Did Dick Tuck cause Watergate?
No, Richard Nixon caused Watergate. The actions that brought Nixon down in 1973, moreover, included behaviors that Nixon had practiced throughout his political career: money laundering, breaking and entering, illegal surveillance, wire tapping, and a host of political dirty trick.
But Dick Tuck the Merry Political Prankster of the Democratic Party certainly helped bring about the fall of President Nixon. Indeed he did.
Tuck's pranks focused on Nixon's dark side, for example, exposing to the public the illicit transfers by Howard Hughes of hundreds of thousands of dollars over time to Nixon and his family. Other pranks played on his paranoia and threw Nixon's campaign team off guard. Nixon didn't like not being in control. Over time Tuck became more than a nuisance and Nixon encouraged his campaign to Out-Tuck Tuck, but their dirty tricks, as they called them, were more of the same old political mudslinging, at best, and at their worst, felonies.
In 1972 Nixon gave the order that he wanted a Dick Tuck-style capability to get the goods on his enemies and humiliate them. Nixon knew and approved the actions of the Plumbers Unit and Donald Segretti's department of dirty tricks. "Dick Tuck did that to me," Nixon tells Haldeman in a tape recording made in October 1972 of the two men discussing the White House black ops plan "Let's get out what Dick Tuck did!"
One day during the Senate Watergate Committee hearings, H.R. Haldeman, White House Chief of Staff under Nixon, passed Tuck in the Capitol. Haldeman reportedly turned to Tuck and said, "You started all of this."
Tuck replied, "Yeah, Bob, but you guys ran it into the ground."
Tuck shadowed Nixon for almost all of the former president's political career and into his retirement. Beginning with Nixon's first senate campaign, then on through his runs for Vice-President, President #1, Governor of California, President #2 and President #3, Tuck engineered "Pranks", not "Dirty Tricks." His operations were more "white ops," than "black ops" because they focused more on exposing the truth about Nixon and exposing his personal flaws, rather than making up scurrilous and false charges about a candidate, as so many political operatives do. It's easier, of course, to make something up and smear it across the media than to carefully analyze what piece of reality will really get under a candidate's hide and then figure how to artfully and humorously expose the candidate's particular foible. In short, dirty tricks are false and scummy, Tuck's pranks were creative, funny and true.
Over the years, Tuck pranked Nixon so regularly that he made the candidate and his staff paranoid. The Nixon for President campaign once threw away dozens of boxes of campaign buttons in multiple foreign languages simply because Tuck had been seen in the building. Communications in languages other than English were especially tempting vehicles for Tuck and he had employed them before, so rather than risk the button saying something bad, the campaign manager had them all destroyed.
Tuck developed an attitude about Nixon early. In 1950, Tuck was a G.I. Bill student at University of California at Santa Barbara and a part-time worker for Congresswoman Helen Gahagan Douglas in her U. S. Senate campaign against Congressman Richard Nixon. Tuck says an absent-minded UCSB professor asked him to do the advance work for an upcoming campaign speech by Nixon at the University. Tuck was all too willing. He hired the biggest hall, scheduled the slowest day, and neglected all the usual efforts at public awareness. On the big day, attendance was sparse. Tuck provided a lengthy introduction. The event was a total bust. On his way out, Nixon stopped the car and called Tuck over to ask his name. It would be the first of many times he would hear "Dick Tuck."
"Dick Tuck," Nixon told him, "You've made your last advance."
Like Nixon's "Last Press Conference," though there were many more to come.
Over the course of the next fifty or so years, Tuck pranked Nixon dozens of times, exposing Nixon's secrets and feeding Nixon's natural paranoia. At times, Tuck's mere appearance threw the Nixon campaign off its game.
Tuck's political pranks were lighthearted and clever. Sure, some of them made a candidate look a little foolish or powerless as Nixon did when his whistle-stop campaign train pulled out of the San Luis Obispo station just as he began to speak.
Nixon's "dirty tricks" were slimy and ham-fisted. A typical example happened during the 1968 Presidential primaries when a Nixon campaign staff member, Donald Segretti, faked a letter on Democratic presidential candidate Edmund Muskie's letterhead alleging that U.S. Senator Henry "Scoop" Jackson, a fellow Democrat and primary competitor, had conceived an illegitimate child with a 17-year-old. Apparently, Nixon also was underwhelmed, "Shows what a master Dick Tuck is," the president said in a conversation taped March 13, 1973. "Segretti's hasn't been a bit similar."
The newspapers and reporters loved Tuck. San Francisco Chronicle columnist Art Hoppe, syndicated columnists Jack Anderson and William F. Buckley, Rolling Stone magazine, New York Magazine, and Playboy have all featured stories about Tuck. As recently as January 2010, Tuck played prominently in a New York Times story about political trickery and clumsy Republican operatives caught -- once again -- too close to the phones, this time in Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu's offices.
