May 5, 2012


Robert Caro: Political Power--How to Get It and Use It: Lyndon Johnson's famed biographer talks about what he's learned studying America's 36th President and Robert Moses. (BRIAN BOLDUC, 5/04/12, WSJ)

In the 1960s, he wrote an exposé for Newsday about urban planner Robert Moses's foolhardy plan to build a bridge across Long Island Sound from Rye, N.Y., to Oyster Bay, Long Island. Had the bridge been built, its gigantic piers would have interfered with the tide and caused water pollution, Mr. Caro argues. Although then-Gov. Nelson Rockefeller and State Assembly speaker Anthony Travia were both aware of the dangers, the assembly, under Moses's spell, initially voted in favor of the project "by something like 138 to 4."

That vote was a revelation to Mr. Caro. "Here's a guy who wasn't elected to anything, and he has more power than anyone else," he thought. "And you, Bob, think you're writing about political power, and you don't have any idea where he got this power."

His second great awakening occurred in 1965 while taking a class on urban planning at Harvard. The instructors were teaching the students that highways were built according to mathematical models: Urban planners measured factors like population density and commute time and picked their locations accordingly.

Still smarting from his encounter with Moses, Mr. Caro thought, "No, that's wrong. Highways get built where they're built because Robert Moses wants them built there." After realizing he had "something to contribute" to the field, Mr. Caro wrote a biography of Moses, "The Power Broker." It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1975. The volume has been so influential that even President Obama has acknowledged its influence on his thinking.

That year, Mr. Caro decided his next subject would be Johnson, who died in 1973. "You can use a biography to examine political power, but only if you pick the right guy," he says. "Moses was the right man because he had done something no one had done before: get power outside the elected process on that scale." Johnson, meanwhile, "understood national political power better than any president since [Franklin] Roosevelt."

Yet Mr. Caro discerns a key difference between his subjects. While Moses was an idealist whom power corrupted, Johnson wanted power for two reasons. "One," he says, "was to bend people to his will."

When Johnson was in college, for instance, he convinced the college president to let him assist in picking which students got campus jobs. As Mr. Caro writes in "The Passage of Power," "The wages from a campus job were often a student's only hope of paying his tuition." Spitefully, Johnson wouldn't recommend a student for a job unless he personally asked for his assistance.

Coexistent with this "naked desire for power," however, was a wish "to help the lives of poor people, particularly people of color," Mr. Caro adds. 

Posted by at May 5, 2012 10:08 AM

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