It’s pretty easy to hoax people. We all want to be deceived, but only up to a point. Some hoaxes are fun and pleasant, others malicious and unpleasant. We’d like a way to tell the difference (Robert Carroll).

Nov 12, 2014

How the Greatest Political Prankster Messed with Richard Nixon

I've made a lot of candidates look foolish, usually with a lot of help from the candidates themselves.

Dick Tuck

The people have spoken, the bastards!

Democratic prankster Dick Tuck has long been deeply involved in the background of American politics. He was a close friend of Robert F. Kennedy and was in the kitchen with RFK when Kennedy was shot in 1968. He worked with both Pat and Jerry Brown when they were governors of California. His marriage was officiated by Hunter S. Thompson.

In 1966, Tuck ran for the California State Senate. He opened his campaign with a press conference at Forest Lawn Cemetery in Glendale claiming that just because people had died doesn't mean they don't still have (voting) rights.

Dick Tuck designed his campaign billboards to read, in small print, "Dick," and in much larger lettering, "Tuck". The names were printed twice, piggybacked one above the other. On the eve of the election, he drove around the area and painted an extra line on the upper "Tuck" on the billboards. This converted the T in his name to an F so that passersby would see a profane phrase. Tuck said he thought voters would think his opponent had done this and he would "get the sympathy vote" with this tactic. In a field of eight candidates for the Democratic nomination, Tuck finished 3-rd with 5211 votes (almost 10% of votes), losing to future Congressman George Danielson.

As the ballot totals piled against him on Election Night, the candidate was asked his reaction. Referring back to his cemetery speech, Tuck quipped, "Just wait till the dead vote comes in." When defeat became inevitable, Tuck made the now notorious statement, "The people have spoken, the bastards”.

Dick Tuck against Richard Nixon

Dick Tuck became a legendary political hoaxer, building his career out of making life miserable for Richard Nixon. Dick Tuck first met Richard Nixon as a student at the University of California, Santa Barbara in 1950. At the time, Tuck was working for Congresswoman Helen Gahagan Douglas, who was running for a seat in the U.S. Senate against Richard Nixon.

Nixon was running an extremely dirty campaign, making every effort to portray his opponent as a communist-sympathizer. Tuck decided that he would undermine Nixon by getting himself hired as a campaign worker in Nixon's campaign, where he would secretly operate as a mole for Douglas. As a campaign worker for Nixon, Tuck was responsible for organizing campaign rallies. He organized one such rally at UC Santa Barbara, and he booked the largest auditorium possible. However, he purposefully booked it on a day that few students would be able to attend, and then he barely publicized it at all. Therefore, when Nixon showed up to speak there were only 40 students waiting to hear him in a 4000 seat auditorium. Tuck got up on the stage to introduce Nixon and proceeded to deliver a long, rambling monologue in which he made frequent references to Nixon's cutthroat, red-bashing campaign tactics against competitors. Finally, he announced that Nixon would now speak about the International Monetary Fund. Nixon, of course, had not planned to speak about the IMF. Therefore, when he got up to the podium he became shortly speechless.

In 1960, Tuck worked for Kennedy during the Nixon/Kennedy race. On the day following Nixon's first televised debate with Kennedy, Tuck hired an elderly woman to approach Nixon as he got off a plane, kiss him on the cheek, and say, "That's all right, Mr. Nixon. He beat you last night, but you'll win next time." Nixon was reportedly momentarily at a loss for words.

Tuck also waged an ongoing effort to undermine Nixon's campaign effort. For instance, Tuck would pose as a fire marshal to provide low estimates of the turnout at Nixon's rallies for the media. He would also inform bandleaders at Republican rallies that Nixon's favorite song was "Mack the Knife," so that as Nixon took the stage he would be heralded by lyrics describing a rapacious conman.

In one legendary incident, Tuck dressed up as a train conductor and signaled a train to leave the station while Nixon was delivering a speech from its rear platform. Reportedly, the train pulled out of the station with Nixon still speaking.

Two years later, when Nixon ran for governor of California, Tuck had children in Los Angeles’ Chinatown greet him with a sign reading “Welcome Nixon” in English and beneath the greeting, “What about the Hughes loan?” in Chinese—a reference to a controversial loan Nixon’s brother had received. Nixon, who did not understand Chinese, posed smiling next to the sign, and then tore it up in front of reporters when Tuck told him the translation.

Nixon’s the One

In the 1968 Presidential election, Republican nominee Richard Nixon ran a campaign that asked voters who they would want to lead the country and make the most important decisions.

Many of his ads used grim images of war, violence, and the conflict in Vietnam meant to scare viewers into voting for the leader they could trust and they all ended with the request, “This time, vote like your whole world depended on it.”

The campaign slogan became, “Nixon’s the One!” to answer all of these questions.

To turn this platform on its head, Dick Tuck hired groups of pregnant women to attend Nixon campaign rallies wearing buttons sporting this logo, suggesting that Nixon responsible for more than just executive decisions.

The joke became popular and this whimsical poster reflects the humorous tone that Tuck wanted to achieve.

Dick Tuck Capability

Nixon, who had mastered the art of dirty tricks early in his career, came to both despise and begrudgingly admire Tuck. During his 1972 presidential re-election campaign, Nixon ordered aides to develop a “Dick Tuck capability.”

Therefore, he hired Donald Segretti to conduct a dirty tricks campaign for him against his democratic opponents." However, Nixon's effort to mimic Tuck's pranks lacked all humor and went badly wrong. Segretti's dirty tricks included forging letters to newspapers imputing sexual misconduct to Hubert Humphrey and forging letters on the stationery of Sen. Edmund S. Muskie that included language, demeaning blacks.

Eventually, Nixon realized that Segretti's efforts were not comparable to the standard set by Tuck. In a White House conversation taped on March 13, 1973, Nixon commented that it "Shows what a master Dick Tuck is ... Segretti's hasn't been a bit similar."

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