Corcoran on Holmes
His Remarks about FDR’s Temperament
Richard J. Garfunkel
May 22, 2007
Thomas Corcoran met Oliver Wendell Holmes when the Justice was 85 years old in the fall of 1926. He had a long white mustache, thick white eyebrows, and blue-grey eyes. He spoke with a Brahmin Boston accent and was a Unitarian. He clerked for him for 12 months, and they developed a close friendship until his death in March of 1935. Holmes did not allow newspapers in the house and smoked Cuban cigars from SS Pierce. Holmes did not want to use a cramped office in the lower level of the US Capitol, where the court convened, before the Supreme Court building was erected.
Holmes did not allow newspapers in his house, and he used to tell his clerks, “If anything important happens, my friends will tell me.” He didn’t allow a typewriter; everything was hand-written, and after the notes were finished he burned them in his fireplace.
Holmes would take a car service to the Court wearing a black frock coat. He left Corcoran behind to conduct his research. In the afternoon they would stroll in the park and discuss various subjects from philosophy to war and religion. He was not a consciously anti-Catholic, which Corcoran was, but grew up in an age that free-thinking individuals and intellectuals found the conformity of the church a “horror.” Corcoran was his first Irish Catholic clerk, and Holmes was amazed, and wondered, “How the hell a practicing Irish Catholic from Boston could have gone to a place called Brown University, where the president was a Baptist minister.”
By the way, at Brown, Corcoran, who was born in Pawtucket, RI, to a local second-generation Irishman named Patrick, was first in his graduating class of 1921. His father was Pawtucket’s leading lawyer and a Democratic politician. He earned his way partly as a dance band pianist and as a winner of scholarship prizes. Though well to do, his father insisted that his three sons learn to work with their hands and find ways to pay their own way!
After graduating from Harvard Law School he stayed on an extra year to the fall of 1925. He had been chosen the notes editor of the Harvard Law Review in his second year and was either first or second in the class during his three years. In 1925 he was chosen as one of nine doctoral candidates to be groomed for the Harvard Law faculty. He even authored, with his famous mentor Felix Frankfurter, an article “Petty Offenses and the Constitutional Guaranty of Trial by Jury.” Frankfurter had been sending law school graduates to clerk for Holmes since 1915, and also for Justice Brandeis after he had been appointed to the Court. Even the famous Francis Biddle, a future attorney general in FDR’s cabinet, who was his clerk in 1908, said, that “Holmes wanted his secretaries to deal with certiorari, balance his check book, and listen to his tall talk.”
When Corcoran became secretary to Holmes, the two read all of the Old Testament, Montaigne’s essays, and much of Dante’s Inferno, which he read aloud in English while the Justice followed in the Italian text. After the Justice finished a book, he would carefully record the title in a small notebook. By the time of his death in 1935, Holmes had read more than 3475 books and had written down the title of each since 1881. He had asked that the notebook be destroyed after his death, but his dear friend Corcoran, smuggled it out of the house and gave it to the Harvard Law Library.
After considering the pleas by Sacco and Vanzetti’s lawyers to have the Court review their case, and therefore stay their execution, Arthur Dehon Hill, the chief lawyer for the defense made a visit to the Justice with his legal team. Hill, who was a close friend of Felix Frankfurter, who also opposed the executions, visited the Justice at his home in Beverly Farms. After a two hour effort, Hill implored Holmes to issue a writ of habeas corpus, which would have required a review of the evidence. Holmes listened attentively and though sympathetic to their argument rejected their plea. Corcoran, who was upset by the meeting, asked Holmes, “But has justice been done, Sir?”
Homes turned and looked at his clerk, “Don’t be foolish, boy. We practice law, not ‘justice,’ which is a subjective matter. A man might feel justified in stealing a loaf of bread to fill his belly; the baker might feel it justified for the thief’s hand to be chopped off, as in Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables. The image of justice changes with the beholder’s viewpoint, prejudice or social affiliation. But for society to function, the set of rules agreed upon by the body politic must be observed – the law must be carried out.”
As to the remarks regarding President Roosevelt’s visit to the home of Justice Holmes, the inaugural speech of March 4, 1933 had set the tone. The speech had left Corcoran cold, and he stated, “I found the his words vague, unspecific to a fault.” He spoke of his misgivings about FDR to Holmes and the old man replied –(according to Joseph Lash “how much was fact and how much was Tom’s embellishment will never be know –“)
“Franklin is just like his cousin Theodore. He has a second class intellect but a first class temperament.” And that, be believed, was precisely what the nation needed in its time of crisis. But of course Corcoran later stated it quite differently.
Holmes “supposedly” remarked that he (FDR) was “a second rate intellect, but (had) a first-class temperament.” (Denied by Oliver Wendell Holmes to his death!) According to Corcoran, Holmes, when he met FDR at his home, confused him for a moment with his old rival Theodore Roosevelt. Holmes was thinking that TR has a “first rate-rate intellect with a second rate temperament.” Then in contemplation he reversed it with FDR. He never thought FDR was a “second-rate” intellect, but second to his 5th cousin!
