Nixon's nemesis: Political prankster Dick Tuck dead at 94
America's court jester moves 'on to Chicago': Jan. 25, 1924-May 28, 2018
Posted May 29, 2018, 7:49 am
Dick Nixon, you can finally rest easy. You don't have Dick Tuck to kick you around anymore.
Nearly a quarter-century in the grave, and so famously stiff that he wore wingtips on the beach, the former president can relax at last. His longtime nemesis will play no more pranks.
Dick Tuck, the Tucson resident who was one of the most storied political legends of the 20th century, died Monday evening. Tuck's hijinks dogged Richard Nixon for decades, contributing to the growing paranoia in the Republican that culminated in the Watergate scandal.
Tuck spun many of the tales of his political pranks himself, sometimes disavowing them in the same sentence as he ensured their spread. But more than a half-century of newspaper clippings and fables told over drinks by top politicians attest to his spry wit and abilities as a pioneer of electoral shenanigans. Conservative columnist William F. Buckley once wrote that Tuck's antics were "glorious improvisations."
Born in 1924 in the mining town of Hayden, Ariz., during his life Tuck amassed a treasure trove of tales that seem unbelievable at first hearing. He knew Ernest Hemingway and P.J. O'Rourke; was a good friend of Hunter S. Thompson, who attended his wedding (signing a gift copy of "Fear and Loathing" with a bullet); was a confidante of Robert F. Kennedy, standing near the presidential candidate's side when he was assassinated.
Tuck could speak vividly, if reluctantly, of his World War II service as Marine, defusing bombs and enduring the assault on Iwo Jima. He was a political editor for the National Lampoon in the 1970s. His 2015 birthday was declared "Dick Tuck Day" by Tucson's mayor. His name is a Trivial Pursuit answer. He coined the election-night phrase — widely attributed to others, including Arizona's Mo Udall and author Mark Twain — "the people have spoken ... the bastards," uttered as he lost a 1966 race for the California Senate.
His scorn for Nixon was his life's work — even in the decades after the former president's death in 1994, Tuck was aware that his efforts to tweak and undermine Nixon were still his bread and butter. For a man with such a breadth of experience, he often had a singular focus on a man who was long gone.
But while it was Tuck's love-hate relationship (mostly the latter) with Nixon that consumed his energy and defined his legend, it was the bright potential of Robert Kennedy's campaign and the anguish of his death that he seems to have had on his mind at the end of his own life.
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Dick Tuck's decades of bedeviling Richard Milhous Nixon played a role in the former president's paranoia in the years preceding his election to the nation's highest office.
"Exposing the real Nixon was always my goal," he said. He did it with showmanship, setting up his nemesis to — in Tuck's assessment — reveal himself.
"It may be that Dick Tuck has angered Richard Nixon as much as any other man alive," TIME magazine reported about "The Man Who Bugged Nixon" in 1973, as Watergate unfolded.
"As relentlessly as Inspector Javert trailed Jean Valjean, as doggedly as Caliban followed Prospero, as surely as a snowball seeks a top hat, Prankster Tuck stalked his quarry from one campaign to the next. 'Keep that man away from me,' Nixon ordered his staff, who were seldom able to oblige. Ultimately, Nixon paid his adversary the highest compliment: in the 1972 campaign, the White House decided to employ a Dick Tuck of its own." That was Donald Segretti, the self-proclaimed "ratfucker" who served prison time for illegal dirty tricks on behalf of Nixon.
Tuck's first pranks against Nixon came in the 1950 race to elect California's U.S. senator. Tuck was working for U.S. Rep. Helen Gahagan Douglas, who was running against Nixon. Tuck infiltrated Nixon's campaign, posing as a volunteer, and was asked to set up a campaign stop for the Republican.
Tuck rented a large assembly hall at the University of California Santa Barbara, which he was attending on the GI Bill, and invited only a few people to attend. He introduced Nixon with a rambling monologue and announced the candidate would speak about the International Monetary Fund. Nixon, not prepared to deliver anything but his stump speech, was rattled and quickly left the stage.
One famous anecdote has been at times denied by Tuck, although he's often taken credit for waving a train out of a station as Nixon stood on the rear platform of a passenger car to deliver a stump speech. Instead, the train — and a stumped Nixon — pulled away from the crowd.
His most famous confirmed trick came as Nixon ran for governor of California in 1962. At a campaign event in Los Angeles' Chinatown, Tuck passed out signs that read "welcome" in English for children to hold in the background — the signs also read in Chinese, "What about the Hughes loan?," a reference to a controversial loan made by billionaire Howard Hughes to Nixon's brother, Donald.
