Morgenthau Night At The Javits Center

By Tom Robbins

Village Voice
Nov 11 2009

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.

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