On Reading “The Power Broker,” Part 7

The Loss of Power

Readers who have lasted through 40 chapters and 960 pages are, at this point, looking for some sign that Moses’ reign of terror over New York might be coming to a close.

Chapter 41, “Rumors and the Report of Rumors,” brings a sliver of hope. Though publishers for the New York newspapers still admired — worshipped — Moses, young, crusading reporters were beginning to look into rumors that the slum clearance projects, going on throughout New York City under Moses’ guidance, were being given to developers as favors. Poor people were being run out of their homes. Rich people were making money from it. Could reporters make the case to the people of New York?

Caro ends the chapter: “Before the people would be willing to look at Moses’ programs straight on, they would have to look at Moses straight on, and before the public could do that, there would have to be an issue that would show him so clearly for what he was that there could be no mistake” (983).

And what an issue it was! In Chapter 42, “Tavern in the Town,” Caro showed that Moses finally picked on people who could fight back. He wanted to build a parking lot for Tavern on the Green by paving over a park glen used by well-off and well-connected mothers who lived along Central Park.

Caro shows Moses’ hubris at work: He had just evicted hundreds of mothers for the Cross Bronx Expressway. He was displacing five thousand mothers for Manhattantown. He was removing four thousand more for Lincoln Center. Why would he worry about a few dozen mothers around Central Park?

Moses had done incalculable damage across New York despite the protests of hundreds of thousands. Now less than 50 mothers were offering protests again the paving of a park. Moses scoffed. At 1:30 a.m., Moses sent workers to begin the removal of the park. Mothers came out to try to stop the demolition but were forbidden.

Caro reports what happened next: “And the media went wild” (994).

Stories and photos of mothers in tears were on the front page of all newspapers. Moses was being portrayed as a sneak, as an insensitive, power-mad bureaucrat — finally, in Caro’s estimation.

Moses’ power had been supported by the public perception that he did not care for power, that he wanted to increase parkland, that he cared for the people of New York. Ripping apart a park to put in a parking lot for a rich restaurant finally broke through that perception. “The city had finally gotten a good look at the man behind the legend” (1003). His reputation was never to be the same.

The revelation that the most powerful man in New York City might actually be corruptible intrigued the city’s young reporters. In Chapter 43, “Late Arrival,” the reporters — late arrivals — finally start digging. There is much to find.

The first scoop in the World-Telegram and Sun investigated Title I slum clearance and showed that Moses “had turned over a billion-dollar program to shady politicians” (1006–07). Caro writes, “Moses’ name may still not have been in headlines about the failures, but at least — at last — it was in print” (1007).

And as often happens in journalism, the first drip leads to a deluge. Idealists, malcontents, those ruined by Moses — all sensed that he might now be at least vulnerable. Reporters were contacted with tips, documents, stories, horrors. But Moses’ powers were still formidable and the reporters’ newspapers — especially the powerful New York Times — were solidly behind Moses.

For almost two years, reporters Gene Gleason and Fred Cook worked on stories about Moses for the World-Telegram, stories that would have brought censure to any other city official. William Haddad of the New York Post joined the fray.

And Caro, as often does, ends the chapter with a cliffhanger. The reporters, he writes, were aided when Moses became involved with a second issue about Central Park. “And if it did not have mothers and baby carriages, it had something almost as good. W. Shakespeare” (1025).

In the Second Battle of Central Park, the subject of Chapter 44, “Mustache and the Bard,” Moses is thrust into the middle of a 1957 controversy surrounding then-young Joseph Papp, who was holding free Shakespeare plays in the park (with Moses’ blessings), and Park officer Stuart Constable (with a prominent mustache).

Constable was sure Papp was a Communist and at the first chance worked to close down the productions. A Moses’ commandment was always to support his subordinates. Moses turned a cold shoulder to Papp. He was on the wrong side again.

Papp took his story to the press and Moses, in his usual response, attacked viciously and tried to smear Papp as a Communist. It did not work. Like the first battle of Central Park, “the second leapt onto the front pages,” Mayor Robert Wagner was shown to be powerless and Moses’ name was sullied again (1033).

Papp eventually won a court appeal — that Moses allowed to stand. He had not wanted this fight. And it was costly. Some of the public and much of the press now began to see Moses as a villain.

Chapter 45, “Off to the Fair,” begins with Moses making a tactical error. After intense questioning by reporters, he angrily agreed to make the Title I files public. Most of the voluminous files were innocuous but one almost overlooked letter led slum clearance funds to organized crime. The story set off a torrent of other stories by other newspapers. And the august New York Times, for the first time, had to get involved.

