Thursday, May 31, 2018

"I think the story is more important than the truth"

"The Nose" by Alberto Giacometti 

     Lies have a long afterlife for a reason. They scratch an itch, tell a satisfying story. Donald Trump's constant untruths boost his fragile ego, his false claims about the press are a cynical attempt to blunt valid criticism now and undercut damaging revelations certain to come in the future.
    Besides, accepting something at face value as true, because somebody says it's true, or there are news clippings assuming it's true, is easy. Much harder to ask, "Did this really happen?" and start to dig. That takes time, and energy.
    Which can be in short supply with a breaking news story. But are in abundance when writing an advance obituary. So I was disappointed to see a New York Times obituary of Dick Tuck by Robert D. McFadden repeat tales I knew to be untrue, stories that Tuck had admitted were untrue.
    Yes, it was a long time ago, while researching my first book, "If At All Possible Involve a Cow: The Book of College Pranks." But the book was published by St. Martin's Press, featured on the cover of Rolling Stone and on Good Morning America. It wasn't a best-seller, but it wasn't a secret either. McFadden, a Pulitzer Prize winner, couldn't have wondered whether these marvelous events in fact occurred. It isn't as if the University of California at Santa Barbara isn't still there. 
    Maybe it's best just to reprint the Tuck section from my book:

     Of all the pranksters in this book, perhaps the most vexing case is Dick Tuck. Famous for his determined hounding of Richard Nixon, Tuck has attached his name to some delightful pranks—the time he arranged for an old lady to embrace Nixon the day after his 1960 TV-debate drubbing and say, "Kennedy got the best of it last night, but don't worry dear, you'll do better next time." The time he signaled for Nixon's campaign train to pull out of the station while the candidate was delivering a speech from a platform at the back. The time he tricked Nixon, during a visit to San Francisco's Chinatown, to have his picture taken under a huge sign which said, in Chinese WHAT ABOUT THE HUGHES LOAN? alluding to a scandal dogging Nixon at the time.
    So well-known was Tuck for his deeds that when the Watergate scandal first broke, Nixon's henchmen initially blustered that it was merely a Tuckish prank.
     It would be wonderful to say that Tuck is an exception to the Hugh Troy Syndrome—legendary pranksters whose feats melt away when examined closely. Sadly, that is not the case.
     The reason Dick Tuck falls within the book's scope of interest at all is that he traces his Nixon-baiting career to Nixon's run for California's Senate seat in 1950, when the Trickster waged a brutal campaign against Helen Gahagan Douglas.
     A junior at the University of California at Santa Barbara, Tuck was a campaign worker for Douglas. He was also in the history class of professor Harry Girvetz, who was contacted by Nixon's campaign headquarters—Tuck says—looking for an advance man to coordinate a campus appearance by Nixon.
     Girvetz, Tuck says, asked him if he would take the responsibility. Tuck accepted.
     "I picked the largest auditorium I could find," Tuck told a newspaper in 1973. "There was nobody on campus at the time and this place must have seated 2,700."
     Tuck also chose a time of 4 p.m. on a Thursday afternoon. Since most classes were held on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, the campus was largely deserted. "We went to the beach Tuesdays and Thursdays," said Tuck.
     "Of course, only about forty people showed up. Then I held it up so latecomers could arrive. Well, Nixon and everybody there began getting impatient."
     While waiting for the latecomers to arrive, approximately half the people who had shown up left. Nixon impatiently insisted that they get going.
     "Finally, the meeting started and I got up to introduce him. During the introduction I proposed one hundred and three questions for Nixon to answer during his talk."
     "And then I turned to him with a flourish and said: 'And now here's Richard Nixon, who will speak to us on the World Monetary Fund."
    The appearance was a humiliating failure, and as Nixon was leaving, he called Tuck over and asked him his name. Tuck told him.
     "Well, Dick Tuck," Nixon said, "you've just made your last advance."
     A nice tag line to a great prank. The problem is, the entire thing is a lie; worse, one that Tuck has been repeating as true for the past 40 years.
     After examining 30 years of credulous newspaper articles, happily detailing Tuck's various exploits, I tracked down Tuck in New York, and he repeated his stories for me.
     They sounded true enough—filled with detail and largely consistent. Then there were all those clippings. And I certainly wanted to believe him.
     But the rally story started to unravel owing to Tuck's use of Professor Girvetz. No doubt mentioning a professor by name struck Tuck as the sort of small detail that adds veracity to a tale.
     But he overlooked the fact that Girvetz was famous as a liberal Democrat—a building at U of C-Santa Barbara is named after him. The notion of Nixon's campaign staff, no matter how harried, contacting a famous Democrat to set up a campaign visit struck me as highly odd. The archivist at U of C was interested in my quest, and combed the student newspaper for news of the rally. Nothing.
     I called Tuck back to see if he could provide me with more information—perhaps the date of the rally, or the name of a friend who attended. Suddenly, he was no longer the ebullient man I had spoken with before.
     "Your desire for truth troubles me a little bit," he said. "I think the story is more important than the truth."
     To give Tuck credit, under pressure, he finally admitted that not only was the disastrous University of California rally a fiction of his, but so was the train story and other pranks he is credited with.
     In his defense, Tuck claimed that the truthfulness of a story is secondary to its effect—look at Santa Claus, he said.
     But what he fails to see is that the lack of truth completely undermines the value of anything presented as fact. It taints the moral of the story. The reason people embrace Tuck's pranks is not because they are wonderful, timeless tales. People love the punch line—tricky old anal-retentive Nixon, the wily puppet-master, reduced to a laughingstock, red-faced in the empty hall, failing to finish his speech as the train pulls away.
     Tuck's pranks appeared to play upon Nixon's defensiveness, egotism, and lack of humor. To see the importance of it being Nixon, imagine playing a prank on Jimmy Carter, somewhere in Africa, pressing a rag soaked in sugar water against the lips of a starving infant. Not quite the same image. 
     Remember, what brought Nixon down was not the Watergate break-in, per se. Rather, it was his lying to cover it up, shameless and on television, gazing into the camera and distorting the truth for his own benefit.
    Kinda like Dick Tuck.

