Corcoran, The Master Fixer ( Who Is Senator X?)

Super Tuesday is history. U.S. Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts knows that he is the Democratic party’s main man. So can David McKean, Chief of Staff to Senator X and author of a new book on Washington insider Thomas G. Corcoran (Tommy the Cork: …


By Suzan Mazur

Super Tuesday is history. U.S. Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts knows that he is the Democratic party’s main man.

So can David McKean, Chief of Staff to Senator X and author of a new book on Washington insider Thomas G. Corcoran (Tommy the Cork: Washington’s Ultimate Insider from Roosevelt to Reagan, Steerforth Press), now reveal who Senator X is?

The answer is no. The Senate Ethics Committee has asked McKean to withhold the name of Senator X in promoting his book “so as not to create the appearance of using his position in the U.S. government for commercial purposes”.

The question is, does the public have a right to know who Senator X is, since Senator X could possibly be the next U.S. president? Getting to the bottom of this seems even more urgent considering what McKean has chosen for the book’s themes.

Tommy the Cork, the first “full-length” look at the Washington “super lawyer” and consummate political fixer, is also the story of how America got fixed following the financial crisis and massive unemployment of the Great Depression. It would be nice to know that if McKean is chief of staff to the Democratic frontrunner, that he is thinking along these lines — that is, solutions to the economic mess of our own time.

McKean, has, in fact, has already played a historic role in sorting out the country’s financial woes, serving as Investigative Counsel to Senator X on BCCI, with Corcoran’s chief rival, Clark Clifford, the star witness. In the book he focuses on Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal years (New Deal/Real Deal–sound familiar?) of economic and social reform and Corcoran’s strategic role in it.

McKean tells it precisely, based on Corcoran’s personal and legal papers, FBI wiretaps and interviews with family. He recounts Corcoran’s hand in drafting the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 (using the British Companies Act as the model) with colleagues Ben Cohen and James Landis, and then in the creation of the Securities Exchange Commission itself.

This was no easy task with the likes of J.P. Morgan, Jr. on the scene. He charms with a vignette of J.P. plotting a “counterstrategy” from a rented suite in the same Carleton hotel in D.C. where the the drafters were staying, and their encounter on the hotel elevator.

McKean presents Corcoran as an extremely intelligent (“highest grades ever attained at Harvard Law”, later right hand to Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes) and equally high-spirited character who loved to entertain with his accordion. Corcoran believed in public works (public works/public service–sound familiar?). And he served as counsel to the Reconstruction Finance Corporation that “kick started” the New Deal by providing loans to banks, insurance companies and key industries — which seem to be doing nicely now — while economic empowerment for all remains the issue.

However, when Corcoran made the decision to leave government in the 1940s to start a family and make a quick million dollars, McKean shows the golden glow fade. Corcoran would double as lobbyist for United Fruit and point man in helping to overthrow President Jacobo Arbenz Guzman’s Guatemalan government following Arbenz’s introduction of land reforms in the 1950s.

In promoting China’s Chiang Kai-shek, he would develop a cozy relationship with the CIA (Dulles brothers, Frank Wisner, et al.), which used the fleet of planes Corcoran owned jointly with General Claire Chennault and others — Civil Air Transport — for special missions into China and Vietnam. [For enlightenment on these missions, see: Linda Minor’s: “Follow The Yellow Brick Road” in Scoop’s archives.]

Coupled with McKean’s previous book on Clark Clifford (Friends in High Places: The Rise and Fall of Clark Clifford), it would seem McKean has a healthy contempt for the way the game is played. He says Clifford tried to “imbue lobbying with the patina of statesmanship” telling his clients, “If you want influence, you should consider going elsewhere.” And that “Tommy Corcoran never gave such a disingenuous speech to his clients.”

While Clifford was JFK’s man (that’s John Fitzgerald Kennedy not John Forbes Kerry), Corcoran was Lyndon Johnson’s, first introducing him to FDR and later counseling him to run with Kennedy as vice president in 1960. McKean says Eleanor Roosevelt thought Corcoran was a sexist. And that Bobby Kennedy didn’t like him.

Neither did a lot of other people. Some no doubt jealous of his talent and his chutzpah. Others turned off by his pandering.

Corcoran’s personal life suffered as a result of his obsession with the hardball politics of the old boys’ network. His wife drank heavily and died young, and his daughter committed suicide – at which point he attempted to adopt his wife’s cousin’s daughter, none other than New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd.

McKean’s portrait of Corcoran finally gives flesh to a character who has eluded historians for decades. But archival documents and FBI wiretaps can tell us just so much — the accordion music is gone — and Corcoran remains largely an enigma. Perhaps in keeping with the book’s author, Chief of Staff for Senator X and maybe the anonymous Beltway Bandit blogger as well.


Suzan Mazur’s reports have appeared in the Financial Times, Economist, Forbes, Newsday, Philadelphia Inquirer and on PBS, CBC and MBC. She has been a guest on McLaughlin, Charlie Rose and Fox television shows. Mazur has traveled widely, covered the wars, and for a few years along the way was also a top runway fashion model for Geoffrey Beene and other design talents. Send email to the author at

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