The Man Who Got New York Back
After 34 years as Manhattan’s District Attorney, the legendary Robert Morgenthau has announced his retirement. Dan Abrams explains what New York owes to the 89-year-old law enforcer, and why America will miss him.
He was never supposed to leave of his own volition.
Robert Morgenthau who many said was too old for the job twenty years ago, announced today he will finally step down after as Manhattan's District Attorney at age 89. And because he's been around for so long—34 years as Manhattan D.A.— he's become too easy to caricature. An advanced age and a gruff mien are what many New Yorkers probably think of when dwelling on their long-standing judicial guardian.
The naysayers looked at a city teeming with organized crime, riven by public violence, and unable to pay its own bills and wondered, "Is it worth it?"
But Morgenthau didn't just possess a once-in-a-generation prosecutorial mind and spirit. He's a man who, from the day he took office in 1975, helped turn New York from a cesspool of lawlessness into the (relatively) tame metropolis we inhabit today. The naysayers looked at a city teeming with organized crime, riven by public violence, and unable to pay its own bills and wondered, "Is it worth it?" Some might even have thought of New York like an exotic pet that could never quite be domesticated. But Morgenthau sunk his teeth in and refused to let go.
The man spared no scofflaw his wrath—not the gangs which reduced livable New York to a fragile archipelago, not the jet-set charlatans of BCCI, not the sex criminals his office flushed out into the open for the first time. In prosecuting vigilante hero Bernie Goetz, he displayed the definitional attribute of a citizen tribune: a willingness to buck the public will in the name of judicial principle. This was a guy who, when he could have basked in the limelight of "celebrity" cases, took the effort to investigate complex offshore banking havens on behalf of the New York taxpayer. He lived and breathed the law. In fact by New York legal standards he was our slightly smoky oxygen.
Recently, though, it looked like the man who brought righteous justice to the Dennis Kozlowskis of the world may have been losing his grip. And recent reports seemed to confirm it: Was he immobile? Going deaf? Or just old? These days, it's all too common to see another moth-eaten politician tottering at the lectern, staying in power because it's the only thing he or she knows how to do. Not so for Morgenthau.
As he steps down, lawyers, citizens, and political opportunists alike are asking themselves the obvious question. Without its pugnacious, war-battered protector, what happens now? The answer may lie with the acolytes who carry on his legacy. Former foot soldier Patrick Fitzgerald has become a legend for expunging vice from the highest offices of the land. Rudolph Giuliani leveraged the lessons he learned at Morgenthau's feet to become a top federal prosecutor and beyond. And countless prosecutors and district court judges learned a whole lot about the law while in his office, and maybe something of his spirit.
Morgenthau will be gone someday. Tears will be shed. Garments (many of them judicial robes) will be rent. And lawyers across New York County will wonder whether they should try to fill his throne or just hock it at the Chelsea flea market.
But it's time. Let him go, New York; the man deserves a rest. After all, he helped take our city back.