     I contacted both the New York Times and McFadden and informed them of the problematic sections of the obituary. Neither responded. Which is also disappointing. I'm open to the idea that, as people tend to do when they possess a bit of personal knowledge on a subject, I'm exaggerating the significance of this lapse. But it seemed at least worth mentioning. Truth is either important, or it's not.


  1. Some day a team of historians will compile and dispute every tall-tale ever told by Trump. I imagine the first volume being entertaining enough to hold a curious readers intrest; a funny, fantastical, trip through the darkest days of democracy. I also imagine it being a 6000 page, 8 volume, tedious tome, that only a handful of obsessive psychologists will ever read to the end.
    It sounds like Dick Tuck was a creative storyteller -- a fun guy to hang out with. Donald Trump is a disease.

  2. I have contacted the Times a number of times over blatant factual errors--not just things I disagreed with. Never saw any correction made. Same with NPR, which is terrible about correcting its mistakes.

  3. Speaking of Obit errors, the Clint Walker Associated Press obit in the Sun-Times last week contained and error. The story referenced Mr. Walker's appearance in the movie "The Dirty Dozen" and cites an instance where he and Lee Marvin interact. The actual actor who interacted in that scene was John Cassavetes, who played a character called Franko. (The scene described where Mr. Marvin agitated the character, who then attacked him and was thrown to the ground by Mr. Marvin. A display of who is the tougher tough guy.)

  4. So this Tuck guy didn't do anything to Nixon? He just went around for years saying he did? And reputable news outlets believed him? (I first read about his supposed pranks in Time magazine, during Watergate.)

    How weird. And disappointing.

    BTW, Neil, good for you for catching this.

    1. Did I say that? No. I said the University of California prank didn't happen, nor the train prank, nor others. I am assuming he at some point did SOMETHING. But in keeping with the spirit of my piece, I can't say for certain he did. Although Nixon believed he did, and that might be significant.

  5. "I think the story is more important than the truth." Seems to me that this attitude is prevalent not just with today's politicians but with the authors of the Bible, who constructed fables that have outlasted the truth on the basis of "that's what had to have happened." The "Give us Barabbas" story is a case in point. There's no evidence of the Romans giving people such a choice, but the heart-rending fiction has persisted through the ages and is a rock solid foundation for much of the anti-semitism that bedevils us even today.


  6. "...the lack of truth completely undermines the value of anything presented as fact." So prescient. So true. Great piece, Neil. I'm also troubled by the NYT refusal to acknowledge its errors.

  7. Looks like another instance of Wikipedia getting it right, and the NYT getting it wrong. That is Neil gets a mention in Dick Tuck's Wikipedia page.

  8. Good points, gentlemen. I too am deeply disappointed in the NYT for its failure to recheck its facts. I recently gave (what I thought was) important feedback to WTTW. Crickets. Love the Dick Tucl stories. Wish they were true.

  9. today with the digital manipulation of media, many find it harder to believe the truth behind anything and often for good reason. recently I heard a story on NPR where peoples voices could be generated by computer. you couldn't detect a difference
    its harder to accept the veracity of anything . even eyewitness accounts have been proven to lack accuracy.

    I think this is why so many people retreat to the comfort of their own closely held beliefs, regardless of the facts and accuse others of lying and accept accusations that organizations long revered for integrity are suspect. newspapers, the FBI, etc have been undermined and not just by trump.

    so much of the historical record is found to be inaccurate ,inflated, or fabricated for political or religious purposes. its nothing new to be surrounded by " fake news"

    the end of truth has arrived.

    even your story today initially made me wonder is this true? I don't know, and while interesting its minutia and not the best example you might have used to demonstrate your point. I accept it as accurate because I trust you, but isn't that the worst reason to believe something. dan rather


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