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In this engaging, closely observed biography, David McKean, who holds a senior staff position in the U.S. Senate, has brilliantly chronicled the life and law practice of Thomas Corcoran. Franklin Roosevelt labeled Corcoran “Tommy the Cork,” and it stuck. Notwithstanding some of the vapor emanated by Tommy, this is not a rags to riches story, nor is it the emergence of a downtrodden Irish Catholic boy making good. Tommy was born on third base. His father graduated from Brown and received his law degree from Boston University. He practiced law in Pawtucket, R.I., was a member of the state legislature, and according to McKean, represented “some of the region’s largest and most important businessmen.” Tommy’s mother was the daughter of a wealthy East Coast shipping magnate. Tommy was valedictorian of his 1921 Brown class; he stayed on for a year to get his master’s in classics. At Harvard Law School, he made the law review (note editor), won the Sears Prize for academic excellence and acquired his most important mentor — Felix Frankfurter, then a Harvard professor. Frankfurter lined up Tommy with an Oliver Wendell Holmes clerkship on the U.S. Supreme Court for the fall of 1926. Holmes and Corcoran hit it off, and a close, lifelong relationship developed. Following a tense hearing in the Sacco and Vanzetti case, after which the high court refused to stay their executions, the clerk asked Holmes, “But has justice been done, sir?” Holmes fired back: “Don’t be foolish boy. We practice law, not justice. � For society to function, the set of rules agreed on by the body politic must be observed — the law must be carried out.” McKean deadpans, “For Corcoran, the moral relativism of the legal system was forever imprinted in his brain.” Those involved in hiring will agree that Tommy by that point had put together a fine resume. In fact, it’s hard to imagine a better one (caution: he played no team sports). In any event, Tommy next headed to Wall Street, as he said, “to make a million dollars.” (This was 1927.) He went to the prominent firm of Cotton and Franklin. McKean writes, “[Joseph] Cotton was one of the most brilliant practitioners of his generation,” and Corcoran specialized in corporate law and M&A. In his first two years, says McKean, through frugal living and “sound investments,” he accumulated nearly $250,000 (the equivalent of several million dollars today). For the cynics, let’s cut Tommy a little slack here — insider trading standards were different in the Roaring Twenties. Then the market crashed. Tommy lost his stake; the volume of work at Cotton and Franklin plunged; Tommy’s salary was slashed; and, McKean observes, Corcoran “was no longer engaged by his work.” With the start of FDR’s first administration, Frankfurter arranged a position for Corcoran as assistant general counsel to the Reconstruction Finance Corp. and later as an assistant attorney general. Frankfurter also recruited Benjamin Cohen to the new Roosevelt administration. Corcoran’s brilliance and energy matched Cohen’s, and the Corcoran-Cohen chemistry was especially strong. They were involved in the drafting and passage of much New Deal legislation (including the 1933 Securities Act and the Public Utility Holding Company Act), and they worked on FDR’s ill-fated court-packing plan. The two were featured on the Sept. 12, 1939, Time magazine cover with the cover line: “They Call Themselves Catalysts.” Corcoran’s role, although not his titles, evolved from lawyer to political operator to FDR’s emissary to Congress. While his often heavy-handed wheeling and dealing produced results, it seemed to attract enemies in ever greater amounts. He even had a falling out with FDR. Possibly because of this, there is no evidence that Corcoran was seriously considered for higher public office. Although FDR briefly considered appointing the Cork director of the budget, Treasury secretary Henry Morgenthau quashed the idea: “Out of the question,” Morgenthau wrote in his diary, adding that he considered Corcoran “an intellectual crook. I would not trust him as far as I could see him.” In 1940 Corcoran again decided, “I want to make a million dollars in one year, that’s all.” In addition to departing the FDR administration, the 37-year-old Corcoran married his longtime secretary, Peggy Dowd. About this time Frankfurter wrote FDR: “For a combination of reasons Tom lacks mental health right now. He is, therefore, in great danger of making a wrong turning, with vast harm to himself.” As the letter suggests, Tommy had had a falling-out with Frankfurter. Shortly thereafter, Corcoran hung out his shingle. While he had partners from time to time, he essentially was a solo practitioner during the next 50 years. McKean’s book provides fascinating