George Santos Is a Piker Next to the Late Rep. Doug Stringfellow

For the past week, New York’s George Santos has received more press attention than any Republican U.S. Representative other than perhaps newly minted Speaker Kevin McCarthy.

Elected in a major upset in New York’s Democrat-leaning 3rd District (Nassau County-Queens), Santos has since been exposed as having completely confabulated almost his entire life: His college degree, past employment, net worth, and even a foundation he claimed to help abused dogs were all proven fictional. 

With investigations into possible criminal activity involving the financing of his campaign recently launched by both the House Ethics Committee and the Nassau County District Attorney’s office, Santos’ fate is uncertain.  But he is being dubbed in the press the most successful con artist since Frank Abagnale — real-life hero of the movie “Catch Me If You Can,” who posed as a doctor, lawyer, and airline pilot. Santos is also being called the biggest fabulist ever to go to Congress.

But while the Abagnale analogy is a fair one, historians and political junkies would say that Santos is a piker compared to another Republican who not only made it to Congress but became a national figure for two years — all on the basis of a heroic war record that was totally invented.

Describing to Newsmax in 2009 the exposure of the ersatz life of Rep. Doug Stringfellow, R-Utah in 1954, the late Sen. Bob Bennett, R.-Utah said: “It was as if finding out [the late Arizona Sen.] John McCain was never a prisoner-of-war in Vietnam.”  Bennett’s senator-father Wallace was a key figure in getting Stringfellow to finally tell the truth about his background.

Emerging from World War II with a pronounced limp after convalescing in a U.S. Army hospital, the young Stringfellow and his wife Lee did a mission abroad for the Mormon Church.  Returning to Ogden, Utah, Doug got a job as a salesman and radio announcer for a local radio station and soon developed a smooth speaking style.  Frequently, he was asked to speak at Rotary or Kiwanis Clubs, veterans’ meetings, and events related to his church. Before long, he was inundated with requests to speak.

It was easy to understand how Stringfellow’s story frequently moved audiences to tears.  As an agent of the undercover OSS (Office of Strategic Services), the veteran said, he was given a top-secret assignment to go behind enemy lines in Germany and capture physicist Dr. Otto Hahn.  Hahn’s capture, Stringfellow explained, would keep the Nazis from developing the atomic bomb. Soon, he had selected a team of 28 diverse agents, including, he recalled, a former Catholic altar boy from Brooklyn who once said to him: “Mormon, pray for me.”

But the Brooklyn boy and the rest of the unit were killed under enemy fire, went Stringfellow’s narrative.  Stringfellow himself was captured, he said,  and sent to the feared Belsen Prison Camp, where torture awaited him.  Then, he told audiences, a team of French partisans broke him out of prison and spirited him to the part of France under Allied control.  In going through a mine field, however, an explosion occurred that, he pointed out, injured him enough to require the use of a walker or cane.

While the mission failed, Stringfellow told ever-larger crowds how it taught him love of and service to country.  His fellow Republicans sensed a potential star on the horizon and he was nominated to oppose Democratic Rep. Walter Granger.  Stringfellow, then 30, dispatched the seemingly unbeatable six-termer Granger by a landslide. 

Like freshman Rep. McCain 30 years later, Rep. Stringfellow was immediately sought out by fellow Republicans as a campaigner and encouraged to speak of his wartime heroism.  He addressed the American Legion and wrote the introduction to the handbook for Mormon Boy Scouts.  In June of 1954, the popular TV series Suspense ran a show based on the congressman’s capture and escape.  The script was written by Stringfellow himself and featured future Hawaii Five-O star Jack Lord as the eponymous hero “String.”

He was even featured on TV’s popular This Is Your Life, with host Ralph Edwards inviting old Army buddies of Stringfellow’s on air and reading a letter from President Dwight Eisenhower.

All of this came to a crashing end in October of 1954.  Long before Google or the Internet, the Army Times ran an article carefully pointing out discrepancies in versions of Stringfellow’s mission.  In one speech, for example, he claimed he was given his secret orders in the White House by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, but in another, the congressman claimed he was given his mission by OSS head William Donovan.  The size and names of his team also varied, the Times concluded.

Stringfellow threatened legal action against the Army Times and, on October 15, 1954, called on President Eisenhower to declassify the top-secret records of his wartime service.  But the suit was never filed and the situation changed rapidly.  A day later, after consultation with Utah’s Republican Sens. Ralph Watkins and Wallace Bennett, Stringfellow took to the Mormon Church-owned KSL-TV station.  Fighting back tears, he said “I was the victim of a trap laid in part by my own glib tongue.”

After recovering from the injury that partially crippled him (by inadvertently walking through a mine field), he began being introduced as a war hero and did nothing to contradict inaccuracies of his wartime service.  The facts, Stringfellow told the people, were “I was never in the O.S.S., I was never on a behind-the-lines mission. I never captured Otto Hahn or any other German physicist.”

“I wish before my heavenly father that I might undo this wrong and I will spend the rest of my life trying to make amends,” he concluded, offering to resign from Congress but would continue to seek office “if that is the decision of my party.”  It wasn’t.  Republican State Chairman O.J. Wilkinson and reportedly Mormon Church President David O. McKay insisted that, despite 39 calls following his address that praised him, Stringfellow must go and be replaced on the ballot.  He did.  Fading into obscurity fast, he worked as a housepainter in Southern California and died in 1966 at age 44.

Whether George Santos’ congressional career ends in the manner of Doug Stringfellow’s remains to be seen.

John Gizzi is chief political columnist and White House correspondent for Newsmax. For more of his reports, Go Here Now.

 


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