Michael He

March 16, 2022

Read The Power Broker

The Power Broker is a book that changed my life.


Three Aspects of A Great Book

I ask three questions about every book I read. Is it enjoyable? Is it repeatedly insightful? Does it move me in a personal way unrelated to the entertainment or learning aspect? The Power Broker easily answers these questions. In fact, I came up with these questions after finishing it.

Each question addresses a unique part of the reading experience - entertainment, practical value, and intimacy, which is hard to measure but you know when it's there. Many books meet one criteria. Some even satisfy two, which are already worthwhile. But to satisfy all three is the holy crown. There may be only a handful of these triple-crowns, the reason behind deserves an essay on its own.

Robert Caro's book belongs to a shelf with Romance of the Three Kingdoms, The Dream of The Red Chambers, To Kill A Mockingbird, and Shakespeare's First Folio. It's a book that is worth reading, re-reading, and some more re-reading.

Not everyone needs to read The Power Broker, but those that can understand it should.

The Power Broker Is More Than A Biography  

What makes The Power Broker so encapsulating? Two years after first reading it, I can finally articulate some thoughts.

The Power Broker is not just a biography. It's an epic on one man, Robert Moses's odyssey (RM), from "the optimist of optimists, the reformer of reformers, the idealist of idealists" to "the locus of corruption in New York City", a user of the drug known as power. I am actually unsure about using the term "epic" or even "saga", because the eponymous character is not a hero nor anti-hero.

As reading the book will tell you, Robert Moses is a man. He may even be an ubermensch, a great man (he has done a lot of things in his career). That is an accurate way of describing him, for ubermenschen typically does a lot of evil on top of the positives they have accomplished.

Of course, the book is a biography. It is extremely well-researched. The interview and note sections run well over a hundred pages. But to call the book a well-researched biography is to do it great injustice.

Caro never intended to write about Robert Moses so much so as to understand how he came to amass gargantuan political power without ever being elected, such that he could approve or veto proposals to his liking. How the hell did that happen? What are the consequences of that? How does political power really work? These are the questions Robert Caro sought to answer.

The Power Broker is a landmark study on political power in American cities. It is also a history on New York City and American cities that NYC has influenced (which is all of them). It documents New York's underlying political mechanics, its physical infrastructure, and its human fabric. Of course, it chronicles the interaction between these forces and how politics can completely bulldoze over individuals and even communities. The human costs, as Caro once mentioned, have never been properly written in concrete details, so he did.

You are not just reading the life of one person. You are reading the life of New York from the end of the 19th century to the end of 1960s and by extension, to the present. All of New York's problems today were problems of the past. By extension, no American cities face new problems. They are simply rehashing of old NYC.

A Not-So-Short Review of Introduction

Reviewing the book is nearly impossible. After all, how can anyone adequately write about a twelve-hundred-page book that was originally two-thousand pages in final draft form? So let's settle for the next best thing - examining its introduction.

The twenty-one page introduction Wait Until the Evening is a literary masterpiece in and of itself. If you are even remotely curious, you will devour it and plunge deeply into book. It has just the right length with enough details to sustain the narrative for the rest of the epic, not too long to drag on forever, yet not too short to leave people confused and potentially disappointed in what the book seems to promise (and it really promises).

The introduction even has its own narrative, the changes and the lack thereof in Robert Moses over his five decade career. While he learned a great deal about acquiring, operating, and maintaining political power to the point when he could force a New York City mayor to appoint him to any political position he wanted, Robert Moses never changed. He had always been an arrogant and stubborn bloke, but as his ambitions and powers grew, that unglamorous personal traits became only magnified and more entrenched. The insidiously unsavory became the abhorrently grotesque. He destroyed everyone that could rein him in, so no one dared or could oppose him until his days were over. 

Robert Moses was an American autocrat, even if the entire premise of America is to not allow autocracy to happen in the first place.

Examining the twelve-thousand word narrative might feel farfetched, but nothing is farfetched when it comes to Robert Caro. Right after two contrasting moments in Robert Moses's life, when he quitted the Yale swimming team after an argument with his captain on whether to lie to the team's primary donor and anointing himself the city commissioner, we immediately encounter the thesis of the book, that of power, the uniting current powering Robert Moses's life.

