Robert Moses

An Atlantic portrait

Deciding to make public administration his special study, Moses matriculated at Wadham College, Oxford, following his graduation from Yale in 1909. At Oxford he captained the swimming and water polo teams, and received a Bachelor of Arts degree with honors in jurisprudence in 1911 and a Master of Arts degree in 1913. He has not been abroad since; in recent years his longest journeys have been for brief winter vacations at Key West, Florida.

A terrific outspokenness, which never counts the odds against him, appeared in one Oxford experience when he was selected to represent his college at a world congress on racial problems. His frankness so infuriated some of the intense nationalist groups that once he had to flee from the platform and escape through a rear exit. One of the delegates, an assistant to the Khedive of Egypt, was so impressed that he offered Moses a position as Secretary to the Khedive. Moses declined, but later he and a classmate visited Egypt to study what was being done under Kitchener and developed a profound admiration for British colonial administration.

Results of his studies on this subject may be read in his book, The Civil Service of Great Britain, started while at Oxford and completed as his thesis for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in political science which he received from Columbia in 1914. This work sets forth the basic political philosophy of Robert Moses concerning efficient government under a democratic system.

While at Columbia, Moses was attracted by the work of the Bureau of Municipal Research and became a voluntary aid. New York, in revolt against Tammany Hall, had elected a Fusion Mayor, John Purroy Mitchel, and Moses worked on city budgetary and other municipal problems until the United States joined in the World War. Then he became superintendent of production and assistant to the manager of the Emergency Fleet Corporation. Impatience with red tape and open contempt for inefficiency led to a row that caused him to resign.

Meanwhile, on August 15, 1915, he had married Mary Louise Sims, of Dodgeville, Wisconsin. Granddaughter of the Reverend George Sims, a Methodist circuit rider, Mrs. Moses had grown up under the progressive political philosophy of Robert M. La Follette, and after being secretary to Governor F. E. McGovern she joined the forces of the Municipal Research Bureau in New York. The mutuality of interests that brought Mr. and Mrs. Moses together persists, and makes Mrs. Moses one of her husband's most valued advisers. With their two daughters, they live in an apartment on the upper East Side, overlooking the river, the island parks, and Triborough Bridge. They have a simple old house in the village of Babylon, Long Island. Moses's inheritance helps him to live comfortably, but he is not wealthy, as is commonly supposed, and public service has involved many family sacrifices.

III

FIVE days before the Armistice, in 1918, Alfred E. Smith was elected Governor of New York, and promptly named an unofficial, bipartisan Reconstruction Commission to study problems left by the war. Moses, as chief of staff of the Committee on Retrenchment and Reorganization, prepared its report. This was the beginning of the reform of the state government; it was also the beginning of a close relationship between the Democratic Governor and this young independent Republican.

The Moses report recommended consolidation of state departments, an executive budget, and a four-year term for Governor, all features of the Constitution of 1915 which had been rejected at the polls. Smith's defeat by Nathan L. Miller in 1920 caused this programme to be shelved, but the campaign continued. Moses became secretary and active head of the New York State Association, a nonpartisan organization. Its Bulletin became an organ for all the reforms fostered during the first term of Governor Smith, with special emphasis on reorganization. Smith again sought the governorship in 1922, and this time was reelected, to resume his long fight for basic changes in the structure of the state government. Moses moved into the executive offices at Albany along with Governor Smith.

"'Bob" Moses is the most efficient administrator I have ever met in public life,' declares the former Governor. 'He was the best bill drafter we ever had at Albany and wrote all the reorganization bills. I know he went to Yale and Oxford, but he didn't get that keen mind of his from any college. And he was a hard worker. He worked on trains, anywhere and any time. When everyone else was ready for bed he would go back to work.'

Moses's energy was matched by his zeal. Al Smith is a great fun lover and was not always as serious as his young assistant. On one occasion, when 'Bob' was earnestly expounding his ideas on legislation, the Governor listened speechless until Moses had completed his fervent exhortation, then dropped from his chair to the floor in a pretended faint. But he never faltered in his support of the young man he found so capable and useful.

Moses's apprenticeship as an administrator of varied agencies came when the Governor appointed him Secretary of State in 1927 -- an office which was a general catchall for bureaus left over in the reorganization. He was a busy man for two years under Governor Smith, then an active candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1928. Roosevelt became the candidate for Governor in the same year and was elected, while Smith went down to defeat. The only request Smith made of his successor was an appeal to Roosevelt to reappoint Moses as Secretary of State, yet Moses was the only member of the State Cabinet who was not reappointed. The relationship of Roosevelt and Moses is one of those tangles for which Albany is famous. Roosevelt is supposed to have turned down Smith's recommendation of Moses because Moses turned down the appointment of Roosevelt's secretary, Louis M. Howe, to a sinecure in the Council of Parks. Yet, as Governor, Roosevelt acquiesced in Acting Governor Lehman's appointment of Moses as Moreland Commissioner to investigate the failure of the City Trust Company in 1929.

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