Robert Caro

The History of the World Is But the Biography of Great Men

VTR Date: September 16, 1998

Guest: Caro, Robert


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Robert A. Caro
Title: ” … The History Of The World Is But The Biography of Great Men …”
Recorded: 9/16/98

I’m Richard Heffner, your Host on The Open Mind. And I must tell you that there are weeks — like this past one — when preparing for my program is an absolute joy … largely because it involves reading or re-reading simply wonderful literary or historical works written by my guest.

A quarter century ago historian and journalist Robert Caro won
both the Pulitzer Prize and the Francis Parkman prize awarded by the Society of American Historians for a book that best “exemplifies the union of the historian and the artist.”

His book: The Power Broker, Robert Moses and The Fall of New York. And nothing could be more appropriate and pleasurable than re-reading it — as I just have — even as the once separate parts of New York City celebrate the anniversary of their final consolidation into the Big Apple.

Robert Caro’s other magnificent books, the first two volumes of his monumental biography of Lyndon Baines Johnson entitled The Path To Power and Means of Ascent each won coveted national Book Critics Circle Awards, among others. And I want to discuss them, too, with my guest … though we’ll save that for another program.

Right now I want to focus on The Power Broker and on Robert Moses as the basis for asking Mr. Caro, from today’s perspective, what his reactions are to Thomas Carlyle’s well noted assertion that “the history of the world is but the biography of great men”, and Ralph Waldo Emerson’s that “there is properly no history, only biography”.

Caro: [Laughter]

Heffner: Bob, you think so?

Caro: That’s a wonderful way to start because the history of New York City in this century is really, to an amazing extent the story of Robert Moses.

Heffner: How could it be?

Caro: Well, you know, he had power in New York for 44 years, almost half that century. And with that power he shaped the city. And you can see it if you fly into New York. You know, if you fly into LaGuardia, you see passed the bridges, if you’re coming in from there you pass the Throgs Neck Bridge … Robert Moses built it. The Bronx/Whitestone Bridge … Robert Moses built it. The Triborough Bridge, the Henry Hudson Bridge … Robert Moses built them. If you’re flying in from the south, say to Kennedy … you pass the Verrazano Narrows Bridge which Robert Moses built, the Cross Bay Bridge, the Marine Parkway Bridge … he built them all. Every major highway that you see, 14 expressways and 16 parkways. Every major road that you see cutting across the city, with the single exception of the East River Drive, was built by this one man. Every park was either created or re-created, re-shaped by him. And the whole areas of public housing in New York that was also built by him. He left his mark on this city.

Heffner: You know, driving the other day with Alexander Heffner who is going to be nine soon, he asked me what programs I was preparing for because he saw me reading The Power Broker. And I told him I was going to do a program with you and it was about Robert Moses, and he asked who Robert Moses was and I tried to explain to him, and so I did just what you did … I talked about the highways, I talked about the expressways and the bridges, and he said, “oh, he built them himself”.

Caro: [Laughter]

Heffner: And I said, No. But … so you explain …

Caro: [Laughter]

Heffner: … what you mean by making the connection between Moses and these incredible connections.

Caro: Well, the bridges were built by his Public Authorities. He created the Public Authority … the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority. But he also was the head of seven other Authorities at the same time. In its modern form. You know, when he came to power we though of a public authority as an entity that built a single bridge or tunnel, floated bonds to pay for it, collected the tolls until the bonds were paid off and then the Authority went out of business. Moses with his genius for bill drafting created Authorities in a way that they would, in effect, be eternal. And as long as he was head of them he would have absolute power over their revenues. Now their revenues …you know… for decades every time you paid a toll on any bridge or tunnel within the boarders of New York City, you were in effect paying it directly to Robert Moses. Because he was the head of the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority which collected those tolls. And he had absolute discretion over the spending of that money. And how much was that money? For decades he had more money to spend on public works in New York City and its suburbs than the City had. And I … no Mayor, no Board of Estimate could tell him how to do it. He did what he wanted.

Heffner: But we can’t leave it at that, that he had all this power. How did he get it?

