Happy 85th Birthday, Bob Morgenthau

Robert MorgenthauPhoto: Globe Photos

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.

As Manhattan D.A., Morgenthau will be remembered not just for ambitious Wall Street cases like the one against BCCI (still the largest prosecution ever against a bank) but for relentless investigations of gangs (the Wild Cowboys), creative homicide prosecutions (Sante and Kenneth Kimes, convicted without a body), bravely unpopular stands against vigilantism (Bernhard Goetz), and a forward-thinking emphasis on sex crimes (the division made famous by Linda Fairstein—and, later, Dick Wolf). Eliot Spitzer, who worked in Morgenthau’s rackets bureau for five years, freely cops to emulating his old boss’s approach with his own Wall Street cases. Another serial emulator was U.S. Attorney Rudy Giuliani. And at least 25 sitting criminal-court judges once served under him, as did four federal judges in the Southern District, three U.S. Attorneys, and most of the top members of the criminal-defense bar. His contemporaries speak of him almost elegiacally. “He will go down in history as the finest district attorney in the country,” said Bob McGuire, a former police commissioner who served under Morgenthau in the U.S. Attorney’s office, at a recent dinner in Morgenthau’s honor.

Fine. But is he still up to running the nation’s premier local prosecutorial office?

Morgenthau’s last blood test was a few weeks ago. “Pretty amusing,” he says. “My LDL was 72. I read in the paper today your LDL should be under 100.” In the spring, he had a colonoscopy. “I have that every six years. They sent me a note,” he says. “That was clear.” He also was tested for prostate cancer, and came out clear, too. His doctors have told him he did “extremely well” on his stress test, and that his heart is fine. “I’ve had a back problem for 40 years,” he says, “but my back doctor says, ‘You’re twenty years younger than your chronological age.’ ”\He’s energetic enough to keep up with a wife three decades his junior—he and Pulitzer-winning writer Lucinda Franks were married in 1977—and with two children, now 20 and 13, whom he fathered in his sixties and seventies. He also has five adult children from his first marriage; he was widowed in 1972. “He’s totally sharp,” says his daughter Jenny Morgenthau, executive director of the Fresh Air Fund. “The man has a steel-trap mind.”

His left ear, the one with the hearing aid, was traumatized by gunfire on a ship during the war. The other was rendered deaf by a childhood mastoid operation. “I cheated to get into the Navy,” he says. “They said plug your left ear all the way and I didn’t. And you know, over the years, the hearing loss has been an asset. When the children were crying, I’d sleep on my good ear.”

A pause. His mouth opens slightly into a lockjawed smile.

“That’s a joke,” he says.

“Can you drive?” I ask. I have to repeat the question twice before he hears me.

“Do I drive a car? Yeah, of course. Gotta get places. Why?”

At home on the East Side, near Central Park, he’s up at quarter to seven for breakfast with his youngest daughter. He does the treadmill in bad weather, and walks (he used to run) around the reservoir in good weather. A trainer comes to the apartment once a week, and Morgenthau lifts weights on his own the other six days. His workday ends at six-thirty or seven, and two or three nights a week he goes out—the D.A.’s association, Democratic clubs, political events, and fund-raisers for his pet charities, the Museum of Jewish Heritage and the Police Athletic League. “We just were in Paris for five days, and then to Alsace-Lorraine and went wine-tasting,” Franks says. “We hopped from wine dungeon to wine dungeon, walking up and down the village streets. At times, it was hard to keep up with him.”

Most nights, he’s in bed at eleven, but not before reading everything he can get his hands on about the Holocaust and the war (“Like a lot of veterans, he returns to that time that was so intense and meaningful for him,” Franks says) and watching his favorite TV show. “We’re addicted to Law & Order,” says Franks. “He’s met with all the actors. He loves Adam Schiff”—the original D.A. played by Steven Hill, modeled after Morgenthau—“and he’s very sensitive about the new D.A. there,” played by the former U.S. senator from Tennessee Fred Thompson. “He gets exercised about that: ‘What’s a southern accent doing in the middle of New York?’ But he’s gotten actually to like the new D.A., too. It’s pure entertainment for him. Sometimes he’ll say, ‘Oh, that’s our case, and boy, did they screw it up.’ ”

