Robert Morgenthau, the longtime New York prosecutor who died yesterday at age 99, was one of a kind, but his story is emblematic of the best of America and of New York.
The New York Times obituary, as that newspaper often did with Morgenthau, gets the story significantly wrong. The Times describes him as "a courtly Knickerbocker patrician . . . Gotham’s aristocratic Mr. District Attorney. . . . the scion of a family steeped in wealth, privilege and public service."
Morgenthau once reminded me that actually, his own grandfather had arrived in America in 1866 at age 10 not speaking a word of English and entered City College five years later.
Only in America can the Jewish grandson of an immigrant public college graduate be mistaken for a "Knickerbocker patrician."
I first met him two decades ago, when I was the managing editor of the Forward newspaper. I had written something about a donor who had been contributing to another New York Democratic politician, and Morgenthau shared some information with me. His office was vast if by that point somewhat dated in terms of interior decoration and telephone equipment.
The district attorney greeted me immediately and welcomed me in.
Then, shortly into the conversation, he had me leave and wait outside for a while.
When I eventually returned, he explained that he wanted to be 100% certain that none of the information he was sharing with me was grand jury information, which the law requires be kept confidential.
If only all prosecutors were so careful.
Morgenthau explained that he remembered the case in part because it had involved the wealthy campaign donor’s having been involved in the death of a poor child. Morgenthau, a tough-on-crime prosecutor, had a soft spot for poor children, as evidenced by his long involvement with and devotion to the Police Athletic League (PAL), a New York charity that supports sports for a lot of inner-city children. When one met Morgenthau for lunch he’d sometimes arrive wearing that PAL baseball cap.
The prosecutor took on New York’s art world when he issued subpoeneas for a couple of Egon Schiele paintings that heirs claimed had been looted by Nazis.
The Museum of Modern Art was all set to return them to Austria, and Morgenthau’s action prompted a protest from the former publisher of the New York Times, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, who was then chairman of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Morgenthau also stepped in to prevent the art galleries and their customers from routinely avoiding New York’s sales and use tax by shipping art out of state.
The idea that ordinary New Yorkers without out-of-state country homes had to pay sales tax at a department store, while some rich person could avoid it on an expensive artwork, was offensive to Morgenthau.
When a New York Sun reporter, during the 2006 Republican National Convention, was swept up by police into a holding pen, Morgenthau helped rapidly to win his freedom.
The final scene of my book "JFK, Conservative," includes a scene of an interview I had with Morgenthau on a back porch overlooking the apple trees at Fishkill Farms. In the book, I recount President Kennedy coming to New York in 1962 to campaign for Morgenthau, who was running for governor. The men taped a campaign commercial in which Kennedy spoke of "economic growth" and Morgenthau responded, "We must not have a tax increase."
Morgenthau told me then that Kennedy had been "an inspiration to a lot of people."
The same can be said of Morgenthau himself.
I’ve been plenty critical over the years of prosecutors for overreaching. They are a subset of government officials, a group that I’ve also been plenty critical of over the years.
But the rule of law and the safety of the public depend on honest prosecutors.
New York’s great progress against violent crime has plenty of heroes, from police commissioners such as Ray Kelly to academics such as George Kelling and James Q. Wilson and mayors like Rudolph Giuliani. But one of the foremost was Robert Morgenthau.
Ira Stoll is author of "J.F.K. Conservative," and "Samuel Adams: A Life." Read more reports from Ira Stoll — Click Here Now.
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