Many people lie about their resume. Why George Santos’ case is different.

Does the rationale for a lie hold up when it comes to politicians, in particular, George Santos, the congressman-elect from New York who is facing scrutiny for fabricating much of his resume?

Rep. George Santos, R-N.Y., waits for the start of a session in the House chamber as the House meets for the fourth day to elect a speaker and convene the 118th Congress in Washington, Friday, Jan. 6, 2023. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

(RNS) — There are some lines of work in which lies are helpful, even necessary — spies, for instance, or, in a sense, actors or novelists.

Historians might be included in this group. After all, they are not able to witness the events they are writing about. They may need an access point, a way to imagine what happened in the past. Of Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Joseph Ellis, who lied about having served in combat in Vietnam, his fellow historian, Peter Charles Hoffer, wrote, “I believe the lies he told about himself and the way he told them changed the way he wrote history. They turned able craftsmanship into high art.”

Ellis, who had spent the Vietnam War years as a lecturer at West Point, taught a course on the era at Mount Holyoke College, where he was a professor of history and a dean. “The lies were effective tools,” Hoffer wrote. “The students valued the coursework more highly than they would have if he had not told them he had participated in the ’60s’ great events.”

Does Hoffer’s rationale hold up when it comes to politicians, in particular, George Santos, the congressman-elect from New York who is facing scrutiny for fabricating much of his resume? On Monday, a complaint filed with the Federal Election Commission alleges that the funds Santos said he contributed to his own campaign may have been illegally provided by “unknown individuals and corporations.”

When we vote for our elected representatives, we hope to elect a person with the capabilities and qualifications to carry out the duties we have chosen him or her to do. We want someone who can make policies and laws that we hope will be beneficial for a majority of constituents. We see as prerequisites good debating skills, a background in law, an ability to understand the figures in a budget to ensure our public dollars are well spent and the competency to assess the possible consequences of legislation.

But there is so much in the modern politician’s toolkit that we don’t necessarily think of as part of competent governance. The ability to raise money boils down to a kind of parlor game, or at least to throwing good parties for the right supporters. It doesn’t hurt if candidates can give a good speech and have telegenic charisma. They may not own the necessary skills as much as exude confidence. 

George Santos did not possess any of the multiple qualifications that he claimed. He had no college or advanced degree, never worked at Citigroup or Goldman Sachs. His lies, however, were not only aimed at creating the relevant experience. He used fictions to establish community, or even sympathy, with his prospective constituents, telling them that his grandparents had fled to Brazil because of the Holocaust — they were both Brazilian-born — or that his mother died after 9/11. (She did, in 2016, but it had nothing to do with the attacks.)

He told a story about being unable to graduate from a private high school — my high school, Horace Mann, in the Bronx — because his parents’ financial situation changed. In an email, Thomas Kelly, the current head of school at Horace Mann, told me, “While there is no policy in place regarding this matter, HM would never exit a student, let alone one allegedly four to six months shy of graduation, because of a family crisis, financial or otherwise. If necessary, we would write off the debt, as we have done so in the past, and begin fresh — the following academic year — with the appropriate financial support in place.”

If in the case of a liar like Joseph Ellis, “imagination enhances our professional abilities,” as Hoffer said, it could be that Santos was merely expanding his powers, imagining his way into the capabilities he needed to possess. Who’s to say but that the qualifications Santos exhibited — connecting with others, empathizing with those who lost loved ones in 9/11 and the Holocaust — aren’t useful in his new line of work? Ellis’ lies, Hoffer said, seem to have “made his life larger”; did Santos’ do the same?

Ethically, lying has been discouraged as far back as the Bible’s Book of Exodus, which says clearly, “Keep far from the matter of a lie.” But there is a practical side of the question, too. Every lie makes other lies more possible. The fabulism grows and grows until the teller has told the tale so frequently that he himself (and it does seem to be mostly a he, with Elizabeth Holmes of Theranos being a recent exception) begins to accept its veracity.

The Washington Post wrote recently of the case of U.S. Rep. Douglas Stringfellow, Utah, who was elected in 1952 and whose lies were revealed in 1954. There was a basis in reality for his lies: Stringfellow did serve in World War II and was crippled by a landmine. From there, however, his stories grew larger and more incredible until he had spun a tale of capturing a German nuclear physicist, thereby preventing Germany from developing its own bomb.

In his apology, Stringfellow stated, “I began to embellish my speeches with more picturesque and fanciful incidents. I fell into a trap, which in part had been laid by my own glib tongue.”

“In the words of psychiatrist Charles V. Ford,” wrote Charles Lane recently, con artists “often engage in self-defeating behavior that ultimately trips them up.”

Lying in the mode of Stringfellow or Santos is a refusal to confront reality — not when one’s back is to the wall, but repeatedly, every time the lie grows. Instead they tried to make reality conform to the fantasies and ideals one has. In someone involved in government, an inability to match oneself and one’s own situation to reality could be dangerous.

The fault for Santos’ misleading candidacy clearly lies with Santos himself, but there are questions for our political system as well. What’s surprising about Santos’ lies is not only that there were so many of them, but the ease with which anyone could have checked their underpinnings. Yet they weren’t publicly discussed before he was elected, outside of one Long Island paper, the North Shore Leader, which ran a piece on the bizarreness of his claims and refused to endorse him, according to The Washington Post, despite a record of preferring Republicans.

Did New York’s Republicans really want a gay, Brazilian, almost-graduate of Horace Mann, son of a 9/11 victim, Wall Street veteran, Jew-ish, mixed race, real estate-owning candidate so much that they overlooked all the obvious warning signs? Or did his ability to pay for his bid for office (while the source of his money is still unknown) blind them to his lack of true qualifications?

(Beth Kissileff is writing a novel about a historian who lies. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

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