If there’s a case to be made against Morgenthau, it isn’t about incompetence or dementia. It’s about grandstanding, inertia, and a stubborn lack of innovation. First, there’s Wall Street overkill. The banking cases where Morgenthau made his name leave some people cold. Only 80 of the office’s 460 attorneys work on white-collar crime, but they use a third of the entire office’s budget. The prosecutions against Tyco’s Dennis Kozlowski and Mark Swartz, which ended in mistrial, and last week’s acquittal on all counts of Tyco counsel Mark Belnick, ate up months and thousands of dollars in investigative work. And like many of Morgenthau’s banking cases, critics believe they didn’t belong in a local court in the first place. “I guess they were challenging Kozlowski’s compensation as excessive,” says Roger Stavis, a prominent defense attorney who handles terrorism cases. “And that was six months of trial time. What resources do you spend on that—and how does it affect New York?”

Then there’s the Morgenthau-as-empty-suit argument: Observers say Morgenthau spends more time than he used to on the eighth floor of 1 Hogan Place and less time visiting the trial bureaus, and his inner circle is given more liberty than ever to run the place, sometimes with disastrous results. Trial Division chief Nancy Ryan’s power struggles with Chief Assistant D.A. James Kindler are legendary; her firearms-trafficking unit and his homicide-investigations unit fight over cases constantly. “Sometimes it’s just a matter of who screams the longest,” says one assistant D.A.

There’s also the stuck-in-the-seventies argument. In Brooklyn, D.A. Charles Hynes has a policy of handing over all discovery materials immediately without filing motions, so the courts won’t be clogged. In Manhattan, many lawyers say cases percolate for months before defense attorneys get everything. Just last week, defense lawyers in the 1990 Palladium homicide case filed an explosive brief accusing Morgenthau’s office of withholding key information that could have exonerated two convicted murderers.

Finally, even some admirers say that Morgenthau should bow out for political reasons. If he doesn’t finish out his term, the argument goes, George Pataki gets to appoint someone to replace him.

“Bullshit,” Morgenthau says. “I mean, they’re ignoring the fact that the governor can put somebody in, but then there has to be a special election. When Hogan died, Governor Wilson appointed Dick Kuh, and he served for nine months.”

This Morgenthau knows from personal experience: He soundly beat Kuh in the special election in 1974 and has kept the job ever since.

In 1972, Manny Celler, an 84-year-old New York congressman who had been in office for 49 years, got his clock cleaned by Liz Holtzman in a primary. In 1980, an upstart named Al D’Amato ended 76-year-old Jacob Javits’s 24-year career in the Senate. So there’s a precedent for a deeply entrenched incumbent getting bounced. But how do you do it without seeming like you’re picking on an old guy?

In the past few D.A. races, the pattern has been for people to allow their names to be floated in hopes that Morgenthau wouldn’t run. They’ve all been disappointed. This time around, State Senator Eric Schneiderman and former Corrections chief Catherine Abate are said to have expressed interest, as has former Giuliani deputy Randy Mastro. But one perennial candidate isn’t waiting.

Leslie Crocker Snyder won’t formally announce until next year, but the operative word there is formally. She’s already raised a half-million dollars in campaign funds (Morgenthau has collected $850,000), and she speaks almost as if she’s entitled to the job. “Frankly, I’ve devoted my whole life to law enforcement and criminal justice,” she says. “I believe I’m the best person qualified.”

The 62-year-old criminal-court judge began her career as a prosecutor, co-authoring the state’s rape-shield law and starting the D.A.’s sex-crimes office a few months before Morgenthau arrived. As a judge, she oversaw a special division that handled the city’s most dangerous criminals and gangs, and endured death threats while presiding over the Wild Cowboys trial. Last year, she left the bench for private practice and signed on as a legal analyst for NBC News.

