OVER THE PAST YEAR, we’ve seen Karl Marx’s famous saying about history unfolding first as tragedy, then as farce turned on its head. What started off as ludicrous fantasy took on truly terrible dimensions by the end of the 2016 campaign cycle. Once upon a time, the likes of H.L. Mencken and Hunter S. Thompson mercilessly satirized our nation’s political leaders and the gullible voters who supported them – but even they in their most savage bitterness couldn’t have predicted a result like the one that arrived last November.
Watching the rise of Donald Trump’s brand of reactionary populism, I thought back to a simpler era, when candidates were expected to adhere to old-fashioned norms of political moderation and propriety, at least in public. Distinguished arbiters of newsworthiness like TV anchors Walter Cronkite and John Chancellor were expected to filter out lies and keep politics as fact-based as possible. When it was revealed that Republican operatives used underhanded tactics on Democratic candidates to help re-elect President Nixon in 1972, millions of Americans were genuinely shocked that American politics had fallen so low.
In the early ‘70s, there was still a sense of buttoned-down propriety to politics, a code of conduct that the public expected candidates and their supporters to adhere to. If someone violated this code too outrageously, the likes of CBS News or the New York Times would call them to account. Anyone who challenged this way of doing things was a kook, a comedian or a prankster.
I found myself in the latter category in July of 1974. I was a 17-year-old kid in San Diego looking to have a little fun while the country was embroiled in the final stages of the Watergate scandals. The House Judiciary Committee had just voted articles of impeachment against Nixon; his defenders were dwindling daily. That didn’t stop me and my friend Edgar from dreaming up a fictitious pro-Nixon group to plead his case in creative ways.
For about a month, we got ourselves booked on a series of local TV and radio stations as members of Youth for the President, a bogus grassroots organization with “hundreds” of members up and down the West Coast. We pranked some of San Diego’s best known journalists and talk show hosts with what (to us) were patently ridiculous arguments. Looking back, I can see we were more than fooling around at the media’s expense — we were spreading fake news 40 years before Trump and his followers had perfected the art.
It all began innocently enough. We were walking across the commons of San Diego State University one afternoon when we got the devilish notion to head over to the campus public radio station and ask to be interviewed. Impersonating young right-wing activists defending the obviously guilty Nixon seemed like a workable premise, so I tore a flyer off of a bulletin board and scribbled a press release announcing that Youth for the President had been formed to stop the “neo-socialistic press” from destroying our hero. We marched into the studios of KPBS-FM and asked to see the news director, giving our names as Jeffrey Spaulding (Groucho Marx in Animal Crackers) and Leonard Schneider (comedian Lenny Bruce’s real name). We thought we’d be quickly shown the door – instead, we were told to get ready for a news segment taping in 15 minutes.
I can still recall the weird thrill of that first interview. The 20-something newsman treated us with respect and took our arguments seriously. Jeffrey (me) had a hard time keeping a straight face during the first few minutes; I explained it away as “sand in my nose.” Getting a grip, I proceeded with my partner Leonard (Edgar) to reel off steadily more dubious arguments on Nixon’s behalf, heavily laced with contempt for the news media and American democracy. When our interviewer brought up the Watergate conspirators’ unprincipled tactics against the Democrats, Leonard asserted that “elections are war – they’ve always been war,” but that “it’s hard for a commander to keep track of every private… a general can’t be expected to keep track of Cubans.” We accused the media of “pandering to the whims of the American people” and charged House Judiciary Committee chairman Peter Rodino with being a stooge for organized crime.
The PBS guy took it all in stride, wrapping things up by saying it was great that these two young men were getting involved in the process. We promoted a fake on-campus rally on behalf of our imaginary organization and left the studio feeling giddy and a little guilty from what we’d done.
Some context here: Edgar and I were both aware of the Nixon campaign’s use of “dirty tricks” during the 1972 election season. An operative named Donald Segretti had been caught forging letters and spreading false stories to help subvert Senator Edmund S. Muskie’s bid for the Democratic presidential nomination. Details about the Watergate burglary, illegal campaign contributions and pay-offs, targeted tax audits and similar scandals emerged after the election that confirmed Nixon’s involvement in a host of nasty activities. Edgar and I thought it was obvious that Nixon was dishonest down to the bone. How could anybody defend this man with a straight face?
But as we continued with our Youth for the President pranks, we also developed some doubts about the American media and how it operated. We were more than a little surprised at how easy these broadcast professionals were to fool – or did they want to be fooled? Did they see through our baseless, outright silly talking points – or did they even care that we were only kidding? This was heavy stuff for two politically-minded teenagers to contemplate. It wasn’t enough to make us quit impersonating pro-Nixon fanatics. But it did give us pause.
