From West Egg to the West Wing: Why Michaele and Tareq Salahi Are No Jay Gatsby
Editor in Chief
Many of my favorite works of fiction feature pre-reality-TV posers and social climbers very much in line with (purported!) White House gate-crashers Michaele and Tareq Salahi, who, after bluffing their way into a state dinner last week, intend to sell the details of their high-pro security breach to the highest bidder. Jane Austen is lousy with characters who would have been perfect for Bravo; if you think Washington is transactional, maybe it's time to revisit Bath. Or Barchester, where not all of Trollope's Victorians on the make are beyond redemption.
On this side of the pond, even the most complicated strivers tend to die before the last page: Edith Wharton's Lily Bart exhausts herself on the country weekend party circuit of her day ("House of Mirth" was published in 1905) yet is burdened with scruples that, along with anti-Semitism, doom her efforts to marry her way out of her reduced circumstances. (She overdoses in a rented room, slipping away just as the love of her life is getting it together to show up.)
Of course, the Great American How-To for self-inventors is F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby," which is to the social grifter what "Anna Karenina" is to the adulteress. James Gatz is a farm-kid nobody from nowhere who re-christens himself Jay Gatsby and throws the kind of parties the Salahis would have been welcome to crash: "I believe that on the first night I went to Gatsby's house I was one of the few guests who had actually been invited,'' the narrator tells us.
Gatsby's past has been nipped and tucked beyond recognition, and not only to get The Girl. Though he's survived WWI, he doesn't make it out of the novel alive, either -- and winds up unmourned even by the woman for whom he redecorated his universe. (Which is all the more tragic because unlike contemporary connivers of the balloon boy ilk, Gatsby was authentic in ways that mattered: He really did distinguish himself in the Great War, and perhaps had earned his makeover. And though nobody he knows believes it, he really did go to Oxford.)
Our own determined heroine, Michaele Salahi, who so desperately wanted to become one of Bravo's "The Real Housewives of D.C.," similarly seems to have invented all those stories about being a former supermodel, according to The Washington Post. So she and her husband are both familiar and fascinating -- to me, anyway: Is pretending to be a former Redskins cheerleader -- and even attending rah-rah reunions where you know no one -- the female equivalent of guys who never saw a day of service but brag about their war records?
Wasn't it torture, clinking glasses with people who knew she was an interloper, and fending off questions like, "I'm sorry, but what years were you on the team again?" (Or is an event like that a kind of professional development day for the upwardly mobile? Do con men and women get nervous, too? And is that part of the thrill?)
It's the backdrop of President Obama's planned Tuesday announcement that we're sending tens of thousands more soldiers into Afghanistan, however, that makes this narrative so much more serious than the reality-TV genre (or, though it pains me to say this, its 19th- and early 20th-century forerunners in social criticism) can really accommodate.
I mean, if a blonde in a sari can tweet her way past the palace guards, then what have the last eight years been about? We've closed off traffic on Pennsylvania Avenue, spent billions of dollars and thousands of American lives in two wars to keep us safe from terrorists . . . and a "Real Housewives" refugee from small claims court strolls right up to the president and exercises her God-given right to party? That's a great story, yes, but one that's genuinely terrifying, and humiliating not only to them.
And now that the Salahis are trying to sell the details of how they made a mockery of the Secret Service, it's well past time for the police to appear; the narratives they've adhered to so faithfully always end that way.