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Social climbing with a twist
White House gate-crashers in a long tradition

By Anne Applebaum
Monday, November 30, 2009

Social climbing is an ancient art, one as old as society itself. The character of the high-society impostor -- the fake aristocrat, the soi-disant marquis, the "professor" with no degree -- has been known in every era, too. Both social climbers and charlatans have been described over and over in fiction. Think of the "King" and the "Duke" who swindle Huckleberry Finn, or of Madame Verdurin, who claws her way upward throughout the course of Marcel Proust's "Remembrance of Lost Time" -- or of the Melanie Griffith character in "Working Girl."

Over the centuries, some societies have been more susceptible to these sorts of swindles than others. Catherine the Great's Russia, for example, was positively swarming with phony English duchesses and Italian princes: Imperial St. Petersburg was aspirational enough to want the company of "real" European aristocrats but far away enough from London or Naples to make it difficult to check their pedigrees. One also thinks of Edith Wharton's New York, for similar reasons: Her characters are precisely the sort who would fall into a m├ęsalliance with a dodgy Polish aristocrat, just off the boat, who invariably turns out not to be what he seems.

To that notable group of societies we can now add 21st-century Washington. Like 18th-century Russia, it is a world of neophytes, a society whose members have only recently "made it" into an elite magic circle and who don't necessarily know the other members all that well. Like 19th-century New York, it is also a world where appearances matter: You get invited to the event -- whether the White House Hanukkah party or the state dinner -- not just because of who you are but because of what you represent, which costume you wear, which ethnic group you come from.

Above all, it is a world that seems to offer wealth and fame to those outsiders who manage to enter it. And it was in pursuit of both that Tareq and Michaele Salahi bamboozled their way into last week's White House dinner for the Indian prime minister. Just like all charlatans and swindlers over the centuries, they managed it by looking and acting the part. He appears as if he could be South Asian, which seemed right; he also wore black tie and what looks, in the photographs, like a state decoration or medal. She is a striking, professionally coiffed blonde and wore a sari -- a glamorous, red, expensive sari. Having managed to get previous meetings with Prince Charles and Oprah Winfrey (Michaele even finagled her way into Redskinettes alumni parties), they knew how to behave around the contemporary aristocracy: Simply act as if you belong, don't stare too hard at the celebrities, don't eat or drink too much, and do engage your neighbors in light chit-chat about the Kashmir conflict and the Indian gross domestic product. Since hardly anyone knows anyone else at this kind of party, you can get away with it.

But there are differences between the Salahis and, say, Count Alessandro di Cagliostro, a self-described "Spanish aristocrat" who set himself up as a glamorous "faith healer" in 1770s St. Petersburg, made his living by borrowing money from gullible courtiers (and possibly by renting out his wife, the "Princess di Santa Croce," to Prince Potemkin).

The Salahis are hoping to cash in faster -- a lot faster. It has been less than a week since they crashed the president's party, and already they are demanding six figures for the exclusive television appearance in which they will either declare themselves to be be offended, on the grounds that they "thought" they were invited to the White House -- or else will boast of having pulled off the social-climbing coup of the century.

They also have a lot more help than did the swindlers of yesteryear. Michaele had a television crew film her preparations for the party at a Georgetown beauty salon, so there is footage ready for whoever has the money to pay. A publicist has been booked and is prepared to negotiate. Plenty of "legitimate" news outlets are ready to play: According to The Post, a CBS reporter has already slipped a note under their door, offering an interview with Katie Couric. Next will come the book contract, the movie rights and -- who knows? -- maybe the television talk show. I can just see it: "Famous for Being Famous: At Home With the Salahis."

Unless, of course, they meet the same fate as their many predecessors. The Spanish Count Cagliostro was eventually expelled from St. Petersburg, after the empress learned that he was neither Spanish nor a count. The "King" and "Duke" in "Huckleberry Finn" were tarred, feathered and ridden out of town on a rail.

A century ago, the Salahis, too, would be shamed, embarrassed and finally banished from the elite world that they had contrived to enter. Even now, they ought to expect to be under arrest, for lying to the Secret Service, if nothing else -- unless the rules of polite society have changed so much that there are no longer any rules at all.

applebaumletters@washpost.com

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