Art Hoppe Tells Some Stories About How Dick Tuck Made Politics More Fun

Dick Tuck loved the press and politics.

Political prankster Dick Tuck died on Memorial Day at age 94. Obits in the New York Times and Washington Post tell a few of the Tuck stories—here are more from a 1974 Washingtonian piece written by one of Tuck’s pals, the great San Francisco Chronicle columnist Art Hoppe. The title of the piece: “Will the Real Tricky Dick Please Stand Up? It’s Dick Tuck!”

Ah, Dick Tuck! There is a name to conjure legends with—tales to be told over and over whenever Democrats gather around marble fireplaces in homes stretching from Georgetown to Beverly Hills. Nothing brightens their years out of power like telling Tuck stories.

“I remember when Nixon visited LA’s Chinatown in ’62,” someone will begin. “These three little Chinese kids appeared carrying signs saying ‘Welcome Mr. Nixon’ in English with a line in Chinese at the bottom. Like any politician, Nixon beamed, held forth his arms and  suffered the little children to come unto him. The television cameras were grinding away when up rushed the Chinese Republican elders, crying, ‘No! No! No!’ It turned out that the line in Chinese said, ‘What about the Hughes loan?'”

And, while everyone’s still laughing, someone adds: “But the really funny thing about it is that afterward Tuck produced a bill from the sign painter made out to Herb Klein.”

The party is warming up—”Remember the spy on the Goldwater train in ’64? That got him national publicity. He smuggles this good-looking girl with phony press credentials onto Goldwater’s whistle-stopper. And she sneaks mimeographed news bulletin under everybody’s door claiming things like Goldwater’s incensed because the train’s water is fluoridated. Well, they finally catch her and toss her off. And there’s Tuck at the station to denounce this high-handed, unchivalrous treatment of a poor young lady!”

“I thought he was at his best in ’60 before all the national press got to know him,” someone else chimes in. “I remember a Nixon rally at a fairgrounds in Kentucky when crowdsmanship was the thing. The press gets off the bus and there’s Tuck, wearing what he calls his ‘collapsible fire marshal’s cap and badge.’ Tuck solemnly surveys the crowd, which is a good 15,000, and says, ‘I’d officially estimate at least 7,500.’ As the reporters are jotting this down, up comes Herb Klein, mad as a wet hen. ‘That’s Dick Tuck,’ Klein tell the press. ‘He works for Kennedy. Hang on and I’ll get you a real official estimate.’ So Klein comes back with he sheriff. The sheriff looks around, spits out a stream of tobacco juice, and says, ‘Well, I’d say this here crowd’s about 5,000.’ It turns out the sheriff is the local Democratic National Committeeman!”

And so it goes as the Democrats relish these vicarious triumphs over the Republican enemy. Mr. Nixon may have won at the polls, but the Democrats can claim that Tuck’s well-publicized victories have demonstrated that Democrats are smarter, wittier, and far more joyous than their grim-jowled nemesis.

Tuck was born in Arizona and was a Marine Corps frogman during World War II. He worked his way through the University of California at Santa Barbara by poaching lobsters. He began working in political campaigns in Southern California and soon became the protege of Fred Dutton, generally credited with being the brains behind Edmund G. (Pat) Brown’s successful bid for governor in 1958. As a reward, Governor Brown made Tuck his travel secretary. That was his first mistake.

Tuck, so this story goes, hired an ancient DC-3, reportedly at reduced rates, to fly the governor to Palm Springs for a speech. The creaking aircraft promptly flew into a ding-dong storm. And the Governor had been afraid of flying to begin with. This flight he spent in the front seat of the cabin, his head bowed, his face green and sweating, as the plane bounced and swooped this way and that. Tuck found a parachute back aft, strapped it on, dashed up the aisle, clapped Brown jovially on the shoulder, and shouted over the din of the engines, “Don’t worry, Governor, I’m going for help!”

As Tuck said later, “I never did like that job anyway.”

When Dutton moved to Washington in 1960 to head the Citizens for Kennedy campaign, Tuck followed. But the man that Tuck followed for the remainder of the campaign was Vice President Nixon. When our press plane landed in Sioux Falls or Cincinnati or Burbank, Tuck would be waiting to greet us—his dark, curly hair would be blowing in the wind, a smile of cherubic innocence animating the soft features of his face. Wearing one credential or another on his lapel (he favored an oval yellow badge that said “Western Union”) he would climb unchallenged onto the press bus for a ride into town to the inevitable rally. Often he led us in singing an updated version of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” based on Mr. Nixon’s well worn campaign speech—”I’ve seen the tears upon the cheeks of half a million Poles,/I’ve been expectorated on in sundry foreign holes.”

The one member of the Nixon staff who was at times amused by Tuck—and the one members of the press genuinely liked—was Herb Klein. The two men developed a competitive rapport—”We’re going up to a dinner in Boston tomorrow night,” Klein told Tuck at one point, “and security’s going to be so tight that even you won’t get it.” Needless to say, as Klein was making his way through the Boston banquet room the following evening, he felt his coattail being tugged. “Say, Herb,” said Tuck, who was seated at an upfront table, “we need some more butter here.”

As for Nixon himself, there is no record of his acknowledging Tuck’s existence during the 1960 presidential campaign. But later, Tuck was to evoke one of the rare flashes of Nixon humor I’ve ever observed. Early during the 1962 campaign for governor of California when Nixon was well ahead in the polls and more relaxed than I’d ever seen him he spotted Tuck at one of his press conferences. Nixon grinned and said, “The last time I saw you, Dick, you were in a Nixonette costume.” Tuck whispered to his friends in the press, “Ask him how he found out it was me.”


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