Political Pranks

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.

AP Photo; MSNBC (inset)

AP Photo; MSNBC (inset)

Ian Murphy, 2011

While conservatives have recently dominated the political prank game—from O’Keefe to Lila Rose’s February 2011 stings on Planned Parenthood—it’s still a bipartisan game. On Feb. 23, 2011, Murphy, a reporter with Buffalo's brash alternative-news site, The Beast, decided to see how far he could get by calling Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and pretending to be conservative businessman and activist David Koch. It didn’t take long before Murphy was on the phone with Walker, discussing his standoff with Democrats and union members over a plan to eliminate collective-bargaining rights for public workers. Murphy taped the conversations and promptly posted them online. Walker avoided major missteps, but admitted he’d considered planting troublemakers among protestors and said he’d only talk to Democrats to trick them. Here’s guessing his staffers will check the caller ID more closely next time.

The American Media, 1898

In case you don’t recall the yellow-journalism lesson from eighth-grade history, here’s a recap. Amid saber-rattling between the United States and Spain, the battleship USS Maine sailed into the harbor of Havana, Cuba, a Spanish colony, in January 1898. On Feb. 15, it suddenly exploded, killing 260 sailors. There’s never been definitive proof of any of the several theories about the cause, but it’s widely believed today that coal spontaneously ignited in a bunker and flames spread to ammunition, leading to the explosion. Facts weren’t that important to newspaper barons Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst, who were already involved in a heated circulation battle. Combine one mysterious explosion with several parts jingoism, and you get a splendid little war. Although widely remembered as the cause of the conflict between Spain and the U.S., the Maine’s sinking was not actually cited by President McKinley in declaring war.

AP Photo

Dick Tuck, 1950s and 1960s

Tuck earned the distinction of being especially hated, even by Richard Nixon’s standards. During Nixon’s 1950 Senate campaign, Tuck booked him to speak in a huge auditorium, which ended up being mostly empty because Tuck deliberately didn’t advertise the event. In the 1962 California gubernatorial race, Nixon was under fire for an unsecured loan Howard Hughes made to Nixon’s brother. At a rally in Los Angeles’s Chinatown, Tuck set up children with a sign that was supposed to read “What about the Hughes loan?” in Chinese characters (it actually said “What about the huge loan?”). An enraged Nixon ripped it up on camera. After Watergate, White House chief of staff H. R. Haldeman told Tuck, “You started all this.” Tuck’s response: “Yeah, Bob, but you guys ran it into the ground.” Still, Tuck insists his most famous stunt—donning a conductor’s hat and waving a train out of the station as Nixon spoke—is apocryphal.

AP Photo (left)

'Report From Iron Mountain,' 1967

As race riots and opposition to the Vietnam War roiled the United States, Dial Press published The Report From Iron Mountain, purportedly a super-secret brief by a government-convened panel that concluded, among other things, that America’s economy depended on war and that continuous war was economically necessary. The report, published under the aegis of Dial editor E.L. Doctorow—who was in on the prank—had purportedly been leaked by "John Doe," said to be a Midwestern professor and member of the panel. It became a best-seller, and U.S. News and World Report quoted an anonymous government official as saying President Lyndon Johnson had been infuriated by the report and had ordered it suppressed. Writer Leonard C. Lewin owned up to the hoax in 1972.

AP Photo

Yippies, 1968

Led by Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin (the latter is shown here shirtless), the Youth International Party was prankster central, right down to its nickname (a play on “hippies”) and its overlap with Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters. Stunts by the leftist counterculture group included running a hog named Pigasus for president in 1968 and disrupting the New York Stock Exchange by throwing dollar bills onto the floor; the Yippies cackled as brokers scurried around to grab the cash. In 1967 and 1968, when Hoffman and Rubin were hauled before the House Un-American Activities Committee, they either wore Continental Army costumes or, as Rubin is shown here in 1968, dressed as Viet Cong. The Yippies reached their zenith in August 1968, when they crashed the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, causing riots and general chaos. Several—the Chicago Seven—were put on trial in the aftermath and convicted on some charges, but they were cleared on appeal or otherwise escaped sentencing.