Our next appearance was on KFMB-TV’s Telepulse program on August 4th. This Sunday night show dealt with topical issues and was hosted by respected local journalists. We called up the station, sent them a press release (typed on clean paper this time) and got a booking. Only Leonard appeared on the show, as Jeffrey chickened out at the last minute. Lenny made the most of his ten minutes with host Shirley Klumm, comparing Nixon to Jesus Christ and the furor over Watergate to the hula-hoop fad. The high point came when he whipped out a greeting card that a local third grader had supposedly made to help cheer up the President. The heart-shaped card featured crayon drawings of Nixon standing with happy children along with such slogans as “Our President needs us” and “We like our President.” Leonard explained that our group had been going around to elementary schools to drum up support for Nixon. Klumm didn’t question any of this. I sat in the studio audience, very pleased that the crude little card I had whipped up looked so good under the TV lights.
The following night, we got an hour’s worth of time on a local radio talk show hosted by Laurence Gross, a veteran broadcaster and outspoken liberal. We got off to a dicey start when he recognized “Leonard Schneider” as Lenny Bruce’s real name. (Later, I learned that Gross had been Bruce’s piano player at one time.) Gross didn’t seem to doubt our legitimacy, though, even when our defense of the President got increasingly strange. We took things to a very primal level. At one point, Jeffrey suggested that Senator Sam Ervin (chairman of the Senate Watergate investigating committee) challenge Nixon one on one “to see who the real man is.” Leonard couched his outrageous claims in slippery language: “I’m willing to bet… I’m not making any charges, but it’s possible… that those congressmen were drugged into voting against the President…”
Much of what we said was sheer nonsense. When Gross suggested that the President had to operate within the limits of the law, Leonard said, “Maybe it’s best to make an analogy. We see the nation as a big boat. Richard Nixon is the captain of this boat and he’s trying to get the boat through the middle of a raging storm. And the press and the American People have the audacity to go up to the captain in the middle of this storm and ask, ‘What time will lunch be served?’”
“I think that’s the dumbest thing I have ever heard in my life,” Gross said. “What does that mean? What did you just say?”
More gibberish followed, of course, as Gross grew steadily more irritated with us. We cited bogus judicial precedents and fictitious organizations to bolster our positions. We advocated making Nixon’s impeachment proceedings top secret or postponing them until after he left office. Whenever challenged, we retreated to our right to have our own facts. “We can state our sources as freely as Bernstein and Woodward can,” Jeffrey said. “We have a right to make a judgment, just as you have the right to your obvious opinions,” Leonard told Gross. “All we can account for is what we believe.”
We took some phone calls on the air. An older gentleman said he was ready to “bust a blood vessel” over what these two “runny-nosed kids” were saying. A female caller asked us if we thought Nixon should step down immediately considering all he’d put America through. “I’m glad we’ve got at least one supporter of the great man calling in tonight,” Leonard said. “I’m not a supporter, don’t be ridiculous!” she shot back. No act of petty obfuscation was beneath us.
Despite our best efforts, President Nixon bowed to the inevitable and resigned from office on August 8th. That didn’t stop us from continuing our crusade – now we could champion a martyred leader brought down by America’s enemies. That’s the tack we took on our final pair of interviews. Right wing commentator Ann Watson booked us on her afternoon radio show to help bolster her conspiratorial view of international politics, even though she felt Nixon leaned too far towards appeasing Communism. Leonard and Jeffrey gave her audience a fine mix of fantasy and silliness, reciting a poem praising our hero (“We love Richard Nixon…Nixon loves the children of the world…”) and proposing that Gerald Ford appoint him Vice President as soon as possible. Watson worked around our more outrageous claims, calling us “brilliant” (if a little soft on the Red Menace).
Youth for the President ended its run on The Good Life, a radio program hosted by the affable Jim Gates. Once again, the host and the audience didn’t trust Nixon because of his willingness to make deals with the Soviets and China. No one blanched when we compared Nixon to the crucified Savior, however. Jeffrey did test the limits when he cited “a theory out there” that it had been a Nixon impersonator – rather than the great man himself – who had resigned from the Presidency in a carefully staged hoax.
Gates had to step in at this point. “Fellas, we’re dealing in childish folly here,” he said. “Let’s not be ridiculous. A broadcaster couldn’t possibly let that happen.” “Would you say that in the day of the SLA and the Weathermen?” Leonard shot back, dropping the names of two famous radical groups of the era. “It could be done by paying off a few people…” Gates laughed it off, then added: “These guys came prepared to talk. They’re well-documented… Wherever these two guys go, the phone lights up…”
Sad to say, the phones went dim for Leonard and Jeffrey after that. Talk show hosts lost interest in kicking Nixon around any further. But there was a coda of sorts to our Youth for the President escapade two years later, when we decided to launch another round of pranks to promote a nonexistent book exposing the biases of the news media.
