Robert Caro: Working
A titan shares his quirks in a short book — as if a reprieve from the work on his monumental 5th volume on LBJ
I’ve opened Robert Caro’s Power Broker standing in the basement floor of a Barnes and Noble store in NYC not far from Central Station — and took note of the book being recommended by a number of political dignitatirs — Barack Obama including.
Reeling and reminiscing on the order of power structures as they permeate through public and private domains that are covered by good writers of solid tomes, missing Power Broker was a painful experience (I simply could not take it and add it to my hand luggage) so I’ve compromised on Working when it was published a year later. It is a decent read about an author fascinated by the nature of power and so passionately researching its pillars and its carriers.
Power is not seen until it’s shown and when it does, sparks are flying, creating a halo around those wielding it. Power carriers are metaphysicians too, transforming financial prowess, shrewd network building or cunning negotiation ability into political that is the absolute summit for most.
It also impacts lives of those shunning it or not wanting it. It formed landscapes, shapes monuments and elevates people standing on them: a telling story is about a Robert F. Kennedy bridge (formerly known as Triborough) that comes across the East River in Queens opposite 100th Street.
So why do you have to drive all the way up from 100th Street to 125th Street to cross it, and then basically drive back, which adds almost three totally unnecessary miles to every journey across the bridge?
The reason the bridge entrance is at 125th street is because, when it was planned by Robert Moses, that was the location of a condemned building block owned by newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst who sponsored the bridge project that originally lacked enough support.
He shaped the city physically not only by what he built but by what he destroyed. To build his expressways, he evicted from their homes 250,000 persons, in the process ripping out the centers of a score of neighborhoods, many of them friendly, vibrant communities that had made the city a home to its people. To build his non- highway public works, he evicted perhaps 250,000 more; a 1954 City Planning Commission study of just seven years of Robert Moses’ eviction policy was to call it “an enforced population displacement completely unlike any previous population movement in the City’s history
Another story of Moses planning and politicking was when a parkway route was planned in 1926.
In 1926, Moses accepted a bribe from multimillionaire Otto Kahn to change the Parkway route so that it wouldn’t run through his golf course. Although Moses changed the route by 3 miles for Kahn, he wouldn’t change it at all for the poor farmers whose farms and livelihoods were ruined by the Parkway.
When it was uncovered, another wealthy tenant threatened governor Rosevelt that this would become known unless the route also spares his mansion in Old Westbury and Dix Hills. It did not spared farmers, some of who got their fields cut disproportionately, so that they could neither use the land, nor sell it — so some of them went broke.
The books is a great appetizer for the Power Broker (approaching 1000 pages, it will take some time to get over it) but having it is already an asset, since it tells boldly of great powers and great responsibility that often fails to arrive. It tells of personal cost amid what can now be seen as public good. It tells of compromises one deals with itself and the consequence that comes from making them. It shows people as they are, not how they are told of in legends and myths.