Corcoran, nicknamed “Tommy the Cork,” by his future mentor FDR, moved on to work for the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, which became a model for several other government agencies. He and Ben Cohen were recommended by Frankfurter to write the Securities Act of 1933, and from then on they were partners: Cohen the writer and Corcoran the persuasive lobbyist. Corcoran wound up spending eight tumultuous years in the center of the heavy action of the New Deal. Conflicts started to arise in the White House over the vituperation from the mouth and pulpit of Father Coughlin. The president had sought support in his struggle against Coughlin and had received it from Cardinal Mundelein and Bishop Sheil in late 1938. When Mundelein, who was gravely ill, died, it was left to Bishop Sheil to denounce Coughlin and support the president. According to several accounts, following Bishop Sheil’s speech in October 1939, President Roosevelt decided to send a message to Cardinal Francis Spellman of New York that Coughlin was a liability. The so-called gist of the message was that if Coughlin was not silenced and removed from the air, the IRS would be instructed to look into the personal finances of the nation’s leading Roman Catholic bishops. This never has been corroborated and if it this conversation did happen, the IRS was not needed. New rules were instituted by the National Association of Broadcasters, which limited the selling of airtime to “spokesmen of controversial issues.” Later on Corcoran seemed to take credit for elevating the liberal Bishop Sheil to Mundelein’s place as head of the archdiocese of Chicago. But, the more conservative Cardinal Spellman of New York replaced Sheil as the most important Catholic spokesperson. Later on Corcoran and Spellman who loved politics, became friendly, and it was Corcoran who claimed that he introduced Spellman to Roosevelt. Spellman became nominally close to the Roosevelts and was the first priest to ever celebrate a Mass in the White House. Eventually Spellman wore out his welcome with the Roosevelt inner circle, and the president noted that the administration’s highest ranking Catholic official, James Farley, “doesn’t like Spellman.” It didn’t help or bode well for the flamboyant Corcoran that they were closely associated, and he was so visibly involved with the politics of the church. Eventually after playing a minor role at the 1940 Democratic convention, Roosevelt went to Harold Ickes and told him it was time for Corcoran to leave the RFC, and then after the election, “either come back into government or do whatever he may feel like doing.” Of course after the election there was much inside maneuvering by Frankfurter and others to find the proper role for Corcoran, and also limit the theoretical damage he could do to the White House with all of his wheeling and dealing.
It was suggested by Justice Frankfurter, in a letter to the president, that he be appointed a Special Assistant to the Attorney General, and to await a definite assignment. The president closed the letter by noting that Corcoran had been “fond of quoting Holmes as your great exemplar. Fundamentally, he was a great soldier in life and merely on the battlefield. Ask yourself how he would have answered the call.” FDR was using Corcoran’s emotional attachment to his late and beloved mentor to convince him to sit quietly for a while.
Of course, Corcoran was getting the message. Even though he had great regard for the president, he had seen him drop other close advisors. Corcoran, in retrospect, remembered an amusing vignette from the 1936 campaign. He was up at the Hyde Park home of the president’s working on a speech with Missy LeHand, the president, and Peggy Dowd. A neighbor dropped in on the president and brought a pheasant that he had just shot. The president loved game bird and couldn’t keep his mind off that bird for lunch. He stated, “A fat pheasant was the perfect dish for four companions.” But a few minutes before lunch was to commence, Mrs. Roosevelt arrived with her secretary and the president’s mother. The table was re-set for three more, and as the president was wheeled into the dining room, he whispered to Corcoran, “Tommy, I am about to perform a small miracle. There might be a political lesson in it for you. I am going to carve and serve that bird so that each lady at the table is convinced she is favored with the choicest portion. Sorry, boy, there won’t be anything left for you but the Pope’s nose.”
Therefore at the start of FDR’s third term, the president was carving up the choicest assignments for his favorites. Corcoran remembered the pheasant story and decided finally to leave the government. His earlier desire to be Solicitor General had been thwarted and he realized that his ambition to be eventually appointed to the Supreme Court was quite possibly quashed forever. He was right.
Corcoran left government, but in many ways he was still in the center of the action, and being well compensated for his efforts. He was soon signing up clients and since he had developed the reputation of a skilled operative in government, he quickly became know as a “fixer” in private practice.
Over the years, Corcoran became one of the most powerful insiders in Washington history. At his death in 1981 he was thought to be the first person to “fully appreciate the symbiotic relationship between the executive branch, the Congress and corporate America.” (From David McKean’s biography Tommy the Cork, “Washington’s Ultimate Insider from Roosevelt to Reagan.” Other stories about Tommy Corcoran can be found in Joseph Lash’s Dealers and Dreamers, and Kate Louchheim’s The Making of the New Deal.)