In “Power Broker,” his remarkable 1976 biography of Robert Moses, author Robert Caro dissects how Moses schemed to acquire power that he used to reshape New York City, too often for the worse. Caro’s meticulous research and analysis convince over the course of more than 1,000 pages, but in the introduction he captures the essence of his argument. Power “is a drug that creates in the user a need for larger and larger dosages,” Caro writes. “And Moses was a user.”
Moses was a brilliant, adept and crafty user, making him all the more dangerous. Today we are presented with an absolute epidemic of power addicts in public life and some days my only hope is that their incompetence will spare us the worst consequences of this plague.
Like many powerful drugs, power warps judgment, obscures consequences and often makes the users feel invulnerable, untouchable.
And, as is the case with our goofy governor, how often has it seemed that a man who perceives himself as powerful has gotten a little fuzzy on where he ends and a diety begins? Did Matt Bevin feel like Zeus casting lightening bolts when he — at taxpayer expense — made a video of himself exploding grenades in the air?
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Actually our savior-governor — and florid 6th District congressman — most often seem to display their sense of power by subjecting an innocent public to a barrage of incoherent verbiage. Have you ever watched one of Bevin’s videos where, preening, lecturing, ranting, lost in his own tortured syntax, he just can’t stop himself?
How many times have any of us wondered “how can he be so stupid” when politicians or sports or business figures get caught in the most ridiculous and disgusting situations involving those popular proxies for power, sex and money?
Remember when Paul Patton started doing favors for his nursing home-owning girlfriend or Jim Ramsey became so engorged on power from his summit as president of the University of Louisville that he thought no governance applied to him and he owed no answers?
But the kingpins play at the federal level. What sense of power and invulnerability makes Mitch McConnell, an elected official who is up for reelection next year, feel that it’s OK for the people who work for him at taxpayer expense in his public office to, literally, lock the doors when constituents come calling to express themselves?
And, of course, those constituents were complaining about an action of the biggest user of them all, the guy who was a little unhinged even before he became president of the United States, aka the most powerful man in the world. Mainlining!
He’s so addled by power that he thinks it’s OK to shut down the government, taking paychecks away from hundreds of thousands of workers (and so their families and communities and mortgage holders, etc., etc.) as a bargaining chip to fulfill what was really never more than a one-liner that riled up the crowds who made him feel oh-so-powerful on the campaign trail.
Caro points out that Moses was able to use his power with impunity because, even though he was operating in a democracy, he did not answer to the voting public. Carefully and thoroughly Caro explains how Moses came to control so much public money and work that he could bend those who were elected to his will.
And, in a way, some of our federal elected officials seem to have freed themselves of the bonds of public opinion, the need to — God forbid — listen and respond to their constituents. A barrage of money — power in one of its purest forms — in the post-Citizens United world and the advent of social media have freed them from the bonds of listening to voters, creating a tortured imitation of democracy where, instead, they tell voters what to think.
Moses was brilliant and disciplined, an extraordinary, deeply flawed person. My hope is that this current crop of power brokers are more run-of-the-mill users, people who will become complacent and sloppy and, finally, write their own ruin.
Jacalayn Carfagno of Lexington is a former Herald-Leader editorial writer and columnist.