Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau is not just a public official. He's an institution, as much a part of the landscape of New York as the gray court buildings in Foley Square.
That he's not running for re-election this fall is stunning news. For 35 years he was the district attorney of Manhattan, responsible for fighting crime on many fronts. He pursued corporate thieves, mobsters and many other criminals. He presided over almost 100,000 cases. He is the boss of 500 assistant district attorneys who prosecuted some notorious criminals.
Among his notable cases have been the Robert Chambers murder trial, the crime of the grifters, mother and son, who bilked an elderly lady out of her townhouse and the trial of Bernard Goetz, who shot a group of teenagers whom he believed were threatening him in a subway car.
Morgenthau has been most proud of his corporate convictions, including the prosecution of TYCO executives for fraud and larceny. Perhaps his most controversial moment came when, a decade after he had convicted a gang of teenagers for the rape of a Central Park jogger, a man serving a life term for other crimes, confessed that he had attacked and raped the jogger. Morgenthau dropped the charges against the teenagers originally convicted of the crime.
Morgenthau has never been a flamboyant prosecutor. He ceded that role to other famous prosecutors like Rudy Giuliani. If anything, Morgenthau over the years seemed almost shy and self-effacing. When he announced a major criminal indictment, he often had members of his staff who had done the most work on the case standing behind him and never hesitated to give them credit for pursuing the criminals and nailing them. His droning voice as he read indictments became almost a tradition at 1 Hogan Place. At 89, he's proud to be a member of World War II's "greatest generation."
When the war threatened, Morgenthau enlisted in the Navy and served in combat, rising to the rank of lieutenant commander. His grandfather served as U.S. Ambassador to Turkey, his father was Secretary of the Treasury under President Franklin Roosevelt. After World War II, Morgenthau went to Yale Law School. He practiced corporate law for 12 years and was appointed U.S. Attorney for the Southern District by President John Kennedy. He lost that position when Richard Nixon became President. But, then, in 1974, he was elected Manhattan District Attorney. He has been elected and re-elected to that post nine times.
Morgenthau continued in the proud tradition of his immediate predecessors, Thomas E. Dewey and Frank Hogan. Indeed, Manhattan has had only these three DAs since the middle of the 20th century. It has become the most highly respected prosecutor's office in the country and Morgenthau preserved that reputation.
When I spoke to him after the news of his retirement broke, he wanted to make it clear that he was going to continue working in other pursuits. His outside interests include the Museum of the Jewish Heritage at the Battery, of which he is chairman, and the Police Athletic League. For many years, he has worked hard to help this organization, which provides recreational facilities for underprivileged youngsters.
The DA character in "Law and Order" was based on Morgenthau. Indeed he had some of Morgenthau's characteristics, quiet determination, a careful approach to all cases and issues and compassion for the victims of crimes.
Morgenthau has a farm up in Dutchess County. He's proud of the apples that are harvested every summer. He said he hopes to spend more time there but insists he has not given up activities in the larger world. One of my journalist colleagues, Irene Cornell of WCBS Radio, said of Morgenthau: "I loved the guy. He's been a great DA, he's run a great office. He comes in early every day and works until nightfall. He's tireless, idealistic. He'll be missed."
When I called Morgenthau early Friday morning, he said he was ready for new challenges. He didn't say specifically what they would be. I asked him how he wanted his DA career to be remembered.
He quickly retorted: "Just tell the truth, Gabe."