Sunday, April 03, 2011

In Praise of Robert Morgenthau

Robert Morgenthau, the legendary former District Attorney for New York County, is the subject of a compelling profile written by Rand Richards Cooper, a fellow Amherst alumnus, in the Winter 2011 issue of the Amherst College alumni magazine. Morgenthau led the District Attorney's office for thirty-four years, retiring in 2009 at the age of ninety. During his tenure, it became one of the most highly regarded prosecutorial offices in the United States, a famous training ground for attorneys, some of whom went on to have distinguished careers in law, politics, and on the bench--Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor; New York Governor Andrew Cuomo; John F. Kennedy, Jr.; Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.; Eliot Spitzer, former New York Governor; Linda Fairstein, former head of the Sex Crimes Unit and author of crime novels. According to the profile, Morgenthau became "a kind of one-man networking maven."

The profile summarizes Morgenthau's life as follows:

Morgenthau is a figure of tantalizing paradoxes: a reedy patrician who became a gravelly voiced, profane prosecutor; the scion of a wealthy family and graduate of Deerfield, Amherst and Yale who spent his career confronting every variety of urban depravity; a Jew, proud of his heritage, whose loss to Nelson Rockefeller in the 1962 governor’s race was once attributed to his not knowing what a knish was; a self-described “shy” person whose work placed him at the center of New York City’s raucous politics, linked him to some of the most notorious names of 20th-century America—and made him the model for the DA in the long-running TV drama Law & Order.

Morgenthau prosecuted a number of extremely high-profile cases--the murder of John Lennon; the "Subway Vigilante" case; the "Preppie Murder" case; the Central Park jogger case; the BCCI money-laundering case--and was known for his pursuit of white-collar criminals. During his time as District Attorney, Morgenthau also pioneered "major upgrades to prosecuting cases ... from computerization to videotaped confessions and DNA analysis."

He was born to a life of wealth and privilege. His parents were friends of the Roosevelt family, and "as a teenager, [Morgenthau] roasted the first hot dog ever served to the British royal family, during a visit of King George VI to Hyde Park." I wonder what the King had to say about that gastronomic treat! Morgenthau's decision to enter public service was made when the destroyer on which he served as an officer during World War II was sunk by German bombers in April 1944.
In the hours he spent adrift before being rescued, he found himself thinking intensely about what to do with his life if he survived. "I guess I started making promises ... There I was, floating around the Mediterranean--and it sounds kind of corny now, but I decided to devote my life to public service."

The illustration is from a laundatory Village Voice article written at the time of Morgenthau's retirement.

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