On this week’s episode of Stay Tuned in Brief, “Lies, Damn Lies, and George Santos,” Preet talked about the staggering falsehoods of former Representative George Santos with Mark Chiusano, the author of the Santos biography The Fabulist. Chiusano invoked the historical precedent of Douglas R. Stringfellow, a 1950s congressman who faked his combat record in World War II. In 1996, another fibbing politician, Oregon Representative Wes Cooley, faced a familiar firestorm after his dishonesty about his biography came to light.
After Republican Presidential candidate Bob Dole won nine primaries on Junior Tuesday, March 5th, 1996, Oklahoma Representative and campaign booster J.C. Watts listed the names of the Congresspeople most responsible for Dole’s victory. He paused briefly before mentioning the name of Wes Cooley:
Mr. Hard Charger from the state of Oregon, Wes Cooley.
Wes Cooley had been building toward the shoutout for many years. Cooley was a former Orange County pharmaceutical industry executive who moved to Oregon in the 1980s, where he started a vitamin sales business, became a rancher, and joined the State Senate. He was 62 when he was swept into national office in 1994, a fierce adherent to Newt Gingrich’s conservative insurgency that saw the GOP take both Houses of Congress.
Cooley had a couple of lying flaps in 1992 during his State Senate race. He stated that he had been a member of the academic honors fraternity Phi Beta Kappa while at El Camino Community College in Torrance, California. He was actually a member of the California junior college rough equivalent, Alpha Gamma Sigma. Cooley issued an apology, arguing he simply got his Greek mixed up. He also supposedly moved a trailer into the district where he ran for office as a means of establishing residence and exaggerated his familiarity with the area.
Despite the unsavory background, Cooley hit the ground running when he got to Washington in January 1995. He tried to shore up Oregon’s faltering timber industry and worked with New Mexico Republican Senator Pete Domenici to oppose the Clinton administration’s attempts to dramatically hike grazing fees for cattle farmers. He was passionately opposed to many environmental regulations, at one point comparing agents from the Federal Fish and Wildlife Service to the Gestapo.
And beyond his legislative crusades, Cooley’s vocal advocacy for Gingrich’s agenda was making a legitimate difference in the 1996 election lead-up.
Yet less than a month after the Watts acknowledgment amid Dole’s triumphs, Cooley was plunging into a world of consequences for a Santos-esque web of lies he had aggressively woven.
In late March 1996, the Medford Mail Tribune reported that Cooley had lied in official state voter pamphlets during his successful 1994 campaign. Cooley had claimed that he served in combat in the Army Special Forces during the Korean War.
Cooley had repeated the claims once in Congress, discussing his secret demolition work in North Korea during the unveiling of the Korean War Memorial in July 1995.
Military records placed the end of Cooley’s basic training in mid-August 1953, a month after the War ended.
The papers soon followed up with further claims of Cooley dishonesty, alleging that he had also concealed his romantic involvement and marriage to his wife from the mid-1980s – when the couple were supposedly married in Mexico – until 1993, so that she could continue to receive unmarried widow benefits stemming from the death of her first husband in a 1965 Marines fighter jet crash. The accusations amounted to fraud.
Cooley vociferously denied the charges. He claimed that records from his military service had gone up in flames in a 1973 warehouse fire and that he had simply been protecting his wife by honoring her wishes about keeping their union private.
The Congressman, however, was rattled. His compromised state became clear in early April, after the political magazine Roll Call published a satirical April Fool’s Day article “reporting” that disgraced former Democratic House Speaker Jim Wright, who had resigned in 1989 after accepting an improper gift from a Fort Worth developer, would be returning to helm a new congressional ethics office.
Not realizing the tongue-in-cheek nature of the “news,” Cooley angrily referenced the Wright development during a speech before the Northwest Forestry Association. When Rose Ellen O’Connor, a journalist with the Portland Oregonian who was six months pregnant, attempted to ask Cooley about the flub, he allegedly responded:
The only thing between you and me is jail…The only thing that is keeping you from getting your nose busted is that you’re a lady.
Cooley issued an apology the following day, blaming the accusations for his outburst:
For the last several weeks, I have been attacked by relentless assaults on my character, my record of military service, and, frankly, on my duties as a Congressman. All of the scurrilous attacks have been launched by my opponents and repeated by news outlets in my district…As a result of this frustration, I inadvertently lost my temper at Rose Ellen O’Connor.
He also insisted that he had suggested O’Connor should be “whipped,” not punched.
It was an April Fool’s joke, and everyone knew it but Wes. It was just classic Wes.
As 1996 progressed, however, the rash of allegations against Cooley snowballed. In early May, Cooley’s first wife, Beverly Charbonneau, told the Oregonian that her ex-husband had constantly lied during their twenty years together. He had told people at parties that he was part of a clandestine agency that could “make things happen to people.” He claimed to have killed people with piano wire. And he had allegedly lied under oath in California in the late 1970s about having Master’s Degrees.
