Thomas Corcoran (1900-1981)

Thomas Corcoran was a lawyer who helped draft and promote New Deal legislation, including the Securities Act of 1933, the Securities Exchange Act of 1934, and the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938.  He was routinely assisted in these efforts by his colleague and fellow attorney Benjamin Cohen, and the two eventually became known as the “Gold Dust Twins” [1].

Thomas Gardiner Corcoran was born in Pawtucket, Rhode Island on December 29, 1900, the first of three sons born to Thomas Patrick Corcoran and Mary O’Keefe (more commonly known as “Patrick” and “Josephine”).  The brothers—Tommy, David, and Howard—had a close relationship, enjoyed a good childhood in Pawtucket, and learned to appreciate music early on: “During the evening Patrick, who shared his wife’s musical interests, played the violin while Mary accompanied him on the piano and the children gathered around to sing Irish ballads and sea chanties.”  Young Tommy would become a skilled player of the piano and accordion [2].

In 1918, Corcoran began studies at Brown University in Providence, where he became class vice president, president of the debate team, running back for the football team, theater actor and, at graduation, valedictorian.  After earning his degree in English, Corcoran stayed on another year to earn a master’s degree in classical literature [3].  Next, he was off to Harvard Law School where, “he quickly won the reputation as the most brilliant member of his class, an assessment with which Professor [and future Supreme Court Justice Felix] Frankfurter agreed.  He graduated at the head of his class in 1925 and went on to a doctor of juristic science the following year.”  Corcoran then started his legal career by clerking for Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes [4].

After a number of years working in corporate law and after having his finances harmed by the Great Depression, Corcoran began working for the federal government in 1932 as a lawyer for the Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC).  He was not impressed by Franklin Roosevelt’s campaign for president that year, calling his future boss “the worst sort of political cad.”  Nevertheless, Corcoran’s old mentors, Frankfurter and Holmes, held positive views of FDR and, through Frankfurter, Corcoran became one of Roosevelt’s key men.  The two would become close, with Corcoran calling Roosevelt “Skipper” and the president calling him “Tommy the Cork” [5].

Over the course of the decade, Corcoran fine-tuned New Deal principles into workable bills and drummed up political support for the legislation in Congress [6].  In addition to laws pertaining to securities and labor, Corcoran had a hand in drafting and promoting other New Deal programs, including the Public Utilities Holding Company Act and the Social Security Act.  He also, reluctantly, helped push Roosevelt’s ill-fated court-packing plan [7].  By 1940, Corcoran’s relationship with the president and other New Dealers had cooled, so he left for private sector work.  He would go on to become one of the most influential lobbyists in Washington, D.C., often using questionable methods to obtain influence for the companies he represented [8].

Thomas Corcoran died in Washington, D.C., on December 6, 1981, at the age of 80.  He was survived by four sons, Thomas Jr., David, Howard, and Christopher; his daughter Cecily Kihn; his brothers, David and Howard; and six grandchildren [9].  Though he was a controversial figure, Corcoran helped create many reforms that still benefit us today.  As his biographer noted: “Corcoran knew how to get the job done” [10].

Sources: (1) See, e.g., “Thomas G. Corcoran, Aide To Roosevelt, Dies,” New York Times, December 7, 1981.  (2) David McKean, Tommy the Cork: Washington’s Ultimate Insider From Roosevelt to Reagan, South Royalton, VT: Steerforth Press, 2004, pp. 10-14.  (3) Ibid., pp. 13-14.  (4) See note 1.  (5) See note 2, p. 71.  (6) Michael Hiltzik, The New Deal: A Modern History, New York: Free Press, 2011, p. 32.  (7) Ibid., pp. 65, 73, and 86.  (8) See note 1, and note 2, p. 4.  (9) See note 1.  (10) See note 2, p. 4.