Then we entered a panoramic view on all Robert Moses had achieved, the sheer scale of infrastructure built during his multi-decade reign, and the immense impacts they had on the lives of many millions of people as well as history itself. Caro meticulously measured RM's legacy in terms of statistics, reputation, and political longevity, but even more importantly, he pointed out the shadow empire Robert Moses spent his entire career building, one full of corruption and greed.

RM was no better than Palpatine. He created a monstrous machine. Then he became a monster.

At the end of the day, all Robert Moses had built was built on lies and more lies. Lies about his integrity and independence from political corruption and undemocratic influences. Lies about his vision and pro-people values. Lies about his personal life. Lies about everything, for power is a drug that one can never quit. Power embeds a web of lies on top of another.

Who has to foot the bill? The U.S. government. New York State. New York City. In one word, people.

In the process of attaining more and more power, the human costs to RM's desires were staggering. Caro did a thorough job to portray the bone-chilling extent on how Robert Moses single handedly decided the lives of millions often for much worse. Congestion. Lack of public transportation. Crime. Homelessness. Segregation. Divisiveness. The lack of humanity. The destruction of community. The pessimism that infects society. All woes of city life can trace back to Robert Moses in one way or another.

As a side note, the introduction title Wait Until the Evening has multiple meanings, alluding to various snippets in Robert Moses's life. In college he read voraciously in the evenings when Yale students were socializing and having fun. As a young idealist, he worked tirelessly and learned political maneuvering from the one and only Al Smith all day and all night, who himself became a master of politics despite having only a middle school education by reading legislative bills every night for years. Then as a powerful man, he still worked tirelessly in the evenings, drafting proposals with his subordinates and writing memos alone in his office. And of course, political dealings proper et improper also waited until after sunset, when social spaces like restaurants and theaters became unofficial political spaces.

It is often said that intelligence, hard work, and integrity are the three ingredients to success. Robert Moses had so much of the first two, he didn't need the third to be successful. Yet without the third, his success was poisonous.

Parsing The Power Broker

Since I already spoiled the introduction (only about 2% of the book), I would not talk about Robert Moses in more details. Instead, let's look at the merits of the book.

It has exquisite details, meticulous yet not boring.

Robert Caro is the ultimate interviewer, the journalist of journalist. He flipped every page of document known to exist on Robert Moses, even documents that no one ever knew. He talked to everyone related to Robert Moses, to the point RM had to speak with him after years of rejection.

Caro's narrative talent is on par with Dumas and perhaps even Homer, so the book was never dull for even one second. You are taken into the mind of Robert Moses. You know who were involved, what happened, when, where, how, and most importantly, why things turned out the way they did. It did what Chinese imperial biographical accounts sought to do, but could never accomplish (due to reasons too long for this essay).

Reading The Power Broker gives us a sense of a man, perhaps a great man. But at the same time we are getting a panorama of power, society, culture, and the zeitgeist.

When we trace the life of Robert Moses, we also live through the rise of the seemingly-impossible and the sad decline of Al Smith, a man America needed but didn't know it wanted. We experience how Tammany Hall amassed and abused power, yet had its reason to exist with the ingenious political bosses. We see the extensive optimism and naïveté of the Reformers, who seem to mirror certain types of individuals in today's society all too well. We understand the machinery of New York state legislature. We witness the life of New York mayors, especially the stout Fiorello LaGuardia, who was ultimately a fool in many ways (despite outdoing any mayor before and after him). We even saw the dark side of FDR, his feud with Robert Moses, and how little we actually knew about this important figure pre-presidency. At the same time, we study the history of physical constructions in New York, how infrastructure got built rapidly in a rare moment of American history, the ever-changing media and public landscapes, and so much more.

This is why I put The Power Broker on the pedestal with works such as Dreams of the Red Chambers (lauded as the greatest Chinese fiction ever written), for it not only chronicles one man or a group of people, but the society as a whole. It is alive. That is why it is entertaining. That is why it has real value and insights. That is why it resonates with individuals. It captures humanity. Perhaps not completely, but at least it captures something.

