“'I've made a lot of candidates look foolish, usually with a lot of help from the candidates themselves.”
His name is legend, so secure that in his mid-eighties his business card carried merely his name and the definition of the phrase Political Prank: “a political activity, characterized by humor, devised to unmask, ventilate, bring to light, debunk, hold up to view, etc., the comical, ludicrous, or ridiculous, etc., incongruities, follies, abuses, and stupidities, etc., esp. of a candidate for office.” His sobriquet's - none self applied - include the Democratic harlequin, the Democrat Pixie, the merry trickster, the leprechaun, Richard Nixon's doppelganger, a Gaelic Father Christmas without beard and who gives the impression that he sends his clothes to the cleaners for rumpling, and most accurately, the self appointed Inspector Javert to Richard Nixon's Jean Valjean. It was Dick Tuck who tormented the central years of Richard Nixon's life. It was Dick Tuck who was blamed by Nixon's closest advisers, for the scandal that brought down their President. And it was Dick Tuck who always understood, that nobody pays to see the picador, except the matador.
“I think newspapers should stop publishing inaccurate polls until we do away with the secret ballot. Or run headlines: Poll Right--Election Off 4%.”
Dick Tuck spent the Second World War in the Pacific, dismantling bombs, and his post war career, planting them. In 1950, as a GI Bill student at U.C. Santa Barbara, Dick Tuck was working for Democratic Congresswoman Helen Gahagan Douglas, in her run for the U.S. Senate. According to Dick, an absent minded professor asked him “out of the blue” to act as campus “advance man” for the Republican candidate, Congressman Nixon. Tuck knew almost nothing about his soon-to-be nemesis, but instantly seeing the potential for humor, Dick accepted the job.
“I would have trouble convincing anybody that anything I've ever done is serious--except Richard Nixon.”
He rented the largest auditorium the Young Republican's budget would allow, and then invited only about 40 young Republicans. Introducing the Congressman to the empty cavern, Tuck rambled on for twenty minutes, before suggesting Nixon would now speak on the International Monetary Fund. Taking the microphone, Nixon was nonplussed. After stumbling through a short address and as soon as the last sad clap echoed through the empty auditorium, Nixon asked Tuck his name, and then told him, “Dick Tuck, you've made your last advance.” Luckily for future generations, that proved not to be true. Jokes aside, Nixon won the election.
“I don't consider the Boston Tea Party a prank. Rather, it was a staged event with an important political message.”
The two did not meet again until 1956, when Nixon was repeating as President Eisenhower's running mate. At the Republican convention, Tuck learned the San Francisco Department of Public Works sent their garbage trucks down Geneva Avenue on their way to the Junipero Serra Landfill. So Dick Tuck bought advertising space on each of those trucks. Thus, should any Republicans gaze out from their convention held in the Cow Palace, which was bordered by Geneva Avenue, they would see an endless stream of garbage trucks each carrying signs that said simply, “Dump Nixon.” It did not turn the election around, but it certainly bothered Nixon.
“The fact that your grandfather was a horse thief, that's not relevant.”
As the campaign progressed, Tuck would pose as a Republican operative, and convince bandleaders at campaign stops that Vice President Nixon's walk-on music should be his favorite song - “Mack The Knife”. Needless to say, it was not Nixon's favorite song. Posing as a fire marshal to the local press, Tuck would low ball turnout estimates for Republican rallies. Wearing a stolen conductor's cap, Tuck signaled the engineer to pull out of whistle stop, while Nixon (above) was still speaking from the rear of the last car. And then there was his famous “Chinatown Caper”, when in 1962 Nixon was running for Governor of California. It started when a newspaper first broke the story that Richard Nixon's brother, Donald, had received an unsecured $205,000 loan from Hughes Tool Company, owned by Howard Hughes. Tuck thought it was a great story, but the national press was not talking about it. So Tuck decided to fix that.
“'I've never had a job, and it's too late now.”
At a stop in Los Angeles' small Chinatown, Vice President Nixon (and his brother Donald) arrived to find the backdrop was a large hand painted sign that was assumed to read in Chinese characters “Welcome”. But as Richard began speaking, an elderly Chinese dignitary whispered to Donald that the sign actually said, “What about the Hughes Loan?” Dick Tuck had, of course, paid for the substitution, although how he got up it put at the rally was never explained. In any case, Donald Nixon abruptly bolted from his seat and ripped the sign to shreds, in full view of the news cameras. Now the national press had to explain the details of the loan. Nixon famously lost that election, and retired from politics, grousing to the press, "You won't have Dick Nixon to kick around anymore." So it was understandable that Nixon pointed out Dick Tuck and ordered his staff, “Keep that man away from me.”
''I always used to hate the word 'prank'.”
