The Great Santos

Original cover art for the 1927 edition of The Great Gatsby by Francis Cugat.

Notes of a Native Son

As I grew up in the district that George Santos now represents in Congress, I can claim him as one of our own, even if not many college counsellors on the ambitious north shore of Long Island would ever recommend Baruch as the best college from which to fake a degree. Had George at least gone to Faber, he could now being saying to his many Democratic accusers: “Christ, seven years of college, down the drain.”

That said, Santos’s 3.89 grade point average from Baruch, which had him in the top one percent of his class, was good enough to get him jobs at Goldman Sachs and Citigroup (which by the way he misspells on his CV). With any luck it might well position him for a leadership role in the Republican Party, alongside such Freedom Caucus stalwarts as Matt Gaetz, Lauren Boebert, and Marjorie Taylor Greene, all of whom have run on platforms that believe in the sanctity of invented lives (see Q for starters).

Yes, I have read all the accusations that George faked his resumé (“Enthusiastic leader able to provide a high level of service and enthusiasm for building positive experiences with history of transforming inefficient, under performing operations into successful enterprises”), padded his expense accounts (including a meal at The Breakers Palm Beach, which is three miles up the beach from Mar-a-Memo), fronted for Russians, imagined knee surgery, kited checks and paraded as a drag queen in Brazil, buried his mother while she was still alive, stole the vet money of a dying dog, and doctored his campaign financial reports to show a $705,000 personal loan to his congressional campaign (while at the same time screwing his Elmhurst, Queens, landlord out of unpaid rent worth about $40,0000). But since George is new to the national political scene, let me be the first to say, “Welcome. You’ll fit right in.”

George Washington’s Clay Feet

What can be more American than a political life of illusion?

Since the subject here is politics, let’s start with George Washington, who spent most of the American revolutionary war obsessing over his expense accounts and losing battles to the British (his only real wins came at Trenton, maybe Princeton, and Yorktown).

His earlier incompetence in the field in 1753-4 helped to ignite the French and Indian War, but none of this mattered when Washington ran unopposed for the presidency and won in 1789 and 1793, standing as the “indispensable man” of the new republic.

Not all the founding fathers agreed, as Tom Paine (Common Sense) wrote to the president in 1796:

As to you, Sir, treacherous in private friendship (for so you have been to me, and that in the day of danger) and a hypocrite in public life, the world will be puzzled to decide, whether you are an apostate or an impostor; whether you have abandoned good principle, or whether you ever had any.

Spinning Andrew Jackson

Skip ahead to the common man symbolism associated with the presidency of Andrew Jackson that so thrilled nativist Donald Trump that he hung Jackson’s portrait in the Oval Office. Did Jackson not make America great again in the 1830s?

On his inauguration night, Jackson admitted a rabble into the White House to celebrate his victory in 1829 by dancing on the furniture, but prior to assuming office Jackson’s conduct could hardly be considered democratic.

Not only was he a slave owner, but in the war of 1812 he imposed martial law on the American city of New Orleans, and, earlier, might well have been caught up in Aaron Burr’s 1805 sedition (a January 6 dry run?) against the United States, to break the country in half.

As president, Jackson ethnically cleansed the Cherokees and other first nations from the Southwest to territories west of the Mississippi. The so-called Trail of Tears killed tens of thousands and has been classified as a genocide, although thanks to some historical rewrites, Jackson today is remembered as the people’s president and for defending individual rights.

Joe Biden Polishes His Resumé and Others

Abraham Lincoln is one of the few in politics who was as advertised in his campaign autobiographies. Here’s how he wrote of himself in 1859 to his friend Jesse Fell, knowing that it might be used in a campaign:

My father, at the death of his father, was but six years of age; and he grew up, literally without education – He removed from Kentucky to what is now Spencer county, Indiana, in my eighth year – We reached our new home about the time the State came into the Union – It was a wild region, with many bears and other wild animals still in the woods – There I grew up – There were some schools, so called; but no qualification was ever required of a teacher, beyond the “readin, writin, and cipherin” to the Rule of Three – If a straggler supposed to understand latin, happened to sojourn in the neighborhood, he was looked upon as a wizard – There was absolutely nothing to excite ambition for education. Of course when I came of age I did not know much – Still somehow, I could read, write, and cipher to the Rule of Three, but that was all – I have not been to school since – The little advance I now have upon this store of education, I have picked up from time to time under the pressure of necessity –

George Santos could well have said that since earning his GED (the General Educational Development test in lieu of completing high school) degree in 2006, “I have not been to school since”, but instead he opted to list on his CV a 2013 masters in business administration from New York University. He added a humblebrag that his GMAT score was 710 (out of 800).

Later Santos confessed to the press: “I didn’t graduate from any institution of higher learning. I’m embarrassed and sorry for having embellished [emphasis mine] my resumé…. I own up to that … We do stupid things in life.”

Embellishment, however, is more what Joe Biden did during the 1988 presidential primary campaign, during which he boasted that he had finished in the top half of his law school class at Syracuse University (he was 76th in a class of 85, and had a brush with plagiarism in his first year).

Nor, as claimed, was Biden named as “the outstanding student in the political science department as an undergraduate at the University of Delaware”. At his Delaware graduation he ranked 506th out of 688 students, for which there are few prizes.

And it would be the air of plagiarism around Biden’s academic work, speeches, and publications that bounced him from the 1988 presidential race (although by 2020 all was forgotten).

Reimagined Lives

In American politics, there is a long and established precedent to revise your education, religion, name, wealth, and sexuality.

For example, Barack Obama grew up with the name Barry Soetoro and, early on in Indonesia, attended muslim schools, but later in life, as is his right, he “self-identified” as Barack Obama, who was a practicing Christian at the Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s Trinity United Church of Christ.

With such precedent why does the press and most of the political world now howl when Santos identifies as Jewish? Isn’t that his right? Or is the U.S. getting ready to impose Nuremberg Race Laws to establish clinically who is and who is not Jewish? Likewise, cannot Santos identify as gay, even if he was recently married? Apparently, he must be the only American not able to choose his pronouns.

Malaysia Gives at the Office

Isn’t the real reason for the outrage at George that he got caught and brought to light how so many political campaigns raise money and pay friends or themselves on the side?

As an example of how the system works, let’s look briefly at the financial house of cards that was and is the Trump Organization and its wholly-owned subsidiaries, the Trump campaign and the Trump presidency.

On his financial disclosure forms, Trump (a bit like the Magnificent Santos) was supposed to be awash in assets, income, and brilliant business strategies, although when various Trump personal and business tax disclosures floated to the surface, they revealed that Santos’s $55,000 a year salary was more than Trump’s reported net income, on which, year after year, the president paid either $750 in federal income taxes or nothing.

Equally dubious was Trump’s view that the presidency was a single-purpose corporation to enrich his hotels and golf clubs, despite the clause in the U.S. constitution that reads:

No Title of Nobility shall be granted by the United States: And no Person holding any Office of Profit or Trust under them, shall, without the Consent of the Congress, accept of any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or foreign State.

Notwithstanding this restriction, during his presidency Trump offered membership in Mar-a-Lago at $200,000 to anyone who could stump up the front money. That list no doubt included more than a few agents of “kings, princes, or foreign States”, who likely would have been drawn to the club for its golf, ocean beaches, and pool lockers flush with state secrets.

In Washington, D.C., the Trump International Hotel operated as a White House commissary and guest room. In the first two years of the Trump presidency, according to CNN, the sheikdoms of Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates spent more than $700,000 at the Trump hotel.

Pretty much anyone currying Trump’s imperial favor stayed at the hotel and ate in its restaurants, including a prime ministerial group from Malaysia that over eight days spent $259,724 while complaining to Trump about a Department of Justice investigation into whether they might have looted the country’s sovereign wealth fund.

The Clintons Cash In

Don’t think for a minute that only Republicans have figured out how to convert political office into a bottomless Automated Teller Machine.

Remember that when the Clintons left the White House they were close to being broke (having to pay all those Lewinsky impeachment lawyers and the like), but then a few years later their net worth jumped to some $120 million, enhanced especially when Hillary was Secretary of State and Bill was meeting-and-greeting all those sheikdoms that later booked suites at Trump International.

What king, prince, or foreign state would not pay post-presidential Bill $500,000 to make a 45-minute speech, especially when it looked as though his wife would be the next president?

Nor was a Clinton successor, the saintly Barack Obama, above using the presidency or his world-class (embroidered?) CV to launch any number of get-rich-quick schemes (excuse me, what George on his CV calls “Market trends and analysis…).

Out of office, Obama and his wife inked a $65 million book deal, charged $400,000 for speeches and corporate appearances, and agreed to a Harry-and-Meghan-ish mega-deal with Netflix (which no doubt will be waiting with a contract in hand for George Santos the moment he can no longer walk around Congress on his surgically-repaired volleyball knees.)

Log Cabin Syrup

The root of the charges against George Santos is that he’s not who he claimed to be, but isn’t the essence of American politics to run an endless series of imposters and con men for the top jobs?

Sorry to sound cynical, but the aristocratic William Henry Harrison ran for the presidency in 1840 with a portable log cabin that was set up at various campaign events, to remind voters of Harrison’s humble origins (which actually were to be found at Berkeley plantation in Virginia, tended by slaves).

After that, log cabins were a staple of presidential campaigns until the 1880s (Garfield was the last actually born in one), as were small homesteads scattered around Ireland where it could be claimed humble ancestors had made their start. (Andrew Jackson, Chester Arthur, and Woodrow Wilson all had such a model home.)

In the age of information, however, what matters more than a small Irish farm in County Antrim or Wexford (where the Kennedys lived) is the illusion that the person running for office is a first-class writer or towering intellect, capable of handling the issues of State as if a speed-reader or a person akin to John Buchan’s Mr. Memory in The Thirty-Nine Steps.

Ghostly Political Matters

To prove intellectual prowess, American political candidates will go to Santos lengths of fabrication to publish books or speeches that show off their capabilities at what George on his CV calls “Strategies and goals”.

