New York's No. 1 Lawyer
He didn't win his high-profile BCCI case. But for District Attorney Robert Morgenthau, 74, that was just a temporary setback
Yet there is something refreshingly old-fashioned about him and about the criminal-justice ethic he espouses. Both seem to have come straight out of a Ben Hecht movie script. "Bob believes there are good guys and bad guys," says an old friend. "You help the good ones and you go after the bad ones, even if they happen to include your favorite aunt. He's a genuine hero."
Tough start. Morgenthau swept into office in 1974 at a thankless moment: The city was so broke there weren't enough telephones for his senior staff. Working with what funds he had, Morgenthau restructured the DA's office, increasing its efficiency in handling New York's torrent of criminal cases. Since then, he has been able to attract a steady stream of bright, heavy-hitting young lawyers to his nine-story headquarters on the edge of Chinatown. One New York defense attorney dismisses the Morgenthau team as "a crowd of snot-nosed Ivy Leaguers." Others, among them nationally known criminal lawyer Brian O'Dwyer, charge that the ethnic and social mix among Morgenthau's senior staff doesn't "reflect this county as it is now." (Morgenthau's staff says that almost half his assistant DAs are women and that, on average, one quarter are black, Hispanic or Asian.)
No one, however, denies that Morgenthau's team is effective--the Altman case notwithstanding. Last year, it filed criminal charges against 103,635 people (24,193 drug-related) and won 68,423 convictions. Morgenthau leads investigations but almost never appears in court. Admiral of the fleet, he commands, directs and exhorts from the upper deck. His staff is fiercely loyal. "He's the only person who had the vision to go after the BCCI case," says First Assistant District Attorney Barbara Jones.
Few things outrage Morgenthau more than what he calls "crime in the suites": white-collar assaults on law by those who abuse the power with which they are entrusted. Morgenthau denies there was any righteous vindictiveness in his pursuit of Clifford and Altman. Nonetheless, as one insider puts it, "Bob sees Clifford as a traitor to the public. It makes him angry."
Noblesse oblige. Morgenthau almost always masks that sort of anger with the courtly manners learned in the privileged parlors of the "Our Crowd" German-Jewish family in which he was raised. For the Morgenthaus, propriety was a way of life, public service a patriotic noblesse oblige. Grandfather Henry Morgenthau, a lawyer who made a fortune in real estate, became Woodrow Wilson's ambassador to Turkey. Henry Morgenthau Jr., the DA's father, was Franklin Roosevelt's secretary of the Treasury. And both his father and his mother, Elinor Fatman Morgenthau, a niece of New York Gov. Herbert Lehman, were among FDR and Eleanor Roosevelt's closest confidants.
That friendship afforded the young Morgenthau a Zelig-like place in history. The Morgenthau family's Hudson Valley apple farm was a revolving door of New Deal luminaries. FDR, whose Hyde Park home was only a short drive away, was a constant caller. When Eleanor Roosevelt hosted the king and queen of England at a picnic, young Bob was enlisted to roast the hot dogs. While Winston Churchill lectured about the war effort, Morgenthau mixed the Lion his first mint julep. One summer, the family vacationed with the Kennedys. Years later, Bob Morgenthau was with Robert Kennedy when the staggering word came about the assassination in Dallas. Until recently, John Kennedy Jr. was one of his assistant DAs.