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Dick Tuck, Democratic prankster who targeted Nixon, dies at 94

Dick Tuck, a political hoaxer with Democratic Party

Dick Tuck, a political hoaxer with Democratic Party election campaigns, in October 1973. Credit: AP

Dick Tuck, an impish Democratic Party operative whose practical jokes and pranks helped define modern election combat and who was the political hobgoblin of Richard M. Nixon for decades, died Monday at an assisted-living center in Tucson, Arizona. He was 94.

A friend, Randi Dorman, confirmed the death but said she did not know the immediate cause.

Tuck made his name tweaking national Republican candidates, but also directed more than half a dozen successful state and local races for Democrats. He managed the 1967 campaign of the first African-American to be elected mayor of a major U.S. city, Richard G. Hatcher of Gary, Indiana, and was an advance man for presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy during the 1968 primary campaign.

Mostly, Tuck was remembered for his singular ability to hector and haunt Nixon, a Republican whose earliest political tactics included questioning his opponents’ loyalty to the United States.

Their paths first crossed in 1950, when then-Rep. Nixon (R-Calif.) was running for an open Senate seat against a liberal Democratic opponent, Rep. Helen Gahagan Douglas. Nixon tried to smear Douglas as a communist sympathizer.

At the time, Tuck was a World War II veteran studying political science on the G.I. Bill at the University of California at Santa Barbara. He also was working part time for the Douglas campaign. One of Tuck’s teachers unwittingly asked Tuck to work as an advance man for Nixon’s upcoming campaign visit to the campus.

Tuck called him “an absent-minded professor who knew I was in politics and forgot the rest.”

Hardly believing his luck, Tuck arranged for the unsuspecting GOP candidate to speak in one of the largest auditoriums available at a time when he knew few people would be on campus. He introduced Nixon to the sparse audience with a long-winded speech, then called Nixon to the microphone, saying the candidate would speak about a topic “all Californians care about, the International Monetary Fund.”

A flustered Nixon delivered a disjointed speech. As he stepped down from the podium, Nixon demanded the name of the young man who organized the dismal event. “Dick Tuck, you’ve done your last advance,” Nixon snapped.

It would not be the last clash between the two men.

In 1956, as Nixon awaited his party’s celebratory renomination as vice president, Tuck arranged for the garbage trucks servicing the Republican nominating convention in San Francisco to drive by the Cow Palace convention center bearing large signs reading “Dump Nixon.”

The morning after Vice President Nixon debated then-Sen. John F. Kennedy (D-Mass.) in the 1960 presidential campaign, Tuck put a Nixon button on an elderly woman who walked up to the candidate as cameras rolled. While offering a hug, she exclaimed, “Don’t worry, son. He beat you last night but you’ll do better next time.”

Nixon lost the race.

Tuck’s best-remembered prank took place during Nixon’s visit to the Chinatown section of Los Angeles during his 1962 bid for California governor. Tuck was working for the Democratic incumbent, Edmund G. “Pat” Brown Sr.

At the time, Nixon faced questions about a $205,000 loan his brother, Donald, had received from Howard Hughes, the billionaire industrialist and defense contractor.

Tuck distributed signs to the crowd that said “Welcome Nixon!” over a row of Mandarin characters. Nixon smiled broadly at first as he looked over the sign-waving crowd. But when he was told that the Chinese script on the signs read, “What about the Hughes loan?” Nixon grabbed one of the placards and tore it up as the TV cameras rolled.

Tuck was delighted. “Exposing the real Nixon was always my goal,” he said later, taking pleasure in exposing the candidate’s temper. “The message was simple: Do you want a guy like this running your state or nation?”

Tuck’s tactics were later mimicked, admired — and distorted — by political operatives from both parties, including Watergate conspirators who eventually went to jail. Subsequent generations of Republicans credited Tuck with providing vital lessons.

“Tuck was a genius,” said Gary Maloney, a GOP research consultant who worked on Reagan and Bush campaigns under political operative Lee Atwater, a fan of Tuck. “He showed a wicked sense of humor at a time when Republicans were generally dour and white-bread. I think we acquired humor in part because of Tuck’s example.”

Maloney and others said that Tuck led campaign strategists to hone skills in research, track the words of opposition candidates, and look for opportunities for political theater that could sway votes.

For example, Republican operatives in 1997 organized what appeared to be a demonstration at the U.S. Supreme Court as justices deliberated whether to consider a sexual harassment suit against President Bill Clinton. Half a dozen GOP activists wearing raincoats waved picket signs reading “flashers for Clinton.” When they opened their raincoats, they revealed “friend of the court briefs.”

During the Watergate scandal, Tuck was cited by Nixon and his advisers as an inspiration — and an excuse. Nixon’s White House chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, said the president’s 1972 re-election campaign had hired Donald Segretti’s much-criticized “dirty tricks” team to adopt “a Dick Tuck sensibility” to counter attacks from Democrats.

On the White House tapes preserved at the National Archives, Nixon can be heard complaining to Haldeman about public criticism of tactics employed by Segretti, whose tricks included forging campaign correspondence alleging sexual affairs and other misdeeds by leading Democrats.

Nearly a decade after his resignation, Nixon remained bitter about Tuck and what he saw as a double standard applied by the press to Democratic and Republican political tricks. In a 1983 interview, the former president spoke ruefully of Tuck and the acclaim he received.

“The media being, shall we say, not particularly in my corner, just called that fun and games,” Nixon said. “And then when Segretti, our so-called ‘dirty tricks man,’ whom I frankly had never had the opportunity of even meeting — when he tried to practice some of these things on our Democratic opponents, they became high crimes and misdemeanors.”

To Tuck, his satirical missives were not nearly so complicated. “I’ve made a lot of candidates look foolish,” he once said, “usually with a lot of help from the candidates themselves.”

Richard Gregory Tuck was born in Hayden, Arizona, on Jan. 25, 1924, and was one of four sons of a copper company executive. He enlisted in the Marine Corps at 18, not long after the Pearl Harbor attack on Dec. 7, 1941, and served in a bomb-disposal unit.

Tuck’s first marriage, to Faith Eversfield, ended in divorce. He was married to Joyce Daly from 1989 until her death in 1995. Survivors include a son from his first marriage, Gregory Tuck, who lives in Australia.

Short of stature, with an owl-like face, Tuck was described by some as having the look, and often the demeanor, of a leprechaun. His wit, perpetually rumpled suits and sense of fun — not to mention his habit of holding news conferences in bars — drew journalists to his side.

Hunter S. Thompson, the irreverent “gonzo” journalist for Rolling Stone and other publications, became a close friend. For years, they lived near each other in Colorado, and Thompson quoted Tuck in books such as “Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72.”

Tuck liked politicians and their strategists and he looked forward to political conventions, attending nearly every one of both political parties through 1992. At the quadrennial conventions, he often published an informal newspaper called the Reliable Source, which he once tried to introduce as a satirical weekly in Washington.

As the decades passed, Tuck told reporters that the lighthearted fun he had known in the 1950s and 1960s had ebbed out of politics. He blamed it in part on the domination of professional advertising with its hard-nosed and polarizing messages that, he said, ushered in an era of distrust.

There was a time, he mused decades later, when he could sneak onto Nixon’s 1960 campaign plane with a personal press pass and a tape recorder. “It was a simpler world then,” he once wrote, “and nobody suspected a guy carrying a bowling bag.”

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