The high point of our new prank project was scoring an appearance on the Sam Yorty Show on KCOP-TV in Los Angeles. Yorty was the ex-mayor of L.A. and a fixture in California politics since the 1930s. His right-hand man was Wally George, a former child actor and radio broadcaster who took Yorty’s conservative views to a more aggressive level. It was George who called me after he received our press release. “Do you think the liberal media runs this country?” he asked me within a minute of getting me on the phone. I realized that all I had to do to get on the Yorty show was to agree with whatever he said, so I did.
Sharing a TV sound stage with Yorty and especially Wally George was a revelation. For the first time, we were being presented to a live audience that was primed to cheer our antiestablishment views. When Jeffrey urged viewers to keep all personal documents near their kitchen stove in case they needed to incinerate them when The Enemy stormed in, the mostly white and elderly audience applauded loudly. This was the most disturbing moment that Leonard and Jeffrey experienced in their career as pranksters. To see our brand of free-floating paranoia lapped up by seemingly ordinary Middle Americans was a little scary.
After the show, we had a nice chat with Mayor Sam (as he was known) and left the studio with an uneasy feeling. Our nonsense was just part of the populist grist that his show was churning out. Wally George would go on to greater success as the ultrapatriotic host of Hot Seat, a syndicated TV talk show that got loud and sometimes physically violent. We would’ve fit right into George’s antics if we had been willing to take things a few steps further.
Forty years on, my experience as a media prankster still haunts me. The reason why bamboozling those interviewers seemed so funny was that we assumed we were breaking the rules and that we’d get in trouble if we were caught. You aren’t supposed to make stuff up and say it’s true on TV or the radio – right? We implicitly accepted what we thought the norms of responsible broadcast journalism were.
True, none of the media professionals we dealt with – whether deep-dyed liberals like Laurence Gross or right wing provocateurs like Wally George – bothered to check our credentials before booking us. We thought it was because none of them considered the possibility that they were being fooled. I do think some of them would’ve been offended if they’d found us out.
Today, though, it’s a different story. The standards of objective fact have been so undermined that no one can determine what a joke or a prank or an outright lie is anymore. In 2005, Stephen Colbert coined the word “truthiness” to describe imaginary facts that “feel” true – a neat summation of what Youth for the President stood for. In December 2016, Oxford Dictionaries proclaimed “post-truth” as its Word of the Year. In their small but feisty way, Jeffrey Spaulding and Leonard Schneider did their part to make it happen.
Yet I take no joy in this. You need standards of sober, honest conduct to make a prank work. Otherwise, it’s not a prank anymore – it’s just ordinary life.
Welcome to the new American reality.
The sort of gleeful disinformation that we engaged in as pranksters has become familiar in our nation’s politics. From the denial of Barack Obama’s American birth to the claims that the Sandy Hook school shootings were a hoax and that millions of votes were cast illegally in the 2016 presidential election, we’ve seen fact-free assertions become articles of faith for countless true believers. “You choose your facts and I’ll choose mine” is the mantra of much of the country now. When Leonard Schneider said that “all we can account for is what we believe,” he was trying to be absurd, not predict the future.
One particular technique we employed deserves special mention. During our interviews, we would repeat wacky stories without fully endorsing them and softened extreme claims with qualifiers like “I’m not making any charges…” I felt a jolt of recognition when I heard Donald Trump put forth the idea that Ted Cruz’s father was somehow implicated in President Kennedy’s assassination without saying he truly believed it. This kind of shifty “I’m-just-saying” tactic was something we’d stumbled onto four decades ago.
If Jeffrey and Leonard had been less silly and more ambitious, they might have grown up to be Steve Bannon and parlayed a media operation built upon mean gags, vulgar insults and wholesale falsehoods into a White House job. They surely could’ve been hired by James O’Keefe to be part of the undercover faux-pranksters who target liberals for Project Veritas. They wouldn’t try to spread false news as guests on the Alex Jones Show – they would be Alex Jones.
The claim that Donald Trump won the popular vote in the 2016 general election is of a piece with Youth for the President’s assertion that Richard Nixon’s resignation from the Presidency was faked by an actor and a few evil broadcasters. It’s just more insidious and less funny.
Jeffrey Spaulding and Leonard Schneider were lucky to have pulled their pranks back when there was still a modicum of respect for the American news media, standards of political civility and the value of rational thinking. It’s a prankster’s paradise now. And the joke is on us all.