He’s a modern-day renaissance man: a U.S. Marine with a Master’s in the Classics, who once dreamed of being a pro boxer and who now has one of the most coveted legal positions in Manhattan. This week, NY1’s Budd Mishkin talks to New Yorker and Manhattan Assistant District Attorney Matthew Bogdanos.
This story starts with a book.
"It's ÎThe Iliad.’ Is there any other book?"
There are a lot of books in Matthew Bogdanos's world.
But he first read ÎThe Iliad,’ Homer's story of the Trojan war, when he was 12, and it's guided him ever since.
“I can almost pick out when I read a particular passage, when I was a teenager, when I was in my 20s," says Bogdanos.
You might not expect that someone with a Master’s in the Classics is also a marine who served in Afghanistan and Iraq; and an assistant district attorney in the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office. Bogdanos is also a boxer who once had dreams of turning pro.
To help his footwork, he took ballet.
“They're all different parts of the same whole,” says Bogdanos. “They're not juxtaposed. It is not idiosyncratic to have a love of history and classics, and be a military officer. Indeed, in my view, those are two ways of saying the exact same thing."
During our interviews, Bogdanos often downplayed his own accomplishments, stressing the work and achievements of his colleagues and mentors, and the team aspect of his military career.
But it's not every guy who punctuates his beliefs with quotes from Aeschylus, Kant or in this case, 19th century British general Sir William Butler.
“The nations that will insist on drawing a broad line of demarcation between the thinking man and the fighting man are likely to have its thinking done by cowards, and its fighting done by fools," quotes Bogdanos.
Bogdanos is obviously passionate.
In 2003, that passion led him to the Iraq National Museum in Baghdad, where as a marine colonel he was in charge of a small unit recovering and investigating thousands of looted antiquities.
“These aren't just pieces of alabaster and limestone with funny writing on it. They are living, breathing testaments to our shared cultural heritage,” says Bogdanos.
But Bogdanos says even if you don't appreciate the history, there's another reason why this work is so important.
“The trade in illegal Iraqi antiquities is funding the insurgency in Iraq. Period. End of story,” he says.
Bogdanos returned to New York in 2005. He wrote a book, “Thieves of Baghdad,” about the effort to recover antiquities. He speaks frequently about the subject to groups like the Downtown Association.
Bogdanos is now back at the D.A.’s office and he has returned to his wife and young children, trying to get accustomed to everyday matters of civilian life, like getting cut off in traffic.
“So you cut me off — you’re not trying to kill me. There’s no AK-47 in that car, so what's the big deal? This sounds really ironic: I want to get to the point where getting cut off in traffic bothers me again,” says Bogdanos.
Marine Colonel Matthew Bogdanos learned many lessons while serving in Iraq.
Among them, if you want information about looted antiquities and some locals invite you to drink some tea, drink the tea, the consequences be damned.
"There were things floating in the cup — things that I didn't recognize and things that look like they were using their own mode of power,” says Bogdanos.
Bogdanos says he experienced great hospitality in Iraqi homes. He knows about hospitality. His family owned and ran three restaurants on the block where he grew up, East 26th Street.
"We used to play stickball in here, and obviously, used to have some issues with the windows up there,” he says pointing to an apartment building next door.
We visited the block with Matthew and his twin brother Mark.
The restaurants' regular customers included many law enforcement personnel.
Years later Assistant DA Bogdanos appeared before one of his former customers, Judge Shirley Levitan.
"I said, Îbut your honor·’ and I started to argue, and, in front of the jury, in open court, she said, Îyou were a precocious brat when I helped you with your homework when you were eight; you're a precocious brat now. Objection overruled: sit down,’" Bogdanos recalls.
Bogdanos says he wouldn't trade the way he grew up for anything in the world.
But there were difficult times.
"There was a fair amount of domestic discord in my family,” says Bogdanos. “Books were frequently a way to tune out, or drown out, the domestic discord. I would frequently take a book, and go into a closet, just to read."
He says his love of books opened up other worlds, but it also opened him up to teasing from other kids.
That's where that good left hook came in.
"There are times when it's helpful that you also know how to fight, so those were short lived moments," says Bogdanos.
But College wasn't on his radar until he decided he wanted to join the marines, and they wouldn't accept him unless he was in school.
He went to Bucknell, and then to Columbia Law School in 1980, where on the first day of classes, he showed up in full military uniform.
"There’s 300 of us sitting in this classroom and it's packed tight except for the seats to my left and right cause there is no one anywhere near me," says Bogdanos.
He joined the Manhattan D.A.'s office in 1988 under Robert Morgenthau.
On September 11th, he was getting ready to go to the office when his young son called him over to the window of their Battery Park City apartment.
“He just walked over here and looked out the window here and said, Îoh daddy, look at the fire,’" recalls Bogdanos.
After the second plane hit, the father responded like a marine, going to his office.
"I know it sounds crazy, but the D.A.'s office was my appointed place of duty, and it’s something that's built into every Marine: you need to be at your appointed place of duty, at your appointed time," says Bagdanos.
But as the first tower came down, he quickly realized he had made what he now calls a "traumatic mistake."
He ran back home amidst the chaos, and thanks to an idea from his wife, led his kids to safety.
"She has an idea to put them in their Halloween costumes and put, we put wet handkerchiefs around their faces and tell them that this is just part of the game. We're hiding from, we're playing ÎThe Lion King,’ and we're hiding from Scar," says Bogdanos.
From 2001 to 2005, Bogdanos served in a counter-terrorism unit in Afghanistan, the Horn of Africa and finally in Iraq, which led to his involvement in the recovery and investigation of stolen antiquities from the Iraq Museum in Baghdad.
Now that he's back in New York, does he use his marine profile with people in civilian life?
"I know I have sometimes the ability to get people to do things, and so yes, I sometimes take advantage of that,” says Bogdanos. "I think my style often rubs people the wrong way, and I appreciate it. But on balance, the results justify the approach. But I fully get and fully appreciate that there are people that, as hard as this is to say, don't like me.”
This story began with a book.
And whether he's here or in Afghanistan or Iraq, Matthew Bogdanos says he goes back to the words of “The Iliad” time and time again.
"One omen is best: to do your duty, and to die defending your country. You should ever be the best, and stand far above the others. These are goals to live by,” says Bogdanos.
— Budd Mishkin