The Power Broker

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The Power Broker
The Power Broker book cover.jpg
The Power Broker has used this cover art continuously since its original publication
Author Robert Caro
Country United States
Language English
Subject Robert Moses
Genre biography
Publisher Knopf
Publication date
Media type Hardback, Paperback
Pages 1,336
ISBN 0-394-72024-5
OCLC 1631862
974.7/04/0924 B
LC Class NA9085.M68 C37 1975

The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York is a Pulitzer Prize-winning 1974 biography of Robert Moses by Robert Caro. The book focuses on the creation and use of power in local and state politics, as witnessed through Moses' use of unelected positions to design and implement dozens of highways and bridges, sometimes at great cost to the communities he nominally served. It has been repeatedly named one of the best biographies of the 20th century, and has been highly influential on city planners and politicians throughout the United States.


As a reporter for Newsday in the early 1960s, Caro covered the preparations for the 1964 World's Fair and learned that everything involved ultimately came down to Moses.[citation needed] Later, he wrote a long series about why a proposed bridge across Long Island Sound from Rye to Oyster Bay, championed by Robert Moses, would have been inadvisable, requiring piers so large it would disrupt tidal flows in the sound, among other problems. Caro believed that his work had influenced even the state's powerful governor Nelson Rockefeller to reconsider the idea, until he saw the state's Assembly vote overwhelmingly to pass a preliminary measure for the bridge.[1]

"That was one of the transformational moments of my life," Caro said years later. It led him to think about Moses for the first time. "I got in the car and drove home to Long Island, and I kept thinking to myself: 'Everything you've been doing is baloney. You've been writing under the belief that power in a democracy comes from the ballot box. But here's a guy who has never been elected to anything, who has enough power to turn the entire state around, and you don't have the slightest idea how he got it.'"[1]

In 1966, his wife Ina Caro changed the topic of her graduate thesis to write about the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, while Caro was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University taking courses in urban planning and land use. He found that academics' notions of highway planning contrasted with what he had seen as a reporter. "Here were these mathematical formulas about traffic density and population density and so on," he recalled, "and all of a sudden I said to myself: 'This is completely wrong. This isn't why highways get built. Highways get built because Robert Moses wants them built there. If you don't find out and explain to people where Robert Moses gets his power, then everything else you do is going to be dishonest.'"[1]

He found that despite Moses' illustrious career, no biography had been written, save the highly propagandistic Builder for Democracy in 1952.[2] So he decided to undertake the task himself, beginning the seven-year process of hundreds of interviews meticulously documented as well as extensive original archival research, listed in the notes on sources in an appendix.

Originally, he had expected it to take nine months to research and write the book. As that time stretched into years, he ran out of money and despaired of ever finishing it. Ina, his wife and research assistant, sold the family home on Long Island and moved the Caros to an apartment in the Bronx where she had taken a teaching job, so that her husband could continue.[1]

Moses "did his best to try to keep this book from being written—as he had done, successfully, with so many previous, stillborn, biographies."[3] After Mr. Caro had been working on the book for more than a year, Moses agreed to sit for a series of seven interviews, one lasting from 9:30 A.M. until evening, providing much material about his early life, but when Caro began asking questions ("for having interviewed others involved in the subjects in question and having examined the records—many of them secret—dealing with them, it was necessary to reconcile the sometimes striking disparity between what he told me and what they told me") the series of interviews was abruptly terminated."[3] Moses' brother Paul was to provide Caro with the reason behind their decades-old family feud but died of a heart attack hours before he could explain.


Caro traces Moses' life from his childhood in Gay Nineties Connecticut to his early years as an idealistic advocate for Progressive reform of the city's corrupt civil service system. Moses' failures there, and later experience working for future governor of New York Al Smith in the New York State Assembly and future New York Mayor Jimmy Walker in the State Senate, taught him how power really worked, that he needed it to make his dreams of roads and bridges for the city reality, and that ideals and principles had to be set aside if necessary to make them happen, Caro says.

By the 1930s, Moses had earned a reputation as a creator of beautiful parks in both the city and state, and later long-sought projects like the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, but at the price of his earlier integrity. Caro ultimately paints a portrait of Moses as an unelected bureaucrat who, through his reputation for getting large construction projects done, amassed so much power over the years that the many elected officials whom he was supposedly responsive to instead became dependent on him. He consistently favored automobile traffic over mass transit and human and community needs, and while making a big deal of the fact that he served in his many public jobs (save as New York City Parks Commissioner) without compensation, lived like a king and similarly enriched those individuals in public and private life who aided him.

