Sunday, August 31, 2008

Faves: The Power Broker

 Photo by the brilliant Arnold Newman
Mein Frau tells me that when Obama took up politics, he was told to read several essential books.  One of them was Robert Caro's The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York.  Too right. This Pulitzer winning biography explains the hidden politics that underlies public life.  Its not concealed, just below the journalistic radar.  What I learned particularly is how power is wielded through institutions.  Nobody but a king has intrinsic power.  Everyone else needs to hold an office to exercise power.  You either gain a powerful office, or you create one.  President of the United States is an example of the former, Beloved Leader is Kim Jong Ill's example of the latter.  Caro shows that power has structure, and explains the principles of that structure, the underlying pattern.

Apart from the politics, and the nauseous Mr. Moses, the book is well worth reading because of Caro's writing.  The man could write the telephone book and make it interesting.  Besides being a biography of Moses, the book is a first-rate biography of New York City from 1900 through 1970.  And a fascinating biography it is.  Caro also provides mini-biographies of the many interesting and important people that Moses crossed paths with.  They include Fiorello La Guardia, FDR, Nelson Rockefeller, Al Smith, Tom Dewey and Averell Harriman.  Some of these, like La Guardia's are brilliant in their own right.

Its a long, dense book.  But for anyone that wants to know how power really operates in a democracy, this is a must-read.

The Power Broker on Wikipedia
The Power Broker on Amazon
Robert Caro on Wikipedia
Robert Caro's site