TOMMY THE CORK: Washington's Ultimate Insider, from Roosevelt to Reagan

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TOMMY THE CORK: Washington’s Ultimate Insider, from Roosevelt to Reagan. By David McKean. Steerforth. 347 pp. $25

It’s likely that every great capital city, at least every one with some form of representative government, attracts legions of ambitious, well-motivated, politically adept young people eager to play parts on the political stage. Some of them succeed, to the lasting benefit of their nation. Unfortunately, the mixture of money, power, and malleable laws that is characteristic of capitals also draws fixers—clever operators who ignore many of the ethical rules that governments and the legal profession adopt in the interest of fair play.

Lawyer Thomas Corcoran (1900–81) exemplified both types of capital citizen. "Tommy the Cork," as Franklin Roosevelt called him (just as the two George Bushes surely would have), was arguably one of the halfdozen most significant architects of the New Deal, a dynamo of energy, intellectual versatility, and personal magnetism who found roles for hundreds of other bright young lawyers and economists in the proliferating federal agencies around Washington. "[Felix] Frankfurter sent me to Corcoran, which was the classic way to get a job in the New Deal," wrote one such recruit.

But installing his fellow Harvard Law graduates in federal jobs was peripheral to Corcoran’s main interest: drafting and lobbying through Congress some of the seminal legislation of the 1930s. He and his brilliant friend Benjamin Cohen wrote the Securities and Exchange Act and the Public Utilities Holding Company Act—monumental New Deal efforts to bring order to the stock markets and the electric power industry.

Corcoran did everything from lobbying FDR’s doomed court-packing plan to writing the famous sentence "This generation has a rendezvous with destiny" in a Roosevelt speech. Once, seeking to help his admirer Sam Rayburn, he made use of his friendships in the Coast Guard to race out to an ocean liner approaching New York harbor so that he might tell the returning Democratic national chairman, Jim Farley, that Rayburn was the president’s choice for Speaker of the House. Thus Corcoran bested New York’s Democratic bosses, who were waiting at the pier to lobby Farley on behalf of a Rayburn rival.

These remarkable adventures are detailed in David McKean’s superb biography, Tommy the Cork. McKean is chief of staff for Senator John Kerry and the coauthor of Friends in High Places (1995), the tale of another master manipulator, Clark Clifford. His material here is drawn not only from written sources but from many interviews with those who watched Corcoran charm and out-think several generations of people who had business in Washington.

Inevitably Corcoran made enemies, and, perhaps also inevitably, he began working his magic not for noble public purposes but for an array of private law clients, including several rather questionable interests, after he left government and became a lobbyist in 1941. With a growing family, he wished to make money; perhaps more important, he savored his own adroitness and relished using the network he had fashioned in his New Deal days. Winning the game was what mattered. What uniform he was wearing became increasingly unimportant.

In this, Corcoran seems somewhat like the great courtroom lawyer Edward Bennett Williams. In his long career, Williams represented a regiment of rogues, including Joe McCarthy, Jimmy Hoffa, Frank Costello, and Bobby Baker. The more conventionally odious his client, the more zestful Williams’s enthusiasm seemed. Watch me spring this guy, he seemed to be saying—this is going to take brains and bravado.

One difference between Williams and Corcoran lay in the arenas in which they worked. As a trial lawyer, Williams was a combatant whose foe was there to watch his every move. Corcoran operated ex parte, even to the point of approaching Supreme Court justices—some of whom may be said to have owed him their positions—in their chambers, urging them to reconsider a motion. That this could have earned him disbarment seems not to have seriously concerned him. He was in the game, and this was a play that might win it.

The life and adventures of Tommy the Cork, from serving as a clerk to Oliver Wendell Holmes to helping United Fruit find ways to overthrow the government of Guatemala, make for one of the most intriguing Washington books in years. Readers with a taste for the politically picaresque will seize upon it with delight.

—Harry McPherson

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