Connoisseurs of political pranks will be sorry to learn about the death yesterday of Dick Tuck at the age of 94. He was a political prankster who worked on behalf of many Democratic candidates and causes but he took particular delight in tormenting Richard Nixon.
On the morning after the first televised presidential debate between Nixon and John F. Kennedy in 1960, Mr. Tuck enlisted an elderly woman to sidle up to Nixon in Memphis. Wearing a big Nixon button, she hugged him and cooed as television cameras rolled: “That’s all right, son. Kennedy beat you last night, but don’t worry. You’ll get him next time!”
In 1962, when Governor Brown ran for re-election against Nixon, who was trying to make a political comeback after his defeat in the 1960 presidential race, Mr. Tuck arranged for a stinger at a Nixon rally in Los Angeles’s Chinatown.
“In the Chinatown caper,” Mr. Tuck recalled, “a sign saying ‘Welcome Nixon’ also asked — in Chinese — ‘What about the huge loan?’ ” It referred to an unsecured $205,000 “loan” by Howard Hughes to Nixon’s brother Donald — a widely reported allegation of corruption. Mr. Tuck had wanted the sign to read “Hughes,” not “huge,” but it hardly mattered.
Nixon was outraged. “Once the phrase was translated for Nixon,” Mr. Tuck said, “he rushed over to the crowd, seized the sign and tore it up in front of the TV cameras. The message was simple: Do you want a guy like this running your state or nation?”
My favorite Tuck prank was one early in his career.
He began hoodwinking Nixon as a student at the University of California, Santa Barbara, in 1950. While secretly backing Helen Gahagan Douglas for the United States Senate, he volunteered to work for the Republicans and made arrangements for a Nixon rally on campus. He hired an auditorium seating 2,000 people but neglected to publicize the event. Only 23 people showed up. When Nixon arrived, Mr. Tuck made a long-winded introduction and asked the candidate to speak on international monetary policy.
Over time Nixon developed a grudging respect for Tuck’s skills at embarrassing opponents and wondered why his own people were not so good at it.