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  • Caro versus Moses, Round TwoRobert Caro's The Power Broker
  • Jon C. Teaford (bio)

In 1974 Robert Caro's The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York debuted to the applause and acclaim of those fed up with the superhighway and slum-clearance policies of the recent past. This massive 1,246 page tome chronicled the life of New York's public-works master builder Robert Moses, examining his relentless pursuit of power as he supposedly dictated transportation, recreation, and housing policy from the 1930s to the 1960s. Portrayed as an arrogant bastard,Moses and his insatiable hubris purportedly wreaked irreparable damage on the city and precipitated its fall from glory and transformation into a bankrupt, decaying hulk.

Not only did Caro's monumental volume go through twenty-seven printings by 2000, it won both the Pulitzer Prize for biography and the Society of American Historians' Francis Parkman Prize, awarded to works of history that achieve literary distinction. To the growing number of city dwellers opposed to the meat ax of highway programs slashing through neighborhoods and the bulldozers of urban renewal, it became a sacred text second only to Jane Jacobs's The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961). Those dedicated to preserving the inherited urban fabric had found their savior in Jacobs; Caro recorded the fall from paradise of their Satan. Together Jacobs and Caro established the Manichaean scenario that has influenced urban policy debates ever since.

Caro owed his success in part to fortuitous timing. The Power Broker appeared in the wake of the Watergate scandal, when investigative reporting aimed at toppling the powerful was at high tide. A disenchanted and cynical public was primed to enjoy hatchet attacks on the reputations of public officials. The Power Broker's publication also coincided with the much-publicized burning and abandonment of the South Bronx and the [End Page 442] city's slide into financial disaster. Rather than blaming themselves for selfishly blocking subway fare increases necessary for improving service, for electing successive amiable but ineffectual mayors, and for advocating a social policy agenda that they could not or would not adequately fund,New Yorkers could, courtesy of Robert Caro, agree on a scapegoat for their city's problems, targeting an irascible old man who had overstayed his welcome in public office. Instead of recognizing that older central cities across the nation no longer suited the lifestyle of a majority of Americans and that New York City was no longer the preferred mecca for youngsters seeking their fortune, New Yorkers could take solace that their city's relative fall from grace was an aberration, not an inevitability. It was not preordained by larger social forces, but the product of Robert Moses' misdeeds. New York City had been stabbed in the back, and Robert Moses was the assassin.

The Power Broker's appearance also coincided with a general decline in faith in the public sector. Robert Moses was one of the false gods whose missteps ignited this apostasy. During his heyday in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s Moses represented the benevolent efficacy of government. Ahead of schedule and under budget, he created great public beaches, swimming pools, parks, bridges, and parkways, all monumental landmarks to what government could do for the people. Like his enemy Franklin Roosevelt, Moses demonstrated to Americans raised with a laissez-faire bias and a devotion to private enterprise that the public sector and the public bureaucrat could produce great good. The private industrialist Henry Ford manufactured the automobiles, but the public servant Robert Moses produced the pavements and park destinations for motorists eager to enjoy their Fords. By 1974, however, the New Deal–inspired faith in public endeavor had waned and disillusioned Americans were no longer true believers. The Great Society had not been so great, and Lyndon Johnson was the last president who dared to fashion a New Deal–type slogan for his administration and thereby promise the electorate a path to utopia. Given these new doubts about government's ability to solve problems,Americans were ready and willing to find their villain in the public sector. Wall Street, greedy landlords, and rapacious bankers were no longer the...


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