Thursday, January 3, 2013

The decline and fall of an idealist

As I mentioned before the holidays, I stumbled across The Power Broker in the library and was intrigued enough to pick it up after paging through it. It is an intimidatingly long book, but I discovered that Robert Caro is a master of assembling the historical details into a smoothly flowing narrative, with developing characters and a plot. Each chapter has a theme, often drawn directly from a quote or description contained within the text. The book is not simply a biography of Robert Moses, but also features extensive information about the other New York politicos of the time, including Al Smith and Franklin Roosevelt as well as numerous less prominent figures. The backgrounds of Tammany Hall, the system of patronage, and the various "Good Government" movements opposed to that patronage, are also covered.

I'm only midway through Part IV, and I can only touch on a tiny fraction of the material so far in this space. Let's begin after the description of Moses' childhood and education at Yale and Oxford, when the year is 1913, and Caro starts part II with the chapter "Burning":
It must have seemed like a great time to be young and a reformer in New York. In all American history, in fact, it would have been hard to find a better time. The young idealist entered public service in the very year in which there came to crest a movement---Progressivism---that was based [...] on an idealistic belief in man's capacity to better himself through the democratic process. 
In searching for the causes of these problems [sweatshops, child labor, poverty of the slums], Progressives settled on the most easily identifiable---the giant corporations and corrupt political bosses who they felt had stolen mythical America away from its people. To exorcise these demons---to force a return to the political democracy and economic individualism that Americans were fond of believing had once existed in their country---they advocated reforms equally simplistic, so simplistic, in fact, that they proved primarily that the old American impulse to do good was still intact. And they were reforms that a young man who wanted to do good, a young man like Bob Moses, could advocate with all his heart.
In just a few lines, Caro mocks the sentimentality and naïvety of American political movements but also praises them and sets the stage for Moses as a newly minted Ph.D. in the field of Civil Service reform.

Moses managed to obtain a position at the Bureau of Municipal Research's new Training School for Public Service through---ominously---nepotism but was too impatient and managed to get himself moved into the Bureau itself shortly. But that too was not enough. The Bureau had made its name by sniffing out graft in construction contracts, and the man appointed to conduct the investigation was John Purroy Mitchel. He successfully ran for mayor in November 1913 and appointed a Civil Service Commission to reform the system. And Moses was placed in charge of this commission, and he began work on proposal based on the British Civil Service he had studied at Oxford, a system of "open competition" and promotion based upon examinations and merit.
Each job could be scientifically analyzed to show its "functions" and "responsibilities." Each function and responsibility---and there were dozens of them for most jobs---could be given a precise mathematical weight corresponding to its importance in the over-all job.
It was the proposal of a fanatic. John Calvin specifying permissible arrangements for women's hair in sixteenth-century Geneva was not more thorough than Bob Moses enumerating the "functions" and "responsibilities" of New York's civil servants. No aspect of conduct on the job was too small to be graded. Even personality must be reduced to number.
Of course the system would mean the downgrading or elimination of tens of thousands of jobs held by Tammany Hall loyalists. And they rallied at public meetings. Moses even ventured to speak, believing in his system so confidently, but quickly became a figure of derision. Men plead for exemptions, and were granted them by Tammany judges. And in the end, John "Red Mike" Hylan used the system as a campaign issue against Mayor Mitchel in 1917, and won decisively.
The net result of his work was nothing. [...] Convinced he was right, he had refused to soil the white suit of idealism with compromise. He had really believed that if his system was right---scientific, logical, fair---and if it got a hearing, the system would be adopted. In free and open encounter would not Truth prevail? And he had gotten the hearing. But Moses had failed in his calculations to give certain factors due weight. He had not sufficiently taken into account greed. He had not sufficiently taken into account self-interest. And, most of all, he had not sufficiently taken into account the need for power.
He was out of work when he received a job offer from Belle Moskowitz, the reform-minded yet canny political adviser to Governor-elect Al Smith. She had helped Smith win the election and had secured his undying loyalty. To him, most reformers were wild-eyed, impractical "crackpots" but Belle was a different breed. Although Smith was a creature of Tammany, he was interested in real, practical reform and had the eloquence and standing within the machine to be effective. Moskowitz knew this when she signed up to help Smith, and when she hired Moses to be her chief of staff, she began to teach him the same sort of practical politics that had served the new Governor and her successfully.
The lessons started almost immediately. When Moses submitted a preliminary outline of suggested commission goals, he included a phrase straight out of the reform textbooks and his Municipal Civil Service Commission days: "Elimination of unnecessary . . . personnel." Mrs. Moskowitz struck the phrase out. Personnel, she said, were voted. You didn't antagonize voters.
It would take awhile, and although Moses would work on better reform proposals, they would have to wait because Smith lost re-election in 1920 and would not be re-elected until 1922. In the meantime, somehow, Moses became fast friends with Smith, a bond that would last until death. When Smith became Governor again, he brought Moses with him. And when Moses convinced Smith to focus on a parks program, Smith offered him the presidency of the planned Parks Commission.

