It was Ed Koch, not surprisingly, who best summed up Robert Morgenthau’s record as a prosecutor. “By virtue of what he has done,” Mr. Koch said, “he is the standard for district attorneys. As LaGuardia was for mayors, Morgenthau has been for district attorneys.”
Mr. Morgenthau, who announced last week that he will retire as Manhattan’s district attorney this year after nine four-year terms, certainly set a high standard for his contemporaries and his successors. He inherited an office held by two illustrious predecessors, Frank Hogan, who served from 1941 to 1974, and Thomas Dewey, who served from 1937 to 1941. But Mr. Morgenthau did more than simply build on the achievements of others. He modernized the office, created new units to investigate sex crimes and other felonies and brought racial and gender diversity to a field that was too white and too male. He also expanded the office’s portfolio, going after white-collar crooks like Dennis Kozlowski, the former head of Tyco, and other business leaders who played fast and loose with their company’s money.
He has served long enough to see how the changes he brought have revolutionized his profession. State Attorney General Andrew Cuomo’s ongoing investigation of Bank of America and its use of bailout funds is hard to imagine without some of the precedents Mr. Morgenthau established since taking office in 1975.
While his work defined his legacy, Mr. Morgenthau’s contribution to New York is not confined to well-earned convictions and lowered crime rates. He has been and, lucky for us, he will continue to be an important presence in our civic life. His place in New York’s culture is best defined by the role he played in bringing about the Holocaust museum downtown.
In the early 1990s, a dreary time in recent New York history, the effort to create a memorial to the Holocaust seemed exhausted and doomed. Mr. Morgenthau stepped in and began raising money—a task he had avoided because he feared potential conflicts of interest. The district attorney’s connections, energy and respect revived the effort to honor the six million Jews killed during World War II, although it remained no easy task. “A lot of people told us to go to hell,” he said in an interview several years ago.
Mr. Morgenthau, a decorated World War II veteran, persisted, as did many lesser-known advocates. Thanks in part to their efforts, the Museum of Jewish Heritage: A Living Memorial to the Holocaust was dedicated in 2003. A wing of the museum is named for Mr. Morgenthau in honor of his untiring efforts as the museum’s chairman and one of its most effective fund-raisers.
Robert Morgenthau also plays another role in New York life—he is a living connection to the New Deal and the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt. Mr. Morgenthau’s father, Henry, served as F.D.R.’s Treasury secretary from 1934 to 1945. Robert Morgenthau has vivid memories of those tumultuous years, memories that may sound all too familiar these days.
Robert Morgenthau is a true giant of New York. He will leave office with grace and dignity, and with the thanks of all New Yorkers.
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