Dick Tuck, Democrats’ Political Prankster in Chief, Dies at 94

Dick Tuck, political hoaxer, in 1973. “Nixon was an admirer of mine,” Mr. Tuck said. Nixon was also one of his targets.

Dick Tuck, the Democrats’ prankster-at-large, who bedeviled Barry M. Goldwater, Richard M. Nixon and other Republicans with bad-news fortune cookies, a comely spy, a treacherous little old lady and other campaign-trail tomfoolery, died on Monday in Tucson. He was 94.

His death, at an assisted living facility, was confirmed by Lorraine Glicksman, a close friend.

Long retired as a Democratic National Committee consultant, strategist and advance man, Mr. Tuck was a king gremlin of political shenanigans, starting in California in the 1950s and needling G.O.P. rivals for decades. Dogged by Mr. Tuck most of his political life, Nixon can be heard on Oval Office tapes enviously praising Tuck exploits over his own team’s crude (and illegal) dirty tricks.

“Nixon was an admirer of mine,” Mr. Tuck said in a telephone interview for this obituary in 2013 from his home in Tucson. With unconcealed glee, he recalled many pranks and quoted Nixon on the tapes as saying: “Tuck did that and got away with it” and “Shows you what a master Dick Tuck was.”

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!”

To connoisseurs of the dark arts of political tricksters, Mr. Tuck was a master of psychological jujitsu. By his own accounts, he shadowed and leapfrogged Republican campaigns, planted agents with surprises at whistle-stops, disrupted schedules, started nasty rumors and issued bogus press advisories. Democratic officials usually disavowed his activities, and Republican officials nearly always disputed his claims.

But pixilated things happened when Tuck operatives were around. Buses pulled out early. Trains made unscheduled stops. Placards in foreign languages bore miscreant messages. Newsletters hailed Democrats. At Republican rallies, bands struck up Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “Happy Days Are Here Again,” Lyndon B. Johnson balloons floated up and fire chiefs — at least they wore fire chiefs’ helmets — underestimated crowd sizes for reporters.

Mr. Tuck said he executed no break-ins, illegal wiretaps, money launderings or felonious cover-ups of the kind that drove Nixon from the presidency in the Watergate scandal in 1974. While the seriousness of political sabotage is open to interpretation — one hellion’s dirty trick is another’s clever tactic — Mr. Tuck insisted that his own stunts were benign mischief.

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.

In 1958, when Edmund G. Brown, who was known as Pat, ran for governor of California, Mr. Tuck delivered a special treat at a Republican banquet given by Chinese supporters of his opponent, Senator William F. Knowland — fortune cookies with the message “Knowland for Premier of Formosa.”

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?”

During Senator Goldwater’s 1964 presidential race, a Tuck agent, Moira O’Conner, 23, boarded the Goldwater campaign train in Washington posing as a journalist. Soon, copies of a spoof newsletter of misinformation, The Whistle-Stop, appeared on board, claiming that four staunch Republican Ohio newspapers had endorsed Johnson, and assuring travelers that fluoride — a Socialist plot to poison America, conspiracy theorists cried — had not been added to the train’s water supply.

Ms. O’Conner was caught and put off the train at Parkersburg, W.Va. But the story splashed across the country. “The Spy on the Goldwater Train,” a front-page headline blared in The New York Times, with a picture of the willowy culprit in a trench coat. “Girl Tossed Out Into the Cold for Issuing Satirical Tracts.”

Richard Gregory Tuck was born in Hayden, Ariz., on Jan. 25, 1924, one of five sons of Frank and Mary (Sweeney) Tuck. His father managed mines for Kennecott Copper. Dick attended schools in Prairie du Chien, Wis.; San Jose, Calif.; and Los Angeles. He joined the Marines in World War II and disarmed unexploded bombs in the South Pacific.

In 1944, he married Faith Eversfield. They had a son, Gregory, and were divorced in 1958. In 1989, he married Joyce Daly, who died in 1995. His son, who lives in Australia, survives him.

After the war, Mr. Tuck studied political science at Santa Barbara. In the early 1950s, he worked in state and local campaigns for California Democrats. He was a press aide in Adlai E. Stevenson’s losing race against President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1956, and joined the Kennedy bandwagon that defeated Nixon in 1960.

During Nixon’s race for governor of California against Mr. Brown in 1962, Mr. Tuck, who often gave differing versions of his exploits, was widely but wrongly credited with waving a train out of a station in San Luis Obispo as Nixon spoke to a crowd from the rear platform. Mr. Tuck said he wore a conductor’s cap and waved to the engineer, but the train stayed put. The incident became a Trivial Pursuit question.

In 1966, Mr. Tuck made his only run for elective office, a California Senate seat. He announced his candidacy in a Glendale cemetery, saying no one — not even the dead — should be deprived of voting rights. On election night, as he fell hopelessly behind, he quipped, “Just wait till the dead vote comes in.”

Mr. Tuck was a press aide in Robert F. Kennedy’s 1968 presidential campaign and was near him when he was fatally shot by an assassin in Los Angeles. The eventual Democratic nominee, Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey, lost to Nixon. Mr. Tuck later worked for Senator George S. McGovern, the South Dakota Democrat, who was trounced by Nixon in 1972.

At many Democratic and Republican National Conventions, Mr. Tuck published Reliable Source, bulletins on “back-room wheelings and dealings,” with commentaries by pundits.

In 1980, while working as a political editor for The National Lampoon, he obtained copies of 12 hours of Watergate tapes. While transcripts of the tapes held by the National Archives had long been available, the actual recordings had not been nationally broadcast.

Excerpts from the Tuck copies were played by the television and radio networks, however, and for the first time America heard Nixon and his aides scheming to mislead Watergate investigators and humiliate the president’s political enemies.

“Dick Tuck did that to me,” Nixon said on a 1972 recording, referring to one of the times Mr. Tuck embarrassed him. “Let’s get out what Dick Tuck did.”

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