Monday, November 30, 2009

Washington Social Diary

by Carol Joynt

When he visited Washington a few weeks ago, “Real Housewives of New York” star Simon van Kempen gave an insider’s view of reality TV and perhaps unwittingly forecast the saga of the notorious Salahis. He talked about the formula of the program, where cast members compete against each other to be outrageous in order to get more airtime in the final cut. Since New York and Washington are shooting right now, neither cast, he said, knows which franchise will get picked to air first in the New Year, but the more outrageous will have the muscle. The Washington show this week either raced out in front or crashed in a ditch.

Michaele Salahi poses with Vice President Joe Biden at the White House State Dinner.
The now well known facts are these: Washington area social aspirants Tareq and Michaele Salahi, with a Bravo TV camera crew in tow, showed up at the first Obama White House State Dinner and gained entry even though their names were not on the guest list. Their crew was turned away. Nonetheless, the pair got in, went through the receiving line, were photographed with the President and a slew of other notables, and departed before dinner was seated.

The city has not been this ablaze with speculation since Monica Lewinsky’s relationship with President Clinton hit the front page of The Washington Post in 1998. This latest sensation might have gone unreported had The Post’s Roxanne Roberts not been among the media watching arrivals at the White House. When she saw the Salahis she was immediately suspicious, checked the guest list, saw their names were not on it, and broke the news.

Saturday night at a casual buffet dinner at Juleanna Glover’s, her guests – all insiders of one stripe or another – had their own stories to tell. It seems the Salahis were notorious around town and masters of the grab and pose when a famous face was near. Polo and a family winery were their entrée. No one seemed to know Tareq’s exact nationality, though I was told he is American born with a Belgian mother and a father who is either Israeli, Palestinian or Syrian. He went to Randolph-Macon College and, according to one of Juleanna’s guests, “is actually a good polo player.” Michaele is “a local girl made good."
On Facebook, the Salahis describe their work as "Developing and delivering world class experiences that bring countries, communities and individuals together."
Back in the early autumn the names of Salahis first hit my radar. It was not in connection with power or society but the fact she was one of the very first “housewives” to be signed to the DC cast and that cameras were on her like glue. A network of hairdressers, stylists and event planners knew the couple and told me of their fierce ambition for fame. There’d be rolling of eyes as they called Michaele “perfect for the show,” “crazy,” and “always outrageous.” Tareq was a “schemer” who liked to promote his blond and lithe wife as a former “supermodel.” Sounded ideal to me, though I wondered how a couple who lived more than an hour outside the city – in rural Front Royal, Va. - could qualify for “Real Housewives of Washington.”

They hit my radar again in October when I got an email reporting they’d enacted a “decadent getaway” at the elegant and romantic Inn at Little Washington – cameras in tow – which involved a lavish fireside dinner at the restaurant’s kitchen table, a sexy overnight in a private cottage, and more than any of us would want to know about marital bliss. “Lots of Jimmy Choo shoes figured into the madness,” I was told. Bravo had the staff sign confidentiality agreements.

Clearly they forgot to do that at the White House.
From the Salahis Facebook page - Prince Charles and Tareq. The Salahis like to pose.
From her Facebook page, Michaele Talahi with her publicist, Mahogany Jones.
What does it mean when the news coverage of reality TV is more compelling than the potential program? It’s not a long stretch from the melodramatic coverage of Balloon Boy to the tawdry hijinks of Gatecrashergate. The only thing we don’t know is the Salahis version of events, which they reportedly want to spill in a TV interview for quite a large chunk of change. If they succeed, it’ll be a much better payday than “Housewives.” But will we care?

There’s a popular expression, “jumping the shark.” It dates to the once-popular sitcom,“Happy Days,” which starred Ron Howard and Henry Winkler. In its 5th season the show had an episode where Winkler jumps over a shark while on water skis. A couple of fans determined that was the beginning of the end. One of them, Jon Hein, explained, “jumping the shark” is “a defining moment when you know that your favorite television program has reached its peak… you know from now on it's all downhill." The legacy of the Salahis may be that they caused reality TV to jump the shark.

Desiree Rogers
They may have done the same to the White House career of Desiree Rogers. At the moment all the blame is on the Secret Service, and no question some of that is appropriate. But wait. Doesn’t the social buck stop with the Social Secretary? Shouldn’t she fall on the sword for this one?

