Robert Moses

An Atlantic portrait

Moses's biggest political mistake was in accepting the Republican nomination to oppose Herbert Lehman for the Governorship in 1934. His candidacy was hopeless from the start. Both Roosevelt and Smith were backing Lehman, and New Deal enthusiasm was running high. Moses prepared for a stirring debate with Governor Lehman. Finding himself attacked as the candidate of the reactionary G.O.P. 'Old Guard,' and linked by implication with all the powerful financial interests in the state, Moses exploited to the full Governor Lehman's connection with the Lehman Brothers' banking house. Incidentally, the Moses and Lehman homes in New York were on the same block, and the families grew up together. And Lehman Brothers handled the sale of bonds for Moses's New York City Parkway Authority in 1938.

When Governor Lehman refused to be drawn into debate, Moses lost his temper and blundered into violent personal attacks on the Governor. His charge that Lehman was a 'liar,' provoked by a statement on the milk controversy, and unrestrained onslaughts, contrasted with the dignified and mild manner of Lehman's campaigning, created an unfavorable impression. Moses further distressed his advisers and managers by espousing a state sales tax and other unpopular measures; it was difficult to get him to pose for photographers, and when a prominent banker came to see him at a time when campaign contributions were badly needed, he merely shook hands and asked, 'How is your wife?'

Before the campaign ended, Moses seemed to realize his errors. At least he became more philosophical and revived his sense of humor. He received the bad election news early in the evening, sent Lehman congratulations, and went off to a grand party of his campaign workers at Sardi's. The next morning he was back on his park jobs, ready to forget the strange interlude.

Some of his opponents were not ready to forget. Strong pressure was brought to bear on Lehman to remove Moses from his state park positions. An effort was made to persuade Mayor La Guardia to drop Moses from the Triborough Bridge Authority. This was followed by Secretary Ickes's celebrated Order No. 129, decreeing that federal funds be withheld from agencies administered by persons holding municipal positions. Moses fell under its jurisdiction, and the order, if carried out, meant that he must relinquish either his park commissionership or his bridge job. The way in which press and public came to the support of Moses in this controversy was the greatest tribute he has ever received. New Dealers and friends of the President felt that a serious mistake had been made. The President evidently came to the same conclusion, for Order No. 129 was withdrawn and both the President and Secretary Ickes spoke at the opening of Triborough Bridge, which was finished in 1936 on schedule.

Moses was named a delegate to the Cleveland Convention in 1936, but refused to go because he was out of sympathy with Charles D. Hilles, National Committeeman. During the recent Constitutional Convention, to which Moses was a delegate, he was outspoken in his criticism of the Republican leadership, and fought side by side on many issues with his old friend, former Governor Smith, a Democratic delegate.

The Moses political credo has changed little through the years. He believes the great middle class is 'inherently, fundamentally, and incurably conservative,' yet he is critical of standpatters. In accord with many basic New Deal purposes, he directs his fire at policies which he thinks are unworkable because administrative brains and trained personnel are lacking.

Mr. Moses diagnoses America's present troubles, and those of the world at large, as due primarily to the extreme economic and political 'nationalisms' in vogue since the war. 'I don't know why I didn't appreciate Woodrow Wilson while he was alive,' Mr. Moses says. 'I thought he was just a college professor. I realize now that he was a very great man. The League of Nations could not be made to work when it was first set up, yet the idea that this or any country can for any length of time pursue a policy of isolation is ridiculous.' He regards Cordell Hull as the bright particular star of the Roosevelt Administration and heartily approves the Secretary of State's efforts to promote international amity and reciprocal trade.

In the meantime Robert Moses has his work to do, and, if one can tell anything by what his limited objectives have meant so far, the people of New York State will reap a bright inheritance.

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