Caro: Well, he got it in many different ways. You know, he started … before he was building bridges … he started building the parks on Long Island. Jones Beach State Park, Sunken Meadow State Park, all the parks on Long Island. He got that because he was young dreamer, who from the time he came back from Oxford, started to dream of huge public works in and around New York. Now, for many years, until he was about 30 or 32 his dreams came to nothing. And in fact, he was a reformer then, you know he was an idealist. And Tammany Hall which had power in New York, he was a real thorn in their side. And Tammany Hall decided that they had to crush him. And they did crush him. And at the age of 30, Robert Moses was standing on line outside the City Hall in Cleveland, Ohio, looking for a rather minor municipal job, which he didn’t get. Then suddenly, Al Smith became Governor of New York State, and his eye had been caught by this young man. And he raised Robert Moses to power and put him in charge of the State Park program on Long Island … Jones Beach and all the others, and the parkways, the Northern and Southern State Parkways, the Wantagh and the Meadowbrook. And Moses spent the next four or five years hammering out those parks. I mean that the wonderful side of Robert Moses. Because at the time he wanted to build these state parks and parkways there were basically no state parks and parkways, not on any scale. And the masses of New York City had no place to go out on Long Island. Moses conceived of this park program … as I keep saying, Jones Beach, Sunken Meadow … many … fourteen parks. Parkways to get to them. It was on a scale that no one had done anything like this in America before. And the powers of New York State were determined that he wouldn’t build this program. And the story of how he got them built, hammering out, really against … with Smith behind him … and it seemed like everybody else against him … was just thrilling to me.

Heffner: Why doesn’t he surface then in Caro’s Power Broker as a magnificent, heroic figure?

Caro: Well, I think the first three or four hundred pages of The Power Broker he is a magnificent, heroic figure, he is an idealist and a dreamer. And the change comes very, very slowly. You know power is a very dangerous weapon. I think I use the image in The Power Broker that it’s like a sword, and the hilt as well as the blade is razor sharp. So the man who uses that sword, the sword is cutting into him as well as into the people on whom he uses it. Now we can see even when he was building these early parks and parkways, this utter ruthlessness, that he would do anything to get these roads and parks built. But at least he was doing it for a noble, wonderful cause.

Heffner: Was there ever a time when “the cause”, I’m not talking about “the means” of achieving…

Caro: Right.

Heffner: … the cause…

Caro: Right.

Heffner: … or the means of ascent, as you call the second Johnson…

Caro: [Laughter]

Heffner: volume … but was there ever a time when the end was not one that we would embrace?

Caro: Oh, sure. I think that when he moved from the empty landscape of Long Island into New York City and started to build his expressways, right across neighborhoods, and started to build public housing, really on a philosophy of separating the poor from the rich … we would say now that the impact of Robert Moses on New York was a very destructive one. I mean it’s thirty years now since he left power. We’re only now beginning to address the problems causes by his policies.

Heffner: Yet, Bob, when you write about the fall. It’s and, Robert Moses and the fall of New York…

Caro: Right.

Heffner: I’m considerably older than you and yet when I read The Power Broker I think … and I’m a New Yorker … I think to myself, well there really was nothing before Moses. In terms of the many things you mention, the parks, the highways, etc. So when I ask you to distinguish between means and ends. I would bet, and I wonder if you want to challenge that, that most people would say this parkway, that parkway, this highway, that park … wonderful for New York. And yet you’re saying that the end … we wouldn’t embrace the ends of what he achieved.

Caro: Well, you know, I used as an epigraph of this book, a quote from Sophocles … “one must wait until the evening to see how splendid the day has been”. When Robert Moses …now what were the hallmarks of Robert Moses’ policy. Absolute concentration on the automobile. For forty years he used his power to systematically starve mass transit … the Long Island Railroad the most dramatic example. While pouring the public resources into highway. More and more highways. I think I could answer your question probably by taking one road … the Long Island Expressway which he started building in 1952. Now when he started … but I will say, I could … if we had enough time we could enlarge on this…all the roads.

When he wanted to build the Long Island Expressway, he had the money to do it. He didn’t need anyone’s permission. He was told, you know Long Island was already starting to build up, the population is starting to build up … it’s still largely empty space. You can build a six lane highway, which is what it was then, but if you don’t make provisions for having some sort of rapid transit, light rail lines down the middle of the Long Island Expressway, the road can never work, it’s just going to generate more traffic, it’s always going to be congested. Moses hated the idea of rapid transit, he viewed it as a competitor for the tolls that he was getting from his automobiles, so he wouldn’t even consider that. Then they said to him … this is not hindsight because they were saying it to him at the time, “If you won’t build these lines, at least buy an extra forty feet of right of way. Keep it in the middle, keep it empty now if you want, but if in the future we should need rapid transit lines down the center, we will be able to do it”. The minute you build this road … land then was so cheap that the entire cost of that right of way for the whole length of the expressway was only $20 million dollars. He was spending $500 million dollars on it already. They said, for this which is four percent … for an additional four percent, you can ensure that the road will always work better. If you don’t spend this money now it will always be congested. He wouldn’t acquire that extra forty feet. More than that, he engineered the expressway so they can basically never build rapid transit down the center. And therefore, that road … now it’s impossible to do that and the road never worked. Now the same thing happened as it happened exactly with the Van Wyck Expressway … with many of his highways.

