Robert Morgenthau's Last Hurrah

We get few lessons in grace these days, especially from locally elected officials. But Robert Morgenthau, who was first elected District Attorney of New York County a few months after Gerald Ford took office as president so long ago, gave us one late Friday afternoon.

He sat at a bare wooden table in his office's 8th floor library on Hogan Place in lower Manhattan, his wife, the writer Lucinda Franks, beside him. They faced a throng of cameras and reporters, tape recorders and microphones extended. He began with a small apology: "Sorry to do this on a Friday afternoon," he said. Then, in a raspy voice that has addressed a thousand such press conferences, he quietly explained why, after nine elections and almost four decades in office, he will step down at the end of this year when he will be 90 years old.

"I don't want to press my luck," he said.

Luck, he said, has been with him all of his adult life. It got its strongest test, he said, in 1944 when, as a young naval lieutenant, the destroyer he was aboard was struck by an enemy torpedo that sent him into the water without a life preserver. Morgenthau tread water for hours as the freighter next to his own ship went down, taking more than 500 men with it.

"I made a lot of promises to the Almighty, even though I didn't have a lot of bargaining power at the time," he said.

Later, aboard a different ship, another torpedo passed through the bow and came out the other side without detonating. He was off of Okinawa on yet another vessel when a Kamikaze pilot skidded into the hull. Authorities said all was well and the ship cruised some 1500 miles before someone realized that the plane had deposited a 550-pound bomb that also somehow never exploded. He caught one more break when he managed to depart the U.S.S. Callaghan shortly before it became the last destroyer sunk by the Japanese in July, 1945.

"So I've had my share of good luck," he told the gathering. He knew he had gone "twenty-five years beyond the normal retirement age," but he said he had hardly noticed. "Some people are slow learners and it took me a long time to realize I was getting older."

He spoke without a note or piece of paper in his hand, and even though this was a moment he'd successfully resisted for many years, he seemed as relaxed and cheerful as if he had just announced the results of yet another successful investigation of the usual suspects.

He volunteered that he had just had his annual checkup. "I'm in good shape," he insisted. "But I'll quit while I'm ahead."

He praised the men and women he's worked with over the years, a cast that has included many who went on to become judges, governors, attorneys general, and the city's most sought-after defense counsels.

"I have been the conductor of an extraordinary orchestra," he said.

He will serve out the last ten months of his term working on prosecutions. "We've got a lot of stuff in the oven, good cases," he added.

"So that's my story," he said, looking up at the crowd for questions. Morgenthau's most visible ailment is that he is greatly hard of hearing, a disability that began with his wartime injuries. As it was, almost every word had to be repeated by his wife, leaning directly into his ear and speaking slowly as she did so.

His most memorable case? "They're all memorable. Every case is important to the victim. That is something you learn."

The secret to his longevity? "You've got to be lucky."

Advice to others? "Fly straight."

His legacy? "To leave an office that is honorable, fair, and committed to public service."

Would he write a book? "To write a book you have to look back. I don't want to look back."

Someone asked about his famous showdown with Richard Nixon. The newly elected president had quickly sought to fire him from his former post as United States Attorney in Manhattan, a job he had been named to by his friend, John Kennedy. Morgenthau had refused for weeks to step down.

"If Nixon had asked me to stay, I would've quit," he said.

These soft exchanges were followed by a harder volley about the race that begins now in earnest to succeed him. Most were deftly batted aside.

Would he endorse a candidate for his office?

"I've crossed one bridge already today," he said. "That's enough." He wasn't going to have time to campaign anyway, he added. "I don't expect to be very active. I've got to get these cases out of the oven before they burn."

Wasn't it true that he had commissioned a poll to see which of his possible successors had greatest support?

By way of non-answer he asked the questioner if she was old enough to remember the great pollster Louis Harris?

"I'm not," said Grace Rauh, of NY1. It didn't matter, he told a story anyway. Rauh tried her question twice more, with equal success.

He was asked about a controversial case -- the Palladium murder -- in which his office stuck by its conviction of two men despite major evidence suggesting their innocence.

"I don't want to get into specific cases," he said.

He was not asked about his unyielding opposition to the death penalty, a stance that helped earn him the permanent hostility of the major police unions. Nor did anyone bring up another big case, the one in which his office had acknowledged a miscarriage of justice after DNA evidence exonerated five young men convicted of the hideous rape and beating of a woman jogger in Central Park. That one had also not endeared him to the police organizations.

When the thrusting and parrying was done, an aide called out that there would be just one more question.

Did he have any idea how many cases he'd handled in his 35 years? He did. "We do about 100,000 a year," he said. "So times 35. That's your answer."

He then took his wife's arm and walked slowly back down the long hall to his office, followed by a train of aides, cameras and reporters.


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