Colossus of Construction

THE POWER BROKER: ROBERT MOSES AND THE FALL OF NEW YORK by Robert A. Caro, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1,246 pp. $35

ROBERT MOSES bore a family name that befitted an individual who almost single-handedly changed the very landscape and character of the largest city in the United States and - in the process - set a standard for power and longevity in public service that will probably never be equaled.

Tall, dashing, and idealistic, the patrician Moses was the son of a New Haven, Conn., department store owner of a mixed German and Sephardic Jewish background. But New Haven, Yale, and later, Oxford and Columbia, were only way stations for the increasingly ambitious Moses.

He was to become the greatest builder in US political history, a ``masterbuilder,'' whose pillars of steel and concrete would have created envy among the ancient Egyptians, who also knew a thing or two about public works. In the process, as Robert A. Caro points out in this monumental biography, Moses was to bend - indeed, subvert - the democratic political system to his own costly designs for the greater part of five decades, from the 1920s to the '60s.

Caro's book deservedly won the Pulitzer Prize for biography in 1975. The book itself, recently reissued, is towering. Caro unmasks the Moses myth: Behind the charming noblesse oblige, Caro shows, was in fact a ruthless manipulator who bent the political system to serve his own costly ambitions.

Last month marked the 100th anniversary of Moses's birth, an anniversary that prompted a number of retrospectives and reawakened interest in this biography. But one need not turn to television or even Caro's brilliant account to capture the extent of Moses's grasp. The briefest trip into New York should suffice.

Robert Moses shaped the New York City of today. He built the seven bridges that connect the boroughs to the mainland. The endless ribbons of concrete that crisscross the city and the state bear his direct imprint, as do the United Nations headquarters, Lincoln Center, Shea Stadium, Jones Beach, and high-rise housing projects. He controlled his own police force. A call from him could unnerve judges, legislators, presidents, governors, and mayors - particularly Fiorello La Guardia, William O'Dwyer, Vincent Impellitteri, Robert F. Wagner, and John V. Lindsay.

Using various public agencies, Robert Moses built or was the driving force behind the construction of major projects, any one of which, if built in another city at the time Moses built it, would have guaranteed lasting fame. And these monuments only hint at the enormity of his projects.

Of the local politicians, perhaps the less said the better. Moses outlasted them all, only - at the twilight of his years - to be bested and sent packing by a mini-monument builder as cunning as himself, Nelson Rockefeller.

``With his power,'' Caro writes, ``Moses built an empire.''

How does one measure greatness? Works alone, as Moses's life indicates, are surely not enough. Homes were destroyed and neighborhoods uprooted to make way for the contractors. The gargantuan traffic tie-ups that so often mark one's entrance into New York City are a byproduct of Moses's lust for concrete. And yet ... one has to ask whether the democratic process could have truly worked in a city as diverse and inherently contentious as New York, with its thousands of interest groups, all vociferously pursuing their own agendas.

Donald Trump may fancy himself a colossus of construction. But at the least, Robert Moses - although admittedly using taxpayer dollars for his enormous schemes - was building for what he no doubt thought was the good of all New Yorkers, not to mention posterity. And as anyone who saw the recent film ``Moonstruck'' can recognize, New York, for all its challenges, can still dazzle the eye with incredible beauty, thanks in large part to Moses.

Moses was the product of a period in US history when self-described ``heroic'' and ``selfless'' public officials could capture or dominate entire institutions for their own purposes and retain power for decades. There was J. Edgar Hoover at the FBI. Hyman G. Rickover at the Navy. Lyndon Johnson in the Senate. And Franklin Delano Roosevelt at the White House, to name a few.

Like Moses, they all pursued their visions for a grander scheme of things, sometimes successfully, sometimes with dubious results. It would perhaps be harder for a Robert Moses to retain the levers of power in this age of investigative journalism and public cynicism. What's needed, of course, is a proper balance.

The United States needs visionaries like Robert Moses who welcome public service as a place of accomplishment. But it also needs visionaries on white horses who know when it's time to call it a day and step into retirement. Robert Moses never met such a day, and therein lay his problem - and New York's.

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