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Dinner crashers walked all over social code

By crashing a White House state dinner, Michaele and Tareq Salahi trampled countless protocols of official Washington.
/ Source: The New York Times

So far, the journey of Michaele and Tareq Salahi from unknown arrivistes to notorious party crashers has focused on the apparent slipups of the Secret Service and the White House social secretary. But to fully grasp the ongoing conniption inspired by the episode, you need to understand that when Ms. Salahi strutted onto the South Lawn in that bright red lehenga, she and her husband breached far more than a secure perimeter.

They also trampled countless protocols that are the social, business and networking bedrock of official Washington. Essentially, the couple used the mixed martial arts approach to upward mobility in a town that still cherishes the Marquess of Queensberry rules. And it looks like the town will be spluttering about it for quite some time.

“Washington is a small ‘c’ conservative kind of society, in which people are aware of the traditions and boundaries of appropriate behavior,” said Wayne Berman, a Republican lobbyist. “It’s a city about rules, about conventions and if there’s no keg at the party, it doesn’t get crashed.”

Of course, if the Salahis had slipped past the bouncers at, say, P. Diddy’s birthday bash and then posted the evidence online, the feat would never have been noticed. But a magnetometer is not simply a velvet rope that beeps, and just because Washington has long been called Hollywood for ugly people doesn’t mean that what works in Hollywood — or New York, or anywhere else, for that matter — will work in Washington.

Any number of social strategies that succeed elsewhere will fail catastrophically here. Like feigned closeness. In Hollywood, it’s understood that when an agent says, “Tom is looking to take his career in a new direction,” the agent might never have met Tom Cruise, let alone know him well enough to call him by his first name. In Washington, there are legions of people who don’t even use the first or last name of the people who employ them.

“When I worked for Al Gore, I didn’t call him ‘Al’ or even ‘Mr. Gore,’ ” says Chris Lehane, a former spokesman for the ex-vice president. “He was Mr. Vice President. Even now I call him Mr. Vice President. There’s an element of decorum and formality in Washington, that I think stems from the fact that these are elected officials. And I think the Salahi incident rattled that sense of decorum.”

'No snap decisions'
When Ms. Salahi sidled up to Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., she was faking a friendship she didn’t have. She was also cutting ahead of thousands of people who spend years trying to win entry into gatherings of Washington’s elite.

“At most parties in New York or Los Angeles, a bouncer will make a snap decision about whether to let you in depending on your looks or some shtick that that sets you apart,” says Juleanna Glover, a Washington hostess and a founder of the Ashcroft Group, a legal and consulting firm. “In Washington, there are no snap decisions. It’s a lifetime of wise decisions that make it so that you receive a state dinner invitation.”

At bottom, Washington’s social economy is based on a currency all its own: power and the proximity to power. Unlike the currency of Manhattan (money) and the currency of Los Angeles (celebrity and or the ability to green light a project), the legal tender of the capital has more impact when displayed with a minimum of ostentation.

Consider the power wall, that collection of office photos of the subject in a chummy embrace with a president, a prime minister or some other V.I.P. A lot of power walls emphasize quantity, but the true influence maestros in the city understand that the smaller your power wall, the more power it conveys.

James Healey, a former administrative aide to Dan Rostenkowski, who for a time was the House Ways and Means Committee chairman, has just two photos in his office at Prime Policy Group, a lobbying firm. One is a shot of his former boss, emblazoned with the words, “To Jim, who started the engine and made the wheels turn.” The other shows Mr. Healey and Tip O’Neill, a former speaker of the House. It reads, “We had some really good times, didn’t we?”.

Mr. Healey said, “It shows I’ve got some history here.”

Unwritten rules
When the Salahis put their collection of digital snaps of the state dinner on Facebook, they flouted all the unwritten rules of power-wall etiquette. (Including a new one that nobody had thought to mention: Don’t put your power wall on Facebook.) As an enhancer of prestige, these photographic menageries always target a certain audience — constituents in the case of politicians, potential clients in the case of lobbyists. It tells those audiences, “I know how to get things done.”

But by putting their photos online, the Salahis weren’t taking aim at anyone, unless you consider the entire planet their target audience.

Equally offensive to local sensibilities, by draping herself on local luminaries, Ms. Salahi turned the city’s eminences into red-carpet, flash-bulb fodder. That’s different from the traditional grip-and-grin line at White House holiday parties, a formal ritual overseen by staff members and memorialized by an official photographer.

“Washington has its own version of a celebrity-driven culture, but these people are unattractive and lack charisma so what makes them celebrities is their substance,” says Eli Attie, a former White House speech writer in the Clinton administration and now a writer and producer for “House,” the Fox television show. “If you drain that from the interaction, it doesn’t have a point any more. You just have a photo of you and the vice president, and anyone willing to give $500 to the Democratic party and wait three hours on a tarmac in Kansas City can have that.”

The Salahis are also eliciting gasps in Washington by embracing fame with unambivalent gusto. That’s pure Los Angeles, a place where there is very little downside to showing up at a party, or on any blog or gossip page. In Hollywood, famous people gravitate toward each other simply because they hope that by huddling up, their odds of being photographed multiply. In Washington, notoriety can be hazardous to your career and there are dozens of wise men and aides de camp with reputations built, in part, on their near invisibility.

In short, the Salahis are the kind of spectacle that Washington is ill equipped to appreciate, other than as a tale of comeuppance.

It doesn’t seem to matter that the couple were never a threat. Nor does it seem to matter that security at the next state dinner will obviously be so tight that anyone who receives an invitation ought to leave the moment it arrives in the mail, because they’re going to have their IDs checked and retinas scanned for a good long time.

Nor does it matter that the Salahis are now struggling with a fate so rich with irony it seems like something O. Henry scripted: A couple besotted with fame and media attention finally wins both, but by doing so lands in so much trouble that when every TV show in the country begs them to come on the air and blab, they have to say no.

O.K., they accept one, the “Today” show. But that’s it. To every other invitation — yes, authentic invitations — they must decline.

Seriously, Washington, think about how much that has to hurt the Salahis. Now, is that not punishment enough?

This story, "," originally appeared in The New York Times.