As loyal Spotlight readers know, I have been reading anew The Power Broker, Robert Caro's epic history of Robert Moses, the master builder of New York in the 20th century. Caro's prose, which is prosecutorial in tone, has stirred many thoughts in me and some of the most recent are about steroids and baseball.
See the connection? I thought not. I'll explain.
I don't follow sports, but even I was aware 10 or so years ago, when Sammy Sosa, Mark McGuire and others were slamming 50, 60 and 70 home runs a year, that players were juicing themselves up. Even an idle glance at the sports page revealed that baseball teams, unlike the National Football League and the Olympics, were not requiring mandatory testing for drugs. Surely people knew what that would lead to. Even a blind man could see that something was going on, as these heavily muscled sluggers faced beefy pitchers and knocked balls out of the park.
A few years later came the steroid scandals, and eventually various players were hauled before courts and Congress and grilled for their use of illegal performance enhancing drugs. As these scandals continued, the attitude of both the public and officials reminded me of the inspector in the movie Casablanca, who pronounced himself "shocked, shocked to find out that gambling is going on."
But wait a second. If I, a non sports follower, realized what was going on surely more astute observers did as well. When it was convenient, the public, the press and the officials collectively averted their eyes from steroid use. They worked hard not to see something. Later, again when convenient, they cast scorn on those same players, the very ones once cheered.
I think something similar happened with Robert Moses.
Moses, who now symbolizes power run amok and bad urban planning, was extremely popular for most of his career from the 1920s to the late 1960s. The public loved the speed with which he built the Triborough Bridge, Jones Beach and hundreds of other parks, highways and bridges. The efficiency with which Moses and his men performed his tasks stood in contrast to the sclerotic nature of New York state and city government in general at that time. In the early part of Moses career, New York City was still under the Tammany hall Machine, while New York State was no modicum of efficiency.
In this light, in this context, Moses stood out as a savior.
But as he was doing things, people surely knew, or should have, that he was cutting corners, pushing people around, and bending and breaking rules. And in the later part of his career, as Moses pushed more and more freeways through the middle of dense urban neighborhoods, displacing hundreds of thousands of people, there was also an awareness, or should have been, that he was taking one line of action — roads — too far, doing more damage than good.
Sure, there was some attempts to check Moses, even the height of his fame. RPA deserves some credit here. Its president George McAneny led the fight against Moses' attempt to build a bridge in 1940 into Battery Park from Brooklyn, which would have marred much of Lower Manhattan. And in general, RPA was consistent in calling for a balanced transportion system, even as Moses called for roads, roads, roads. But overall, RPA's notes of opposition were lost in the roar of public approval of Moses.
Finally, in the 1960s, Moses got old, and was pushed from power. And around this same time, along comes Robert Caro, his ruthless and indefatigable biographer. Caro's 1200-page book is unbelievably good, still an exemplar of non-fiction writing. But there is a way in which Caro, in holding Moses accountable for his actions, lets the rest of us off the hook. Caro made it easy for us to heap scorn upon Moses and his memory, for the way he rammed freeways through neighborhoods, for the way he humiliated and ruined opponents. But of course, it was the collective we that was standing aside and letting him do all these things back in the day. Not just letting him, but encouraging him, heaping praise upon him for these various actions.
All this parallels the steroids scandals. We look the other way while the home runs were being slugged, but then cast opprobrium when it's safe or convenient. Moses's and Mark McGuire's reputations died for our sins.
Americans, said Philip Roth in one of his novels, have always been vulnerable to the ecstasy of sanctimony. I intensely dislike most of what Moses did, and see how the city I loved was crippled and damaged by his actions. But before we write another page of history that says how awful Moses was, we should keep a lookout for the next bandwagon we collectively leap on too quickly, at the other things we are choosing not to see....