I thought he would live forever.
The son of a Yankee Puritan mother and an Irish father, Thomas Gardiner Corcoran inherited from one the persistent, driving diligence and from the other the imagination and irresistible ebullience and gaiety that carried him throughout his life. His incredible energy was fearful to behold. A few weeks ago he said to his doctor that recently he had often found himself tired, and he wondered why. His doctor said, "It goes with the territory once you're 80." And the patient was said to have replied, "Not with my territory, it doesn't!"
He was a New Hampshire mountaineer and a football player. It took him some years to become varsity center at Brown because of his size--but he made it. He was a downhill skier, indifferent at best if one looks back on his broken ankles and legs--but he skied. He was a first-rate scholar when he wished to be, valedictorian of his class, Phi Beta Kappa and on the Harvard Law Review. He was secretary to Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes: there was no greater honor for a young lawyer in the nation.
He was a great advocate at the bar, a brief- writer of excellence and a superb intellectual persuader of men. He was an unparalleled legislative draftsman.
Except for Franklin Roosevelt himself, he and Ben Cohen--Corcoran and Cohen--were a huge part of the New Deal. They were the generals and captains of their young armies. The New Deal legislation, which has remained on the statute books for almost a half-century, is testament to them both. Together they were much stronger than just adding them one to one. All through the government during those New Deal years, they had scores and scores of youthful juniors awaiting their orders. Ben was the idea man, the visionary, the man of wisdom. Tom was the quarterback, the strategist, the persuader.
In the past few days, my phone has been ringing from all over the country as members of this now thin gray line of the New Deal mourn one of their own.
With the possible exception of the Founding Fathers, there was never before and certainly has not been since, the excitement, the intellectuality, the excellence or the sense of accomplishment that existed in the New Deal. It is remembered by the hundreds, even thousands, of young men and women who flocked to Washington to serve under such leaders as Franklin Roosevelt and his brain trusters.
Tom loved to quote his old master, Justice Holmes. And Holmes' words, when speaking of his old Civil War comrades in a speech delivered on Memorial Day 1884, also apply to the New Dealers--because of Tom and Ben: "Through our great good fortune, in our youth our hearts were touched with fire."
Tom was, of course, himself a man for heroes. He had great ones like FDR and Justice Holmes. Gen. Claire Chennault, who led the American Flying Tigers in China against the Japanese, was another. Tom supplied the general with men and material and took on that war "over the hump" against the Japanese as his own personal war.
As a private lawyer, he treated his clients the way he would himself. Once he took them on as clients, they were his cause. I remember a conversation years ago with his old close friend, the late Ben Sonnenberg, the famous New York public relations man. I ran into him somewhere on Cape Cod and he asked: "How's Tommy?"
I said, "About the same."
He said, "You know, Tommy has one great failing. I do a great deal of work these days for the cigarette companies, and they are all dreadfully fearing the cancer attack on cigarettes. I never forget that it is they who have cancer, not me. But Tommy always gets cancer along with his clients."
It was, I feel, a valid point. He was indeed a last-ditch fighting crusader for those clients. Though some of us felt occasionally that some of the clients didn't deserve it, Tom always did.
Essentially, he had the soul of a schoolmaster. When Peggy died, almost a quarter of a century ago, he became mother as well as father to his children. He made sure that they excelled in their studies; they also had to do everything else well. They took all kinds of lessons in golf, tennis, dancing, fencing, riding, whatever. I often thought that if he ordered all of them out into the field, handed each a bow and arrow and directed them to put the arrow through a target at 100 paces, every one of them could have done it with ease. He said at least 1,000 times to them and at least 100 times to me that he could give his children only one thing: the ability to take care of themselves in an unstable, difficult and dangerous world. And proudly he produced three lawyers, two doctors and one landscape architect.
On Sunday, Dec. 6--the day Tom died--at the family's request I called Lady Bird Johnson. She said immediately: "A large part of my life is gone--a sparkling, glittering part."
He was always the most generous man I have ever known.
Once more I remember the words of his hero, Justice Holmes--about what Holmes, almost a century ago, had said about an old lawyer friend of his own:
"When a great tree falls, we are surprised to see how meager the landscape seems without it. So when a great man dies. . . ."