02.24.11

Scott Walker's Prank Call & More Political Hoaxes

When a young reporter prank-called Wisconsin’s union-busting governor this week, he joined a new golden age of political high jinks. From the blogger who brought down ACORN to the McCain volunteer who claimed she was attacked by Obama cronies, David A. Graham revisits the best capers.

The Yippies and Will Rogers might be long gone, but political humor is far from dead—as a prank call to Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker on Wednesday proved. Ian Murphy, a writer with the alternative-news site Buffalo Beast, managed to talk to Walker under the pretense of being billionaire conservative benefactor David Koch, calling to encourage Walker in his battle against public unions. Murphy got a few titillating tidbits out of Walker—including the fact that Walker considered using “troublemaker” plants and preliminary acceptance of an unethical gift—but the main goal was embarrassment, and that appears to have worked just fine.

Gallery: Great Political Hoaxes

In fact, technology seems to be enabling a golden age of political hoaxes. Murphy used Skype to record the calls and YouTube to publish them. James O’Keefe III, a young conservative, captured headlines when he and an accomplice posed as a pimp and underage prostitute and asked for advice from ACORN, a community organizing group that went bankrupt after O’Keefe’s videos prompted Congress to cut funding for it. Although other O’Keefe efforts have fallen flat, his innovative use of video cameras has spawned imitators. And the Yes Men, a long-running group, has used the power of the Internet to punk Dow Chemical, Exxon Mobil, and the Department of Housing and Urban Development, fooling numerous reporters along the way.

One old-school troublemaker says Walker has what’s coming to him. Dick Tuck was a legendary prankster, bedeviling Richard Nixon for years from California to Washington and making his name a stand-in for hoaxing. He didn’t always like that description, though. “I always objected to the title, although as I got older it didn’t bother me,” says Tuck, now 87 and retired. “The Boston Tea Party wasn’t a prank, although I guess it kind of was.”

As for Murphy’s move, he says it wasn’t his style, but was a legitimate jab, regardless of critics who say he broke ethical rules. Tuck, a Democrat, has less regard for O’Keefe, and says he thinks the decline of print media has been bad for politics as well as political pranks. On the other hand, he says, there’s occasionally an old itch to get back to old tricks. “I think Rupert Murdoch would be my new Nixon if I went back to work,” he says.

Technology and targets aside, Murphy and O’Keefe are the heirs—like Tuck—to a long tradition of political high jinks, some of them harmless fun—and some, whether successful or not, with real and serious repercussions. Here are a few of the new generation’s spiritual forefathers.

David Graham is a reporter for Newsweek covering politics, national affairs, and business. His writing has also appeared in The Wall Street Journal and The National in Abu Dhabi.