From the very beginning, I’ve been following with fascination the story of how Michaele and Tareq Salahi managed to crash the Obamas’ first state dinner last Tuesday night for the Prime Minister of India.
I’m intrigued by how they managed this coup, because I know how thorough is the vetting of guests for White Houses State dinners —at least during the Reagan era and the Clinton era, when my husband Nick and I were privileged to attend state dinners for prime minister Brian Mulroney of Canada in March 1986 and for the President of Greece, Constantine Stephanopoulos, in May 1996. (That's us with the Reagans, above.)
The invitation, topped with a gold-eagle presidential seal, arrived more than a month before the event. Out of the envelope, addressed in calligraphy, came the invitation itself and a small card with a yellow imprint of the White House and the words ”Please present this card with identification at the East Entrance, the White House. Not transferable.”
Another card advised: ”Please respond at your earliest convenience giving date of birth and Social Security number.” This, of course, was so they could do a background check to rule out any dangerous or undesirable guests.
On the day of the Reagan event, we, in formal dress, rode in a limousine to the East Gate. (We were almost late because neither one of us could tie Nick’s bow tie—The concierge at the Madison Hotel provided a pre-tied bow tied just in time.)
A long line of limousines waited at the East Gate. As we inched forward, security men and women checked our photo identification against their lists of guests who had been cleared.
An early article on the Salahis reported that their limousine was turned away at this point (after holding up the line for a long time) and that the couple then drove to another gate where they eventually managed to convince someone to let them walk in, trailed by a cameraman and a make-up person.
I can hardly believe this is true. Surely the cameraman and the make-up person were not allowed inside the White House gates! But clearly the Salahis were—presumably thanks to some clever fast -talking on their part. I've read that they are now marketing to the press their first interview about their scam and hoping to get “well into six figures” for it.
I would NOT want to be the person who let them in. According to yesterday’s New York Post, “The red-faced agency had its internal office of professional responsibility launch a probe into how the Salahis got in. The office has been reviewing video-surveillance footage and interviewing every agent on duty at the White House state dinner for Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, sources said.
“The startlingly botched security has the potential to force out Sullivan as chief of the Secret Service, said a law-enforcement source with connections to Washington.”
When Nick and I went to the Reagan and Clinton dinners, they took place in the State Dining Room. The Reagans invited only 116 guests, compared to the 400 invited to the Obama state dinner. The Obama dinner last week was held in a tent on the South Lawn. But first the guests and the Salahis had to go into the White House, be announced, and –as the front-page photos showed on Saturday —they pressed the flesh with the President in the receiving line in the Blue Room.
At the Reagan and Clinton state dinners, we had to go through several check points before actually sitting down to dinner.
A military aide welcomed us at the door of the White House. We then walked through the ground floor corridor past the portraits of former First Ladies and another aide announced each person’s name (and title) to the press corps waiting the next room behind ropes. (Back in 1986, unaccompanied women were provided with an escort-- a military officer wearing his dress uniform.) After walking past the crowd of reporters, television crews and cameras, we climbed a staircase and were greeted by social aides who gave us our table-assignment cards.
Then we walked beneath the crystal chandeliers of the great Entrance Hall while the U.S. Marine Orchestra serenaded us. We entered the East Room where we were once again announced by name and title. There we drank and chatted until the President and First Lady and the guests of honor arrived and formed a reception line.
Social aides herded us in their direction, husbands first. The ambassador in charge of protocol stood at the head of the line, whispering each person’s name into the President’s ear. At the moment you are greeted by the president, a White House photographer takes your photograph, which is mailed to you sometime after the event —with the President’s good wishes scrawled on it. The White House photograph of the Salahis being greeted by Obama was quietly released to the press on Saturday, along with a statement from the director of the Secret Service, Mark Sullivan, saying that his agency was “deeply concerned and embarrassed” by the events.
In the photo Michaele, wearing a long red and gold sari, clutches Obama’s hand in both of hers while her husband beams.
At the Reagan and Clinton dinners, after passing through the reception line, the crowd filed into the State Dining Room, where round tables awaited with gold candlesticks, gold vermeil flatware and vermeil bowls filled with flowers. At the Obama dinner, the guests were directed out to tables under the tent on the South Lawn.
At this point, the Salahis reportedly slipped away. They knew there were no place cards with their names on the tables. (How they managed to get out without making themselves conspicuous is a good question.)
(The dinner which the Salahis did not taste was vegetarian except for an optional shrimp dish, because the Indian Prime Minister is a Sikh – meaning he doesn’t eat meat or drink alcohol. Was alcohol served at all at this state dinner? And how was that arranged without upsetting the observant Hindus and Muslims there?)
At the state dinners we attended, after toasts by the president and guest of honor, everyone moved to the another room for demitasse and after-dinner liqueurs, and then to the East Room where musical entertainment takes place. Then there was dancing, led off by the President and First Lady.
Eventually we’ll learn how the Salahis pulled off this trick that left the Secret Service in shambles and embarrassed the Obamas and their staff at their first State Dinner. Ronald Kessler, author of “In the President’s Secret Service” said that threats against the president have increased 400 per cent since he took office.
Luckily for everyone but the Secret Service, the Salahis did not intend to harm the president —they just wanted to get Mrs. Salahi on “The Real Housewives of Washington D.C.” And I’ll bet she does get on that show… if she manages to stay out of jail.
But for now I suggest that the lesson we’ve learned is that a good-looking blonde in a gorgeous red dress (or sari) can talk her way in just about anywhere.
After 40 years as a journalist, I turned 60 and decided to return to my first love--painting. I’ve exhibited watercolors and photographs in Massachusetts and have a slide show of paintings below. My photo book “The Secret Life of Greek Cats” can be purchased by clicking on the cover below.
I collect way too many things, but my great passion is antique photographs, from the earliest—daguerreotypes (circa 1840) up to 1900 (cabinet cards, tintypes.) I approach each one as a mystery to solve, and in unlocking their secrets have met some fascinating historic figures. For some of the stories, check the list of “The Story Behind the Photograph”.
My husband Nick and I live in Grafton, MA and recently celebrated our 41st anniversary. We have 3 children, now amazing adults. And on Aug. 26, 2011, we greeted our first grandchild, Amalía-- world’s cutest baby. But this blog isn’t about grandparenting (although photos of the grandkid sneak in). As it says up top, it’s about travel, art, photography and life after sixty. And crone power.