Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Flashback: The Luncheon with Tommy the Cork Shows the Initial FDR Loyalist and Also the Conservative Disloyalist Blocking the Democrats at Every Turn.


[Fifty plus years of politics written as a memoir for my kids and grandchildren].

Thanks to Walter Judd’s setting us up for lunch in 1975, I met and spent an hour or two with Thomas (Tommy the Cork) Corcoran at the Madison hotel’s Montpelier Room. He was instantly likeable to me because of several factors. First, he was an Irish Catholic Democrat as was my mother and shared with her a number of her presuppositions about the high and mighty Protestant-dominated establishment of her—and Tommy’s—time. Second, he was an instinctive liberal about the power of huge corporations, similar to her pioneering Democratic party view.

Third, he was a risk taker and exuberantly irreverent which appeals to me. Fourth, he had become a heavily conservative Republican on foreign policy so closely resembled to my own father that it was uncanny. Fifth, he was a dedicated son of the Catholic church with an inbred sense of Thomistic philosophy and Augustinian theology similar to my own. Sixth—and last—he had a great confident sense of fatalism similar to my own: that despite all the imperfections of the human spirit if one tries—really tries—to achieve through political activism what the Church instructs as good you shouldn’t worry too much when the Great Tavern Keeper raps his knuckles on the bar, rattles His keys and says, “gentlemen, it’s closing time!”

We got off to the right start at once with cocktails where he observed that he was in the Oval Office when multi-billionaire Andrew Mellon, Harding, Coolidge’s and Hoover’s treasury secretary, came invited at the behest of FDR. Mellon was in the throes of a comprehensive probe by the IRS which could, had it been successful, impoverished him and sent him to jail.

This trial for the man who single-handedly convinced Harding and Coolidge to spur the economy with tax cuts which produced untold prosperity for the American people (although Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. had propagated the myth that the good old days of the 20s had produced the Depression, a base canard)…this for the hero of the postwar economy! Roosevelt had initiated the IRS inquisition out of pique because Mellon had been so effective a financier of Republican fortunes. But now that Mellon had donated many hundreds of millions of dollars worth of art treasures to the Mellon Art Gallery (later to become the National Gallery), Roosevelt felt somewhat constrained to thank him.

The spry little financier was very polite to Roosevelt, said Corcoran, probably not fully appreciating that the inquisition was launched at Roosevelt’s own imperious command. Watching the two, Corcoran was astounded at the shameless charm that Roosevelt showed to the ill, old man who was in agony as result of the probe Roosevelt himself had launched. Mellon was astonished at the probe since he had paid several millions of dollars in income tax. All the while, “Roosevelt was about as kind and servile as it was possible to be,” he told me.

“I was astounded at the duplicity. Talk about an adder coiled to spring under the linen napkin overhanging a lunch basket. Roosevelt thought I would hugely appreciate it knowing as I did that he had initiated the IRS investigation and still was as charming as a serpent. I appreciated it but was appalled, almost sickened. Then I discovered that Roosevelt had managed to pay about $31.31 on a then handsome salary of $25,000, a feat accomplished by the cooperation of many Treasury accountants who had to go through hoops to justify…all the while loving the sight of this billionaire facing jail despite his philanthropy—special benefits for one who felt he was the Czar of the United States. Then later to know that Mellon died shortly before knowing that all the IRS could do couldn’t bring him down.”

After that things got interesting. He certified one item of local Chicago interest. He accompanied FDR to Chicago in 1937 to dedicate the Outer Drive bridge where the president unfurled his “quarantine the aggressors” slogan which anticipated his position on entry into the Second World War…a speech Corcoran was not fond of. After the talk they both went to see George Cardinal Mundelein at the mansion, 1555 N. State Parkway. Mundelein and Roosevelt were very close because Mundelein, a German-American, had shared FDR’s view that Hitler’s aggression should be stopped—and Mundelein had made a nationwide radio speech, amazing for a prelate of the Church, calling Hitler “that little paperhanger.” (Mundelein was instrumental in convincing the Detroit archbishop Mooney to silence Fr. Charles E. Coughlin as a favor to Roosevelt.)

