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Faking it isn't making it

We may like the gumption of the White House dinner crashers and the idea that social barriers can be broken through. But when the vicarious thrill is gone, what's left to admire?

December 03, 2009|Meghan Daum

I once knew an acting teacher who encouraged her students to crash parties as a way of honing their improvisational skills. She reasoned that if you could convince people in real-life situations that you were someone else, doing so onstage or on film would be a piece of cake. Her favorite venue for pedagogical impostorship was weddings. This was in the late 1980s, long before the movie "Wedding Crashers" made the idea seem common enough to be a cliche.

I couldn't help but think about this acting teacher as I followed the story of Tareq and Michaele Salahi, the Virginia couple who "crashed" President Obama's first White House state dinner on Nov. 24. Despite not being on the guest list for the party honoring Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, the couple passed through several layers of security, shook the president's hand and posed for photos with such luminaries as Vice President Joe Biden and Rahm Emmanuel, which Michaele Salahi promptly posted to her Facebook page. The couple said later in a "Today" show interview that they had been invited to attend the dinner (we know for sure they've been invited to testify before Congress).

Not incidentally, the Salahis' preparations for the event were reportedly filmed by a camera crew, a detail related to the fact that Michaele Salahi is apparently in the running for the Bravo reality series "The Real Housewives of D.C." And although the "Today" show has a policy of not paying for interviews, an unnamed television executive was widely quoted as saying that the pair were seeking "bids" in the mid-six-figure range to tell their story.

Given that many Americans are recovering not only from Thanksgiving bloat but also from the empty media calories of last month's "balloon boy" reality-TV saga, the Salahi scandal smells distinctly like leftovers. Still, the public remains enthralled by this telegenic middle-aged couple. Like the vehicular form of crashing, event crashing stirs up plenty of rubbernecking.

Whether it's the nattily attired Salahis, the goofballery of the "Wedding Crashers" heroes or those Ivy League impostors we hear about every few years, there's something about showing up in places you don't belong that makes people slow down and stare. But unlike car crashes, which conjure thoughts like "Thank God that wasn't me," a party crash, for some, is almost aspirational. If those people could go to that event, we think to ourselves, anyone can! If that joker who didn't even take the SAT can wind up at Princeton, why can't I? If people like the Salahis can march up to the White House and have dinner, why am I wasting time baking ziti for the church potluck?

Such questions might be petty and gratuitous, but they're also quintessentially American. That's because they embrace the notion that social boundaries can be broken down. They reinforce the belief that, regardless of your origins or milieu, you can make it to the big time if you just have enough gumption.

In the first few days after the Salahis were caught, many observers seemed unsure where to come down on the love or loathe scale. "You inspire and sadden us in almost equal measure," a Nov. 25 post on Gawker read.

But now that we've learned that their chutzpah has more to do with getting on TV than any genuine desire to attend a White House state dinner (Michaele wore a sari, but what are the chances she could have picked Singh out of a lineup?), the degree to which their stunt can symbolize some kind of populist notion of the little people putting one over on the elites is questionable. That's because the Salahis, despite lacking the clout to score an official invitation, are hardly "little people." They circulate among the moneyed, jodhpur-wearing classes of northern Virginia, and the "reality" show she's trying out for traffics in not-exactly-real lives.

And that's the problem with trying to fit party crashers into some kind of Ayn Randian model of ego-driven, free-market, up-by-your-bootstraps ingenuity. Sure, they offer a vicarious thrill -- the fleeting excitement that comes from deciding that the whole world really is a stage, we're all just players, and we might as well get to eat expensive caviar.

But ultimately, crashing is less about challenging the status quo than it is about fitting into it and appeasing it. It's not an act of rebellion, but the very opposite: It's about passing. The Salahis weren't clever infiltrators or populist revolutionaries. They had already started up the ladder, and they had the resources to fake their way up one more notch.

Until they started bragging on Facebook, they even proved they could act the part. But that's hardly the same as having an invitation in hand, let alone the guts to drop the act and storm the barricades.

mdaum@latimescolumnists.com

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