Monday, May 21 , 2018, 5:05 pm | A Few Clouds 66º


Mark Shields: As Tuck Would Have It

Taking a different tack to political strategy, Dick Tuck usually got the last laugh.

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Mark Shields
Mark Shields
In 1960, when the nation held its first-ever presidential debate, there were no focus groups or overnight polls. The media, with no agreed-upon standards by which to determine the outcome, was reluctant to name a winner. Enter Dick Tuck. The day after the first Kennedy-Nixon debate — which 60 percent of the nation’s adult population had watched or listened to — Republican Richard Nixon flew to Memphis, Tenn. In the greeting party on the airport tarmac — in those pre-assassination days security around presidential candidates was much more relaxed — was an especially friendly matron, sporting an oversized Nixon button. She consoled the nominee with words that could be overheard by reporters nearby: “Don’t worry, son. (John F.) Kennedy beat you last night, but you’ll do better next time.” Nixon uncomfortably thanked her.

This was a classic Dick Tuck production. The Democratic operative had recruited the woman and had written and stage-directed the airport prank.

I reached Tuck in his Tucson apartment last week. Now 84, he is still, in spite of a recently diagnosed heart condition, full of the joy and antic spirit that was his signature contribution to California and national campaigns in the 1950s and ‘60s. It actually began, Tuck reminded me, after his discharge from the Marines, when he somehow got on board President Harry Truman‘s 1948 campaign train as it whistle-stopped through California on its way to a historic upset victory.

While at UCSB, even though he was a supporter of Democrat Helen Gahagan Douglas in her 1950 Senate campaign, Tuck managed to be named the “advance man” for a visit by Douglas’ opponent, Nixon, to Santa Barbara. Tuck hired a big hall and deliberately did not publicize the event. Nixon arrived to face nearly empty seats and a tiresome introduction from Tuck, who announced, to the candidate’s surprise, that Nixon would speak on the International Monetary Fund. According to Tuck, after the debacle, Nixon asked him again for his name and, when told, announced, “Dick Tuck, you have just made your last advance.”

But 12 years later, while working for Democratic Gov. Pat Brown, Tuck did “advance” a visit to Los Angeles’ Chinatown by Brown’s Republican opponent, Nixon. The media had reported on a largely unsecured — and un-repaid — $205,000 loan from Howard Hughes to then-Vice President Nixon’s brother, Donald, which had been followed by a favorable IRS ruling for a Hughes enterprise. Nixon was photographed under a sign in English reading, “Welcome Mr. Nixon,” to which was added in Chinese characters: “What about the Hughes loan?”

I met Tuck in 1968 when we both worked in Robert Kennedy‘s campaign. Dick traveled on the candidate’s plane raising spirits and offering political advice. During the Oregon campaign, when Kennedy’s dog, Freckles, was on the plane and got loose on the grounds of an airport, Tuck was seen chasing and capturing the terrier. He was loudly needled by reporters about the indignity of such a shrewd political pro being reduced to dog-sitting. Tuck’s rebuttal: “It may look like a dog to you, but it’s an ambassadorship to me.”

There was to be no ambassadorship nor any Kennedy administration. An assassin’s bullets guaranteed that. Tuck is today rooting hard for Sen. Barack Obama, whom he met at the 2004 Democratic convention. Politics and the campaign trail are less fun without him. But if you see somebody with an outsized McCain button telling Sen. John McCain — within earshot of a microphone — after a debate: “Don’t worry. Even though he thumped you last night, you’ll get him next time,” you’ll know where they got the idea.

Mark Shields is one of the most widely recognized political commentators in the United States. The former Washington Post editorial columnist appears regularly on CNN, on public television and on radio. Click here to contact him.

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