One item that was important in Roosevelt’s mind at the meeting was how he could set up diplomatic relations with the Vatican which he sorely wanted while at the same time not alienate the anti-Catholic lobby which feared special concessions to Rome. Corcoran was intrigued at how Mundelein absorbed Roosevelt’s political problem, to pacify Catholic haters and still get the job done. Mundelein turned not a hair as Roosevelt outlined how he had to keep the virulent anti-Catholic south in line and still get the job done. Corcoran marveled that here were to dispassionate men of the world, accepting reality as it was and not pausing for a second to acknowledge the wrongness of the bigotry. They didn’t settle the issue at that time but Roosevelt said that Corcoran would be coming to Chicago surreptitiously to meet with Mundelein and get his ideas.

One thing leading to another and then as I have related elsewhere, Corcoran didn’t get back to Mundelein and the assignment until a year and a half later in 1939 when the war was on and Roosevelt pushed him to do so. Even then he went to great lengths to disguise his trip, saying that he had to take time off from the White House staff, then traveling to Chicago incognito. He met a few seminarians who picked him up at the Union Station and drove him over many miles of bumpy, rural roads to St. Mary of the Lake seminary in the former Area, Illinois, now re-designated Mundelein, Illinois. He spent the evening there, had dinner with the prelate and marveled that Mundelein seemed to fit the bill of an old Renaissance cardinal, suffused with political cannyness and wisdom, sophisticated as it is possible to be.

Mundelein told Corcoran over drinks that he had given the problem a lot of thought. He made a superbly political recommendation, worthy of the great master at legerdemain, Roosevelt himself. The recommendation: have no ambassador; don’t undergo the turmoil of naming him and trying to get him confirmed by the Senate which would give the anti-Catholics a forum. Instead, name an emissary to Rome—a wealthy person who would undertake the mission but not as an ambassador. Mundelein even recommended whom it should be. First, it should be a Protestant and no one familiar with the Church.

Second, it should be one in whom they could all have confidence—both Roosevelt and the Church. That person could be Myron C. Taylor, retired chairman of U. S. Steel. Taylor was not only a Protestant but a Freemason. Corcoran was delighted with the suggestion—worthy of Cardinal Richelieu himself. (Roosevelt did in fact name Taylor to the post who stayed as the eyes and ears of the U. S. throughout World War II).

That issue concluded, they had a sumptuous dinner and then Mundelein took him for a brief walk around the grounds. They entered the chapel. Mundelein turned on the lights; they both knelt before the altar and said a prayer. Then Mundelein pointed out softly that his plan was to be entombed in that chapel—in the altar. Mundelein was quite a rotund fellow and it occurred to Tommy that the dimensions of the altar were sufficient to do the job.

Then, the hour being about 11 p.m., Mundelein showed Tommy his apartment suite at the seminary where he would spend the night and said that Bishop Bernard J. Sheil, auxiliary bishop of Chicago, an Irishman known as a New Deal bishop…very pro-organized labor and anticipating the New Deal in support of civil rights, who headed the Catholic Youth Organization…would arrange for him to be driven back the next morning.

Corcoran went to bed and was awakened by a knock at his door at about 2:30 a.m. , stirring him from a sound sleep. It was Bishop Sheil. “I am sorry to bother you, Mr. Corcoran,” said Sheil, “but I have very sad and shocking news. Cardinal Mundelein has died, died after calling a servant for assistance. We think it is imperative for you to leave now—so that the newspapers don’t misinterpret why you were here. I think you will appreciate that.” Corcoran did. He got dressed hurriedly, didn’t shave and a seminarian drove him over the bumpy, rural roads to the city with Sheil in the car directing the way. When they arrived it was still dark so they had arranged a hotel room at the Congress for Corcoran, who slept in the next morning and caught a train to Washington in the afternoon, reading about the sudden death of Mundelein in the Chicago newspapers as the train rolled on to Washington.

He cabbed it to the White House after he arrived at Union Station and, told Missy LeHand he was back. He was ushered in promptly.

Roosevelt hung up a phone, wheeled around in his swivel chair and said: “All right, Tommy, out with it! What did you do to the old man?”

More about the luncheon soon.

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