Washington Sketch: The crashing Salahis had other parties in mind

By Dana Milbank
Friday, December 4, 2009

Among party crashers, it must be considered gauche to attend a party to which you were actually invited.

We can infer this, because when Tareq and Michaele Salahi were asked to come before a House panel on Thursday to explain how they crashed President Obama's state dinner, they didn't accept the invitation. They didn't even give the courtesy of an RSVP to the Homeland Security Committee, which had gone to the trouble of printing up name cards and setting places for them at the witness table. As Emily Post says, "Being a 'no show' is unacceptable."

And the Salahis weren't the only ones with bad manners. White House social secretary Desiree Rogers, also invited, sent her regrets to the host, Chairman Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), but neglected to RSVP to the committee co-host, ranking Republican Peter King (N.Y.), who was offended. "Maybe you received an official notice from the White House; we certainly didn't," King told Thompson, calling Rogers's faux pas "an affront."

With all three of the guests of honor demonstrating such poor form, the seating chart for the event was limited to the one person who accepted the committee's invitation, Secret Service Director Mark Sullivan. As holiday parties go, Thompson's was decidedly B-list.

Instead of the Thibaut-Janisson Brut Obama served at the state dinner, the committee served Deer Park. Instead of Isaac Mizrahi, the fashions in the committee room had more of a T.J. Maxx look. The ranking GOP member's jacket was worn and pilling.

Still, there was a red-carpet arrival, although this one technically occurred on the white stone floor of the Cannon House Office Building. Dozens of cameramen and photographers trained their lenses on Sullivan as soon as he emerged from the elevator. Shutters clicked and questions were shouted. Sullivan did not pause to strike a pose. He hurried to the witness table, then sat with eyes fixed on his statement. Stage lights beamed down on him from four directions, and six TV cameras tracked his every grimace. Dena Graziano, a committee spokeswoman, played social secretary. "Did you RSVP?" she asked reporters as they arrived.

Before the hearing, King maintained that he didn't want to "make it a circus." But when you invite two aspiring reality television stars and the White House social secretary to testify at a congressional hearing on party crashing, you might as well call in the Ringling Bros. When Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Tex.) shows up with a poster of the female party crasher pawing Vice President Biden's chest, you might as well rename yourselves the Committee on Barnum & Bailey.

"What bothers me," declared Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-N.J.), "is that many people are looking at this hearing and thinking it's about some sensational incident."

Now where would they get that idea? Maybe from Chairman Thompson, who, after Sullivan's testimony, ordered aides to place the "Mr. Salahi" and "Mrs. Salahi" placards in front of two empty chairs. As photographers took shots of the seats, Thompson announced his intention to issue subpoenas to compel the crashers' attendance at his next party.

Certainly, Emily Post would say that subpoenas are impolite.

It's hard to say whose behavior constituted the greatest breach of etiquette. The party crashers? Rogers, for declining to testify on grounds that answering questions about party guests would violate the Constitution? Or Thompson, for insisting on "full accountability" but then blocking a subpoena of Rogers, a central player in the drama?

"This hearing is not about crashing a party at the White House," the chairman said as he kicked off the party-crasher hearing. "Neither is it about wannabe celebrities or reality television." Growing more dramatic with each sentence, Thompson asserted that "we are all fortunate that this diplomatic celebration did not become a night of horror."

Night of horror? To be sure, the Secret Service and/or Rogers goofed in admitting the uninvited socialites, but lapses occur all the time; the author of this column, an obvious security risk, was once cleared to join a presidential motorcade and fly on Air Force One with no screening of person or luggage. The party crashers, though, "went through every layer of security," as Sullivan pointed out, and didn't pose "a risk to the president."

But lawmakers refused to accept this. Rep. Yvette Clarke (D-N.Y.) spoke about the Ukrainian president's dioxin poisoning and suggested the Salahis might have done the same to Obama, saying "we need to be reassured that we closed every possible loop of harm or danger to our president." Clarke then complained that "the Salahis were able to get into the White House with such ease, when I was basically detained by Secret Service just trying to get into Invesco Stadium" for the Democratic convention. (Maybe she was talking about dioxin then, too?)

After the requisite denunciation of the Secret Service's lapse, many members followed up with fond reminiscences of White House parties past. "I think I've been to over 40 of them," said King, "whether it's Christmas parties or barbecues, an occasional state dinner."

"It's been under three presidents that I've been going to the White House," announced Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Calif.).

"We're all going Monday night with guests," added Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.).

Assuming Desiree Rogers puts their names on the list.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company