Another two thumbs up for Robert Caro’s book The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York. It easily ranks among the top 5 books I’ve ever read, a mesmerizing study of power in the hands of one man, the New York state and City parks commissioner. A parks commissioner!
This passage caught my attention today:
If a commissioner [of another department resisted his attempts to circumvent the law], Moses used the public rather than the private smear. “Mr. Moses told me . . . that he was able to control the press of New York City, so as to hold me up to such obloquy that I would not be able to stand it,” W. Kingsland Macy had testified a decade before. The smear technique that had been used then was used now–frequently.
In the hands of a man for whom the press acted as a gigantic sounding board, repeating and amplifying his words, the smear was a terrible weapon–particularly when those words were as caustic and cutting as Moses’. . . . (469)
How bad was it? How deep in Moses’ pocket were the press? This deep:
Mrs. Sulzberger [daughter of the founder of the New York Times, wife of the publisher in the 1930s] believed that Moses came “close to our ideal of what a Park Commissioner should be”; the Times evidently believed so, too. Its reporters and editors may never have been directly ordered to give Moses special treatment but, during the Thirties as during the Twenties, they were not so insensitive as not to know what was expected of them. Moses’ press releases were treated with respect, being given prominent treatment and often being printed in full. There were no investigating of the “facts” presented in those press releases, no attempt at detailed analysis of his theories of recreation and transportation, no probing of the assumption on which the city was building and maintaining recreational facilities and roads. The Times ran more than one hundred editorials on Moses and his programs during the twelve-year La Guardia administration–overwhelmingly favorable editorials. (461)
Just imagine what it would be like if a president of the United States had so much power and such a compliant press?