Being Veterans Day eve, it was fitting that past and present employees of the Manhattan District Attorney’s office gathered last night to honor their outgoing boss, Robert Morgenthau, who has headed the office since 1975.
Morgenthau is a veteran of the Second World War where he served as a Lieutenant Commander on a series of destroyers. One of them, the USS Lansdale, was torpedoed and sunk off the North African coast by German planes. A troop carrier nearby exploded, taking 500 soldiers and sailors with it. Morgenthau, minus life preserver, spent hours treading water. The way he tells it, that’s where he pledged to do good works if he made it out of there alive: “I made a lot of promises to the Almighty, even though I didn’t have a lot of bargaining power at the time.”
Last night there was no shortage of testimony about the good deeds he lived to accomplish. Most everyone had a tale of a personal kindness or courtesy extended to them by the executive director of the 800-person office. This is expected at events celebrating retiring managers. The difference here was that this one was held at the main exhibition hall at the Jacob Javits Convention Center and some 1200 people attending each had their own stories.
The event included a video tribute from a Morgenthau alumna, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, and remarks by Cyrus Vance, Jr. who won election to the DA’s post last week.
There was supposed to be a mini-roast from assistant D.A. Peter Kougasian, a narcotics prosecutor known for his office wit. But after a couple of jokes, the prosecutor launched into somber praise for Morgenthau’s dedicated work in support of the Armenian people. Yes, the Armenians. Among his good works, the outgoing D.A. has campaigned to make sure the world doesn’t forget the wholesale Turkish slaughter during World War I, a carnage that his grandfather, Henry Morgenthau Sr., vainly tried to stop when he served as American ambassador to Turkey. The ambassador’s grandson has crusaded with equal fervor on behalf of victims of the holocaust, about which his father raised a similar alarm while a member of Franklin Roosevelt’s wartime cabinet.
Morgenthau is 90 years old and his hearing, damaged during those hours spent in chilly waters, is fragile. But his voice, if hoarse, is strong as ever and he took the podium last night to talk about what he said had been the “privilege of leading this office.”
“People are always asking me, ‘What’s the most important case you ever had?’ My answer always is that every case is important to the victims.
“I will confess,” he added, “that I got the most satisfaction out of doing things people told me I shouldn’t or couldn’t do.” A few years ago he had insisted that murder charges be filed against a mother and son grifter team who had swindled an elderly widow who had then disappeared. There was no body or witness, and, as Morgenthau noted, the day before the trial “the paper of record ran a story quoting all the experts saying we couldn’t win the case.
“I have a very low regard for experts,” he said. “That goes back to my time in the Navy and the last ship I was on was hit by a kamikaze plane that skidded into us just below the water line.” An expert, brought aboard to inspect the damage, assured them that only the plane’s engine or undercarriage had been left behind. “Based on that sage advice,” Morgenthau said, “instead of being repaired, we continued some 1200 miles to Leyte Gulf. We were out among the destroyers for about a week when we learned that we had a 550 pound bomb set against the bulkhead with the firing pin still intact. So I have never trusted experts. In the Navy, the expression for expert is ‘The son of a bitch from out of town’.”
He proudly touted something else the experts are still pondering, the astonishing drop in crime achieved during his years: 648 Manhattan homicides the year he took office; 62 last year.
“I was always reluctant to claim credit for any reduction in crime,” he said, “because I knew it could always go up and I’d get the blame. But now that I’m leaving,” he added with a trademark twinkle, “I don’t hesitate to take the credit.”
There had “obviously been no one factor in the criminal justice system that led to that extraordinary reduction,” he continued. “Basically, it was the hard work of all of you. You are an extraordinary group of people.”
Then he stepped off the stage to shake hands and pose for photographs with admiring fans and colleagues. There was a long line of them, even for the Javits Center.