The Power Broker - Origins


As a reporter for Newsday in the early 1960s, Caro covered the preparations for the World's Fair and learned that everything involved ultimately came down to Moses. 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.

"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.'"

In 1966, his wife Ina changed the topic of her graduate thesis to write about the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, while he 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.'"

He found that despite Moses's illustrious career, no biography had been written, save the highly propagandistic Builder for Democracy in 1952. 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. 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.

Moses "did his best to try to keep this book from being written—as he had done, successfully, with so many previous, stillborn, biographies." 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." Moses's 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.

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