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The Old Man and the She

89-year-old Manhattan D.A. Robert Morgenthau has set himself one last duty before stepping away: to prevent the brassy Leslie Crocker Snyder from getting his job. So far, he’s botching it.


He does not mention her by name. In private, she is That Woman. Or she is Blondie. Say the poisonous syllables out loud—“Leslie Crocker Snyder”—loud enough for him to hear, and the face of Robert Morgenthau, Manhattan District Attorney for Eternity, contorts and puckers.

“It looks like he’s biting into a lemon,” says one confidant.

Now Morgenthau sits in his office at One Hogan Place, doing his best to slip, divert, dodge, reroute, talk over, and obfuscate every question I ask about what he really thinks of her. After nine terms as D.A., he refuses to meddle in the ongoing race to succeed him. Then he finally caves.

“She’s living in the past,” Morgenthau, who turns 90 next month, says. That past was Manhattan’s crack-and-murder years: a time when Morgenthau wanted his overload of violent cases argued in Snyder’s courtroom, a period she detailed in her memoir, a tell-all of the death threats against her and the exploits of gangs like the Jheri Curls.

Morgenthau doesn’t care for the book, starting with its title.

Twenty-five to Life?” he says, his face in full pucker mode.

Now, on to the contents. He can’t get over the passage in which the former judge talks about getting so disgusted with a defendant she felt like “[giving] him the lethal injection myself.” Or the one about what a drag it was to be appointed to the Consumer Fraud Bureau—as if that wasn’t a crucial part of a district attorney’s job. He sees Snyder as a get-tough-on-crime braggart who mocked defendants from the bench (“I hope you suffer every day of your life,” she once said) and hit Elaine’s to touch up her celebrity.

Now her campaign. He wants to know how she could hold a fund-raiser, as she did in April, at a nightclub like Marquee, which the cops temporarily shuttered because of drug dealing on the premises.

But the root of Morgenthau’s problem with Snyder is her impertinence. Four years ago, Snyder challenged Morgenthau in a Democratic primary, his first serious fight in twenty years. One central tenet of her campaign was that Morgenthau was too old. “He’s the district attorney of the past, and I’m the district attorney of the future,” she said. Morgenthau won handily—but that was the easy part. The hard part was to ensure that, once he left the job, Snyder couldn’t step in to take it.

But over the past four years, Morgenthau’s attempt to groom a replacement who is strong enough to beat Snyder has plunged his office into a state of chaos. Dan Castleman, his top aide, resigned in a huff. Morgenthau is no longer coy about who he wants. “I want to see Vance elected,” he says. “He doesn’t need to stick his chest out to be tough.” But Cyrus Vance Jr. has failed to impress many elected officials and political clubs, who have been flocking to support the dark horse: Richard Aborn, a former prosecutor turned gun-control advocate.

“I think I bring a sense of fairness; that’s what this office is about,” Vance says.

“It’s a big moment that demands big ideas,” Aborn says.

And yet the talking points may not matter as much as the demographics. In Manhattan, where roughly 60 percent of registered Democrats are female, Snyder, who won 40 percent of the vote last time, is the clear front-runner. If she wins, she is expected to face Greg Camp, a Bloomberg Republican who now works as a lawyer for an investment-banking firm, in the general election. For her part, Snyder can’t understand why Morgenthau is still obsessed with making sure she loses. “He’s out of control,” she tells me.

Like the adjoining jail and criminal courts below, the Manhattan D.A.’s office is lit cold by pale fluorescents. Morgenthau has been a living ghost here for some time. He still meets with every job applicant, but the only time many see his fragile frame is when a detective helps him into his SUV.

Morale is low, says one office veteran. “It’s never been this bad. You walk through the building at 5:30 p.m. and all the lights are off. That’s in a trial bureau!”

Morgenthau has never been considered a hands-on boss.

“He was a terrifying figure,” says Eliot Spitzer, who worked in the Rackets Bureau. “You go into his office and you see the pictures and you say, ‘Okay, this is a person who speaks with authority at many different levels.’ ”

Morgenthau’s office might be the largest of any city official’s. It’s roomy enough to throw a football in and carries a Kiwanis Club feel, with legal briefs spilling off the desks. Morgenthau sits at the head of a conference table next to telephones so big it looks like he swiped them from the switchboard operator at the Plaza. Behind him are pictures of his history-book friends. There’s Bobby Kennedy, who Morgenthau thought might appoint him attorney general. Morgenthau was eating tuna-fish sandwiches with Bobby the day Jack got shot in Dallas. Jack Kennedy and Bob Morgenthau spent summers sailing together, which wasn’t such a big deal for Morgenthau. His grandfather was named U.S. ambassador to the Ottoman Empire. Morgenthau’s father was Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s secretary of the Treasury. Before he became a lieutenant commander in the Navy, and famously weathered torpedo attacks, Morgenthau himself served mint juleps to Churchill at the Morgenthaus’ farm upstate.

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