The Power Broker, Chapter 30: Robert Moses and Mayor Vincent R. Impellitteri
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Note from Josh: The following is an excerpt of chapter 34 of the Power Broker, called “Moses and the Mayors”. The chapter is about Moses’ relationship with all of the mayors of NYC that overlapped with Moses’ “rule” over NYC.
This excerpt covers just one of the mayors’ overlap with Moses’ rule, but the way Moses wields his power over the mayor is absolute, and defies summarization.
The mayor did nothing for several years but give Moses everything Moses asked for.
The following is an 11-page execerpt from The Power Broker, pages 787-798.
I’m cleaning the text up and adding some footnotes where it feels appropriate
I first drafted this in 2020!
All during August, Moses had been in South America, drawing up a Rockefeller-financed plan of improvements for São Paulo, utterly unaware of the events crushing in on O’Dwyer. But O’Dwyer’s resignation was to place the city in his power more completely than ever before.
By law, the successor to a retiring mayor is the President of the City Council. By fate, the Council presidency was held in 1950 by an individual who, during the entire forty-five utterly undistinguished years of his life prior to his nomination to that $25,000-per-year post, had never been deemed worthy of holding any job more responsible than that of secretary, at $6,500 per year, to a judge named Schmuck.
The nomination of this totally unknown minor Tammany ward heeler to the city’s second-highest elective office, the position of succession to the mayoralty, had “staggered,” in Warren Moscow’s words, “even the most imaginative among political reporters.” And so had the explanation of how he had obtained the nomination. At a last-minute reshuffling of the 1945 Democratic ticket, the leaders finally agreed on Lazarus Joseph for Comptroller, and then realized that since O’Dwyer was Irish and from Brooklyn, while Joseph was Jewish and from the Bronx, the slate could have ethnic and geographic balance only if its third member was an Italian from Manhattan-and were unable to think of a single Manhattan Italian official they could trust. After hours of impasse, one leader reasoned that since legal secretaryships to State Supreme Court justices carried a respectable salary for which little or no work was required, they would have been given oply “safest” of Democratic workers.
Pulling out a little “Green Book,” the official directory of city employees, he turned to the list of legal secretaries, ran his finger down it looking for a name that even the dumbest voter be able to tell was Italian-and came to Vincent R. Impellitteri, “No one knew who the hell he was,” Reuben Lazarus was to recall, but, looking up Impellitteri’s address, the leaders determined that he lived in Manhattan, telephoned his district leader and were assured: “You don’t have to worry about him. He’s a good boy.”
Although attested to privately by members of Tammany’s hierarchy (and by Moses, whose presence at the crucial ticket-making session - he was the only “outsider” there - reveals his standing with that hierarchy), this explanation seemed almost unbelievable - until one met Impellitteri.
If he had a single qualification for the job other than the length of his name and the fact that it ended in a vowel, he kept it carefully hidden during his five-year tenure (he was re-elected with O’Dwyer in 1949) as Council President. “The perfect Throttlebottom,” Moscow called him. “He voted as the mayor told him to, on matters he did not necessarily understand, and spent most of his waking hours shaking hands at public dinners, political clambakes, and cornerstone layings too unimportant to merit the mayor’s presence.”
Amiable but slow-witted, he was a joke among political insiders. But now he was mayor - and the joke was on the city.
Impellitteri’s wits may have been slow, but he had two fast wits - ex-O’Dwyer aide Bill Donoghue and a young sharpie named Sydney S. Baron - as PR men.
Impellitteri had to run in a special election in November if he wanted to hold the office he had fallen into, which meant that he had less than ten weeks in which to create an image and a record, and his PR men quickly hit on two ways to do it:
- first, take advantage of the fact that no one knew him, that he was therefore not identified with any political bosses, that his opponent, Ferdinand Pecora, was backed by Tammany boss DeSapio and that unable to get Impellitteri the Democratic nomination, the clique in Tammany that pulled his strings had him running as an independent, and portray him as the “anti-boss,” “anti-politician,” “anti-corrupttion” candidate (one of Baron’s better lines: “If Pecora is elected, Frank Costello will be your mayor. But the voice will be that of Pecora”);
- second, identify him with Robert Moses.
The price of that identification came high, both in specifics - Moses made Impellitteri pledge publicly that if he was elected, he would not re-appoint Finkelstein - and in generalities: Impellitteri privately promised Moses even more of a free hand than he had enjoyed under O’Dwyer in setting all city construction policies. But Impellitteri paid it. He got full value in return. Refusing an offer of the Republican nomination (time had dimmed at least some GOP leaders’ memories of 1934), Moses gave him his endorsement. “Even I, who thought that by this time I knew Bob and the lengths to which he would go, never thought he would go that far,” says Lazarus. Remonstrating, he said, “But, Bob, he hasn’t any capacity for the job at all!”
Moses’ response? “He laughed at that.”
Publicly, the Coordinator declared that Impellitteri “has shown extraordinary courage and independence.” And, as always, a Moses endorsement made almost every front page in town. (The Herald Tribune article stated: “It was not a political endorsement, Mr. Moses basing his support on his opinion that the Impellitteri administration was carrying out the city construction program as planned.”)
Moses led Impellitteri around to officiate at openings of – and share in the credit and front-page pictures for – highways and housing projects with which he had had nothing to do except to affix his signature as Council President to documents his aides say he often had not even bothered to read.
Most observers, noting that the campaign consisted mainly of charges and counter-charges of bossism and corruption, felt that the endorsement from an official characterized as “independent” and believed above corruption was an important factor almost as important as the decision by newspaper headline writers to call him “Impy” and thus give him a lovable public image-in Impellitteri’s victory, the first in the city’s history by a candidate running on an independent line without the support of either major party. And after his election, Impellitteri continued to pay the price eagerly.
Thanks to his PR men and his physical appearance - his addiction to the blue suit and the boutonniere, combined with his iron-gray hair, deeply earnest mien and stolidity that during the campaign was mistaken for dignity, made him the very model of a modern mayor; at the approach of a camera his brow would furrow, his lips would purse, his jaw would jut and his eyes would focus on whatever piece of paper happened to be handy just as intently as if he understood the words written on it - Impy had run a great race, but once in possession of the prize he had won, he proved to have not the slightest idea of what to do with it.
He disclaimed any influence over the Board of Estimate, telling reporters, “All I have is three votes on it, you know.” Mayors were always telling reporters that but City Hall insiders soon realized, to their astonish- ment, that this mayor believed it. Says one of his aides, Victor F. Condello: “Impy never understood that he had any power at all.” Once Condello suggested that the Mayor call the five borough presidents to an executive session to discuss a thorny issue. “Yeah,” the Mayor said, “that’s a good idea.” Pause. “You think they’ll come?”
He was too timid to confront even his own subordinates. Once, a newspaper leveled detailed charges against one. The next time they met, the Mayor asked him if the charges were true. Of course not, the appointee said