Moses attacked them all, appealing to publishers, including Arthur Hays Sulzberger of the Times. But the stories could not be stopped. For 35 years, Moses had succeeded with the image of an incorruptible, apolitical, selfless official. Now the power and privilege were coming to light.

The press and public still did not understand that Moses was still all-powerful. No one could fire him. But Moses needed an exit. And one arose: New York’s World Fair. It appealed to him on a number of levels. The presidency of the World Fair would be a well-paid position. And Moses needed money to pay for his wife’s hospitalization, his daughter’s cancer treatments and his granddaughter’s schooling.

Moses would have to give up some power for this new power. He could not hold city jobs connected to Title I and this paid job. But he retained his Park powers and could leave the Title I headaches behind. And the Fair would give him access to creating new park lands. He left the city jobs in triumph for the new position. The triumph would not be long lasting.

Moses had a new adversary, spelled out by the title of Chapter 46, “Nelson” — Rockefeller, a member of one of the richest families on earth, Governor of New York and presidential hopeful. Unlike some rich people who are unfamiliar with power, Caro says, Rockefeller “knew exactly what to do with it” (1068). And, like Moses, Rockefeller had vision and liked to build things.

Two arrogant men, used to power, used to getting their own way — conflict was unavoidable: “there wasn’t enough room in one state for a Robert Moses and a Nelson Rockefeller both clicking on all six” (1071).

Things came to a head in 1962. Moses had to ask for extensions to keep working past age 65 — he was in his 70s. These were usually pro-forma requests. But Rockefeller wanted his brother, Laurance, to take over the State Council of Parks while allowing Moses to continue in his other positions. Moses angrily refused and, in his usual negotiation, threatened to resign. Believing he would never be allowed to resign, Moses put the threat to resign in writing. Rockefeller accepted it.

“At one stroke, he had cost himself five jobs — five on top of the four city jobs he had lost two years before” (1078). He was still had of the Triborough Bride and Tunnel Authority and World’s Fair. But he had lost the parks — and much of his power. There was no public outcry — “hardly anyone had really cared” (1079). “Now one Governor had fire Bob Moses. And nothing had happened” (1080).

In Chapter 47, “The Great Fair,” Moses tries to use the World’s Fair to achieve another dream — a successful Fair could lead to a huge new park — 50% larger than Central Park — on Flushing Meadows, perhaps the ultimate “Robert Moses Park.” But focusing on the future park and not the Fair itself, Moses missed many important details. He simply was not that interested in the Fair. With disastrous results.

His arrogance and indifference antagonized European nations. He set up rules that led many nations to decide not to establish pavilions. Publicity was built up around Moses — not the Fair — and the public did not respond.

When the Fair opened, daily attendance figures were dismal. Moses’ plans for the park were built around riches coming from the Fair. And the Fair was losing money.

The press questioned Moses. And Moses attacked the press. And the press attacked Moses. And Fair attendance continued to plummet. For the first time, Moses began to look old to outsiders.

“Absolute disaster,” Caro notes, “ was staved off by the last three weeks” (1112). Outside of reporting on Moses, the press did remind the public that the Fair was closing. And the public decided that they and their children should see it despite all the controversy. The Fair ended with a small surplus.

Moses did not use the funds to repay the city or banks. He did not have nearly enough for the large park he had planned. He instead built a small park around the Fair’s Unisphere “to remind future generations of Robert Moses’ World’s Fair” (1113).

The chapter ends on a strange note. In the months after the Fair and its controversy, Moses’ wife died in September 1966. “Less than a month later, her husband, seventy-seven, married Mary Grady, forty-nine” (1116).

In Chapter 48, “Old Lion, Young Mayor,” Caro shows that Moses’ two posts as Authority chairman and city highways representative still provided him with the power and prestige he craved. The young mayor, John Lindsay, had plans to fix the city’s transit authority by merging it with the Triborough authority. He thought Moses’ power was diminished enough for him to do so. He thought Moses, 77, “was beaten” (1120). He was wrong.

Lindsay’s proposals did not have a chance. He was able to remove Moses as highway representative but the Triborough chairmanship position was more than enough to bring down Lindsay’s plans. And Moses committed the Triborough’s surplus funds not to mass transit but to building more highways and supporting current highways.