accounts of Corcoran’s matters, cases, ex parte communications with many courts and commissions, international intrigues, lobbying and investigations — of both him and where he served as counsel. While out of government, Tommy continued a major power role. The book’s chapter headings provide the flavor: “Peddling Influence,” “Under Investigation,” “The Wiretap,” “Foreign Policy by Other Means.” Over the course of his career, Corcoran was directly involved in the appointments of Hugo Black, William Douglas and Felix Frankfurter to the Supreme Court. He also helped secure Lyndon Johnson’s contested election to the Senate (he talked ex parte to Black about ruling in Johnson’s favor in the recount litigation — which Black did). He schemed and plotted to fill the vacancy of chief justice when Harlan Fiske Stone died. Detailing a lawyer’s career is tough, especially here, since so much information is privileged or by its nature deeply private, oral, fudged or hedged. It helps that Corcoran was being wiretapped by J. Edgar Hoover and that McKean had access to the recently released transcripts. When Harry Truman, then president, found out about the taps, McKean reports an exchange with his assistant Harry Vaughan: “What the hell is this crap?” When Vaughan answered, “It’s a wiretap,” Truman, though no fan of the Cork, became angry: “Cut them off. � Tell the FBI we haven’t got any time for that kind of crap.” Tommy was a lawyer whom Lyndon Johnson was comfortable with. For example, he seems to have maneuvered Johnson’s bargain radio station deal (in his wife’s name), which became the bedrock of LBJ’s financial fortune. Johnson meanwhile saw to it that the Texas contractor Brown & Root put Tommy on retainer when he started practice. Tommy also had deals and run-ins with the Kennedys. For example, in 1945 Joe Kennedy, one of the wealthiest men in the world, bought the Chicago Merchandise Mart for $13 million (the original cost seven years earlier was $35 million). For the purchase, $12 million was financed by Equitable Life. Four years later he got a new loan from Prudential for $17 million and used the $5 million difference for other purposes. A fast gain. Kennedy retained Corcoran to find other tenants to replace the low-rent lease of the U.S. Department of the Treasury with higher-paying tenants for the Mart space. Mission accomplished. Corcoran sent Kennedy a statement of $75,000. Kennedy sent a check for $25,000 and said he “wouldn’t pay one more dime.” Stiffed. Tommy cashed the check and moved on. Tommy also had complicated relationships with the Catholic Church hierarchy (he tried to get it involved in domestic politics and the country’s international affairs). In 1939 he successfully silenced the criticism of FDR — some called it fascist demagoguery — by the infamous radio priest, Father Coughlin, with the help of Cardinal Mundelein of Chicago and his assistant Bishop Bernard Sheil. In 1945 Corcoran was asked to represent a client whose daughter was held in a postwar German prison by the Russians. Bishop Sheil was dispatched by the Cork to Germany, and the girl was returned safely to the United States with his excellency. Corcoran’s fee was for his client to pay the bishop’s trip expenses, plus a $5,000 contribution to the Catholic Youth Organization and the gift limit of $3,000 to each of the Corcoran children. McKean does not tell us how the transaction was treated for income tax purposes. Corcoran’s wife, Peggy, died in 1957 at 44 of a hemorrhage, and Tommy became a single father with six children. McKean relates this personal story, and it is a tough one. As a widower, Corcoran did a lot of tomcatting, especially with Anna Chennault, a general’s widow, and allegedly Lindy Boggs, a congressman’s widow and a congresswoman herself. But he never remarried, and, McKean writes that he died in 1992, having made millions, but with little money left to show for it. Corcoran’s life was a toxic brew: extraordinary intelligence and education — coupled with big stock market losses, the power surge from those youthful and heady New Deal days and the relationships with the likes of Frankfurter, FDR and LBJ. The Corcoran model of practicing law has had a not inconsequential impact on the legal profession. Who does not know someone who has said, “I want to be the next Tommy the Cork; I want to be the next Clark Clifford”? For readers wanting to understand that breed, McKean’s book is a must read. If nothing else, it is a study of where the demons dwell. Wayne W. Whalen is a partner with Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom in Chicago. He can be reached at [email protected] This article was originally published in The American Lawyer, a Recorder affiliate based in New York City.

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