Heffner: You know thinking of this story, thinking of my years in California, thinking of the automobile there, as the exclusive way of transportation …

Caro: Yeah.

Heffner: … nobody walks, you get in your car. We know that the story there was in part a story of corruption and in part the story of the domination of certain economic interests. The oil people, namely… you didn’t build up you built out and you had to use the automobile to get out. There is, there is nothing, I gather that you would consider parallel in Caro’s Moses in terms of corruption.

Caro: Well, Moses … that’s a complicated question. Moses was personally very honest. He didn’t care about money. He never cared about money. Someone … a friend of his once said to me, you know some people want caviar, Robert Moses was happy with a ham sandwich, if he could have power on the side. He, himself, was personally honest. But I also say in The Power Broker that this man who was himself honest made himself the locus of corruption in New York City for four decades. When he built a bridge or a highway every cent of the insurance premiums went to the right insurance brokers. Public relations retainers went to the right public relations men. The contractor, with the politically well-connected contractors…

Heffner: To what end?

Caro: To the end of being able to get these things built. That’s why I called the book The Power Broker. Because that’s a very exact title. He was taking all these forces and acting as the broker. So let’s say a mayor … I have a chapter in the book called “One Mile” about how he rammed this Cross Bronx Expressway right across a neighborhood … in one mile he had to knock down 54 six and seven story apartment houses, displacing … I forget the figure…

Heffner: 5,000.

Caro: Thank you, 5000 people…

Heffner: I remember.

Caro: … and ruining a neighborhood, where there was an alternate route where could displace nobody … just six small tenements … just two blocks away. The Mayor, the Board of Estimate, the Bronx Borough President, every elected official, the State Assemblyman from that area and the State Senator said, “build it over there”. But when these elected officials tried to impose their will on Moses, they found that all the forces that kept them in power … the contractors who made contributions, the lawyers, the public relations men … they all said “do what Moses wants”. It was an irresistible power that he could marshal. Now, of course, in addition to that he had this immense popularity.

Heffner: Ah, based upon service?

Caro: Well, based … largely, largely … you ask very good questions, it’s hard to answer them quickly. Based largely, you know, when… he once said … in 1920, when he was fighting for Jones Beach and Sunken Meadow State Park, Hechscher State Park … he got into this tremendous lawsuit because he was really using means that verged on illegality to get them built. But he know he would win in the court of public opinion. And he said to one of his assistants, you know if you’re on the side of the park, you’re always on the side of the angels. And his park work was always wonderful, and he created a great blessing on the city. And when I was a boy, when I went to Horace Mann, I think we had to write a junior paper … we all had to write on the same topic, and the topic was “Robert Moses is the example of the white knight in literature”. That’s how popular he was.

Heffner: And you were the one who said, “No”.

Caro: No, I was the one [laughter] … I thought, I thought he was a great public servant.

Heffner: Well, you know that points, obviously, in the direction of asking you again about power: The Power Broker, Lyndon Johnson, Ascent to Power. Power is what you are interested in.

Caro: Yes.

Heffner: Is that fair?

Caro: Political power.

Heffner: Political power. Well, why do you say political power as different from what?

Caro: Political power is the force that shapes all our lives. You know, I mean with Lyndon Johnson if you say a Black young man or young woman gets to go to college because of his affirmative action policy, that’s political power? If you say, if you talk about a young man who died in Vietnam or a village that was destroyed needlessly in Vietnam, that’s political power. Robert Moses … I see examples of it every day driving around New York City. Both for the good and the bad. I got interested in political power because I was a newspaper reporter and I wasn’t happy with the job I was doing. And I felt that what was wrong with what I was doing … I was an investigative reporter … I was supposed to be … I had won some minor awards … you really think you’re explaining to people who how power works. And then one day you realize you’re really not, and for me the awakening came, because I couldn’t understand even who exactly Robert Moses was. Where did he get his power, he was never elected to anything, yet he seemed to be able to do pretty much whatever he wanted in the field of public works. And the more I got into it, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that the … if you can explain political power, you’re explaining the force that affects all our lives. That’s why I’m interested…

Heffner: That seems so, so interesting to me because you’re not speaking as the Clinton camp spoke, “it’s the economy, stupid”…

Caro: [Laughter]

Heffner: … you’re saying the next step, it’s the power, but when you talk about the way he was able never having been elected to do all of this … you say he, without charging him with personal corruption … you said he made sure that this economic interest was satisfied, and that economic interest was satisfied, whether it was the contractors…

Caro: Correct.

