The merry prankster of politics is standing barefoot on the balcony of his Malibu condominium, looking out at the waves crashing below.
Dick Tuck is back.
For those who think California politics is a dull business these days, that's good news.
"Ah, yes, it's a tough life," says Tuck, his Irish eyes smiling beneath a thatch of gray hair that makes him appear almost distinguished.
Dick Tuck will never quite be distinguished because, even at 66, he still has the attitude of a high school delinquent.
This is the man who pulled perhaps the most famous political prank in history during Richard M. Nixon's 1962 campaign for governor of California.
When a young photographer showed up to take his picture recently and professed no knowledge of that prank--having been 4 years old at the time--Tuck was only too happy to recount the deed.
"So . . . I was working for Pat Brown, who as you know was the governor (of California) in 1962 and up for reelection," Tuck said. "So we're in L.A. and we hear that Dick Nixon, our opponent, is doing a thing in Chinatown. I decide maybe we can smoke Nixon out on the $205,000 unsecured loan that Howard Hughes gave to his brother, Don.
"I get to his event and I make up a big sign that says, in Chinese characters, 'How About the Hughes Loan?' Above that I write 'Welcome Nixon' in English. There's one TV news crew there and I tip them off that Mr. Nixon may be about to do something interesting. So Nixon's standing there posing with this kid holding up my sign when a Chinese elder suddenly says, 'No, no, no.'
"Nixon says, 'What do you mean, 'No, no, no?'
"When the man explains what the Chinese characters say, Nixon grabs the sign out of the kid's hand and tears it up. Right there on camera."
Later Tuck became a close aide to Robert F. Kennedy, who liked his wit--not to mention his interest in tormenting Nixon. With Nixon the likely Republican nominee for President in 1968, Kennedy wanted Tuck around as the senator headed for the Democratic nomination that year.
But Kennedy's assassination on the night he won the California primary ended the dream. Tuck was with the senator when Kennedy made his fateful walk through the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel. While others screamed and lunged for the gunman, Sirhan B. Sirhan, Tuck took off his suit jacket and gently placed it under the head of the dying Kennedy.
"For me, for a long time, all the joy was gone from politics after Bobby was killed," Tuck said.
More recently, Tuck has been famous for simply being famous, hanging out with "gonzo journalist" Hunter Thompson at the Woody Creek Tavern in Aspen, Colo., and trying to finish his book, "Politrix."
"I, uh, started the book in 1973," Tuck says, clearing his throat and wiggling his eyebrows. "It's about a misspent life in politics. I think we're up to 8 million words now."
Tuck has come back to California to drum up support for his new cause: freeing politics from its dependence on fund raising. In a series of articles he has sent to various California newspapers, Tuck has called for the formation of "JOY PAC," a gaggle of volunteers "who not only won't give money to campaigns, we will fight those who do."
His timing isn't bad, given the public's impatience with endless fund raising in politics and the impact on ethics.
But when pressed to say how he would keep people from giving to campaigns, given the First Amendment and other protections of such participation, Tuck admits he's still in the process of hatching ideas.
During his "workday" on Malibu beach, Tuck straps a walkie-talkie on his head when he goes for walks. His wife, Joyce Daly, wears the other walkie-talkie upstairs in the condo.
"When I get a great idea," says Tuck, "I can just call it up to Joyce and she can write it down."
Always elusive on the subject of how he supports himself, Tuck says: "I don't need much money because I don't have many possessions. Philosophically, I pack my bag every day of my life."
The memories, though, are not baggage. Tuck revels in them.
His prank on Nixon in Chinatown made him a legend in American politics, but he notes that he nearly topped it later in that 1962 campaign.
While Nixon was speaking on the back of a special train in San Luis Obispo, Tuck donned a conductor's uniform and waved the train out of the station.
"Nixon's up there talking and suddenly the crowd goes out like the morning tide," says Tuck, grabbing his belly and laughing.