When Franklin Roosevelt went to the White House in 1933, he rounded up a cadre of bright young men charged with creating and implementing the New Deal. Known as the “Brain Trust,” the group included Harry Hopkins, Henry Morgenthau Jr., Ben Cohen and Thomas (“Tommy the Cork”) Corcoran. Born in Rhode Island and trained at Harvard Law, Corcoran started out in 1926 as secretary to Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes. Still a senior partner in a prestigious Washington law firm, the 76-year-old widower remains a lively fixture on the capital scene. Recently Corcoran discussed his half century in politics, and what’s ahead for Jimmy Carter, with Clare Crawford, PEOPLE’S Washington correspondent.
Do Carter’s first days in the White House remind you at all of FDR’s?
Franklin Roosevelt was just as ambivalent as Mr. Carter is now. A presidential candidate has to be when he’s campaigning. He has to get votes, and he really hasn’t had time to think through the answers to the tough questions. The other night I heard a very intelligent fellow around town say, “You know, if I thought Mr. Carter’s apparent confusion about important issues was due to ignorance, I’d be very worried. But I’m very confident that he’s Machiavellian.” I think Carter’s a phenomenon of political savvy, and very smart.
Then you think Carter has real presidential stature?
That’s academic, isn’t it? FDR used to tell the story of the bartender who went up to the owner of the bar and asked, “Is Casey good for a drink?” The owner replied, “Has Casey had the drink?” “Yes.” “Then he’s good for it.”
What was Washington like in 1933?
The town was full of people trying to make the world over and others just trying to make it work. I was one of the ones trying to make it work. We had the best of the Republicans and the Democrats. There was no partisanship in town. There was incredible ability. A first-class government isn’t just 10 men in the Cabinet; you need a thousand first-class men. In those days we had them, partly because nobody else could pay them. Everybody else was broke.
What was it like working for Roosevelt?
Oliver Wendell Holmes said to me once, “Any man can do anything in the world he wants to do, provided he is capable of wanting it hard enough.” And then he added, “The Lord was very careful not to make too many men who want what they want hard enough.” Franklin Roosevelt was one of those men. He could simply say to his young minions, “Find a way to do it.”
Personally, how did you feel about him?
You want me to talk about God? Roosevelt could call the spirits from the vast deep and they’d come. He had a way of getting men to do things. I worked for this guy for eight years; I fought hard for his third term. After that I quit. I had to choose between my family and all this baloney about power.
Was Roosevelt the most extraordinary man you have ever known?
Well, the man who influenced my life more than any other was Oliver Wendell Holmes. I was lucky. Holmes was a widower and had no children. He had an inheritance on which he could live, and he was removed from commonplace problems. In that sense he was a great thinker. He could ponder the universe completely apart from all other considerations. I was lucky enough to live right around the corner from him and be the fellow who dined with and read to him.
What about some of the other Presidents you have known?
Harry Truman and I were at loggerheads for years. He called me a goddamn Harvard snob. Still, I think Truman was a great guy and very strong on foreign policy. I went to see James Whitmore in Give ’em Hell Harry, and a reporter asked, “Is that the way you remember him?” I replied: “That’s the way you’re supposed to remember him.”
And President Eisenhower?
I don’t think about him much.
Weren’t you a friend of the Kennedys?
Of course. After all, I was an Irishman from New England and a good friend of Joe Kennedy. I was close to Jack, but I never went to the White House in all the time he was there. I didn’t like Mrs. Kennedy. When I have that feeling, I don’t give a damn about whether people like me or not.
And Lyndon Johnson?
I think Lyndon is going to be one of the great men of American history. He tried to do something about problems everybody else dodged. LBJ didn’t get us into Vietnam. He inherited that war from Eisenhower and Kennedy, and as a Texan he didn’t want to lose it. Actually, he was right. The nation just couldn’t afford a defeat at that time. A lot of the unrest today is due to that fact. It’s like England. Once you think you are invincible, and you find you aren’t, something happens to the national psyche.
What do you think of Gerald Ford?
I like Mr. Ford. He was a friend. He did a good job. I only had one thing against him. If he thought he had to pardon Nixon, why the hell didn’t he pardon all those other poor bastards who are running up hopeless lawyers’ bills?
What is your overall assessment of Jimmy Carter?
He is a superb politician, but he’s also got something else that interests me—technological beginnings. The other Presidents for the most part have been lawyers. Carter is a physicist, the first to know something about, and believe in, the technological process. I think he has the potential to be a very great President. He faces incredible problems that are much more serious than the ones FDR faced at the beginning of the New Deal.
How would you describe Carter’s style?
The smile and the dagger. Adm. Hyman Rickover, Carter’s former boss and the man to whom he is so obligated, wanted the go-ahead for his big nuclear carrier. The President called Rickover to a special meeting. That carrier was Rickover’s pride and joy, but the next day Carter cut it out. It won’t be built. But before he cut Rickover’s throat, he was nice to him. That’s the smile and the dagger.
What are Carter’s possible pitfalls?
Well, he is a king. But you have to live with people—with Congress and the judiciary. When Mr. Roosevelt was rash about the judiciary, it smashed the momentum of his New Deal. Carter has already lost on the nomination of Paul Warnke as arms negotiator, because he didn’t get as big a confirmation vote as he wanted. I also think he should watch out for Andrew Young. Young is not doing him any good. He doesn’t have the knack for making revolution look like evolution.
What advice would you give Carter?
I’d say, “Mr. Carter, everybody has got to be for you.” And I’d say to Congress, “Everybody has got to be for you too.” Remember what Churchill said about democratic government: It’s the worst kind of government except for all the others. It’s the damndest thing to work with. I think the first thing Carter should do is build a solid base domestically. Nixon made the terrible mistake of taking Henry Kissinger’s advice too much. He thought he could avoid domestic troubles by the public acclaim and the glamorizing he would get traveling around the world. It was a public relations choice.
Who among Carter’s advisers interests you?
The guy my chips are on right now is James Schlesinger. He’s wonderful. One of his troubles is he says what he thinks. Mr. Ford couldn’t stand what Schlesinger was telling him. I think Carter respects Schlesinger’s brain more than any other in the Cabinet.
What is the future for the U.S.?
Our first obligation is to ourselves. We were going to bring democracy to all countries. Now where are the democracies? We are the lender to the whole world, and the whole world is having a hard time paying us back. So all these little countries go to the United Nations and pound us. If the U.S. would make up its mind to want what it wants hard enough, it could protect itself from all the separate nations of the world.
How do you feel about equal rights for women?
I find it very hard to talk about women. I regard them as a wild animal regards a forest fire—with fascination and fear. I know the world is a matriarchy and always will be. I believe in equal rights for women and not for men.
Are you a happy man?
What does the word mean? No, I’m not contented. I’ve a thousand things yet to do. I’ve still got three more children who are just becoming established in life. I’ve got responsibility, so I’ve got to keep my body going. I drink white wine, but I don’t smoke. When I was in high school the football coach told me if I didn’t smoke I might make the team. I’m still trying to make the team.