Robert Moses and Robert Caro had identical epiphanies—40 years apart. Moses’ flash of insight came to him in the early 1920s. Caro, the early ‘60s. I hope my millennial friends have an identical epiphany.
Robert Moses (1888-1981) did as much as anyone to institutionalize car culture. He sliced and diced New York City, building most of its modern-day freeways and bridges. Moses’ work began with an epiphany he had in his mid-30s. Robert Caro (1935-) experienced an identical epiphany but earlier in life, in his mid-20s. His came from investigating the work of Robert Moses. Here’s the story.
In the early 1960s Caro was an investigative reporter at Newsday. He was assigned to look into Robert Moses’ plan to build a bridge across Long Island Sound to Oyster Bay. Caro thought it was the world’s worst idea. The piers would have had to be so big that they’d disrupt the tides.
Caro wrote a series exposing the folly of Moses’ scheme. Supportive letters poured in. Caro assumed he had persuaded almost everyone, including the governor, Nelson Rockefeller. But then he got a call from a friend in Albany. “Bob, I think you need to come up here.” Caro got there in time for a vote in the Assembly authorizing funding for the bridge. It passed 138-4.
“That was one of the transformational moments of my life,” Caro recalls. “I got in the car and drove home to Long Island, and I kept thinking to myself: ‘You’ve been writing under the belief that power in a democracy comes from the ballot box. But here’s a guy who has never been elected to anything, who has enough power to turn the entire state around, and you don’t have the slightest idea how he got it.’ ”
Caro discovered how by doing a little investigative work. This led to an epiphany, explained in his biography of Moses, The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York. Moses started out in 1914 as a passionate reformer of New York’s corrupt Tammany Hall. “In those pre-World War I years of optimism, of reform, of idealism, Robert Moses was the optimist of optimists, the reformer of reformer, the idealist of idealists,” Caro writes. Moses believed that great ideas form new values and that Tammany Hall would be moved to act on them. City leaders were moved. They fired Moses in 1918.
Moses moved his family to Cleveland. Shortly thereafter, he had an epiphany. Ideas are useless without power to transform them into reality. Power rests in a dense, overlapping network of institutions and the leaders who run them.
This transformed Moses’ life. He returned to New York City and over the next four decades headed up over seven culture-shaping institutions, including Park Commissioner, Construction Coordinator, and member of the City Planning Commission. The city’s culture was transformed from mass transit to automobiles.
Caro’s epiphany came to him in 1965. He had a Nieman fellowship at Harvard and took a class in land use and urban planning. “They were talking one day about highways and where they got built,” he recalled, “and here were these mathematical formulas about traffic density and population density and so on, and all of a sudden I said to myself: ‘This is completely wrong. This isn’t why highways get built. Highways get built because Robert Moses wants them built there.’” Institutions rule. Caro decided to write a book on Moses and power.
The eminent sociologist Peter Berger, who died on June 27th, argued that ideas don’t succeed in history because of their inherent truthfulness. It’s because of their connection to very powerful institutions. Millennials are skeptical of institutions and in many ways I can’t blame them. Many of our institutions are a mess. But you can’t make much of a dent in the world if you don’t transform institutions. My hope is that millennials have an epiphany identical to the one Moses and Caro had.