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Political prankster Dick Tuck turns 91

It's not often you can shake the hand of a genuine American political legend, much less wish him a happy 91st birthday. Sunday afternoon, a group of Tucsonans had just such an opportunity, as trickster Dick Tuck marked his 91 years with a party at the Shanty.

Tuck's dogged decades of bedeviling Richard Milhous Nixon played a role in the former president's developing paranoia in the years preceding his election to the nation's highest office.

His years of political involvement and work as a lampoonist (literally; he's a former political editor for National Lampoon) led Mayor Jonathan Rothschild to proclaim "Dick Tuck Day" and swing by the 4th Avenue bar where a few dozen others gathered to celebrate with Tuck. The prankster's birthday parties have become known as occasions to wish others "Merry Tuckmas."

Tuck's first pranks against Nixon came in the 1950 race to elect California's U.S. senator. Tuck was working for U.S. Rep. Helen Gahagan Douglas, who was running against Nixon, and was inadvertently asked to set up a campaign stop for the Republican.

Tuck rented a large assembly hall, and invited only a few people to attend.

One famous anecdote has been at times denied by Tuck, although he's often taken credit for waving a train out of a station as Nixon stood on the platform of a passenger car to deliver a stump speech.

His most famous confirmed trick came as Nixon ran for governor of California in 1962. At a campaign event in Chinatown, Tuck passed out signs that read "welcome" in English for children to hold in the background — the signs also read in Chinese, "What about the Hughes loan?," a reference to a controversial loan made by billionaire Howard Hughes to Nixon's brother, Donald.

Learning of the stunt, Nixon grabbed a sign and tore it up.

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Tuck later learned that the signs actually read, "What about the huge loan?" — little solace to Nixon.

In 1966, Tuck ran for office himself, seeking a state Senate seat in California. After placing third out of eight candidates in the Democratic primary, Tuck quipped, "The people have spoken, the bastards."

An advisor to Robert F. Kennedy in his 1968 presidential run, Tuck was standing next to the candidate when he was assassinated.

His years of bedeviling Nixon have a connection to the president's downfall: Nixon was obsessed with Tuck's pranks. His name is mentioned in the Watergate tapes ("Dick Tuck did that to me. Let's get out what Dick Tuck did!" "Shows what a master Dick Tuck is ... (Donald) Segretti's hasn't been a bit similar."), and Tuck maintains the break-in that led to the cover-up and ultimately Nixon's resignation was aimed at obtaining information the Democratic National Committee had about Hughes' relationship with Nixon.

After years of serving as a political advisor to Democratic politicians, Tuck served as a political editor for the National Lampoon. Born in Hayden, Arizona, he retired to Tucson, where he's a common sight in Bermuda shorts and brightly colored socks, topped with a dress shirt, seersucker jacket and bright bow tie.

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Dylan Smith/TucsonSentinel.com

Tuck, left, with writer Gregory McNamee.