“If there is ever a night to be on your game, a State Dinner is it. This is the Super Bowl for the social office.” These are the words of a man who worked more than 10 years as a presidential assistant in the West Wing, through two different (Republican) Administrations. He knows how it is supposed to work, regardless of the politics.

“It’s a State Dinner. A State Dinner! This is what it’s all about. This is the central role of the Social Secretary’s job.” He said a good social secretary has “lived” with the guest list for more than a month, has knowledge of each person, considering where they’ll sit at dinner. “The Social Secretary is supposed to be there at the door, greeting the guests.” He called it the first “official hello” after they clear security.

“You have to understand that at a State Dinner there is pressure on the Secret Service. Yes, they have a job to do, but there’s an unstated message that the guests are important, ‘don’t give these people crap.’” He said, “She needed to be at the door so when the names weren’t on the list the Secret Service could turn to her and get it resolved.” Rogers is reported to have attended the dinner as a guest and has admitted she was not at the door. It’s not clear whether anyone from the social office was at the door.

It’s virtually unheard of for a social secretary to not work the door, whether at the White House, an embassy, or a grand home. Maybe join the party later, but always be on point to welcome the guests and steer them toward the receiving line.
The Salahis Facebook engagement photo. From Michaele's Facebook page, where she promises to keep visitors "up to date on whats new, whats hot, whats not, which polo events, fashion, balls and galas are in, and what are out! Join me and lets start having some fun!"
Jose Canseco and Michaele Salahi.
I asked a veteran social expert for thoughts on the snafu and if Desiree Rogers job might be on the line. “There are procedures set up at the (White House) to prevent this, that were not followed.  (Secret Service) is taking the hit...not their role to check guest lists. Do I think Desiree will take the fall?  No. Too good a friend.”

What’s a friend for, though, if not to have your back, especially when you give the friend a plum job? Another social pro said, “People inside Washington, people who work at the White House, know where the fault is.”

At the Glover dinner one guest speculated the Salahis got in with the complicity of a rogue staffer in the social office. That seems farfetched. Where’s the win, especially in an office staffed with sincere Obama loyalists? Others thought it was a caper cooked up by Bravo. Risky, and would cause extreme distress in the lobbying office for the parent company, GE. Most felt it was simply old-fashioned American chutzpah amped up by a craving for fame.

President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama at the State Dinner in the North Portico of the White House. Walsh/AP.
All the Salahis ever had to do was produce the invitation. Case closed. No one, especially first timers, tosses out an invitation to a White House dinner. Many people get them framed. Michaele told a hairdresser she had hers in the car. Fine. Show us the invite! Inquiries with other “DC Housewives” cast members went nowhere. “Total lockdown,” said Mary Amons.

Simon van Kempen wrote the Salahis a letter: “Personally I think you two have done a lot of damage to the RH franchise, particularly when I was hopeful that the DC show could join the NY one as a cut above the rest. Now that you are presumably off the DC show, perhaps that wish will be realized.”

Whatever becomes of the Salahis they did achieve a kind of wrecked contemporary stardom; almost every last detail of their private lives unearthed and dished with relish. Maybe they’ll make some money, get a book deal. There’s talk of criminal charges, but why would anyone in the federal government want to keep this episode alive?

Bravo should get its house in order. “Simpson’s” star and social commentator Harry Shearer brooded about the dark side of reality TV, especially through the examples of Balloon Boy and the Salahis: “both families (are) obviously just this close to the line of offering to kill family members if only it would get them on a TV series.” 

Here’s what I like to imagine: President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama basking in the glory of a lovely first State Dinner, because it was. Subtract the Salahi foolishness, and they had a score. He looked handsome, she looked beautiful, the guest list was logical, and the toasts were elegant. State Dinners should be held in the State Dining Room rather than a tent, but that’s another matter, and the tent looked about as good as a tent can look.

So maybe this evening the girls will be doing their homework while Mom and Dad enjoy a cup of coffee after dinner. And maybe they’ll have a little laugh about the week that was, until the President pushes away from the table, saying, “Well, I have to get back to my Afghanistan speech.” Because, in truth, that’s where the world’s attention will turn tomorrow: to the important reality of war.
President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama stand at the North Portico of the White House. November 24, 2009. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza).
Carol is the host of The Q&A Cafe in Washington, D.C. Visit her at: