The Power Broler

By Justin Pritchard '95 / September / October 1998
November 24th, 2007
Most of you have never heard of the lawyer Presi- dent Franklin D. Roosevelt nicknamed "Tommy the Cork." No wonder: Thomas G. Corcoran '22 was the quintessential behind-the-scenes power broker. He knew when to flatter, and he knew when to cajole and when to threaten.

To his admirers, Corcoran's savvy ways were an important, if little-publicized, reason for FDR's success at getting Congress to pass New Deal legislation. While FDR took the high road, championing the cause of the poor and the unprotected, Corcoran took whatever road was necessary. His allies knew him as a troubleshooter, his enemies considered him a hatchet man. A master of euphemism, he later wrote that he never advised his clients to "act contrary to the national interest...[but] events and circumstances require men in government to do things which may appear less than noble to distant citizens." His successors today include an army of influence peddlers who cash in on their connections, from ex-Reagan aide Michael Deaver to Clinton allies Vernon Jordan and Robert Bennett.

Tommy the Cork was among the first to show today's lobbyists the way. Son of a prominent local lawyer in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, Corcoran rode the trolley to Brown, ended up as class valedictorian, and moved on to Harvard Law School. As salutatorian of his class there, he caught the eye of professor and soon-to-be Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter. In 1927, Frankfurter helped Corcoran get a job as a personal assistant to Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.

Corcoran briefly left Washington for the Wall Street firm Cotton Franklin, but he returned in 1932 to work for President Hoover's Reconstruction Finance Corporation. A year later he attracted Roosevelt's attention. Soon he was shuttling between the White House and Capitol Hill, working alongside Benjamin V. Cohen to draft and negotiate such watershed New Deal bills as the Fair Labor Standards Act and the Securities and Exchange Commission Act.

It was as an adviser to FDR that Corcoran became schooled in the ways of the powerful. The New Deal aimed to improve life in practically every area government could affect: industry, agriculture, finance, labor, and housing. Whatever its benefits, the New Deal had the important side effect of vastly increasing and centralizing the power and reach of the federal government. With that increased power came the opportunity to exploit and manage it.

Corcoran left the FDR administration in 1940 and began peddling his influence at the moment when "the federal government really launched into the beginnings of the regulatory state," notes Brown Professor of Political Science Elmer Cornwell. With an extensive network of influential friends, he at times seemed to be almost a fourth arm of government, wielding power and collecting dues. The Washington of Corcoran's day was ruled by a club of friends, with no Watergate-style press corps keeping tabs on the expanding, there's-enough-for-everybody bureaucracy. In this environment, Tommy the Cork was remarkably well-equipped to succeed.

He knew all the players. He claimed to have known every president since Coolidge and every congressional leader since Speaker of the House John Nance Garner. He stocked the federal stables with his own thoroughbred civil servants. Corcoran was a workaholic: the Library of Congress needs a shelf the length of a football field to house his collection of papers and photographs. "I had this reputation of being a slave driver who worked 'round the clock, gave dictation at an inhuman pace, and was generally impos-sible to work for," Corcoran wrote in his unpublished memoir, Rendezvous with Democracy, titled after Roosevelt's famous remark - which Corcoran claimed to have coined. And finally, he had a prodigious mind for the law. "He could outthink you," says his son, Tom Corcoran Jr. '63, also a Washington lawyer. "He anticipated the scholarly approach to law and politics and language, which is: you can beat any argument, and you can make any statement look like it doesn't mean what you think it means."

Corcoran split from FDR on two issues: the president's attempted expansion of the Supreme Court, which Corcoran opposed, and FDR's refusal to nominate him as Solicitor General. In his memoirs, Corcoran insists that he left the administration on his own volition. "I was weary of being a messenger, negotiator, manipulator, and middleman," he wrote. "I desperately wanted a bailiwick of my own."

After he left FDR, Corcoran's accomplishments became more lucrative but more ambiguous. "When I left government, it appeared I could still get some rather unusual things done on the inside," he wrote in Rendezvous. "My greatest value derived from the fact that I had access to almost everybody." The Cork perfected the art of political horse-trading, and was willing to threaten anyone who wouldn't make a swap. As an unelected politician, and later as a private lawyer and lobbyist, he knew the advantage of working out of the public spotlight. "He did his best to keep in the background," the Saturday Evening Post reported in a 1943 profile, "because the illusion is spoiled when the hand of the puppetmaster is seen. His hush-hush technique gradually built up a superman legend about him." Spencer Rich, the Washington Post's Senate reporter during the late 1960s and 1970s, recalls that when Corcoran roamed the halls of the Capitol, he stopped neither for reporters' questions nor for doors locked to lesser men.

One of Corcoran's first private clients was American pharmaceutical manufacturer William Erhard Weiss, a reputed Nazi sympathizer. Weiss had been charged with selling prescription drugs in South America under German patents - a violation of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act - and allegedly funneling the profits to the Nazis. Despite the explosiveness of the accusations, Corcoran used his influence masterfully on Weiss's behalf. Late one wind-whipped night, he crashed a private cocktail party attended by the government's head trustbuster, Thurman Arnold. Corcoran lassoed Arnold, drove him two hours to Attorney General Francis Biddle's home in Virginia, and argued his case before them both. Weiss got off with a $5,000 fine.

"It was charged in Congress," reported the Saturday Evening Post, "that the government, out of kindness to Tommy Corcoran, had kept the case out of the hands of a grand jury, which might have found indictments for espionage and criminal conspiracies." Congress later investigated Corcoran for his questionable legal tactics, but nothing came of it. "If you told him it was wrong," Tom Corcoran Jr. speculates, "he'd say, 'By what standards?' He assumed that you needed evil means to get to good ends."

Working alongside Roosevelt, Corcoran aroused suspicion, even outright disgust, and his bold, cocky tactics continued to earn him enemies once he left government. In the late 1940s, President Truman took such offense to Corcoran's bare-knuckled tactics that he ordered the bugging of his home telephone, forcing Corcoran to make business calls from a pay phone on Connecticut Avenue, according to his son. Nevertheless, Corcoran thrived. He made enough money to send six children through graduate school and still have plenty of cash left over to feed his politician friends' insatiable appetites for campaign donations - the perpetual key to power in the nation's capital.

Corcoran's own career as an elected official ended in high school, when he was nominated as class president. He was never tempted to run for elected office again. "He told me he did not want to go back to Rhode Island to kiss babies," his son recalls. And why should he? Corcoran dominated the liminal space he created - he had access to the pinnacles of power yet was a relative unknown back home. The prospect of beginning the process of getting elected on such a small stage was unappealing indeed.

Tommy the Cork's influence continued for decades. He helped cement the connection between a young Lyndon Johnson and the puissant House Speaker Sam Rayburn, both Texas Democrats. And according to Mutual Contempt, the book on Johnson and Bobby Kennedy written by Jeff Shesol '91, The Cork was among those who fixed the unlikely JFK-Johnson ticket in 1960. At the Democratic Convention in Los Angeles that July, Corcoran caught Kennedy alone in an elevator. With the elevator door slamming repeatedly on his foot, The Cork asked the future president for permission to sound out then-Senate majority leader Johnson over the vice presidency.

Kennedy gave him the green light. "Tommy," he said, "you have peculiar abilities." This was just the sort of compliment Corcoran relished. "He liked people to think that he could do the impossible," says Tom Corcoran Jr. "Power - that's what he liked the best."

Justin Pritchard covers Congress for the Washington Post's on-line LEGI-SLATE News Service.

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