The Day I Met Dick Tuck

April 1, 2016
Dick Tuck during his run for a California State Senate seat.

Dick Tuck during his run for a California State Senate seat.

Once upon a time, in a strange and wonderful desert, far, far away from my Midwestern home, I met a man named Dick Tuck. At first, he seemed like an appropriately eccentric elder statesman, the male foil to what I secretly want to be when I’m 80. He was a friend of a friend I had met at a Tucson cafe called The Raging Sage — and when he strolled over to the back corner, my friend introduced me to Dick Tuck.

“Do you know who Dick Tuck is?” my friend asked.

No. But I wanted to know this odd fellow dressed in a tweed sport coat with suede elbow patches, Bermuda shorts and crimson — red is not the right word — footless leggings. He peered down at us through yellow-tinted glasses, and his hair was a messy white cloud that shook when he laughed. And he laughed a lot.

Acknowledging my confused expression, he handed me his business card — which I’ve lost in many of my moves since those desert days. But Dick Tuck was famous for his business card, and the almighty Internet revealed the card’s made-up dictionary entry for “political prank”: “Political activity, characterized by humor, devised to unmask, ventilate, bring to light, debunk, hold up to view, etc., the comical, ludicrous, or ridiculous, etc., incongruities, follies, abuses, and stupidities, etc., esp. of a candidate for office.” Thanks, New Yorker.

I still had no idea who Dick Tuck was. So my friend swooped in and explained that, standing before us, was the greatest professional political prankster of the 20th century, maybe of all time.

Professional political prankster? Indeed. Dick Tuck was the arch-nemesis of Richard Nixon, he acted as the campaign manager during Hunter S. Thompson’s bid for sheriff of Aspen, Colo., and he even ran for a seat on the California State Senate and held his first press conference in a cemetery, claiming that even the dead should maintain their voting rights. Still, his role as professional political prankster also deeply rooted him in the more serious side of politics: He was a chief advisor to Robert F. Kennedy in his 1968 run for the White House and, when Kennedy was shot on the campaign trail, Tuck rode with him in the ambulance.

Eventually, he told me all of these stories on subsequent accidental meetings at The Raging Sage. But on that first day, he told me a story about a prank his older brother played on him. Tuck grew up in Hayden, Ariz., just outside of Tucson, and his father was instrumental in establishing the state’s copper industry, which meant that all the local (and many national) notables passed through the doors of his family’s home. Expecting a visit from the state’s archbishop, who wore a glittering ruby ring on one of his fingers, one of Tuck’s brothers told him that it was customary to kneel before the “Great Man” and bite the stone on the ring. Not kiss it. Bite it. Tuck was young, impressionable; he didn’t know any better. So he bit the ring and horrified the archbishop.

That was the beginning of it all, he said.

No doubt there are countless stories about Tuck’s shenanigans in California, Colorado and on Capitol Hill. But the one he’s most famous for is known as the Chinatown Caper. In 1962, Richard Nixon campaigned to be the governor of California — and five years earlier, Howard Hughes had lent Nixon’s brother $205,000. The loan was never repaid, and many political pundits considered it a token of Hughes’s efforts to gain political favor with Nixon should he win the gubernatorial election. At a rally in the Chinatown district of Los Angeles, Tuck distributed signs and fortune cookies that said “Welcome, Nixon,” over a row of Chinese characters. As Nixon smiled broadly for the cameras, an aid informed him that the Chinese characters read “What about the Hughes loan?” Nixon promptly wiped the smile of his face and ripped up a sign, on camera, for all the California voting public to see. He lost the election, just as he’d lost his 1960 bid for president to John F. Kennedy. Tuck later found out that the Chinese characters actually read “What about the huge loan?” But no matter. The damage was done.

Nixon conceding defeat in the 1962 California gubernatorial election.

Nixon conceding defeat in the 1962 California gubernatorial election.

There were many, many more pranks after that one, and, along the way, the lines between Tuck’s actual pranks and his legendary pranks became completely blurred.

So, in this season of political unruliness — and because it’s April Fools Day — I often wonder what sort of pranks Dick Tuck would conjure up in an age of constant broadcast. In more than one Shakespeare play, the fool is the agent of wisdom, revealing the folly, the dangerous ambition and the recklessness of kings. So I want to formerly offer up my petition to bring back the role of professional political prankster. We need one, don’t you think?