Caro though ends with another cliff hanger. “Someone much smarter than the Mayor” — Governor Nelson Rockefeller — now was moving against Moses “to remove him, once and for all, from the last of the power he had held for forty years” (1131).

Rockefeller had his own vision for New York City and state, which included mass transit. Though almost every transit system in the state was in decline and in debt, the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority, with its daily influx of tolls, continued to have a huge surplus. “Rocky” wanted it.

Chapter 49, “The Last Stand,” shows how he went about getting it. Moses and Triborough were kept in power by bond covenants — the financial commitments and foundation of the Authority that allowed it to function. Breaking the covenants, such as using Triborough funds for things non-Triborough, such as mass transit, could result in a ruinous lawsuit. That prospect had protected Moses from numerous mayors and governors.

But not from Rockefeller. The trustee of the covenants was Chase Manhattan Bank. And Chase Manhattan Bank was controlled by — the Rockefeller family.

Moses was diminished. He once held a dozen city and state posts. But he had math on his side. Rockefeller’s transportation plans would put the city and state in huge debt. He could have forced Chase Manhattan Bank to go against a Rockefeller. He still had the power and prestige to resist. But he didn’t. Moses returned from a vacation and had a “180-degree change of heart” (1137).

For Moses, there could only have been one reason. Caro writes: “the Governor had bought Moses’ support with the only coin in which Moses was interested — power” (1138).

From all indications, Caro writes, Moses had been promised a seat on the MTA — the Metropolitan Transit Authority — and possibly even the presidency (as opposed to the chairmanship) of Triborough.

Throughout 1967 and 1968, Moses worked with Rockefeller to pass the MTA referendum. If he had fought the merger of the Triborough into the new MTA, he would have won, according to the experts Carol consulted. But Moses did not fight.

David Rockefeller, head of Chase Manhattan Bank, sat down with Nelson Rockefeller, governor of New York, and sealed the agreement.

“Rockefeller’s promise to Moses had served its purpose well,” Caro writes. “It had kept Moses quiet for almost a year” (1141). “And now, having used his name, having gotten everything out of him that he could, the Governor threw him away” (1141).

Rather than a presidency, Rockefeller offered Moses a consultancy. It was shocking. And humiliating. And Moses had to accept.

Why had he staked all on the Governor’s word? Caro suggests that Moses felt he did not have much left to fight the Rockefeller family. And that Moses could not imagine he would not be wanted. But he was not.and the chapter ends with something close to tragedy and pathos. “After forty-four years of power, the power was gone at last” (1144).

Chapter 50, “Old,” is one of the few times that the reader approaches sympathy for Moses. At 79 years old, he was still vital, powerful, energetic, keenly intelligent, brimming with ideas — with nothing to do. Said a friend, “It’s horrible. For him, that would be hell” (1145).

For one of the few times in the book, Caro enters the picture. He details a visit he paid to Moses in April 1968, less than two months after the chairman had become a consultant. He saw, he writes, a “dramatic change” in Moses. “The eyes are definitely more rheumy today. He seems somehow just more shrunken, too” (1146). At one point, Moses offered a sigh, almost a moan, a “sound of discouragement and something close to despair” (1146).

Years passed. The one project that Moses had been promised, the Long Island Sound Crossing from Long Island to Westchester, never materialized. He realized that the Governor and his men “were just waiting for him to grow old and die or go quietly away somewhere” (1147).

He began to plead with men whom he once ruled with an iron fist. People began to pity him and feel sorry for him — a horrible humiliation for one so proud. His reputation began to be chipped away. Officials spoke disparagingly of “The Moses Approach — bulldozing people and buildings to get things accomplished.

His personal life provided pain as well. “Robert Moses, preoccupied with immortality, had no sons” (1160). He had two daughter and three grandsons. One of the grandsons, named after him, was “mentally retarded,” Caro writes in the language of the time (1160). Another was of no interest to Moses. The third, Moses’ favorite, was killed in a car accident.

“Still he lived on — year after year, vital ad alert, imaginative and energetic,” with nothing to do (1161).

The book ends on a strange and somber note. In a speech, Moses decried the ingratitude of the public toward great men. In the audience, people nodded their heads. “Couldn’t people see what he had done? Why weren’t they grateful?” (1162).

The answer to those last words is contained in the previous 1161 pages.

I closed the book with questions that I pursue in another essay. And I took strange comfort knowing that Moses had lived long enough to read the book, the subject of still another essay.

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