3.) The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York
by Robert Caro.
This is the best non-fiction book I have ever read. Seriously. It is probably the best biography, the best urban history, and the best study of power written in the latter half of the 20th century (though Caro's still-unfinished LBJ saga may top "Broker;" I haven't read those yet). Essentially, for 40+ years Robert Moses was the most powerful man in the entire state of New York. A large portion of his power was derived from his chairmanship of the Triborough Bridge Authority. Typically, a public authority shuts down after its bonds have been repaid and its construction projects have been finished. But Moses, called by Caro "the best bill drafter in Albany," set up the Authority in a way that allowed him to continually issue bonds year after year after year. And since the Constitution states that "No states shall...impair the obligations of contracts," no one could do anything about it. Triborough became a small empire for Moses...at its homebase on Randall's Island, the TBA was the supreme law of the land, and it was enforced by some 200 TBA police officers. Moses often used them to escort his big limousine around NYC and Long Island. The big factor in Moses' power was the press. For four decades he maintained the image of a totally non-political and selfless public servant (he famously refused to take a salary for most of his positions). The sometimes-willful ignorance of the press to Moses' abuses of power are amazing to read. Caro painstakingly documents so many of them. His genius and his impact can almost be up as inimitable. Name a major bridge, parkway, expressway, thruway, park, or beach in the New York metropolitan area, Long Island, or New York State, and the MAJORITY of them will have been built by Robert Moses. This was a guy who almost never slept, who swam out into the middle of the ocean alone when he was in his 80s, who fell into absolutely horrifying bouts of rage when someone dared to disagree with him. He may have been one of the greatest abusers of power in our nation's history but holy shit did he get stuff done. I loved reading about the absolute control he exercised over various New York mayors, governors, and other officials. He would routinely ignore requests to meet with mayors; if they wanted to meet with Moses, they had to come to him. Every time a new mayor was sworn in, Moses would grab the slips on which mayoral appointments were written and write his own name and position
on them. The mayor would then meekly sign it, knowing that he couldn't possibly deny Moses any of those positions. I could say so much more but I'll end with this: Moses was one of the most fascinating politicians in the history of this country. But so many have already forgotten him. I hope people will read this book to learn not only about Moses, bu about New York, Washington, and most importantly the use of political power in this country.