Caro traces Moses's 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's 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, he 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, 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's 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 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), it provides documentation of its assertions in most instances, which Moses (and his supporters after his death) have consistently attempted to refute. Because Caro's narrative includes a great deal of history about New York City itself, the book is considered by many 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.
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