F.D.R.'s 'Gorgeous Hussy'

By MAUREEN DOWD

New York Times

April 17, 2005

WASHINGTON — My family, alas, must bear the cross of inventing modern lobbying.

It was all the fault of my cousin, Peggy, an irresistible, dimpled Grace Kelly type who ensorcelled Tommy Corcoran - against the wishes of Franklin Roosevelt.

Tommy was the brainy young lawyer for F.D.R. who constructed much of the early New Deal with Ben Cohen and sold to Congress the economic safeguards that protected the little guy. The two became, as David McKean wrote in "Peddling Influence: Thomas 'Tommy the Cork' Corcoran and the Birth of Modern Lobbying," "perhaps the best legal team in the annals of American government."

Peggy Dowd and Tommy met in 1933 when she was sent to his office at the Reconstruction Finance Corporation. "You're Irish," her boss told 22-year-old Peggy. "Maybe you can handle him." He talked with a cigar in his mouth and barked orders, and went through secretaries quickly.

In a scene straight out of a Jean Arthur movie, Peggy told her new boss: "Take the cigar out of your mouth or I won't take dictation from you."

Tommy, shocked, obliged.

She became the New Deal's amanuensis. Everyone was charmed by Peggy, who was bright and generous, except F.D.R. and Felix Frankfurter, who thought their protégé should not marry the daughter of an immigrant Washington mailman. Peggy told my mom that F.D.R. teasingly referred to her as "our 'Gorgeous Hussy,' " the title of a 1936 Joan Crawford movie about a Washington innkeeper's daughter who had a notorious friendship with Andrew Jackson.

Tommy asked Peggy to marry him, and arranged a meeting to introduce his bride to the president. Mr. McKean describes the awful scene that came next: "Peggy bought a new dress and hat for the occasion, and she and Tommy arrived at the White House family quarters at the appointed time. But after they'd waited for well over two hours, Harry Hopkins came into the reception area to tell them that the president could not, in fact, see them. Corcoran was furious and later claimed that the incident contributed to his decision to leave public service."

Along with other superconnected superlawyers, like Abe Fortas and Clark Clifford, Tommy elevated lobbying to a lucrative gentleman's profession. Mr. McKean writes that the raffish Tommy might talk in code on the phone - I heard a few of his cryptic lobbying calls when I worked summers at his law firm - but never did anything illegal: "If occasionally he skirted the edge of propriety, he made sure to leave no footprints."

When he was investigated - and cleared - by Congress in 1960 on suspicion of improperly lobbying the Federal Power Commission chairman for a rate increase on behalf of the Tennessee Gas Company, Tommy was unapologetic: "I walked down the corridors of the Commission, and I have always walked down the corridors of the Commission - in broad daylight with a brass band behind me."

It's a far cry from today's lobbying. Sleazoid lawmakers like Tom DeLay gulp down the graft from sleazoid lobbyists like Jack Abramoff, who took Mr. DeLay, the House majority leader, to play golf in Scotland in 2000 as part of a $70,000 trip with Mr. DeLay's wife and staff, and for a six-day "fact finding" trip to Moscow in 1997.

If there are any ethics questions, Republicans helpfully gut the House Ethics Committee, while DeLay & Co. try to gut the New Deal.

Before he became a $750-an-hour superlobbyist accused of defrauding Indian tribes of tens of millions of their gambling dollars and pitting them against one another to pay for lavish trips for congressmen, "Casino Jack" had never been a White House wise man or spent years in public service. He produced B movies like "Red Scorpion" and "Red Scorpion 2."

Unlike the cultivated Tommy, who was a bit of a Robin Hood, taking care of lots of people who were down and out, Mr. Abramoff leeched off a group that's always gotten gypped and then wrote ugly e-mail deriding his Indian clients as "monkeys" and "idiots."

Another lobbyist, Tongsun Park, a South Korean at the center of a Congressional bribery scandal in the 1970's known as Koreagate, blasted back from the past this week. Mr. Park has been charged with secretly collecting at least $2 million from Saddam Hussein for clandestine help setting up the corrupt U.N. oil-for-food program and carting away bags of cash from Iraq's diplomats in New York, partly to bribe a U.N. official.

Not exactly broad daylight with a brass band. More like midnight in the sewer.

E-mail: liberties@nytimes.com