For the first time in 35 years, Robert Morgenthau started a week without the title of Manhattan District Attorney. After deciding last year not to seek reelection, the now 90-year-old was officially replaced Monday by Cyrus Vance Junior. NY1's Budd Mishkin originally filed the following "One On 1" report in 2003.
There are so many compelling topics to discuss in a conversation with Robert Morgenthau: his nearly 30 years as Manhattan District Attorney; his rich family history; service to his country in World War II; one of the founding fathers of The Museum of Jewish Heritage; 40 years of involvement with the Police Athletic League; and his love of apples on his Dutchess County farm.
"I think people emphasize too much the smoothness of the apple, but don't think about how does this apple taste," Morgenthau says.
The Manhattan DA’s fondness for apples and all things farming is legitimate. The picture on his office wall is not.
“There was an ad that Arnold Palmer did, so they just took my head and put it on his body,” he says.
It's hard to imagine Robert Morgenthau as an apple farmer, yet this city dweller has a love of farming. He's known as the soft-spoken district attorney whose office has tried some of New York's highest profile cases: Bernhard Goetz; Joel Steinberg; Robert Chambers; and the Central Park jogger.
Morgenthau would not discuss the specifics of any of these cases. He says he tells his staff that every case has to get their best effort, because every case is important to the victim.
“The ones that you just say, ÎWhat an outrage,’ there are other outrageous cases out there,” he says. “Don't put too much focus on a case that the media and public quite properly is interested in, and neglect other cases where a life has been taken and are just as important."
Robert Morgenthau has spent most of the last 40 years prosecuting cases. He's passionate about the law, and steadfast in his conviction that no one is above it. He's 84-years-old. Why does he still do it? What's the intrigue?
“You've got two kinds of criminals. You've got the bullies and the greedy people,” he says. “The bullies are the ones that like to hurt people, and I don't like bullies, and I don't like greedy people, so it's still important."
Morgenthau was an attorney in private practice when President John F. Kennedy appointed him U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York. Years later he ran for district attorney in Manhattan, and has since been reelected seven times.
He says the job is always on his mind.
“You are always thinking about cases. You can't get away from it,” Morgenthau says. “Generally the two cases you worry about is, one, if you got the wrong person, and two, if you've got the right person but can you prove it."
Morgenthau's office walls are like a history lesson from the second half of the 20th century. But what is the only case to get a mention amidst the historic and personal mementos?
“I keep it as a reminder that not everybody loves me,” he says. “This is written to me by the New York City Friends of Ferrets, and it ends up by saying, ÎYou are a fraud and hypocrite. As far as I'm concerned, the city would be a lot better off if you would kindly drop dead.’"
Robert Morgenthau learned the lessons of public service early on, from his father, the Secretary of the Treasury under President Franklin Roosevelt, and from his grandfather, who as U.S. Ambassador to Turkey in 1915 was one of the first diplomats to report on the mass murder of Armenians.
"My grandfather always used to say, ÎI had to wait until I was 55 to engage in public service. You have no such excuse,’" he says.
As a young man, Morgenthau got to know his father's boss, FDR, who lived near the family farm upstate.
“On Election Day he would always drive himself around Dutchess County and my father would go with him," he says. "He used to come down a couple times a year to the farm. I used to make mint juleps for the president, as I got a little older. He liked my mint juleps."
In the summer of 1938, Morgenthau’s father took the family to Europe for a vacation, but also to assess the growing storm in Nazi Germany from across the border in Switzerland.
“I remember my brother saying, ÎBob and I would like to cross the bridge into Germany and see the Black Forest,’ and my father said, ÎWhat in the world would you want to do that for?’” he says. “[My brother] said, ÎJust so we can say we set foot in Germany.’ My father said, ÎYou’re never going to want to say you set foot in Germany.’”
Some 50 years later, Morgenthau would visit Germany to see his grandfather’s hometown of Manheim, for one day.
The young Morgenthau enlisted in the U.S. Navy a year before Pearl Harbor.
“I was 20 when I enlisted, and I had to get my family to sign off,” he says. “My father didn’t hesitate one minute, but my mother had some reservations. My father said, ÎWhere do I sign?’”
Morgenthau served on ships in the Mediterranean and the Pacific, attaining the final rank of lieutenant commander, earning a Bronze Star and a Gold Star.
And as for so many Americans, the next five years would provide memories and lessons that would last a lifetime.
"To survive in the combat situation, you had to be lucky,” he says. “The second ship I was on was torpedoed and sunk off Algiers, and I was out there swimming in the water and I said, ÎIf I get out of this I'm going to do something useful with my life.’ You just had to be lucky to survive, and it had nothing to do with skill or heroism. It had to do with whether the bomb you took aboard detonated or not."
Some of Morgenthau's war experiences are part of a new exhibit at The Museum of Jewish Heritage entitled "Ours To Fight For: American Jews in the Second World War."
The exhibit includes the oral histories of soldiers who helped liberate the concentration camps.
Morgenthau is well known for his opposition to capital punishment. If he had been the prosecutor at the Nuremberg war trials, would he have asked for the death penalty for Nazi war criminals?
“I've never believed philosophically in the death penalty,” he says. “It's not up to the government to take a life of somebody else, it's up to the almighty. So I don't think I would have sought the death penalty, but I sure would have made every effort to lock these guys up for the rest of their lives."
Morgenthau has been with the museum from the planning stages in the early 1980’s to the opening in 1997, first as president, then chairman, and he now has a wing named in his honor.
Like many veterans, he didn't talk about the horrors he'd seen for years, but now he's encouraged others to come forward with their stories so that future generations will learn from the past.
“This is an incredibly important thing to do to let our children, and our children's children and their children, know what happens when criminals take over a government," he says. “Somebody said, ÎThe opposite of love is not hate, the opposite of love is indifference.’ The problem leading up to World War II was there were too many people who were indifferent, and we don’t want that to ever happen again.”
The divide between good and evil was clear to Morgenthau 60 years ago, and it's remained that way throughout his legal career. He's seen mankind at its worst in situations near and far.
“To be in my business, you’ve got to be an incorrigible optimist and hope that things are going to be better,” he says. “Why people have done things in the past, I don’t know the answer."