Robert Moses and Robert Caro had identical epiphanies—40 years apart. Moses’ flash of insight came to him in the early 1920s. Caro, the early ‘60s. I hope my millennial friends have an identical epiphany.

Robert Moses (1888-1981) did as much as anyone to institutionalize car culture. He sliced and diced New York City, building most of its modern-day freeways and bridges. Moses’ work began with an epiphany he had in his mid-30s. Robert Caro (1935-) experienced an identical epiphany but earlier in life, in his mid-20s. His came from investigating the work of Robert Moses. Here’s the story.

In the early 1960s Caro was an investigative reporter at Newsday. He was assigned to look into Robert Moses’ plan to build a bridge across Long Island Sound to Oyster Bay. Caro thought it was the world’s worst idea. The piers would have had to be so big that they’d disrupt the tides.

Caro wrote a series exposing the folly of Moses’ scheme. Supportive letters poured in. Caro assumed he had persuaded almost everyone, including the governor, Nelson Rockefeller. But then he got a call from a friend in Albany. “Bob, I think you need to come up here.” Caro got there in time for a vote in the Assembly authorizing funding for the bridge. It passed 138-4.

“That was one of the transformational moments of my life,” Caro recalls. “I got in the car and drove home to Long Island, and I kept thinking to myself: ‘You’ve been writing under the belief that power in a democracy comes from the ballot box. But here’s a guy who has never been elected to anything, who has enough power to turn the entire state around, and you don’t have the slightest idea how he got it.’ ”

Caro discovered how by doing a little investigative work. This led to an epiphany, explained in his biography of Moses, The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York. Moses started out in 1914 as a passionate reformer of New York’s corrupt Tammany Hall. “In those pre-World War I years of optimism, of reform, of idealism, Robert Moses was the optimist of optimists, the reformer of reformer, the idealist of idealists,” Caro writes. Moses believed that great ideas form new values and that Tammany Hall would be moved to act on them. City leaders were moved. They fired Moses in 1918.

Moses moved his family to Cleveland. Shortly thereafter, he had an epiphany. Ideas are useless without power to transform them into reality. Power rests in a dense, overlapping network of institutions and the leaders who run them.

This transformed Moses’ life. He returned to New York City and over the next four decades headed up over seven culture-shaping institutions, including Park Commissioner, Construction Coordinator, and member of the City Planning Commission. The city’s culture was transformed from mass transit to automobiles.

Caro’s epiphany came to him in 1965. He had a Nieman fellowship at Harvard and took a class in land use and urban planning. “They were talking one day about highways and where they got built,” he recalled, “and here were these mathematical formulas about traffic density and population density and so on, and all of a sudden I said to myself: ‘This is completely wrong. This isn’t why highways get built. Highways get built because Robert Moses wants them built there.’” Institutions rule. Caro decided to write a book on Moses and power.

The eminent sociologist Peter Berger, who died on June 27th, argued that ideas don’t succeed in history because of their inherent truthfulness. It’s because of their connection to very powerful institutions. Millennials are skeptical of institutions and in many ways I can’t blame them. Many of our institutions are a mess. But you can’t make much of a dent in the world if you don’t transform institutions. My hope is that millennials have an epiphany identical to the one Moses and Caro had.

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6 Responses to “Identical Epiphanies”

  1. Barnabas says:

    Interesting prompt, Mike. I prefer to distinguish between personal, institutional and structural power. Each can have positives and negatives. Historically we have seen depths of development in each area, with particular emphasis being placed on political and spiritual influence. The personal being political being met by institutional and structural mindsets. Key is identifying the nuance towards resonant communities.

  2. Luder Whitlock says:

    Well done. Caro went on to write a massive and revealing biography of LBJ another person who learned how to use power

  3. Mike Metzger says:

    Luder: Indeed massive, as in a four-volume biography. LBJ discovered the power of institutions when the railroads bypassed his West Texas town, dooming it to die a slow anguishing death as commerce bloomed along the new rail networks..

  4. David Greusel says:

    Mike, I take your point that institutions are the place where the power to make real change resides. But we must never forget that ideas have consequences, too. Nietzsche was not a powerful person, per se, but his ideas ended up fueling the rise of Nazi Germany (through its institutions). Gender fluidity was cooked up by a bunch of academics (I don’t even know their names, though I probably should), then enacted by institutions, starting with elite universities and branching out from there. But the institutions would have nothing to enact if somebody somewhere wasn’t cooking up the ideas.

  5. Steve Edwards says:

    Mike, I’m in agreement with your idea that institutions are in position to exercise great power (both good and bad)…but I also see massive change being brought forth by individuals who are willing to take a stand and pay the price…e.g., Gandhi and MLK. I believe there is a tension in life and rarely is one side completely correct and the other side completely wrong…of course, all of this is wrapped in Truth.

  6. Trent McEntyre says:

    Dense overlapping network of institutions include business and social structures, not just government or religious.

    We are planting a church and our mission foci are the institutions in our area. Honestly very few people seem to expect it but it makes sense to almost everyone.

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