The Last Press Conference
Nixon hated the press and thought they were out to get him. Nixon's most famous diatribe against the press came after his loss to California Governor Edmund G. Brown in 1962. In his self-proclaimed "Last Press Conference" Nixon opened by saying, "Good morning, gentlemen. Now that Mr. Klein has made his statement, and now that all the members of the press are so delighted that I have lost, I'd like to make a statement of my own."
He went on to thank his volunteers with a feel-good message:
"And our 100,000 volunteer workers I was proud of. I think they did a magnificent job. I only wish they could have gotten out a few more votes in the key precincts, but because they didn't Mr. Brown has won and I have lost the election."
He closed by bidding a fond farewell to the press:
"I leave you gentlemen now an you now write it. You will interpret it. That's your right. But as I leave you I want you to know- just think how much you're going to be missing. You won't have Nixon to kick around anymore, because, gentlemen, this is my last press conference . . ."
Nixon longed to be rich and a celebrity like the Kennedys. Instead, Nixon's best friends included the likes of with Charles G. (Bebe) Rebozo and Robert Abplanalp. Rebozo, according to his write-up on FBI.gov: "In 1969, Charles Gregory "Bebe" Rebozo received $100,000 from a third party as a campaign contribution to the Republican Party, but he never gave it to them. He kept the $100,000 in a safe deposit box and wanted to have it returned to the ultimate contributor, Howard Hughes. President Nixon often vacationed in the home and/or next door to Rebozo's residence in Key Biscayne, Florida."
In 1974, the staff of the Senate Watergate committee disclosed additional information to support the charge that Charles Rebozo gave or lent part of a $100,000 campaign contribution to President Nixon's personal secretary Rose Mary Woods, and to Nixon's brothers Donald and Edward Nixon.
Robert Abplanalp invented the first mass-produced aerosol spray valve. He started the Precision Valve Corporation in 1949 and later in life supported many conservative and Republican causes.
"We're keeping the dog."
Nixon came from a humble Quaker family, but he liked living large. Since Nixon was a public servant, he didn't get big salaries until much later in life. Apparently, he subsidized his income through contributions. In September, 1952, the New York Post published an article claiming that campaign donors set up a secret cash fund for Nixon's personal expenses. Eisenhower was pressured to dump Nixon from the ticket, but refused. Nixon appeared on television to fight the allegations. His speech was known thereafter as the "Checkers Speech," after the black-and-white Cocker Spaniel Nixon's family had received as a gift. "And you know, the kids, like all kids, love the dog and I just want to say this right now, that regardless of what they say about it, we're gonna keep it," Nixon affirmed.
Later, another financial fracas occurred because of a $205,000 loan provided by another of Nixon's friends, Howard Hughes, to Nixon's brother Donald in 1957. In today's terms, that's more than $1.5 million. Nixon would later say that this loan lost him two election: the 1960 Presidential election and the 1962 California Governor's race.
As his 1972 re-election campaign ramped up, Nixon had established security, intelligence and counter-intelligence capabilities in the Committee to Re-elect the President. As President, he controlled also the federal government's security (FBI), military and intelligence/counter-intelligence (CIA, DIA, NSA) communities. So, Nixon had the same sort of set up as his other Great Powers friends Brezhnev and Mao: state security and intelligence, which, at the very least, had to appear to operate according to law; and a Party security and intelligence arm that could operate undercover and outside the law.
Boys will be Boys
Nixon's penchant for breaking and entering. apparently, goes way back. During law school Nixon and two buddies broke into the Dean's office at Duke University to see if they had kept their scholarships. One student squeezed through the transom above the door and let the other two in. It was during the Depression when Duke had instituted a very competitive scholarship program, which purposely supported many students during their first year, then dramatically cut back the numbers supported in the second year. Nixon had made the cut.
This story appeared in a Jack Anderson article dated August 20, 1972, which makes light of the Watergate break-in by comparing it to a college trick.
"We didn't steal anything," one of the students said when interviewed in 1972. "We just wanted to find out our grades."
Pink Down to Her Underwear
Nixon was famously paranoid and vindictive. He had practiced slash and burn politics from his very first election to Congress when he called his opponent, Jerry Voorhis, a "communist sympathizer." In his campaign for Senator against Helen Gahagan Douglas, he referred to her as "pink down to her underwear."
During the 1956 Presidential campaign Adlai Stevenson said, “Our nation stands at a fork in the political road. In one direction lies a land of slander and scare; the land of sly innuendo, the poison pen, the anonymous phone call and hustling, pushing, shoving; the land of smash and grab and anything to win. This is Nixonland. America is something different.”