Learning of the stunt, Nixon grabbed a sign and tore it up.
Tuck later learned that the signs actually read, "What about the huge loan?" — little solace to Nixon.
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In 1966, the unabashed mid-century liberal ran for office himself, seeking a state Senate seat in California. After placing third out of eight candidates in the Democratic primary, Tuck summed things up with his famous quip about democracy.
An advisor to Robert F. Kennedy in his 1968 presidential run, Tuck was standing next to the Democratic candidate when he was assassinated at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles — a story that would bring tears to Tuck's eyes as he told it even decades later. Tuck would often say that he wished he could've "taken that bullet" instead of Kennedy.
His years of needling Nixon had a direct connection to the president's downfall: Nixon was obsessed with Tuck's pranks.
His name was mentioned by the president on the Watergate tapes ("Dick Tuck did that to me. Let's get out what Dick Tuck did!" "Shows what a master Dick Tuck is ... Segretti's hasn't been a bit similar."), and Tuck maintained the break-in that led to the cover-up and ultimately Nixon's resignation was aimed at obtaining information the Democratic National Committee had about Hughes' relationship with the president.
Writing about how he released copies of the recordings of the Watergate tapes in 1980 — the audio had been not been made widely available after the president's resignation — which saw Nixon's crude language and the scheming in the Oval Office laid bare for all to hear, Tuck said, "the real Nixon was the one speaking and the release of the White House transcripts was the beginning of the end for Tricky Dick. The nation was appalled and 'expletive deleted' allow(s) fertile imaginations to supply their own phrase. The reality was often worse. This kind of behavior, these ethical standards had been Nixon's since law school, when he broke into the dean's office with some friends to see if his grades were good enough to keep his scholarship. It continued in his campaigns against Jerry Voorhis, Helen Gahagan Douglas, Adlai Stevenson, John Kennedy, Pat Brown, Hubert Humphrey and George McGovern."
"The real Nixon was always there, all I did was keep the spotlight on it," he said.
'Donald Trump couldn't carry Dick Nixon's shoes'
Dialing back his political and literary efforts after the 1995 death of his wife, Joyce, Tuck eventually retired to Tucson, where he was a common sight strolling Downtown sidewalks in Bermuda shorts and brightly colored socks (red, lime green, yellow), topped with a dress shirt, seersucker jacket and glowing bright bow tie beneath a ready grin and unruly shock of white hair.
Was he the "Peter Pan of politics? A fellow full of mischief who will never grow up?," the Christian Science Monitor had pondered in 1982. The Tuck of three decades later gave every indication of being just that.
Years after Nixon's death, for all his distaste for the Republican president, Tuck maintained a grudging respect for his counterpart's skills in politics and governance.
At his 93rd birthday party last January — the annual gathering at The Shanty bar in Tucson dubbed "Tuckmas" by his friends — Tuck, despite a lifetime of sneering at the mention of Nixon's name, curled his lip and said, "Donald Trump couldn't carry Dick Nixon's shoes."
Back in 2014, he'd celebrated his birthday with a call for August 9, the date of the 1974 resignation of the 37th president, to be declared a national holiday: "Nixmas."
"It's one of the most important days in our history. We drove the rat out," he said after blowing out the candles on his birthday cake.
This year at Tuckmas, he'd grown a scraggly white beard on his chin, vowing that "I'm not going to shave until Trump is gone," and opining that the current president wasn't smart enough to have a scandal that could live up to Nixon's.
But at the end, it was no longer Richard Nixon who was on Dick Tuck's mind.
Rather, it seems to have been Robert Kennedy, with whom Tuck had ridden to the hospital (sometimes saying he was in the ambulance, other times saying he rode in the lead police car) after the senator and five others were shot on June 5, 1968.
Kennedy had just given a victory speech after prevailing in the California primary election, a win that would have given him the opportunity to seize the nomination at the Democratic convention that August. In a year that seemed dark with other assassinations (among them Martin Luther King's) and unrest in the streets over Vietnam and civil rights, Kennedy's late leap into the presidential race was a beacon of hope for many young Democrats.
"My thanks to all of you, and now, it's on to Chicago, and let's win there," Kennedy exhorted the crowd in his last public words.
Moments later, he lay fatally wounded on the floor of a hotel kitchen. Shot three times, Kennedy died 26 hours later in a hospital.
Tuck's stories inevitably came with an impish smile and a "I dare you to believe that" twinkle. But speaking of his wartime service ("I lost my best friend.") and the death of RFK, he would be moved, his eyes bright instead with tears.