If Morgenthau is the dean of white-collar fraud, Snyder is positioning herself as a street-crime fighter. She wrote a tough-on-crime memoir called 25 to Life, and in her office she has a posterboard mock-up of a campaign ad in which she stands defiantly next to blurbs from the newspapers praising her courage. She’s not afraid to make an issue of Morgenthau’s refusal to retire. “I don’t know what’s so great about staying in office for life,” she says. “I was joking with a friend of mine that I could have a campaign button saying i will resign by 79.” Yet she knows better than to attack the age question directly. Instead, she speaks in thinly veiled code about time passing Morgenthau by. “Things have changed so much since 9/11,” she says. “They’re so different now from when Richard Nixon was in office. There’s the Internet, identity theft, child porn. The main thing is, this is the 21st century. We need new ideas.”

On the issues, she attacks Morgenthau’s special interest in Wall Street, mentions the “internecine conflicts” inside the D.A.’s office, and suggests that in the age of terrorism, quibbling over turf with other agencies could cause a case to fall through the cracks. “If the D.A. cares more about getting the headline, then New Yorkers’ lives are in danger,” she says. (Asked for examples of Morgenthau’s doing this, she says, “I don’t feel I could say anything about that.”)

Morgenthau refuses even to say Snyder’s name out loud, but he is mindful enough of her to defend his record, even without my asking. His commitment to take on white-collar crime, he says, springs from his career-long desire not to simply put poor minorities in jail, but to prosecute wealthy white criminals as well. And his money-laundering investigations into New York banks, he says, extend his white-collar work to the war on terror. “We know they’re going to some of the hot spots in the world,” he says. “We’re trying to figure out who’s getting it.”

Not that he’s ignoring street crime, he insists, mentioning several times that murders are down 85 percent since he took office. Where Manhattan used to be the most dangerous borough, now it places fourth. “We’re duking it out with Staten Island now,” he says.

Age and experience, as Morgenthau spins it, can be a strength. His inner circle has been with him for decades; he calls Nancy Ryan “the best investigator in the United States.” Delegating to such people, he argues, is the way the job should be done. “It took a long time to build up the kind of staff that we have now,” Morgenthau says. “I want to hold those people together, and I don’t know if anyone from the outside can do that.”

While Snyder says Morgenthau’s not a team player, he boasts that he’s beholden to no one. “Yeah, I’m independent and stubborn,” he says. “If I think a case can be brought, I’m gonna bring it. I don’t worry about what any of the power groups or the public think.” Few D.A.’s, for instance, would have been able to agree so quickly to vacating the sentences of the five men convicted in the Central Park jogger case. “It took guts,” says Barry Scheck, who helped bring the new DNA evidence to the D.A.’s attention. “Because he’s in such an esteemed place, he can make decisions on big cases without worrying about the consequences. Because what are they gonna do to him?”

Morgenthau’s last line of defense on the age question is self-deprecation. At a recent press conference where, with multiple-sclerosis sufferer Montel Williams by his side, Morgenthau advocated the use of medicinal marijuana, the D.A. was asked point-blank if he’d ever smoked pot. He blushed and stammered, but never really answered the question. “What I was trying to say was I was too goddamn old to have been doing that,” Morgenthau says with a smile. “I mean, I got out of college in 1941.”

Leslie Snyder’s challenge is the first serious threat Morgenthau has faced in years. His last real fight was against C. Vernon Mason in 1985, and even Mason got only 30 percent of the vote. Just about anyone from the political Establishment would say Morgenthau—better known, better funded, and better connected—has a big edge next year as well.

Some believe Snyder’s real motive might be to tee herself up for the next time around—an idea that clearly offends her. “You mean, like, I’m not really thinking of this seriously?” she says. “This is my love. I’m going to be a hands-on D.A., should I be fortunate enough to win. I’m not going to sit on the eighth floor letting someone else run the Trial Division.”

“I’m not gonna get into a debate with her,” says Morgenthau. “I think people know how I run the office. There’s no office in the city and probably the country that’s reduced crime as much as we have. And we continue to do that.”

That’s Morgenthau’s greatest trump card for the age question. If he’s still stuck somewhere in the sixties, then so is the crime rate. Who’d want to go back to the future?

Happy 85th Birthday, Bob Morgenthau