Thomas G. Corcoran

Inducted: 1997
Born: 12/29/1900
Died: 12/06/1981

Thomas G. Corcoran was an advisor to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s brain trust during the New Deal and, later, a close friend and advisor to President Lyndon B. Johnson. Corcoran was widely recognized as a critical member of Roosevelt’s “brain trust” who had the savvy, influence, and toughness to get New Deal legislation written and passed by Congress. President Roosevelt gave him the nickname that stuck: “Tommy the Cork. A lawyer of undisputed brilliance and wit, Corcoran was the personification of the Washington insider whose enormous influence on legislation and Government dealings endured well beyond his heyday in the Roosevelt Administration. It often also made him the target of political opponents and those whose interests were affected by his backstage maneuvers. He was one of Roosevelt’s principal strategists in shaping such historic innovations as the Securities Act of 1933, the Securities Exchange Act of 1934, and the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. The precise measure of his efforts rarely emerged. He worked behind the scenes as a drafter of legislation and, later, as a lobbyist-lawyer with countless friends in high positions.

Corcoran was born in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, on December 29, 1900. He enrolled at Brown University, graduating as class valedictorian, earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees in 1922. Just losing out on a Rhodes Scholarship, he enrolled at Harvard University and quickly won the reputation as the most brilliant member of his class, an assessment with which Professor Felix Frankfurter agreed. He graduated at the head of his class in 1925 and became a doctor of juris science the following year. His performance won him the honor of serving a year in Washington as secretary to Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes of the Supreme Court. For five years, Corcoran practiced corporate law in New York with the Wall Street firm of Colton & Franklin, specializing in reorganizing companies and issuing new stocks. In 1932, after a short stint with the Federal Reserve Board, he was appointed by President Herbert Hoover as counsel to the newly formed Reconstruction Finance Corporation in Washington. That year, Hoover was defeated by Roosevelt, but Corcoran, a Democrat, remained in his post to build his influence with the White House. When Roosevelt began to take notice of his efforts, Corcoran was given a more comprehensive range of responsibilities than his official position as assistant general counsel allowed. Corcoran served as special counsel to the Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC) from 1934 to 1941. During the same period, he was a liaison to Henry Morgenthau and represented him on the RFC board of directors. As an ally of RFC Chairman Jesse H. Jones, Corcoran exercised power far beyond the authority of his office.

“White House Tommy” became one of his nicknames, though his detractors had some less endearing phrases for him. Many, even among the New Dealers, resented his closeness to the President, who often followed his advice and whose most-remembered speeches bore the mark of Corcoran’s wit and sharp phrasemaking. Much of his work during the New Deal was with Benjamin V. Cohen. Corcoran and Cohen were known as the “Gold Dust Twins” and were on the cover of Time Magazine’s September 12, 1938, edition. Corcoran collaborated with Cohen on many projects, including the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. The Washington Post once called him a “New Deal Moses.”

To Corcoran, working for Roosevelt was a twenty-four-hour-a-day job. Marriage and domesticity, he believed, would only get in his way. “You can’t marry and keep your intellectual honesty,” he liked to say. “The way you deal with a husband is to schedule the conference for the evening. Then you come late and dawdle. Around midnight, he is anxious to get home and probably afraid of being scolded. By one o’clock in the morning, he is ready to agree to anything.”

The peak of his power came in Roosevelt’s fights to “pack” the Supreme Court and defeat certain Congress members in the 1938 election. Although he disagreed with both initiatives, Corcoran loyally fought so hard for them that he had to pay the price when they failed. A new presidential favorite, Harry Hopkins, took his place. When he left government in 1941, the New Deal programs Corcoran had guided through Congress had created a bigger and more complex federal government than ever before. Now, he set about exploiting this size, becoming Washington’s first big-government influence peddler. Washington Post reporter Alva Johnston said, “Big Business clasped him to its bosom and poured fortunes into the hand that had so often cudgeled it.” In his private law practice, Corcoran defined the art of power brokering. He knew how to use his vast network of government connections to further the causes of his primarily corporate clients. His dealings on behalf of big oil and drug companies earned him the wrath of Congress, which held hearings on his actions four times. And four times, Tommy the Cork escaped unscathed. Corcoran retained enormous influence in the administration, partly because of high appointees who owed their positions to him.

Corcoran went into private practice as a lawyer with former U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) chief counsel William J. Dempsey, whom Corcoran had installed in that job in 1938. Dempsey and Corcoran managed the takeover of New York radio station WMCA for Corcoran’s friend, Undersecretary of Commerce Edward J. Noble. That resulted in both an FCC and a congressional investigation.

Corcoran’s work after leaving government service led him to be dubbed the first of the modern lobbyists. The federal government tapped Corcoran’s phones between 1945 and 1947. The transcripts of the wiretaps were deposited in the Truman Presidential Library and not released to researchers until Corcoran’s death. The evidence is that a Truman White House aide ordered the tap, but President Harry S. Truman rescinded it. It is also alleged that Corcoran engaged in improper attempts to influence decisions of the Supreme Court. It was not established then, or ever, that he had done anything illegal. Corcoran’s influence continued for decades. He helped cement the connection between a young Lyndon Johnson and House Speaker Sam Rayburn, both Texas Democrats. Corcoran was among those who pushed for the unlikely JFK-Johnson ticket in 1960. The story goes that Corcoran caught Jack Kennedy alone in an elevator at the Democratic Convention in Los Angeles in July. With the elevator door slamming repeatedly on his foot, Corcoran asked Kennedy for permission to sound out Johnson to run for the vice presidency. The rest is history.

In 1940, Corcoran wed Margaret Dowd, one of his secretaries. They had five children: Thomas Jr., David, Howard, Christopher, and Cecily. Following their father’s footsteps, his son, Thomas G. Corcoran Jr., attended Brown University and Harvard Law School (class of 1967) before founding the Washington, D.C., law firm of Berliner, Corcoran & Rowe. A daughter, Margaret J. Corcoran, also graduated from Harvard Law School (class of 1965) and clerked for Associate Justice Hugo Black of the U.S. Supreme Court during the 1966 Term (the second woman to clerk) while continuing to assist her father at social events. His granddaughter, Sara Corcoran, earned her undergraduate degree and MBA from the University of Southern California. She is a legal journalist and publisher of The National Courts Monitor, a civil courts legal journal.

Thomas Corcoran died on December 6, 1981. He was inducted into The Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame in 1997.

For additional reading:

1.     O’Donnell, Edward T. (2002). 1001 Things Everyone Should Know About Irish American History. New York, NY: Broadway Press. 

2.     “Thomas Corcoran ’22,” Government and Politics, Brown Alumni Magazine, November/December.

3.     Olson, James Stuart (1988). Saving Capitalism: The Reconstruction Finance Corporation and the New Deal, 1933-1940, Princeton University Press. 

4.     Brinkley, Alan (1996). The End of Reform: New Deal Liberalism in Recession and War. New York: Vintage Books.

5.     Gold Dust Twins. Time cover, September 12, 1938.

6.     McKean, David (2005). “Peddling Influence: Thomas’ Tommy the Cork’ Corcoran and the Birth of Modern Lobbying” Hanover, NH: Steerforth Press. 

7.     Lichtman, Allan J. “Tommy the Cork: the secret world of Washington’s first modern lobbyist,” Washington Monthly, (February 1987).

8.     Harry S. Truman Papers: President’s Secretary’s Files.

9.     Janeway, Michael. The Fall of the House of Roosevelt, Columbia University Press, 2004.

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