The Lawyers Who Dealt Us the New Deal : DEALERS AND DREAMERS A New Look at the New Deal <i> by Joseph P. Lash (Doubleday: $24.95; 494 pp., illustrated) </i>

<i> Kimball, a history professor at Rutgers University, is the author/editor of "Churchill & Roosevelt: The Complete Correspondence" (Princeton University Press), and Pitt Professor at Cambridge University for 1988-89</i>

“Franklin Roosevelt asked him, ‘Tommy, did you learn anything about politics today?’ . . . Tom did not mean to be impertinent--'How do you make a decision after you’re elected, to whom would you keep what they thought was a promise and you knew perfectly well was not a promise?’ And he (F.D.R.) laughed and said, ‘That’s the difference between being a campaigner and a President . . . . You give the job to the fellow who will make the most trouble if he doesn’t get it.’ ” Author Joseph Lash put it less cynically: “What distinguished the New Dealers was their sixth-sense feeling for the programs that were politically feasible, not simply ideally desirable.”

When Lash died recently, the New Deal lost one of its most fervent partisans. In a small way, Lash himself played out what his book describes--the conflict between ideals and practicality, the desire to dream confronted by the need to deal. As a young man in the late 1930s, Lash was part of what he terms “the Left.” He then shifted a bit rightward after the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939 and ended with this sympathetic study centered around some of the New Deal’s most practical visionaries.

A memorial rather than a memoir (Lash was not a participant in what he describes), the story centers around Tommy Corcoran and Ben Cohen, two of the New Deal’s most energetic young lawyers; “Brains Trusters” who came to epitomize one of the management characteristics of the Roosevelt Administration--that high office did not always accompany power. Corcoran and Cohen, the “Gold Dust Twins” to some, unelected “janizaries” to others, never held Cabinet posts or elected office, yet they wielded effective influence and authority during Roosevelt’s first two terms. How powerful? Lash refutes allegations that Corcoran was the mastermind behind Roosevelt’s “court-packing” plan, and pictures the 1938 election “purge” of New Deal enemies as a consensus decision between F.D.R. and his advisers. Nevertheless, for a time during Roosevelt’s second term, Corcoran, always with Cohen in the background, acted as unofficial White House chief of staff. In September, 1938, Time magazine put them on its cover, yet at no time did either hold a position on the President’s staff. Lash minimizes the political impact of the two that some called Frankfurter’s “hot dogs,” while making much of their contributions as brilliant legal technicians.

The most curious absence from the book is that of Franklin D. Roosevelt, who remains a personage and a power, but not a person. The focus on Cohen, Corcoran and Frankfurter avoids the real enigma, despite Lash’s shrewd observation that “the New Dealers without Roosevelt were a sect, not a majority.”

Those who are hooked on “L.A. Law” may not find this book quite so addictive--there’s too little sex and too much substance--but it has its own special fascination. Both Corcoran and Cohen began as proteges of Felix Frankfurter--Harvard law professor and presidential adviser, later Supreme Court justice, and a major player in this book. Together they epitomized the preoccupation of New Dealers with the law. Corcoran, introducing Cohen in 1977, captured the essence of New Deal ideals: “Without bloodshed, the New Deal defanged our most dangerous internal crisis since the crisis of 1861. This it accomplished by institutionalizing compassion and recognizing the political indispensability for a democracy of hope in all its people.”


But those ideals required compromise and hard work. The details of drafting legislation are tedious, but the atmosphere of confrontation, first between Wall Street lawyers and the New Deal, then between the judiciary and the New Deal, makes for interesting reading. Centralizers like Rexford Tugwell fought two varieties of supporters for local authority: true believers like Justice Louis Brandeis, and anti-New Dealers looking to clip Roosevelt’s wings. Meanwhile, people like Corcoran and Cohen burned the midnight oil carefully writing New Deal legislation that would survive both Congress and the courts.

That sense of accomplishment during those years is buttressed by Lash’s sensitive treatment of the “pivotal roles” played by “a group of talented American Jews.” To hate-mongers, the New Deal became the Jew Deal, and Roosevelt sometimes refused to appoint Jews to high posts on the grounds that openly fighting discrimination had to await victories against the Depression and then against Hitler. But the overall impact was enormous. The integration of American Jews into the federal government has played a key role in the fight against anti-Semitism.

As so often with stories of political power, the ending is anticlimactic. In part, Lash argues, that was because after 1938, Roosevelt moved a bit to the right, a necessary shift for Dr. Win-the-War. Cohen, a staunch interventionist, stayed in government for a time, contributing wherever he could. But he had lost his partner. In large part that was because Corcoran’s personal ambition and anti-British sentiments caused an estrangement from Frankfurter and thereby from F.D.R. as well. Corcoran became a lobbyist and lawyer for various firms doing wartime business with official Washington. Joe Rauh, a longtime New Dealer, spoke for a number of others when he condemned Corcoran for selling out to the enemy--not Germany, but the anti-reformers.

An English teacher might criticize the style and structure of the book. Choppy chapters, abrupt shifts in subject, the sometimes cloying use of first names--all are distracting, and unusual for a craftsman like Lash. Three superficial chapters (on the New Deal and blacks, on the New Deal and Communists, on the passage of the National Labor Relations Act), awkwardly tacked on near the end, suggest that Lash’s failing health forced him to hurry. But the story is too compelling to be spoiled by such flaws. It is, after all, the story of how our present-day institutions were created. Some may question Lash’s judgments and complain that he has not cited all the latest historical literature, but his excellent exploitation of the papers of both Cohen and Corcoran, plus judicious use of interviews, makes this a valuable work.

Lash begins his book with the brief tale of a reunion of New Dealers held in 1977, an event to which President Jimmy Carter was not invited and which Vice President Walter Mondale avoided. There is irony and instruction in the effort by Carter to distance his Administration from the New Deal, while Ronald Reagan seems to wish only for a return to the 1930s.