The Salahis attended a formal dinner at the White House last week. Mrs. Salahis was dressed in a formal sari appropriate for the occasion – the Prime Minister of India was the guest of honor that evening.
Mr. and Mrs. Salahis were able to shake hands with President Barack Obama and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh The event was a highlight for the couple. Not everyone gets invited to a White House dinner.
And therein lies the rub. The Salahis weren’t invited. They snuck in.
Without being on the guest list, the couple, got into the party. They were searched and passed through a metal detector and stopped at several check points and at every turn they were allowed to continue.
In the age of The Bourne Ultimatum and Fox’s 24, the metal detector test does not give us a sense of complete safety.
The New York Times published a unique and, frankly, bizarre article on the event. The reporting covers many disparate areas of American culture and politics.
Topics include the Secret Service, death threats against the president, and White House security as well as reality television. The article reports on the salaries of reality television “actors”, the balloon boy hoax, Facebook, and the recession. Ultimately the writer weighs in on the cultural lessons the internet has taught us.
Seeing these topics thrown together into one article gives me a sense of un-reality, yet the relationship between the reality television and the recession does not feel like a stretch. The cocktail of subjects is as American as pro wrestling and equally related to the show of surfaces that defines our media culture.
The evening network and cable news shows already conflate the article’s various topics into a single half-hour broadcast. The New York Times took that condensation one step further by combining the recession with reality television and presidential security into one single column article.
What is striking about the story then is not the combination of topics but the connection between high and low. President Obama is pictured shaking hands with a reality television couple – who have not yet even been selected for the show they are auditioning for – in a moment of uncomfortable collusion between high office and banal, exploitative entertainment.
The Salahis are currently auditioning for the show “Real Housewives of D.C.” and have not yet been officially selected for the show.
Mr. Obama has already been selected for his show. Who would have expected a cameo from two aspiring non-actors during a prime time White House dinner?
The reason that the image of the hand shake between Mrs. Salahis and the President is discomforting it that the President is not just a celebrity. He is the commander-and-chief of our armed services, making him the highest ranking officer of the Navy, the Marines, the Army and the Air Force. He is the big gun. He is the don.
You don’t just speak to the don because you want to. You wait outside in line and state your reasons for visiting. You are vetted. And if you are just a celebrity you wait for the photo day. If you are not a celebrity…are you supposed to shake hands with the man on top?
The New York Times article is a marvel, even more so than the story of the Salahis it relates. The subjects mentioned in the article, jammed together with no spaces in between, describe a nation in flux where the most formerly secure stations of class and rank have become fluid, where the technology that makes cable television possible to make cheaply and which brings us into communication with one another via text and image also serves to challenge us to maintain separation between ideas that once would have appeared in separate sections of the newspaper – politics, technology, entertainment, business.
What once seemed like natural borders between ideas of government and television now seem less like borders and more like invitations to innovate a new sensation…and put it on youtube.com.
Cooper, Helene & Stelter, Brian, “Crashers Met Obama; Secret Service Apologizes”, November 27, 2009: