Back in the day, an old joke favored by crusty, seasoned newsroom editors was if your mother tells you she loves you, you better check it out. As in, confirm, confirm, confirm information.
It’s especially mind-blowing – and tragic – that Republican George Santos was able to test the political system to the degree that he did and land a House seat in New York’s 3rd Congressional District, which includes Long Island and part of Queens.
In September, long before The New York Times published the story of Santos fabricating his resume, biography, education and finances, a tiny weekly paper, Long Island’s North Shore Leader, wrote about its local candidate’s “inexplicable rise” in reported net worth from zip in 2020 to $11 million two years later.
The Leader sussed out other oddities about the gay Donald Trump supporter, including his claim to own mansions that he did not.
The Leader reluctantly endorsed Santos’ Democratic opponent in October. “This newspaper would like to endorse a Republican,” it wrote, but Santos “is so bizarre, unprincipled and sketchy that we cannot. He boasts like an insecure child – but he’s most likely just a fabulist – a fake.”
The alarm was sounded. This hyperlocal paper – staffed by mostly part-timers – served well its community. We often talk about the lack of small local papers and how information is missed. But a deep, dark void exists at the regional level, too, between a local paper and a larger global one, such as The Times. Here is where coverage fell into the abyss.
Ideally, a regional paper would have next picked up and amplified the message of Santos’ lies. But there’s only so much money, time and personnel to delve deeper. The number of journalists has declined by 60% since 2005. This is one reason Santos got through the gates.
Another is that we tend to believe large, bald-faced lies. Too bold to doubt. Once someone is on New York City radio or TV, talking about accomplishments, we assume he’s been vetted. If a person says his grandparents fled the Holocaust, who checks that background? Records from wartime can be difficult to find anyway.
GOP Rep. Ken Buck of Colorado’s 4th Congressional District didn’t help the situation. Buck said Santos’ actions were wrong. But he blamed Democrats for failing to raise concerns before Santos’ election and said there was little chance of removing him from Congress now.
“If the Democrats had done their research and exposed things, the voters would have had more information,” Buck said.
It’s ridiculous to fault Dems. Republicans shared Santos’ fake biography with the media.
By December, The Times was on Santos’ tail. Especially grotesque was Santos’ claim that he lost four employees in the 2016 Pulse nightclub shootings in Orlando, in complete disrespect to those who actually did lose loved ones. This is who Santos is.
It’s clear, he’s is not fit to be a U.S. House representative. He’s a con man. An oily charmer. But what do to with Santos now?
House Speaker Kevin McCarthy has confirmed Santos stays, prioritizing that Republican vote over ethics. Federal and local prosecutors are reviewing Santos’ financial dealings and lies on the campaign trail, and whether they warrant criminal charges. Dozens of Republican officials in New York insist he resign.
And Brazilian authorities will revive fraud charges against Santos tied to a 2008 incident involving a stolen checkbook, now that they know where he is. A Brazilian jail could potentially replace his view from inside the House Chamber.
Santos showed us how easy it is to manipulate the political system. Per the Constitution, the only requirements to hold a House seat is to be 25 years old, a U.S. citizen for seven years and to live in the state the Congress member represents. Members aren’t required to live in the actual district.
Santos’ story reminds of the movie “Catch me if you can,” based on the life of skilled forger Frank William Abagnale Jr., who passed as a doctor, lawyer and pilot. Unlike the movie, there’s nothing funny in this absurdity. Santos’ rise is sad, pathetic and a cautionary tale to screen candidates much more closely – at every level.