Tuck had been in ill health since midwinter, with years of heart trouble catching up to him in fatigue and a sometimes slipping memory. He died "peacefully in his chair" Monday evening at an East Side assisted living facility, friend Randi Dorman said.
Although he was no longer able to keep up with the news — and so wasn't aware of the recent resurgence in interest in RFK's assassination — the fading Tuck said on his last day that he was "going to Chicago."
Before he died, Tuck repeated "Chicago" over and over, caregivers told friend Lorraine Glicksman — an echo of Kennedy's "on to Chicago."
Tuck was one of five sons (one of whom died young) of Frank and Mary (Sweeney) Tuck. He married Faith Eversfield in 1944, divorcing in 1958. Tuck is survived by their son, Gregory Tuck, a resident of Australia. Faith also survives.
Tuck married again in 1989, to Joyce Daly. She died in 1995.
A memorial service in Tucson will be scheduled at a later date.
Tuck in his own words
It's difficult to sum up such a life in a few words, but Tuck of course was up to the task himself.
Here's a bit from Tuck's brief autobiographical sketch on his website (yes, he may have been eyeing the century mark but he had his own website, and stayed caught up on the latest political doings on an iPad he carried everywhere. Note how he couches some of his exploits as having "allegedly" taken place):
His father, Frank J. Tuck, was a Harvard University graduate who helped pioneer the Arizona copper industry, managing mines in Arizona for Kennecott Copper. Dick is the youngest of the four Tuck brothers.
Tuck is known for his well-rounded secondary education, having completed a "tour" of four of the finest Jesuit schools in the West, including
• St. John's Military Academy, Los Angeles, CA
• Campion Jesuit High School in Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin
• Bellarmine College Preparatory in San Jose, California
• Loyola High School in Los Angeles, California.
Pearl Harbor was attacked just a few weeks before Tuck's 18th birthday, and he enlisted in the Marines. Having spent many of his boyhood summers in Southern California, Tuck has a great love for aquatic activities like surfing and skin diving. Tuck's basic training aptitude tests returned very high scores in the mental and physical skills required for disarming unexploded bombs and other explosives, so after receiving advanced training from the British, Tuck joined the Navy's 1st Mobile Explosive Investigation Unit (MEIU). In Britain, Tuck was taught how to combine CO2 fire extinguisher snow with pure distilled alcohol to freeze a bomb's electric fuse, thus rendering it inoperable. For this use the unit carried with it a 40 gallon tank of alcohol. Coincidentally, the alcohol was safe for human consumption in small quantities with orange juice. Thus, Tuck spent the war touring the South Pacific dealing with the messy explosive offal of war.
Tuck meets Nixon
At war's end, Tuck returned to his educational pursuits thanks to the GI Bill, enrolling at the new University of California, Santa Barbara. There he studied political science and public administration, while taking advantage of the easy ocean-side living. UCSB was the site of Tuck's first encounter with, then, Congressman Richard Nixon who was running for the California Senate seat in 1950. Nixon's opponent was the popular Democrat Helen Gahagan Douglas, a fashionable, charismatic, liberal New-Deal Democrat and two-term Congresswoman from Los Angeles. Nixon's slash and burn personal attacks on Douglas included the charge that she was a Communist sympathizer who was "pink down to her underwear." Nixon won and an enduring political relationship and rivalry was formed between Nixon and Tuck.
During the 1956 presidential election, Tuck traveled with Adlai Stevenson acting as a press liaison. After Stevenson's defeat in November, Tuck was one of the first to begin preparation work on Edmund G. (Pat) Brown's campaign for governor of California prior to the 1958 election. With Brown's victory in 1958, Tuck became the governor's travel scheduler, legislative aide and unofficial aide de camp. At one point, Tuck served as Deputy Commissioner of Motor Vehicles.
Tuck joined the John F. Kennedy presidential primary campaign in 1960, working with the Citizens for Kennedy-Johnson organization headed by his longtime friend Fred Dutton. The morning after the first Nixon/Kennedy television debate, Tuck allegedly coached an elderly woman wearing a Nixon campaign button to go up to Nixon and give him a hug, and say, "That's all right, son. Kennedy beat you last night, but don't worry, you'll get him next time!" Tuck feels that this threw Nixon for a loop because no one, as yet, had "called" either candidate the winner, and Tuck believes this was the first indication Nixon received that anyone thought he had lost. Later during Kennedy's administration, Tuck was present in the Oval Office when the famous photos of President Kennedy's children Caroline and John were taken by Look Magazine photographer Stanley Tretick.
