Robert Moses, 1888-1981


ROBERT MOSES dominated New York City like no man before him. Though never elected to any public office. Moses converted his many appointed posts--most important among them the chairmanship of the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority--into control of every major construction project in the city from the late 1920's to the early 1970s. He built highways, bridges, parks, housing, and a vast array of public edifices among them Lincoln Center, the United Nations. Shea Stadium, and Co-op City.

But when Robert Moses died last week at the age of 92, he was in great measure a discredited figure. His highways, people said, had put New York City at the mercy of the automobile, and led to the flight of the middle class from the city. His public housing had not improved the city's ghettos, only replaced old slums with new ones. Largely because a mammoth and brilliant biography of Moses by Robert Caro, Moses' reputation, once international in scope, had disintegrated. Caro sub-titled his book, Robert Moses and the Fall of New York.

But Moses' death symbolizes another kind of "fall," not only in New York, but in all of America. Robert Moses was an "expert:" he always had the charts and the numbers to prove that his plan was the best--indeed, the only--way to proceed. Moses viewed the word "politician" as an epithet, bespeaking smoke-filled rooms and electoral machines and corruption. "In forty years of public life," he once thundered at a trial of a borough president. "I have never made a deal." For years the description of "above politics" absolved Moses, in the eyes of the public, from any role in the seamy side of politics (an absolution Caro proved was underserved). But if there is a lesson to Moses' life--and to the ruin he brought upon a city--it is this: The rule of flawed but accountable politicians may be superior to the hegemony of independent and uncontrollable experts.

ROBERT MOSES graduated from Yale in 1909, went to Oxford and wrote a Ph.D. dissertation called "The Civil Service of Great Britain." Civil service reform--that archetypal issue of the Progressive era--was the passion of Moses' youth. In cities around the nation, self-proclaimed "good government" leaders used the issue as a focus for their attacks on "machine" government. If only government jobs were awarded on the basis of "merit," then "efficiency" could be restored to the system. This was gospel for Moses and the Progressives: from it, they expanded into other areas--public health, election and tax "reform," and the rest. The assumption behind their agenda was that clear standards existed, objective criteria by which people could be judged, and truly good government could be had only by those standards. Standards of course, defined by the experts. Self-appointed.

Much of what Moses did in those early years was beyond reproach. After a stint at the Bureau of Municipal Research--numbers and documentation were always a Progressive passion--he began to work for New York Governor Al Smith. During the early years, he supervised the creation of Jones Beach, the most remarkable public beach in the world, full of the amenities once accessible only to the rich. But Moses did it his way, without interference from the tainted politicians. This time, in Jones Beach, Moses' work was almost indisputably good for all, but that would change, as his power became unassailable, his work unaccountable.


Chafing under the restraints of the traditional government structure. Moses invented an entirely new form of "public" entity, one which would allow him the freedom he wanted. Called a public authority, it was based on a simple idea. Because the government could not always afford the huge expenditures necessary to build major construction projects like bridges and highways. Moses set up quasi-public corporations--beginning with the Triborough Bridge Authority--which would sell bonds, build the projects with the funds, and pay the investors back with revenue from tolls. A mayor might select the members of the authority's board of directors, but once the bonds were sold the government could not interfere with construction because of the sanctity of the contract between the bond-holders and the authority.

And as the toll money began coming in from the Moses projects, the revenue exceeded all estimates. Prompted by streamlined access to the city, more and more cars began to choke the city streets. And because the authority had so much money. Moses could build even more highways and bridges, which he said would relieve the congestion. But the cars--and the tolls--kept coming, and Moses would promise that just one more highway would speed the traffic. It never did. And no one was there to say no, to say that the city had enough cars and enough highways. Robert Moses was "above politics:" his word could not be challenged.

Once, in 1934, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, then at the height of his powers, tried to get rid of Moses. It wasn't a clash of principles; Moses and Roosevelt had hated each other since FDR's days as governor of New York. The President simply wanted his own men distributing the construction money into the nation's biggest city. Using Secretary of the Interior Harold L. Ickes as the hit-man. Roosevelt pressured Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia to fire Moses from the Triborough Board. Fearing a huge outcry in the city if he fired the man "above politics," La Guardia refused, Eventually, Roosevelt had to give in and let Moses remain, a great humiliation to the President. Such was the dimension of Moses' power.

For nearly 50 years Moses ruled, protected by his reputation. unfettered by restraints. Perhaps he cannot be faulted for his decisions to make New York a city for the automobile, incorrect though that decision may now appear. Moses' days of high-way-building were also days of cheap gasoline and ever-bigger cars; few voices spoke forcefully for the future of mass transportation. The tragedy was that Moses was allowed to rule alone, beyond the view of a public that might not have liked the truth about the man.

The cult of the expert, checked solely by conscience--if, indeed, by that--and not by politics, spread far beyond the borders of New York. Though Progressivism made the most political hay of numerical efficiency, the obsession did not die with the movement. Robert McNamara's body counts, and indeed the entire Vietnam experience in this country, probably did more than anything to prove the futility of excessive reliance on the numbers--on the experts. Robert Moses, Doctor Moses, as he liked to be called, had all the numbers, all the plans; the political mud was never slung at him. As much as it seemed so at the time. Moses did not have all the answers, but the public never knew. Until it was too late, no one even had the chance to ask the questions.