Moses had learned how to draft crafty bills, a skill gained from Smith and Moskowitz. In the Parks Commission legislation, Moses inserted
a clause buried deep within the act empowered the Long Island State Park Commission to acquire land by condemnation and appropriation "in the manner provided by section fifty-nine of the conservation law."
[...] In 1924, "appropriation" had only one meaning in a legislative context: an allocation of funds by the Legislature.
[...] In 1884, the Legislature passed an act empowering the state to "appropriate" forest lands and defining "appropriation" as a procedure in which a state official could take possession of the land simply by walking on it and telling the owner he no longer owned it.
In other words, he exploited multiple meanings of a legal term in a way that only the most savvy of legislators would detect. His friend Al Smith was likely the only one who would know. By writing this language into the bill he gave himself, in effect, almost unlimited power to take private property. That was not all: he made it virtually impossible to be removed as president of the Commission, to be audited by an outside party, or to be questioned by any of the subordinate departments he controlled.

He would use this power almost immediately to begin seizing land for parks in Long Island. He used it to break the robber baron stranglehold on Long Island, who had long conspired to keep the "rabble" from New York City away from their estates. But he also used it to immiserate poor working farmers who happened to own land in the path of one of his planned "parkways." And more often than not, he was willing to make accommodations for the rich and powerful, while rolling over those who were not "elite" enough.
Under Belle Moskowitz's tutelage, Bob Moses had changed from an uncompromising idealist to a man willing to deal with practical considerations; now the alteration had become more drastic. Under her tutelage, he had been learning the politicians' way; now he almost seemed to have joined their ranks.
More, he was openly scornful of men who hadn't, of men who still worried about the Truth when what counted was votes. He was openly scornful of reformers whose first concern was accuracy, who were willing to devote their lives to fighting for principle and who wanted to make that fight without compromise or surrender of any part of the ideals with which they had started it.
Bob Moses was scornful, in short, of what he had been.
He created new parks, he restored old ones beautifully, he did a lot of nice things for the people of New York. But he also did a lot of terrible things to many individuals, and while he was happy to create amenities for "the people," he seemed to have a complete disregard for actual people---particularly minorities, the poor, or anyone who dared disagree with him.
"He doesn't love the people," [Frances Perkins] was to say. "It used to shock me because he was doing all these things for the welfare of the people . . . He'd denounce the common people terribly. To him they were lousy, dirty people, throwing bottles all over Jones Beach. `I'll get them! I'll teach them!' . . . He loves the public but not as people. The public is just the public. It's a great amorphous mass to him; it needs to be bathed, it needs to be aired, it needs recreation, but not for personal reasons---just to make it a better public."
There's so much more---funny, sad and fascinating---and I'm only partway through the book myself. I'm definitely glad I picked it up.

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