Nixon vs. Brown 1962
Tuck was a key aide to Governor Pat Brown during the 1962 Governor's race against his Republican opponent Richard Nixon. It was during this campaign that Tuck pulled several of his most famous pranks on Nixon, burrowing ever deeper into Nixon's psyche. Nixon saw the California governorship as the first step in his political come-back from the loss to Kennedy two years prior, and a safe bet given his past electoral victories as a congressman and Senator. Also, Nixon took the California presidential vote from Kennedy in 1960 by a narrow margin, so he entered the race with confidence. But on November 6, 1962, Brown emerged the winner by a stunning 5%. In a famous political morning–after, Nixon told reporters as his "last press conference," that they were unfair to him. He accused reporters of blatantly favoring the Democrats, and ended by saying directly to the reporters in the room, "But as I leave you I want you to know — just think how much you're going to be missing. You won't have Nixon to kick around anymore because, gentlemen, this is my last press conference." Many thought Nixon's behavior was somewhat irrational and unbalanced that day; some believe that Tuck's pranks contributed to Nixon's state of mind. Legend has it that Tuck tricked Nixon twice during the gubernatorial campaign. One occurred in San Luis Obispo when the train from which Nixon was speaking prematurely departed while he was in mid-speech.
The other prank occurred in Los Angeles' Chinatown where a sign that said in English "Welcome Nixon," also said in Chinese "What about the Hughes Loan?" referring to the $205,000 unsecured loan provided by Howard Hughes to Nixon's brother Donald. Nixon later said that the Hughes loan issue cost him two elections: the 1960 presidential election and the 1962 California governor's race.
Goldwater Train 1964
During the 1964 presidential campaign Tuck continued to pester the Republican campaign of Barry Goldwater and, once again, a train tour provided the target. In this case, Tuck smuggled a young woman posing as a freelance magazine writer, Moira O'Connor, onto the Goldwater Train, where she distributed a newsletter named appropriately The Whistle-Stop, filled with misinformation and satire. The newsletter, which was carefully placed under each compartment door, promised to "keep you advised, informed, protected and, with considerable assistance from the senator himself, amused." One item said, "We are happy to report that the railroad has assured us that fluoride is not being added to the water on this train." At the time, fluoridation of municipal water supplies was a big issue with conservatives. When the woman was caught and put off the train it was front-page news and on The New York Times, specifically, knocked the Goldwater campaign's message of the day — that Goldwater's rivals were "soft on communism" — further down the page.
Dick Tuck: Candidate
In 1966, Tuck tried his hand at being the candidate by running for a newly created California State senate seat. Tuck claims that he was late for a Democratic party meeting to discuss potential candidates for the party to endorse, and by the time he arrived his fellow Democrats had chosen him. Tuck applied his usual creativity to the campaign, making "The Job Needs Tuck and Tuck Needs the Job" his campaign slogan. The number of votes Tuck received is still subject to dispute, but Dick's concession speech has lived on in history: "The people have spoken . . . the bastards."
Gary, Indiana 1967
In 1967, at the request of Robert Kennedy, Tuck went to Gary, Indiana to help Richard Hatcher in his historic campaign to be the first black mayor of a major city in the United States. The local political machine would control vote totals from certain districts by jamming the voting machine and leaving them unfixed waiting for repairmen who would arrive hours later. Tuck secretly trained his own group of pinball machine repairmen how to fix voting machines. On election day he dispatched his teams to quickly fix the machines and get on with the voting. As a result, Hatcher won. Bobby Kennedy always said that Tuck knew a lot about corrupt machines.
Bobby Kennedy Presidential Campaign
Tuck joined the Robert Kennedy campaign after the Senator announced his candidacy in March, 1968. Once again, Tuck helped manage relations with the press, many of whom he had now known and cultivated for years. At one point his journalist friends started kidding him because Tuck was walking Kennedy's English Spaniel Freckles. "To you, this is just a dog," Tuck told them, "but to me it's an ambassadorship."
Tuck was with Bobby Kennedy the night he was assassinated after claiming victory in the California primary. Tuck was just behind Kennedy when Sirhan Sirhan shot him and he personally tended to the fallen candidate. Tuck rode to the hospital with Los Angeles police in the lead squad car. Later the next day, Rafer Johnson gave Tuck Sirhan Sirhan's pistol, which the Olympic decathlon Gold medalist had torn from the assassin's grip just after the shooting.
In the early 1970s Tuck worked briefly for the McGovern campaign, but found little appreciation for his brand of humorous politics. Occasionally, McGovern could be funny:
Tuck: "I have the sad duty to inform you, sir, that FBI Director Hoover has passed away in Washington this morning."
