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The Old Man and the She


Cyrus Vance Jr., left, Leslie Crocker Snyder, and Richard Aborn at the Stonewall Democrats debate in April.  

Morgenthau farms, still. A pair of yellow gardening gloves hangs from his coat. (“Got them for $1.99,” he says.) He’s smiling. He looks good. Really good for 89.

“Can I ask you something?” he says, digressing from the long litany of his accomplishments in office.

“Sure,” I say.

“Do you get your shirts from Sears and Roebuck?” (Roebuck hasn’t been part of the brand since the sixties.)

The grandfatherly charm is only one secret to Morgenthau’s power. “He ain’t your grandpa,” one veteran prosecutor says. “In the building, he’s more like God, and everyone is expected to be loyal, or suffer the consequences.”

To young assistants, the Boss, as many affectionately call him, is a royal who is always above politics and fearless in his pursuit of a good case. Over the decades, his office enjoyed a reputation as the finest prosecutorial shop in the nation. You might not always be able to get a straight case in the boroughs, many said, but always in Manhattan. Yet over the years, as he aged, the jokes got old, fiefdoms grew, and the building, as Snyder said four years ago, got “stale.”

I ask Morgenthau when did he decide to take, as he puts it, “early retirement.”

He leans in. Can’t hear. His left eardrum was damaged in combat.

I repeat the question.

“I decided that three and a half years ago,” he says. “But I didn’t want to tell anyone. You don’t want to be a lame duck. But I knew definitely around the last time. I figured, ‘You’ll be 90 years old at the next election. That’s enough. Time to make room for somebody else.’ ”

Just not a certain somebody else.

During the 2005 campaign, Morgenthau’s apparatchiks did not worry about losing to Snyder. They were more concerned about what might happen in the next election. “A huge point of contention was how negative we should go,” says one senior operative. “One school of thought was that we had to kill her now. If we let her survive, she would come back and kill us.”

Inside the office, Morgenthau’s people went through old files, which raised eyebrows. One senior staff member told of being “asked to go through the old indictment records to find out what cases Snyder had worked on and to see if she had fucked anything up,” one prosecutor says. Another also says the staffer “made a half-complaining joke about having to go through all her old files. My reaction was like, ‘Wow, isn’t that a crime?’ ”

I ask Morgenthau if the staffer was asked to go through the old files.

“Not by me,” he says, “assuming anybody did that.” (A D.A. official says the dirt-digging allegations are misleading, and, in response to an “outside inquiry,” the staffer was looking to identify Snyder’s cases, not filch through them.)

In 2005, Morgenthau did seek emergency political aid. His campaign apparatus was so rusty he hired Bloomberg consultant Josh Isay to polish up his media operation, while his old-school cronies recruited mercenaries from a shelter for the mentally ill to picket one of Snyder’s fund-raisers at Elaine’s. The primary sapped whatever supernatural strength Morgenthau had left and raised questions about his ability to execute a disciplined political strategy. This year, the questions have multiplied. Says one loyalist: “Last time around, it was The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight. This time around, it’s a fucking mess.”

Many believed that Eliot Spitzer would be the one to solve Morgenthau’s succession issue. After all, Spitzer was a Morgenthau protégé. The thinking was that Morgenthau could resign and Spitzer would appoint a replacement, who could then run against Snyder as an incumbent.

As Morgenthau’s No. 2, Dan Castleman was convinced he had the boss’s blessing. This belief started before the 2005 primary season, when Castleman approached Morgenthau about a job offer he’d received.

“I always thought you’d be the one to succeed me,” Morgenthau allegedly told him, encouraging him to stay on. Maybe he was hearing what he wanted to hear, but Castleman started his own lobbying drive for the job. Meanwhile, another rackets alumnus was also interested.

Cyrus Vance Jr. had such legal pedigree that he was practically born in a club chair at the New York Bar. Cyrus Vance Sr., his father, was president there and held many Washington posts, among them secretary of State under Jimmy Carter. But after his stint in the D.A.’s office, Vance was so desperate to “escape his father’s shadow” and “make a name for himself,” as he says, that he picked the farthest possible place from New York to start his own practice: Seattle. His father told his namesake that he was “waving the white flag” on his legal career.

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