Robert Moses

An Atlantic portrait

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.

As a result of this investigation the Superintendent of Banks was sent to prison. Significant were the recommendations made by Moses for reform of the banking laws to prevent the recurrence of such scandals. He urged segregation of 'thrift' accounts in commercial banks; official examination of private banks; regulation of brokerage houses; control of the issuance of securities, 'down to the last detail,' whether those of a bank or a utility company; abolition of private banks, and the holding of directors criminally liable for the management of financial institutions. These recommendations were disregarded by the joint legislative committee, whose alternatives were denounced by Moses as 'puerile.' He declared that the words of the legislative reports 'will come back to haunt the gentlemen who wrote them.' And it was not long before the failure of the 'Bank of the United States,' with $200,000,000 in deposits and 400,000 depositors, revealed more of the evils Moses had denounced. Moses's stinging prophecies have a way of coming true.

IV

PRIOR to 1924, New York State had no unified park system. Scattered through the state were some forty parks and places of historic or scientific interest, directed by as many administrative bodies. In 1922 Moses drew up a State Park Plan proposing a unified system and a bond issue of $15,000,000 with which to expand and rehabilitate the parks and build highways leading to them. The Governor's early reaction was not particularly encouraging, but he finally became a park enthusiast. The bond issue was voted in the fall of 1923, and in 1924 eleven regional commissions were set up under a Council of Parks, with Moses as chairman. He was also made president of the Long Island State Park Commission.

In the next few years the State Park System of New York became a model for the country. From Lake Erie and Lake Ontario, through the Adirondacks, the Alleghenies, and the Catskills, to the sand bars of Long Island, there stretches a chain of seventy public parks of the most varied sizes and character. Mr. Moses has promoted and coordinated the work of the various commissions throughout the state, but his special interest has been on Long Island, a natural playground for the millions who live in metropolitan New York.

Long Island is one hundred and eighteen miles long and about fifteen miles wide for most of its length. Four million of the seven and one-half million inhabitants of New York City live at its westerly end, in the boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens. Several hundred thousand persons live in Nassau and Suffolk counties, which spread out a hundred miles from the city line. Many of these people work in Manhattan, daily battling their way back and forth in jammed subways or overcrowded bridges.

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