Editorial: Remembering Dick Tuck, the Original Political Prankster

Saturday, June 09, 2018

A week from today is the 46th anniversary of the Watergate break-in, and it’s a shame that Dick Tuck did not live to see it. It was often said of Richard Nixon that he was his own worst enemy. Maybe so, but Dick Tuck was a close second.

Tuck, the clown prince of political shenanigans and longtime Nixon nemesis, died late last month at age 94. A merry prankster who for decades was a Democratic consultant, strategist and advance man, Tuck played no direct role in the scandal that brought down Nixon, but there’s good reason to think that the mischief with which he tormented Nixon over the years shaped the president’s resolve to play dirty — and illegal — tricks on his political enemies. In fact, he can be heard on one of the Watergate tapes saying, “Tuck did that and got away with it!”

Tuck’s antics were of a far more benign variety than Nixon’s ruthless thuggery and were sometimes aimed at other Republicans, such as Barry Goldwater. But in Nixon, Tuck found his true muse when it came to political tomfoolery. The stories are legion, and some have passed into legend, where the details may have been embellished in service of a larger truth. A few will give the flavor of an unusual life’s work.

It began in 1950, when Nixon was running for the U.S. Senate against the glamorous liberal Helen Gahagan Douglas. A World War II veteran then studying on the G.I. Bill at the University of California, Santa Barbara, Tuck, who was backing Gahagan Douglas, either surreptitiously volunteered or was recruited by an unwitting professor to make arrangements for a Nixon rally on campus. The rest, as they say, is history.

Tuck hired a 2,000 seat auditorium, one of the largest on campus, but failed to publicize the rally. Perhaps unsurprisingly, only 23 people turned out. When Nixon arrived, Tuck delivered a long-winded introduction and announced that Nixon, who was prepared to give his standard stump speech, would instead discuss international monetary policy, a topic that “all Californians care about.” Rattled, Nixon delivered a rambling discourse, fled the podium, and, learning the name of the young organizer, snapped, “Dick Tuck, you’ve done your last advance.” He was wrong about that, as about so much.

In 1956, while Nixon was waiting to be renominated as vice president, Tuck somehow arranged for the garbage trucks hauling waste from the Republican National Convention in San Francisco to drive by the Cow Palace, the convention center where it was being held, adorned with giant “Dump Nixon” signs.

Four years later, on the morning after the first presidential debate between Nixon and John F. Kennedy, Tuck recruited an elderly woman to approach the Republican nominee in Memphis wearing a Nixon campaign button. She gave him a hug and, as television cameras rolled, said, “That’s all right son. Kennedy beat you last night, but don’t worry. You’ll get him next time!” As Tuck recalled it, this was the first time anyone had called the debate a win for Kennedy — a judgment that later became accepted wisdom.

When Nixon attempted a comeback in the 1962 governor’s race in California, Tuck, who was working for the incumbent Democrat, Edmund G. “Pat” Brown, had something else up his sleeve. At the time, Nixon was facing questions about a $205,000 loan his brother, Donald, had gotten from Howard Hughes, a billionaire defense contractor. Before a Nixon rally in Los Angeles’ Chinatown, Tuck distributed signs to the crowd that read “Welcome Nixon!” with a row of characters in Mandarin underneath. Nixon looked out over the crowd and beamed — until informed that the Chinese characters read, “What about the Hughes loan?” Incensed, Nixon rushed over, grabbed one of the signs and tore it up as television cameras recorded his outburst. Tuck later said that, “Exposing the real Nixon was always my goal. The message was simple: Do you want a guy like this running your state or nation?”

Years later, when Nixon was running the nation but rapidly losing his grip on the reins of power, Tuck ran into the president’s former chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, during the Senate Watergate hearings.

“You started all of this,” said Haldeman.

“Yeah, Bob,” Tuck replied, “but you guys ran it into the ground.”

Indeed they did, paving the way for much worse to come.