McGovern: "Do you think this means he'll finally retire?"
Tuck served also as the political editor for the National Lampoon, sharing an office with future film director John Hughes and collaborating with legends of humor like P.J. O'Rourke, Christopher Cerf and Michael O'Donoghue.
Watergate was the event that brought Tuck out of the shadows and made him an important historic figure in the eyes of those who love his antics and creative ideas. Tuck himself was not directly involved in the Watergate scandal, but the Republicans pointed to him as their inspiration for setting up a "Dick Tuck capability" that would harass and, as one reporter put it, discombobulate the Democrats. Eschewing Tuck's creative approach, they resorted to the usual brutal, nasty, dirty tricks using outright lies and forgeries like the Canuck letter. Segretti's Dirty Tricks squad was part of a larger program managed from the White House that included the Plumbers' unit that burglarized the offices of Daniel Ellsberg's psychiatrist to search for dirt about the author of the Pentagon Paper, and later twice broke into the Democratic National Committee offices at the Watergate complex in Washington, DC. It was during the second mission that the crew was caught red-handed by building security.
It was more than a year after the burglary, on July 13, 1973, that White House aide Alexander Butterfield testified about the White House taping system and the collection of recordings of the conversations between U.S. President Richard Nixon and various staff beginning in February 1971 and lasting until July 18, 1973. Senate Republican Counsel and future Actor/Senator Fred Thompson courageously exposed Nixon's secret to the American public on July 16th by asking,
"Mr. Butterfield, are you aware of the installation of any listening devices in the Oval Office of the president?"
Butterfield told the committee "everything was taped ... as long as the President was in attendance. There was not so much as a hint that something should not be taped."
Thompson walked witness Butterfield through a complete review of the system on national/worldwide television. The Nixon administration would last 389 more days.
Ten days after the revelation, the special prosecutor, Archibald Cox, subpoenaed the tapes as evidence in the case against Nixon's former advisors H. R. Haldeman, John Ehrlichman, and Attorney General John Mitchell, but Nixon refused to turn them over. Nixon claimed executive privilege until July 24, 1974, when the Supreme Court voted unanimously to order their surrender. On August 5th, the so-called "smoking gun" tape in which Nixon authorized his lieutenants to have the CIA order the FBI to stop their investigation into the Watergate break-in on the grounds that it was a national security matter. This made Nixon part of a conspiracy to obstruct justice. On August 8, 1974, Nixon announced his resignation from office in a nationally televised speech.
Over the course of the year following the revelation of the tapes, the White House released two sets of heavily edited transcripts of Nixon meetings in the Oval Office. Finally, full, unedited transcripts were released in August after the Supreme Court decision, more than a year after the news broke. But, it would take even longer for the people of the United States to actual hear the incriminating conversations.
Tuck helped give the public its first listen to the Watergate tapes at a press conference he conducted on October 21, 1980 at the Aspen Hotel's Jerome Bar. Amazingly, by this time no tape excerpts had been played on the national media, only transcripts had been released because the National Archives would not allow the public any access to the tapes beyond listening to them at the Archive building. No one was allowed to record the tapes. Tuck said he had acquired copies of the tapes from a source not affiliated with the White House or the National Archives and, hence, they were legally safe to play in public. For an hour he played excerpts, which the media recorded and later re-played on their network news programs, giving the public a more reality-based and detailed feel for how their leaders behaved. It was seven years after the burglary.
The tapes confirm Nixon's paranoia about Tuck. Conversations between Nixon and aides, including H.R. Haldeman, focused on the Republican's plans to create a group that would engage in Tuck-like activities.
"Dick Tuck did that to me. Let's get out what Dick Tuck did!" Nixon told Haldeman according to the transcripts.
Segretti's group, who called themselves "The Ratfuckers" practiced traditional Republican gutter politics. One example is a letter forged by Segretti on Democratic candidate Edmund Muskie's letterhead falsely charging that U.S. Senator Henry "Scoop" Jackson, a Democrat, had fathered an illegitimate child with a 17-year-old. Another letter, purportedly a letter to the editor of the extremely conservative Manchester Union Leader, claimed its author had heard Muskie use the derogatory term for Canadians, "Canucks" and disparage French Canadian culture and language.
During the Watergate hearings in the Capitol Building, Tuck encountered H. R. Haldeman, who Nixon had cut loose the month before along with John Ehlichman.
"You started all of this," said the ex-chief of staff of the White House.
Replied Tuck: "Yeah, Bob, but you guys ran it into the ground."