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Happy 85th Birthday, Bob Morgenthau

How old is too old? The Manhattan D.A. gears up for the race of his very long life.


Robert Morgenthau  

Robert Morgenthau pokes his head out of his office and ushers me in, shuffling with the tiniest of steps toward the end of a long conference table. His blue oxford hangs out, baggy, over his slight paunch, and his white hair is wispy, thinner than it appears in pictures. Getting into his chair takes him several seconds.

Much of his office seems sepia-toned, steeped in amber. The walls are crowded with memorabilia: portraits of John F. Kennedy, with whom he raced sailboats as a boy on Cape Cod; a note from Eleanor Roosevelt, sent to him at prep school when his father, Henry Morgenthau Jr., was advising FDR; black-and-white photos of the destroyers he served on during World War II. Even the secretary of his predecessor Frank Hogan, the elegant Ida Van Lindt, is still working here, answering the phone of the new guy who started during the Nixon administration. “I came with the building,” she jokes.

Before long Morgenthau starts telling war stories—reminiscing about his father and FDR, about fending off the influence of party bosses as U.S. Attorney, about being forced to resign by Richard Nixon after a decade in that job only to rebound as Manhattan’s D.A. four years later. He punctuates the conversation by removing his glasses and rubbing his watery eyes with a slightly trembling hand. I had been told to raise my voice when speaking (“He’s hard of hearing,” his spokeswoman, Barbara Thompson, had cautioned me in the hallway. “That’s the only thing about him that isn’t charming.”), but I often have to repeat myself anyway.

The recurring theme of his life, Morgenthau says, is luck. The four hours he spent treading water in the Mediterranean when a Nazi torpedo sunk the USS Lansdale? He was fortunate he wasn’t on the neighboring Paul Hamilton, which had exploded, killing all 580 men. When a kamikaze crashed into his next ship, the Harry F. Bauer, he was lucky the plane’s bomb was a dud. And after the war, when his boss in private practice, Robert Patterson, was killed in a plane crash, it was the only business trip Morgenthau hadn’t accompanied him on.

The stories may be just that—stories. But there’s possibly another message embedded in here, one that Morgenthau himself may not consciously be aware of. Bob Morgenthau has cheated death—personally and professionally—dozens of times, and he’d like to keep doing so for as long as possible.

Which leads to the inevitable, indelicate question: “Aren’t people saying you’re getting too old for this job?”

Of course, he saw this coming.

“I kind of take it as a compliment,” he says. “They’re not saying I’m corrupt or lazy or stupid. If that’s the best people can come up with, I’m in pretty good shape.”

On July 31, Robert Morgenthau will turn 85 years old. By the time voters have a chance to pull the lever for him again in November 2005, he will be 86. Should he win his ninth election and serve his full term, he’ll break Frank Hogan’s 32-year record and become the city’s—perhaps human history’s—longest-serving district attorney. He would also turn 90. At a recent reunion of attorneys who have served under him, Morgenthau was introduced as “D.A. for life, and maybe after.” Few would argue that Morgenthau holds an almost immortal place in city government. Still, a simple question hovers over 1 Hogan Place like a pending subpoena. Is the octogenarian D.A. overstaying his welcome?

With so few Kennedys left in New York, Morgenthau is the closest thing we have to political royalty. The grandson of Henry Morgenthau Sr., ambassador to the Ottoman Empire under Woodrow Wilson, and the son of Henry Jr., Treasury secretary under Franklin Roosevelt, he grew up playing in FDR’s lap in the Oval Office. After Amherst, the war, Yale Law School, and thirteen years as a private-practice white-collar litigator, he became the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, appointed by his friend JFK. He made his name as a federal prosecutor by hounding Roy Cohn, creating the first securities-fraud bureau, and finding a way to hold accountants culpable for the transgressions of their corporate clients, anticipating Enron by several decades.

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