A university professor by trade and inclination, Woodrow Wilson wrote a number of books, many of them hammered out on a small portable typewriter that he carried with him and set up in the White House.

Wilson also wrote by himself the Fourteen Points, to dictate the peace after World War I, although the French prime minister at Versailles in 1919, Georges Clemenceau, sniffed at their wordiness: “God only needed ten.”

After Wilson, Warren Harding was the first president to employ a full-time speechwriter, although to be fair to Harding, he wrote his own love letters to his mistresses, including many to Nan Britton, the mother of his illegitimate daughter.

With so many speech writers on political payrolls, it only was a matter of time before they began cranking out campaign biographies and policy tracts before elections.

Before becoming president in 1961, John F. Kennedy published two best-sellers, Why England Slept and Profiles in Courage, both of which enjoyed the invisible hands of collaborators.

The famous New York Times columnist Arthur Krock polished JFK’s college thesis about British appeasement, and in the mid-1950s a group of Kennedy-paid ghost writers wrote up the courageous profiles, for which JFK (more the producer and editor-in-chief) won the Pulitzer Prize.

Likewise, the Clintons’ many memoirs had the hands of ghost-writers all over them, including Hillary’s Dear Socks, Dear Buddy: Kids’ Letters to the First Pets, a children’s book about her love of animals, even though when the Clintons bolted from the White House (with all that china stuffed into their moving boxes) they made loyal secretary Betty Currie take Socks.

Obama’s Dreams of My Fortune

Barack Obama owes his early political fame, and perhaps his presidency and hundred-million-dollar fortune, to his claim of sole authorship of two books, Dreams From My Father and The Audacity of Hope, even though the sentence structure of the books suggests two different authors, and neither of the early books has the same cadence and pacing of his labored 769-page presidential memoir, A Promised Land. (Abraham didn’t subdivide his to Netflix.)

Would anyone have voted for Obama if his CV had boasted that he was a “book and cable TV packager”? It was more fun to believe that he was the second-coming of Richard Wright or Malcolm X, with the political skills of Abraham Lincoln—that is until he devoted his presidency to playing golf on Martha’s Vineyard and hanging around with celebrities such as George Clooney.

For some reason when it comes to the charge of plagiarism (“the practice of taking someone else’s work or ideas and passing them off as one’s own”), the political class gets a hall pass, and frontmen (think of George W. Bush) can be shown to the world as speaking or writing complete sentences.

According to one account I read, Obama traveled with four speech writers and twelve teleprompters, which may explain much of his eloquence and the spontaneous wit of a talk-show host.

Round Up the Usual Candidates

In the spirit of Casablanca’s Captain Louis Renault, the Santos press gaggle is “shocked…shocked” to find that CV fabrication is going on in Washington, but lost to the commentariat is that if F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Jay Gatsby were still with us, the member of Congress for West Egg would be none other than the Hon. George Santos, of New York’s Third Congressional District.

In many ways it’s a shame that George never got to represent Gatsby in Congress, as the two men share much in common—right down to their invented fortunes and college degrees.

According to his own mythology, Gatsby went to Oxford (which in the novel comes out as “Oggsford”), although the closest he got to those ivory towers was passing through town with the army during World War I.

Gatsby’s financial disclosures went something like this dialogue from the Fitzgerald novel:

‘I thought you inherited your money.’

‘I did, old sport,’ he said automatically, ‘but I lost most of it in the big panic – the panic of the war.’

I think he hardly knew what he was saying, for when I asked him what business he was in he answered, ‘That’s my affair,’ before he realized that it wasn’t the appropriate reply.

‘Oh, I’ve been in several things,’ he corrected himself. ‘I was in the drug business and then I was in the oil business. But I’m not in either one now.’

Gatsby, in fact, had grown up on a small farm in North Dakota.

The Great Santos

Like Anthony Devolder (aka George Santos), James Gatz changed his name to Jay Gatsby, and by most accounts earned his fortune (such as it was) through bootlegging and other financial slights-of-hand.

About Gatsby’s origins, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote:

The truth was that Jay Gatsby, of West Egg, Long Island, sprang from his Platonic conception of himself. He was a son of God—a phrase which, if it means anything, means just that—and he must be about His Father’s business, the service of a vast, vulgar, and meretricious beauty.

He could well have written the same about Donald Trump, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, or, need I say, George Santos.

Gatsby re-invented himself to bolster his claim for Daisy’s love, while Santos did the same to be Somebody—to be a member of Congress and have some money. It seems both men were dreaming of the same green light at the end of the same dock on East Egg, Long Island. Fitzgerald wrote: “Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter – to-morrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther…” And both men were brought down chasing the American dream in the dark fields of the republic.

Matthew Stevenson is the author of many books, including Reading the Rails, Appalachia Spring, andThe Revolution as a Dinner Party, about China throughout its turbulent twentieth century. His most recent books are Biking with Bismarck and Our Man in Iran. Out now: Donald Trump’s Circus Maximus and Joe Biden’s Excellent Adventure, about the 2016 and 2020 elections.