While Caro pays ample tribute to Moses' intelligence, political shrewdness, eloquence and hands-on, if somewhat aggressive, management style, and indeed gives full credit to Moses for his earlier achievements, it is clear from the book's introduction onward that Caro's view of Moses is ambivalent (some[weasel words] of the readers of The Power Broker would conclude that Caro possessed only contempt for his subject).

At 1,336 pages (only two-thirds of the original manuscript[citation needed]), it provides documentation of its assertions in most instances, which Moses (and his supporters after his death[who?]) have consistently attempted to refute.[citation needed] Because Caro's narrative includes a great deal of history about New York City itself, the book is considered by many[who?] to be a monumental scholarly work in its own right, transcending the normal style of a biography that focuses on the life of a single person.[citation needed]

Commercial and critical reception[edit]

The Power Broker caused quite a stir when it was published, after the "One Mile" chapter ran as an excerpt in The New Yorker. The chapter highlighted the difficulties in constructing one section of the Cross-Bronx Expressway and the way Moses ran roughshod over the interests of the section of East Tremont the road effectively destroyed. Before publication, Caro, largely unknown at the time, dared to challenge the magazine's legendary editor, William Shawn, over his changes to Caro's prose. It was common for the magazine to edit excerpts to conform to its house style, which did not make allowance for many of the author's narrative flourishes, such as single-sentence paragraphs. Caro also complained that much of his work had been compressed.[1]

It won the Pulitzer in biography in 1974, as well as the Francis Parkman Prize awarded by the Society of American Historians to the book that best "exemplifies the union of the historian and the artist." On June 12, 1975, The New York Chapter of the American Institute of Architects conferred a "Special Citation upon Robert Caro....for reminding us once again, that ends and means are inseparable." In 1986, it was recognized by the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, and in 2001 the Modern Library selected it as one of the hundred most important books of the 20th century. In 2005, Caro was awarded the Gold Medal in Biography from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. In 2010, President Barack Obama, after awarding Mr. Caro a National Humanities Medal, said "I think about Robert Caro and reading The Power Broker back when I was 22 years old and just being mesmerized, and I'm sure it helped to shape how I think about politics." In 2010, Mr. Caro was also inducted into the New York State Writers Hall of Fame. David Klatell, dean of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, has recommended the book to new students to familiarize themselves with New York City and the techniques of investigative reporting.[4]

Moses and his supporters considered the book to be overwhelmingly biased against him, to the point that Moses put out a 23-page typed statement challenging some of its assertions (he claimed he never used the anti-Italian slurs the book attributes to him about Fiorello La Guardia, for instance) and what his supporters saw as a record of unprecedented accomplishment. However, as Mr. Caro states in the introduction to The Power Broker: "Moses himself, who feels his works will make him immortal, believes he will be justified by history, that his works will endure and be blessed by generations not yet born. Perhaps he is right. It is impossible to say that New York would have been a better city if Robert Moses had never lived. It is possible to say only that it would have been a different city."

In later years, some further criticisms have been made of the book, mainly that it overstates the extent of Moses's power in the 1960s. In the 21st century, as many have decried the inability of American public institutions to construct and maintain infrastructure projects, a more positive view of Moses's career has emerged. Future governor Eliot Spitzer, in a 2006 speech to the Regional Plan Association on downstate transportation needs, said a biography of Moses written today might be called At Least He Got It Built. "That's what we need today. A real commitment to get things done."[5]


  1. ^ a b c d e McGrath, Charles (April 15, 2012). "Robert Caro's Big Dig". The New York Times Magazine. Retrieved April 17, 2012. 
  2. ^ Rodgers, Cleveland (1952). Robert Moses: Builder for Democracy. 
  3. ^ a b The Power Broker, p.1167
  4. ^ Klatell, David. "M.S. Fall 2007 In 2010, President Barack Obama, after awarding Mr. Caro a National Humanities Medal, said "I think about Robert Caro and reading The Power Broker back when I was 22 years old and just being mesmerized, and I"m sure it helped to shape how I think about politics."Curriculum". Retrieved 2007-09-27. 
  5. ^ Spitzer, Eliot (2006-05-05). "Downstate Transportation Issues Speech" (PDF).  Speech to the Regional Plan Association, New York.

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