Moses was a user.”

Little by little he started seeking power for its own sake, and not to accomplish things. Projects were not means to an end, but just a vehicle to obtain ever more power.

In the beginning of his career, after his initial failures to bring about change and when the result of his work was close to nothing, he started to realize that idealism is not all. To accomplish things you need to take into account the self-interest of others, greed, and of course understand the need of power. “Science, knowledge, logic and brilliance might be useful tools but they didn’t build highways or civil service systems. Power built highways and civil service systems. Power was what dreams needed, not power in the hand of the dreamer himself necessarily but power put behind the dreamer’s dream by the man who it to put there, power that he termed “executive support”

“Dreams – visions of public works on a noble scale – had been marching through Bob Moses’ mind in almost continuous procession for a decade and more. Not one of them had marched out of his mind into reality.
               But during that decade, Bob Moses had learned what was needed to make dreams become realities. He had learned the lesson of power.
               And now he grabbed power with both hands.
               To free his hands for the grab, he shook impatiently from the last crumbs of the principles with which he had entered public service and for which, during the years of his idealism, he had fought so hard.”

Robert Moses: “If the end doesn’t justify the means, what does?”

After winning his first ‘fights’ he started to develop a method that was based around action. As soon as the first stake was in the ground, nobody would make him pull it out again – that would have been a waste of public funds. By doing this he avoided bureaucrats and judges trying to stop his work. He also learned the value of public opinion: as long as he portrayed himself as fighting for ‘parks’ and ‘recreation’, the public was on his side.

The corruption of power: “For once Bob Moses came into possession of power, it began to perform its harsh alchemy on his character, altering its contours, eating away at some traits, allowing others to enlarge.”

He always had a lot of energy to get things done, but as soon as he was in power, he stopped all distractions. No more ceremonial dinners, no more hobbies, no more Sundays with the family, working in the car, dictating to secretaries whenever available. He disciplined his life to focus exclusively on the work.

Moses worked at a table, not a desk. The reason was that he did not like to have problems pile up, and since a table doesn’t have drawers, there was no place to hide things, no escape from difficult questions or problems. The only way to get rid of them was getting it done.

Since Moses had reputation of a man who could get things done, politicians (no matter what they thought of him) would rally behind him. With an election looming every 2/4 years they needed someone that could make things happen – things that could be sold to the public showing the politician’s accomplishments.

Moses ran for governor but it was a complete disaster. Normally he was very adept at public relations, but every time he spoke he completely antagonized the public. Whereas normally he was on the public’s good side (getting things done, working towards an end), now his personality shone through and people got a look at the man behind the deeds.

Judge Jacob Lutsky, advisors to many mayors in NY: “You’ve got to understand – every morning when a mayor comes to work, there are a hundred problems that must be solved. And a lot of them are so big and complex that they just don’t seem susceptible to solution. And when he asks guys for solutions, what happens? Most of them can’t give him any. And those that do come up with solutions, the solutions are unrealistic or impractical – or just plain stupid. And those that do make sense – there’s no money to finance them. But you give a problem to Moses and overnight he’s back in front of you – with a solution, all worked out down to the last detail, drafts of speeches you can give to explain it to the public, drafts of press releases for the newspapers, drafts of the state laws you’ll need to get passed, advice as to who should introduce the bills in the Legislature and what committees they should go to, drafts of any City Council and Board of Estimate resolutions you’ll need; if there are constitutional questions involved, a list of the relevant precedents – and a complete method of financing it all spelled out. He had solutions shown no one else had solutions. A mayor needs a Robert Moses.”

It took many years but in the end he took control of all water crossings in New York. Even though his aim was political power, he understood that power could never rest on political elements. Rather it rests on economic ones. And now he controlled all bridges and tunnels and with that a massive amount of economic power.

Anecdote about Al Smith: “Strolling through a law school library one day, the Governor noticed a student poring intently over his books. “There,” he said with a smile, “is a young man studying how to take a bribe and call it a fee.”

Some details on Moses “bribery.” He didn’t hand out gifts to the voters, and neither necessarily to elected officials. Rather, he always went to the top, to the leaders, to the man who controlled those who had been voted into office. And using the wealth of his public authorities he bankrolled many people.

Moses collected files on all important people he had to deal with. These contained past ‘favors’ he had made, which were usually incriminating (this is why mayor Wagner never wanted a favor from Moses). Of course even if someone didn’t accept a favor, this was not a guarantee that there wasn’t some file on him. He had people digging up dirt and sniffing around to find evidence on everyone.

Moses brought together many different groups – bankers, unions, presidents, but the unifying element was that they all profited from Moses and so it was in their best interest for him to succeed. When someone was blocking him, they would suddenly receive dozens of phone calls from very influential people. Few people could resist this pressure.

To Moses other people were judged by the value and power they gave him. That meant that he especially liked the bumbling mayor Impellitteri. In an interview Robert Caro conducted, Impellitteri reminiscences about his time with Moses, but even though they were so friendly, he hadn’t seen him in a long time after leaving the office.

A big source of power for Moses was that in his long career he developed people in all his enterprises. People who would get promoted, find different jobs, and slowly get into positions in power as well. Of course these people would never forget what Moses did for them.

Moses was often writing for money or to get his views in print. This was mostly commissioned articles, but he also managed to write a “trashy piece of pulp” that no one wanted to publish when he submitted it under a pseudonym. The amazing thing is that he wrote this novel while having 8 full-time executive jobs.

Hospitality could be a political weapon as well (sometimes, in fact, this was much more effective than a bribe). And he used to generously organize events – but only if you were on his good side. If a reporter ever wrote something negatively on him, then that person would never be invited ever again. Another tactic he might use was to organize luncheons: he filled the table with his aides, and there would be only one guest invited. This made it difficult to argue against Moses’ opinions .

Raymond Maley: “from the pyramids of Egypt, the rebuilding of Rome after Nero’s fire, to the creation of the great medieval cathedrals…all great public works have been somehow associated with autocratic power.”

“When Robert Moses came to power in New York in 1934, the city’s mass transportation system was probably the best in the world. When he left power in 1968, it was quite possibly the worst.”

“The Incorruptible, Uncorrupting, Apolitical, Utterly Selfless Public Servant Moses had been a synthetic character, largely puffed up by the press. That character had endured for thirty-five years. But in 1959 the process of deflation by the press – a process that had been going on intermittently for several years – had begun in earnest. In that process there had been a large amount of unfairness. But that process had in the end arrived at the truth. At the beginning of 1959, the Moses image had stood in most of its glory, intact except for a few small chips. At the end of 1959, it lay in unsalvageable ruins. Popularity, Al Smith had warned him, was a slender reed. Now the reed was broken.”

“I bet on money – not just any kind of money but old money,” one veteran New York politician says. “New money buys things; old money calls notes.”

In the end, as was inevitable, Moses lost his power after his methods slowly started to be exposed by journalists. This meant that his public image was not pristine anymore, providing more opportunities for his opponents to oust him. “Things he had once enjoyed doing were less and less solace to him now. For no matter what he did, he could not get away from himself. To this man who had consecrated his life to Getting Things Done, to the getting and exercising of power, hell was the continued urgent, desperate, insatiable need for accomplishment and power – combined with the inability to satisfy even a little part of that need.”

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