“Lying is his way of life,” Charbonneau later told the Los Angeles Times. “He either lies or exaggerates to the point where I never knew what was up.”
And concurrent reports surfaced that Cooley had claimed a ranch hand, Richard Scot Jensen, as a dependent and had not paid him for eight years of work. Cooley claimed he viewed Jensen as a son, but the jilted worker said he expected some deferred compensation.
Cooley got only 45% of the vote during the GOP primary in his district in mid-May, despite running unopposed (The majority of voters left their ballots blank or offered write-in candidates). Amid the tumult, Cooley held a press conference in Medford on May 28th, 1996. The full event is available on C-SPAN.
Cooley rebuffed specific questions about Korea, repeated that he was honoring his wife’s wishes by keeping the marriage unofficial and on the down-low, declared that he would still run for re-election in the Fall, and zeroed in on the media as the real problem.
Amid repeated wavings of a prop issue of the tabloid National Enquirer designed to illustrate the press’s sensationalistic nature, Cooley castigated the assembled press at the conference:
This is a character assassination. This is being done by the liberal media and a few people in Washington D.C. I’ve rubbed the wrong way.
Cooley argued that any member of the press would be revealed to be similarly imperfect:
The media is spending an awful lot of money because they are scrubbing me to the bone. And I wonder whether anyone in this room could stand up to the same kind of scrutiny if they were in this position.
Once Cooley stopped his very lengthy monologue around 27 minutes into the conference, Craig Harris, a journalist from the Salem, Oregon Statesman Journal, asked why Cooley’s predecessor, the retired GOP Representative Bob Smith, had avoided Cooley’s situation:
Why do you think the media is so much after you when your voting record is so similar to your predecessor’s and it didn’t seem he had the kind of problems that you’re having?
Cooley replied, in effect, that he – unlike Smith – was not a career politician:
Well, I think my predecessor was a very, very fine gentleman, and very, very good at this. He’d been at this, you know, for 32 years. I’m doing this later in life after being in the real world. I’m probably not as polished and as clever as he is, and I’ve made some enemies. I’ve made some very, very strong enemies.
When the press asked Cooley to clarify who exactly his enemies were, he zoomed way out, accusing basically anyone who was not a conservative Republican as a potential orchestrator of his downfall:
Anybody who believes in Big Government. Anybody who believes in punitive laws that prohibit you from being the best you can believe in. Anybody who believes that we should raise your taxes. Anybody who believes that we do not need a balanced environment — to where we can protect the environment but still provide jobs in this environmental community. Anybody who believes that everybody should be off of federal lands. I mean, I’ve made some pretty good enemies. AFL-CIO and people like this. I have not voted in support of some of their social programs. So I’ve made some pretty good-sized enemies.
Cooley’s blustery press conference did not do much to improve his popularity in his district. An early June poll of his District found that voters were backing his Democratic challenger by a margin of almost three-to-one, while his approval rating had dropped to 10%. In late July, Republican leadership formally turned against Cooley, when Speaker Gingrich wrote a letter to the retired (and still-popular) predecessor Bob Smith, entreating him to come back into politics to end the Cooley charade.
A week after Gingrich’s entreaty, on August 6th, 1996, Cooley announced that he would not seek re-election. Cooley offered his last major comments before the House on October 2nd, 1996 – a speech also available on C-SPAN.
Cooley, if possible, upped his attacks on the media:
The media today, other than talk radio, has an open blanket. They can say anything they want to about any individuals without ever any reprisal whatsoever. They have actually adopted a very good tactic by a very infamous individual, Joseph Goebbels. Hitler learned a long, long time ago that if you control the media, you control the minds and the thoughts of the people. And they did a very, very good job.
Yet even as he remained vindictive, Cooley – in a moment of warmth – acknowledged that perhaps he was not quite right for Congress, after all:
So in parting from Congress, I want to say basically I came here not as a politician, but I came here hopefully to learn something, to participate in the legislative process. I have done that. I have been here. I am sad to leave this year, but everything worked out probably best for everybody.
Two months later, just as he was leaving office in December 1996, an Oregon Grand Jury indicted Cooley after the Sergeant Major that he claimed he served under in Korea testified that Cooley had not gone overseas. He was found guilty and sentenced to two years probation in March 1997.
Cooley’s impactful lies persisted. In 2012, he was sentenced, at 80, to a year in prison after convincing investors to buy unregistered stock in Bidbay.com, a shopping site Cooley erroneously claimed was being acquired by eBay. He passed away in 2015.
Santos has shared Cooley’s self-destructive inability to stop lying, and he – like Cooley upon his resignation – faces a long legal road ahead as a result. Both politicians, too, in their indignation and shock at the charges levied against them, perhaps serve as some bizarre indicators of the state of a GOP – and a political system at large – that has given in to a certain flamboyant dysfunction.
For more on Cooley’s worldview and style of communication, check out his very retro-looking page on On the Issues.
And head to my Twitter account for supplemental archival threads on each Time Machine piece: @DavidKurlander.
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