In the 1960 Presidential election, the turning point was the televised debates between Kennedy and Nixon. The morning after the first debate, the pundits were obsessed with who had won, and whether Nixon looked like he needed a shave. Then a woman wearing Nixon buttons embraced Nixon as he stepped off an airplane. She loudly exclaimed, “Don't worry, son! He beat you last night, but you'll get him next time.” She, of course worked for Dick Tuck.
In explaining how his pranks differed from those of the Republicans who followed him - Donald Segretti for Nixon, Lee Atwater for Bush Sr., and Karl Rove for Bush Jr - Tuck explained, “It's just the difference between altering fortune cookies to make a candidate look funny and altering State Department cables to make it look as if a former President were a murderer.” The fortune cookie line referred to 1958, when Dick Tuck was working for California Democratic Gubernatorial candidate Pat Brown (Governor Jerry Brown's father), running against Republican Senator William Knowland. At a fund-raising dinner for Knowland, Tuck managed to have all the fortunes in the fortune cookies read, “Knowland for Premier of Formosa”. It was a prank, not meant to disenfranchise voters, smear a candidate, or to lock conservatives out of the electoral process. And damn it, it was funny.
“What kind of a person would answer a pollster's questions? And tell the truth yet?”
In 1966 Dick Tuck staged a homage to Richard Nixon, by running himself for a seat in the California State Senate. He made that announcement from Glendale's sprawling Forest Lawn Cemetery, explaining to curious reporters that just because people had died, did not mean they had lost their right to vote. His campaign slogan was, “The Job Needs Tuck, Tuck Needs the Job.” Richard Nixon immediately sent Tuck a congratulatory telegram, and offered to campaign for him. Tuck responded by inviting Nixon to a debate, and even offered to shave for it. On election night, Dick Tuck fell behind early, but urged the press to “wait until the dead vote comes in.” The dead vote never showed up, and when it was clear Tuck had come in third out of field of eight Democrats, Tuck held a Nixonian press conference, telling the cameras, “The people have spoken. The bastards.” It proved to be the most famous thing Dick Tuck ever said.
On Ronald Reagan: “Anybody who takes off the month of August can't be all bad.''
In 1967, Tuck (above) went to Gary, Indiana, to run the mayoral campaign of Richard Hatcher. The local political machine had a history of stealing elections by sabotaging voting machines, but Dick Tuck solved that problem in typical Dick Tuck fashion. He formed a flying squad of teenage pin ball enthusiasts, and trained them to repair the voting machines. The instant one broke, a teenager showed up to get it running again. Richard Hatcher became the first African-American mayor of a major American city.
“I think air conditioning ruined Washington. Before it, during those muggy summers, everybody went home.”
In 1968, Dick Tuck became an adviser on Senator Robert Kennedy's Presidential campaign, and was occasionally seen walking Freckles, the Kennedy's English Spaniel (above). Teased by reporters, Tuck responded, “To you, this is just a dog, but to me it's an ambassadorship.” But on that fateful night of 6 June, Dick Tuck was just behind Senator Kennedy when he was shot, and tended to the dying candidate.
"I'm leaving politics and going into entertainment. Maybe I'm not changing--maybe politics is changing. It's not the entertainment that it once was.”
Later in 1968, the Nixon Presidential campaign in New York City received an order for several thousand buttons which repeated the phrase, “Nixon's The One”, in everything from Chinese, to Italian, Gaelic, Hebrew, and even Lithuanian. They were to be handed out at various ethnic rallies in the city. But so paranoid had Nixon become about the antics of Dick Tuck, that they were destroyed, just in case he had gotten to them and changed the wording. (He had not.) It was later alleged that Dick Tuck hired pregnant women to wander about at Nixon rallies wearing “Nixon's the One”buttons, but that may just be another legend. However it is clear that Nixon had begun to believe those legends, often lecturing his staff about the pranks Dick Tuck had or supposedly had, pulled on the Nixon campaign. Nixon began haranguing his staff, “Dick Tuck did that to me. Let's get out what Dick Tuck did!"
“I couldn’t exist in this environment. The problem is there will be no surprises. And there aren’t any independents anymore.”
Dick Tuck's name can be heard repeatedly on the Watergate tapes, always spoken of the way Batman must speak of The Joker, during down times in the Bat Cave. On 13 March, 1973, Nixon can be heard on the Watergate tapes complaining about the ineffectualness of his own operative: “Shows what a master Dick Tuck is ... (Donald) Segretti's hasn't been a bit similar.” Later in 1973, Nixon Chief of Staff H.R. (Bob) Halderman (below, left), spotted Dick Tuck in the hall during a break in the Senate Select Committee hearings on Watergate. He approached the Democratic leprechaun and accused him, “You started all of this.” To which Dick Tuck responded, “Yea, Bob. But you guys ran it into the ground.”
“The people have spoken. The bastards.”
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