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Over the decades, the influence of lobbyists in Washington, D.C., has grown to where they almost form a fourth branch of the government. Anyone interested in their rise should read David McKean’s probing and entertaining biography of Thomas Corcoran, the capital’s grandest lobbyist. Corcoran, who was born in 1900 and died in 1981, straddled two Washingtons — the small, bucolic city of the twenties and thirties, and the clotted powerhouse it became after World War II. Tommy the Cork: Washington’s Ultimate Insider from Roosevelt to Reagan is McKean’s second look at a controversial D.C. figure. With Douglas Frantz, McKean cowrote Friends in High Places: The Rise and Fall of Clark Clifford, another government official-turned-lobbyist with a mixed reputation. McKean knows a little about power himself — for the past five years he has been chief of staff for Senator John Kerry. Corcoran was well connected from the start. He was born in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, into a middle-class Irish-Catholic family. He graduated from Harvard Law School in 1926, where he was befriended by then-professor Felix Frankfurter. The future U.S. Supreme Court justice helped Corcoran gain a clerkship with a current justice, Oliver Wendell Holmes. When Corcoran arrived in Washington in the fall of 1926, the current Supreme Court chambers had not yet been built. Corcoran went each morning to Holmes’s house on I Street, where the 85-year-old justice did his work. Holmes forbade typewriters; everything had to be written out in longhand, and he burned his notes in the fireplace after a case was finished. Once Corcoran finished his clerkship, he headed to New York to work at a Wall Street firm. But after the stock market crashed, Manhattan lost its appeal. Corcoran returned to Washington in 1932 to join the new administration of Franklin Roosevelt, who later nicknamed his aide “Tommy the Cork.” Corcoran first worked at the Reconstruction Finance Corporation as an assistant general counsel. He went on to become one of the key architects of the New Deal and helped write several of its defining laws, including the Securities Exchange Act and the Public Utilities Holding Company Act. More important, Corcoran placed dozens of young lawyers throughout the government — contacts that would prove invaluable in his later career. Despite his power (or perhaps because of it), Corcoran fell out of favor at the Roosevelt White House. In 1941 Corcoran left government and hung out his shingle as a full-time lobbyist. Almost immediately, he attracted controversy. Later that year, he voluntarily testified before a committee headed by then-senator Harry Truman that was investigating the role of lobbyists in the awarding of defense contracts. True to the form he maintained all his life, Corcoran was unapologetic about his work. Responding to charges that he had used his “influence” with government agencies, Corcoran told the committee, “If with respect to me, [influence] means experience in knowing what the government likes and does not like, I cannot understand why it should not be utilized to make the burden of government lighter.” A more succinct and honest definition of corporate lobbying — to counteract and minimize government’s role in the affairs of big business — has probably never been articulated. Though Truman and Corcoran didn’t get along, the lobbyist had a far better relationship with Lyndon Johnson. McKean writes that when LBJ became president, Corcoran told friends he was going to “cash in” on his ties with the Texan. But Corcoran’s mores, formed in a different era, failed to change with the times, and he slowly lost influence in D.C. Among scores of anecdotes in McKean’s book, perhaps the best-known is Corcoran’s botched attempt in 1969 to lobby two Supreme Court justices. Corcoran hoped to persuade William Brennan and Hugo Black to agree to rehear a case involving El Paso Natural Gas, but was thrown out of their offices before he could begin his pitch. McKean, who never met Corcoran, says that he spent six years researching and writing his book. “It was a lot of fun to watch [Corcoran] unfold. I never knew which way he was going to go,” McKean says. “By the end, I am — as a biographer — rooting for him. He was something of a scoundrel, but you couldn’t help but like him.” Goldman is the senior correspondent at Influence, a sibling publication of Corporate Counsel.

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