The Power Broker – What we’re reading

by Anthony Bertelli

Robert Caro‘s biography of Robert Moses, The Power Broker, winner of the 1974 Pulitzer Prize, has become an indispensable book for scholars seeking to understand public administration.  I’m sure it wouldn’t be hard to find colleagues who agree with that assessment.  Moses shaped the politics and infrastructure of New York, and Caro reveals the process through which he institutionalized the power need to do it.  One of my favorite bits is Caro’s discussion of Moses as a civil service reformer early in his career, proposing to reshape personnel practices in a city still in the shadow of Tammany Hall.  Caro writes that his “proposal was of a purity, a strength and a scope that was almost more religious than governmental” (p. 75), which describes so many proposals to change governmental practices.  Yet the lesson is that Moses lost his way, “firing Park Department employees on whim and paying favorites two salaries at once” (p. 472).  Practicing public management fundamentally requires the skill of argumentation, and Caro shows us a cautionary tale of what can be done when the argument is won.