I believe it was the great Sam Rayburn - Speaker of the House for so long they got to calling him “Mr. Democrat” - who explained, “Every administration should have at least two Tommy Corcorcorans.” Sadly, Franklin Delano Roosevelt had them both. The first Tommy Corcorcoan pushed through the original Social Security legislation and became FDR's special liaison on Capital Hill, while the second Tommy made millions abusing the contacts established by the first. As Sam Rayburn put it once, “A jackass can kick a barn down, but it takes a carpenter to build one.” And again, Tommy was both of those, too.
"I know the corners of this town in the dark”
Thomas G. Corcoran. 1945.
They called him “The Cork” because he was irrepressible - he just kept popping up. He first rose to the surface after the 1934 midterm elections, when, improbably, the party in power added nine more seats in the House and nine more in the Senate. Roosevelt was now ready for Social Security, a program he designed to defeat what he knew would be future attempts to destroy it. It would be funded by payroll deductions because that way, said Roosevelt, “no damn politician can ever scrap my social security program.” And the man he chose to ruthlessly push that program into life was the “boyish, but intellectually quick ”, Tommy Corcorcan.
“If, as our Constitution tells us, our Federal Government was established . . . ‘to promote the general welfare,’ it is our plain duty to provide for that security upon which welfare depends.”Franklin Roosevelt. June 8, 1934
In January of 1935 the Social Security Act was introduced into both the Senate and the House of Representatives simultaneously. According to Tom Elliot, who had helped Tommy in drafting the law, the strongest opposition came in the Senate. “Tom(my) took four senators, I took four senators, and Charlie West from the White House took four senators. The outcome was, I think, the measure of our skill as lobbyists. Charlie West got nobody...I got two and lost two. Corcoran got all of his four.”. After that victory, FDR brought Tommy into the inner circle and made him his private secretary – “speech writer, strategist, talent scout and back channel lobbyist.”
“Apart from my father, Tom (Corcoran) was the single most influential individual in the country."
Elliott Roosevelt 1939
It was Tommy who guided the next big fight, after the Supreme Court had killed several of the New Deal's most progressive programs. Roosevelt began to push for an amendment to the Constitution adding a new justice to the court every time one of the original nine justices reached 70 years of age. Tommy wrote fiery speeches that Roosevelt delivered with fire. The battle failed, but the court got the message and abruptly reversed itself on several subsequent decisions. Said a Washington sage, “A switch in time saved nine.”
But it was also Tommy who suggested the Anglophobe Joe Kennedy (above) as ambassador to England, and who pushed for American neutrality during the Spanish Civil War, which helped make Franco dictator in Spain for fifty years. By the fall of 1940 Roosevelt saw the problem. As Harry Hopkins, who would replace The Cork, explained, “ "Tom, you're too Catholic to trust the Russians and too Irish to trust the English." But Roosevelt fired Tommy in typical FDR fashion. He asked him to leave government so he could secretly aid China in their war with the Japanese. Then FDR never told him how to help the Chinese. That removed Tommy as an irritant for FDR, but The Cork was far from sunk. Call it a lesson in unintended consequences.
“I want to make a million dollars in one year, that's all.”
Tommy Corcoran 1940
In late 1945 a D.C. ,“financier” named Serge Rubinstein came under investigation for draft evasion. Rubinstein called The Cork. And on January 27, 1946, Tommy called Abe Fortes, and old buddy from his New Deal days. Tommy explained to Abe, “He is a rich man who's scared...I think you can get $100,000 down this morning.” Fortes called Tommy back the next day and revealed that Rubinstein had handed over a check for just $5,000. “That's all yours”, said Tommy. Technically, this was Tommy's first year in private practice, and he earned from this and other such cases, $250,000.
"When you're charging fees . . . charge them high. The world takes you at your own valuation. You decide whether you're Tiffany or Woolworth--not the market.”
Immediately after the war, Tommy cut a deal to distribute relief supplies in China by air. The United Nations paid $2 million to buy the war surplus aircraft and a company, Commercial Air Transport (CAT), was set up by Tommy and run by Claire Chennault. It promised to deliver that medicine and food. But as Chennault explained in a July 18, 1946 phone call to Tommy, “This thing would be a great money-maker if we didn't carry a pound of UNRRA cargo.” So they didn't. But they still kept the airplanes. In 1950 the CIA purchased those same planes for a million dollars, one third of which went into Tommy's pocket.
“Once you get into this business you’ve got to be a draft horse and you’ve got to wear blinders,”
“(Tommy Cororcoan) ...inhabits that lawyer ruled limbo between government and business, where deals are made and big fish are caught in a seamless net of arguments, favors and threats. In this strange element, you can't keep a live cork down.”
Life Magazine. April 11, 1960
We know so much about Tommy's immediate post war business because in May of 1945 the new President Harry Truman asked FBI director J. Edgar Hoover to tap The Cork's office phones. Over the next three years this produced 5,000 pages of transcripts. Those transcripts, kept in the Truman Library, were released in 1983, two years after Tommy's death, at 80 years of age from a pulmonary blood clot. And by then, lobbying in Washington had become bigger than any individual.
“Every time I wag my ass on the Hill, someone reads cosmic importance into it.”
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