Nixon assumed people were out to get him, so he always wanted to get the goods on the other guy first. Whether it was pulling incriminating microfilm from a pumpkin on Alger Hiss's farm or breaking into the offices of Daniel Ellsberg's psychiatrist, Dr. Lewis Fielding, Nixon wanted to get his enemies before they could get him. (See Enemies List )
Nixon believed that “Certainly hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Americans—mostly under 30—are determined to destroy our society.” To confront the threat, Nixon commissioned the Huston Plan, named after its author - a White House staffer. The plan called for domestic burglary, illegal electronic surveillance and opening the mail of domestic "radicals". At one time it also called for the creation of camps in Western states where anti-war protesters could be detained. As written, the plan was too much for even FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover and Attorney General John Mitchell, who had Nixon withdraw the directive a few days after its distribution, but elements of the plan lived on.
One would think that after Nixon's resignation, Tuck's nemesistic career was over, but Tuck knew he had to remain vigilant to ensure that Nixon didn't make another comeback like the one after losing in 1962. Then too, there was the business of Nixon and his foundation continuing to insist that the pardon was not necessary, as the President had not violated the law; that he wasn't a crook.
In 1977 Nixon admitted to David Frost, who paid him $600,000 for a series of filmed interviews, that he had "let down the country" . . . "I brought myself down. I gave them a sword and they stuck it in. And they twisted it with relish. And, I guess, if I'd been in their position, I'd have done the same thing." Nixon did not admit to breaking the law and denied authorizing hush money payment to the Watergate burglars.
What's a nemesis to do?
Surprisingly, by October of 1980, exactly 100 months after the Watergate break in, the media had not broadcast any excerpts of the Watergate tapes. The only way the public could hear the tapes was to visit the National Archives where a small set of samples were available for listening only.
As reported in the Aspen Times:
"Political prankster Dick Tuck played part of his mysteriously acquired Watergate tapes in the Hotel Jerome Sunday, but the contents of the tapes were eclipsed by a touch of local press pageantry worthy of Disneyland.
It was an elaborate media event dramatized by glaring lights, television crews and camera-clad reporters who separated Tuck from the crowd of about 75 in the hotel lobby.
Tuck, political editor for the National Lampoon and part-time Aspen resident, announced on network news Oct. 21 that he had acquired a set of the Watergate tapes himself and would make them available to the press and to his favorite bar in Aspen.
The recorded segments played for an Aspen audience included Nixon telling Haldeman the 1972 break-in at the Watergate complex should be covered up."
This was the first time that any mass media carried the audio of the tapes made in the president's office. Tuck played the tapes at a news conference on October 21, 1980. Excerpts from the press conference were played on the national network news programs that evening.
Once again, Tuck put the spotlight on the dark shadows of Nixonland. The public had been deprived of the opportunity to hear the actual tapes for almost a decade after their revelation. Their first exposure came from the heavily edited transcripts from the White House that made the phrase "Expletive Deleted" an historic term that will be forever associated with the Nixon presidency. A more complete version of transcripts that contained highly incriminating conversations left out of the White House version was later released with the Senate Watergate Committee reports. But to actually hear the conversations presented the public with the full palette of emotions: the anger, rationalizations, pompousness and just plain evil, it was the next best thing to being there.
In the summer of 1990, the Richard Nixon Library and Birthplace opened in Yorba Linda, California, and soon thereafter Richard Nixon headed to Washington seeking further redemption. A visit to the Capitol building got the headline "Nixon Treated as Hero In Halls of His Disgrace" in a front-page New York Times article by Andrew Rosenthal.
"The former President, who knows something about how to make a comeback, gave advice to senators seeking re-election this year, held his first Washington news conference since he resigned and basked a bit in the restored political glow that he has been carefully acquiring."
Senator Bob Dole, the Republican Party leader, declared Nixon "rehabilitated."
It was all too much for Tuck, so he went to work.
With the aid of an Apple desktop publishing system, Tuck was able to reproduce the letterhead with the Nixon Library and Museum. He then crafted a press release announcing that the original copy of the presidential pardon had been stolen from its display case in the entrance lobby of the Richard Nixon Library and Birthplace. The head of security was quoted as saying what a surprise it was to come to work in the morning and find the pardon was just gone. The story started getting some pickup, but someone from the Nixon memorial heard a radio report and the story was squashed . . . except that some questions arose about where the pardon document and the Nixon resignation letter actually were stored, if not at his library. So for the next few news cycles the Nixon story became less about Nixon's rehabilitation and more about his resignation and pardon.
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