Revisionist Robert Moses

Despite all his significant flaws (there are numerous), there are also some things that made Robert Moses so unique, powerful, and interesting. There may even be some things we can take note.

His relentless energy and vitality. His incredibly intelligent mind that can do many things at once. His ambition and strong desire to do things. His fearsome personality in addition to his charisma. His unparalleled insider knowledge on how politics and legislations worked, many of which he created.

His close relationship and mentorship with governor Al Smith and various reformers, which gave him the platform and foundation to build his own empire (and usurp the reformist movement in the process). The role of timing that brought him significant tailwinds such as the Great Depression, the Second World War, the post-war boom, etc. The warm and roaring press coverage he received and the media machine he greased, which still operates in some ways similar to RM's days today.

We can surely learn to do some things and possess some traits - relentlessness, passion, ambition, charisma, friendship, mentorship, and perhaps the positive values he embodied early in his early career. Regardless of how history judges Robert Moses, he possessed traits that led him to do big things and grand projects.

But most importantly, we ought to take this time to learn that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Power was where RM started, where he lingered for far too long with too much to lose (so he sacrificed so many people to stay afloat), and where he got dethroned in a humiliating fashion by a Rockefeller of all people.

Kudos to The Caros

Robert Caro's own story on writing this book is also fascinating. Having severely underestimated the scope of the project, he thought one year could take care of the book. The research alone took more than three years and writing took another four until 1974.

With that came a lot of financial and personal hardships. Caro's wife and research assistant Ina (who deserves all the praise in the world) even had to sell their house just to get by. It must have been a humbling learning experience for Robert Caro. He gambled everything on this project, including and his and Ina's efforts and talents.

Fortunately, it worked out and the world received not only one, but five (and one pending) treatises on politics in disguise as biographies. During his six-decade career (as long as RM), Robert Caro perfected (or at least came close to) how to write, how to talk, how to conduct research, and how to write narratives in the modern world. His frustration with not knowing how to start the narrative until realizing the exact ending point ("Why aren't people grateful to Robert Moses for all that he'd done?") was such a lightbulb moment for me. The lesson made so much sense, but when I tried it, I realized it was impossible.

Only Robert Caro could do it this way. Only he could write outlines several dozen pages long, full of details on how the book would go, and then write painstakingly slow on a yellow legal pad, type on antique typewriters (not for style but due to habit), and then take days to edit one page.

In many ways, only Robert Caro and Ina could write The Power Broker, just like how only Harper Lee could write To Kill A Mockingbird. It is one of the few books that brings you more the more you read and invest in the reading process. It is a book I will revisit time and time again to discover nuggets of wisdom, to remind myself the consequences of one's actions, thoughts, and words, and to get a bigger picture on how things have changed and how far or how little we have come. It carries as much symbolic and metaphoric value as its practicality and entertainment.

In Closing

In terms of reading the book, my recommendation is different from most snobs. Listen to excellent the audiobook. It is 68 hours long, so two months of daily commute should take care of it. I don't recommend reading it in full, especially not quickly like some people claim to do (how do you read seven hundred thousand words quickly without skimming?)

During the first time you can only trace the basic narrative. Maybe you will have a few striking thoughts. Don't pause, because you will have them again. Striking ideas will never appear only once like Snapchat stories.

During the second time, get a physical copy and really read it. You can divide the book into shorter chunks to carry around. A three-pound book is not to be carried around everywhere. The pages are already really densely formatted, so 300 pages are equivalent to 500 pages of many books. You can still make use of the audiobook by speeding it up and take copious notes. But once again, don't take notes unless they really sting, or you will never finish and have time for other books.

Once you've made through the story and know what you want out of it, you will be fine. In fact, you've probably figured how to read in an engaging manner for the first time. In essence, you are getting an education from reading this book, not only on politics, urban planning, or even the humanities. You are also learning how to read, how to think, and perhaps how to write (if you so incline). Twenty some dollars don't seem to be too expensive now, right?

It's time to read and reread The Power Broker.

About Michael He

Trying to get better every single day.