Obituaries

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

FILE — Dick Tuck receives an award from Ned Bandler Jr., a Lever Brothers executive, at a luncheon in Manhattan sponsored by the New York State Democratic Committee, Dec. 13, 1973. 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. (Tyrone Dukes/The New York Times)
Tyrone Dukes/The New York Times
Mr. Tuck (left), with a Lever Brothers executive, Ned Bandler Jr., also served as a campaign manager.

WASHINGTON — 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. He was 94.

Mr. Tuck made his name tweaking national Republican candidates, but he 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 US city, Richard G. Hatcher of Gary, Ind., and was an advance man for presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy in 1968.

Mostly, Mr. Tuck was remembered for his singular ability to hector and haunt Nixon.

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

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

Mr. Tuck called him ‘‘an absent-minded professor who knew I was in politics and forgot the rest.’’

Hardly believing his luck, Mr. 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.

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

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

The morning after Vice President Nixon debated then-Senator John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts in the 1960 presidential campaign, Mr. 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.’’

Mr. 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. Mr. 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.

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Mr. 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.

Mr. 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?’’

His tactics were later mimicked, admired — and distorted — by political operatives from both parties. “ 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 Mr. 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 Mr. 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 US Supreme Court as justices deliberated whether to consider a sexual harassment suit against President 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, Mr. 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 reelection 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 Mr. 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 Mr. 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 Mr. 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.’’

Short of stature, with an owl-like face, Mr. 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 press 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 Mr. Tuck in books such as ‘‘Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ‘72.’’

As the decades passed, Mr. 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 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.’’