Heffner: … the builders … whoever…

Caro: Correct.

Heffner: … why didn’t you go back to the matter of the dollar and economics as the source of power?

Caro: Well, actually in the case of both Robert Moses and Lyndon Johnson, they use … in very different ways … but they use economic power to bend political power to their ends. I mean, what he’s really doing, I mean if you look at the charter of New York City, it’s a democratic charter. There are institutions of government … then … you know the Board of ???, and then the Board of Estimate, the Mayor … that’s supposed to express the will of the people. And when Moses came along he, with his genius conceived a way … I mean the heart of it were these public authorities and the tolls, but there were many other ways … that’s why the book is so long, it takes so long to … he used economic forces to bend this political engine of the city off its democratic bias to the bias that he wanted, which was an autocratic bias reflecting his own philosophy and for 44 years that’s how public works were built in New York.

Heffner: Would you, would you object to someone saying he came closer to the ideal of government expressed or embraced by our Founders, who didn’t create, initially, as democratic a devise as some of us like to think.

Caro: No, I wouldn’t say that. I would say that … I wouldn’t agree with that because what he really did was make himself, in his field, which were really all the fields that shaped the city for generations … public works. He really ensured that democratic considerations … let me talk in terms of … let’s say, a playground, right … in the days before Robert Moses. Of course, there was always corruption, economic forces always played a role in the city. Tammany Hall was a very corrupt organization. But if you had an Alderman from a little ward on the Lower East Side and there was question of where were you going to build the playground. Where you going to build it on this side of a major street … on that side. The Alderman had a lot to say because he was kept in power by the votes of the people. He had to respond to the people in that neighborhood, where they wanted the playground. If they knew that they didn’t want their children to cross this avenue, let’s say … then the weight of their opinion to have the playground on the other side of the avenue would be very strong. What Moses did was remove … and I talked in terms of the Cross Bronx Expressway, a huge project … but in terms of small projects he removed from the decision making process on public works … he greatly reduced, and in fact, to be honest, in many cases, removed the consideration of public opinion from that neighborhood consideration. In The Power Broker I think I identify 20 separate neighborhoods that were destroyed by his expressways. These neighborhoods were basically towns, little towns, East Tremont in the Bronx was not so little, 60,000 people lived there. These neighborhoods were really the communities that made the city a home to their people. They had nothing to say about it. The expressways rammed right across them. Moses built them where he wanted to build them.

Heffner: But you know, it’s so interesting to me that when you started to talk about the Alderman and where are we going to build the playground, you left out the little satchel, the little bag of money…

Caro: Right.

Heffner: From those whose economic interests were involved in having the playground here because their property would be condemned and bought up at a high price…

Caro: At a high price … absolutely.

Heffner: Rather than over there.

Caro: Well, I thought I was covering that by saying that corruption was a part of the Tammany process, you know. Also, it’s part of every political process. But under Moses, if you say that the building of a public work, of a highway or a playground is really an equation in which there are really a lot of different factors: public interest, economic forces, corruption, land use, whatever … what he did was add … put into this equation, he would reduced the weight that you would give to the force of public opinion and raise the weight that you would give to other considerations.

Heffner: All in all it comes back to the question as you say of power. Does that make you a devotee of Lord Acton … that power tends to corrupt and absolute power tends to corrupt absolutely?

Caro: Actually, I don’t quite agree with that. I feel that that’s only sometimes true. The thing I think that is true is that power reveals … what it always does is reveal because when you rise to a position of power, the higher you get the less … if you’re not elected … and that’s the case with Robert Moses … the less you have to conceal yourself, the more your own tendencies can shine forth. Now, with Moses you would really say that that really … to a great extent Lord Acton’s axiom is true. However, in this books you see with Al Smith who’s a big figure in The Power Broker the opposite is true. He was a Tammany figure … always wanting to help his people and when he got to be Governor, it’s like power cleansed Al Smith.

Heffner: That, of course, was why Lord Acton was careful enough to say that power tends … to corrupt.

Caro: … tends … [laughter]

Heffner: Bob Caro, thank you so much for joining me today for this discussion of The Power Broker, 1200 pages I think of magnificent reading, and I hope now a quarter century after it first came out, everybody’s going to read it again.

Caro: Thank you.

Heffner: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. If you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send four dollars in check or money order to: The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, F.D.R. Station, New York, New York 10150.

Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.