The Yes Men, 2000s

Parties pranked by these two remarkably successful anticonsumer advocates include George W. Bush (whom they impersonated on a parody Web site during the 2000 presidential election), the Department of Housing and Urban Development, ExxonMobil, and the World Trade Organization. In 2009 the Yes Men issued a press release and held a press conference—covered by CNBC and Reuters—announcing a (fictitious) radical about-face by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce on global warming, from attacking to supporting climate-change legislation. But perhaps the duo’s most audacious stunt came in 2004, when one member appeared on the BBC as a spokesman for Dow Chemical. He said that Dow—which bought Union Carbide in 2001—would for the first time fully accept responsibility for and compensate victims of the 1984 industrial disaster at a Union Carbide plant that killed thousands in Bhopal, India. Dow’s stock briefly tanked before it became clear that the admission was phony.

Jim Cole / AP Photo

Logan Clements, 2005

Libertarians were outraged by Kelo v. New London, the 2005 ruling in which the Supreme Court upheld a controversial eminent-domain seizure of private property for a private development, ostensibly for the “public purpose” of economic development. But Logan Clements, who had previously run in the star-studded 2003 California gubernatorial recall election, actually did something about it: he filed a petition to seize a Weare, N.H., home belonging to Justice David Souter, a member of the majority in the Kelo case, to turn it into the “Lost Liberty Hotel.” Clements argued, as the majority had, that this would be a public good, because tax revenues would go up. He collected more than enough signatures to get the measure on the ballot and started a reimbursement fund for Souter. Although the measure passed, a vote altered the wording of the measure, effectively killing its original purpose.

Pittsburgh Bureau of Police

Ashley Todd, 2008

In one of the weirder moments of the 2008 presidential race, a young conservative was mugged by unreality. Todd, a college student from Texas who was volunteering in Pittsburgh for John McCain’s campaign, told police she was robbed on Oct. 22 by four black men who carved the letter B into her face, telling her they would “teach her a lesson” for supporting the Republican against Democrat Barack Obama. What looked at first to be a horrifying but possibly fortuitous October surprise for the sputtering McCain campaign quickly fell apart. Police watched surveillance-camera footage and administered a lie-detector test, and then charged Todd with filing a fake police report, alleging that the whole thing had been a hoax. Police said they believed Todd had mutilated herself. She copped a plea to the misdemeanor for nine months’ probation—which will end in late February—after which her record will be expunged.

Douglas C. Pizac / AP Photo

Tim DeChristopher, 2008

What’s the ultimate mark of success for a prankster? Copycats, of course. DeChristopher, a 27-year-old economics student who was inspired by the Yes Men, walked into an auction of oil and gas leases on federal land in Salt Lake City in December 2008 and began bidding . . . and bidding and bidding. He quickly drove prices up, racking up $1.7 million in purchases before federal agents realized he was an impostor. By then, the auction was effectively ruined and had to be postponed, and buyers had 10 days to withdraw their inflated bids. Before another auction could be held, the new Obama administration, which opposed the sales, had taken over. The changing of the guard didn’t help DeChristopher, who’s now facing up to 10 years in jail and hefty fines for interfering with a government auction and making false representations. The case is ongoing.

Bill Haber / AP Photo

James O’Keefe, 2010

From the heights of humiliating ACORN and earning the adoration of the right wing to the depths of a Jan. 25 arrest on felony charges in Louisiana, James O’Keefe has been one of the more high-profile and celebrated political pranksters in recent memory. Though the idea of the hidden camera is more recent, O’Keefe is in many other ways the heir to a long tradition of political high jinks, some of them harmless fun, some of them, whether successful or not, with real and serious repercussions. Here are a few of O’Keefe’s spiritual forefathers.