Ever since Tareq and Michaele Salahi inflicted themselves on the American immune system when they crashed the White House state dinner last November, I have become transfixed by the hold that these spectacularly unspectacular people have on the rest of us. More than a month later, barely a day goes by without the Washington press corps unleashing a new Salahi morsel.
What is the anthropological science at the root of our fascination?
The cheap shot would be to blame the media, the logic being that we wouldn't be reading about the Salahis were we not being forced against our collective wills by a pile-on press that keeps breaking them out like lyme disease. No, not this time; the media have simply been supplying a ritual rooted in America's caste system.
America was founded on the promise of equality, but with a sly wink at upward mobility, our forebears having escaped the British monarchy so that they could set up a permutation of it over here. The desires for democracy and equality remain sincere, but the drive to be better than your neighbor, even quasi-royal, is primal. We're democratic enough to seek advancement for ourselves, but there's just enough monarchist flotsam washing in from England to hold in contempt the too-obvious striving of others.
The key to social transcendence in America is the appearance of effortlessness, and therein lies the Salahis' unpardonable sin: They left a forensic paper trail of ham-handed premeditation.
The Salahis' faux pas is anchored in the uncomfortable truth that there is something in most of us, including those of us who lead unpretentious lives, that would secretly like be on the White House guest list. (Disclosure: I still keep a voided White House badge with my photo on it from my own apprenticeship in the Reagan Administration in the early-1980s. Why? Because working in the White House was cool. Besides, it's proof that I was supposed to be there.)
Ambition is often rewarded in our republic, but calculated ambition is a no-no, an unwritten rule that was established by our Founding Fathers who rejected (with some dissenters) the titles of "His Excellency" or "King" for our leader, and netted out at "President." As ambitious as our forebears were, it was considered bad form to appear to want higher office.
Much was made in those days of the spectacle of poor Washington, Adams and Jefferson being dragged from Mount Vernon, Quincy and Monticello to the nation's capital to serve as president. ("Well, if I must...") The brazenly ambitious bastard-child, Hamilton -- who was often accused of kingly ambitions -- was killed in a duel over a petty insult before he ever learned how to fake guilelessness.
The phenomenon was alive and well in the mid-20th century when winner John F. Kennedy's tanned and effortless appearance in televised debates contrasted with that of loser Richard Nixon, who came across as the clawing and ferret-like secretary of the high school audio-visual club. Presidents Reagan and Obama have exuded a sense that the naked ambition that delivered them to the Oval Office belonged somewhere outside of them, lower on the food chain. Both Clintons wore their ambition around their necks like a novelty pendant; Bill's coming off as horniness, whereas Hillary's has always been a tad Nixonian.
Even in supposedly shameless Hollywood, the whiff of self-promotion can be a stumbling block. Madonna, whose pathological reinventions have won her great success as a performer, has found that her transparent hunger to be seen as a Serious Artist has provoked a spiteful refusal among critics to allow her plaudits beyond that of being an effective marketer.
Other celebrities have found a loophole with the assistance of the tabloids. Whereas the paparazzi used to relentlessly chase besieged stars, they now just camp out in not-so-hidden locations where celebrities can vogue, as if unaware there is a phalanx of cameras the size of the Wailing Wall trained upon them.
Matthew McConaughey, who sadly owns no upper-body garments, is the most notorious beneficiary of the besiegement ruse. He returns day after day to the same beachfront mark where ostensibly invasive photographers keep taking pictures of the privacy-loving actor shirtless, oiled up, and flexing.
The Salahis, by getting caught in a documented string of brazen party crashes; unpaid bills in the hundreds of thousands of dollars for high-society trappings (limousines, catering); lawsuits; alleged misrepresentations of charitable affiliations (Land Rover benefits); and resume fabrications (Washington Redskins Cheerleading Squad alumnus, not); altered names (Michaele was apparently once called "Missy"); the pair left a Katrina-sized evidence trail of poseur-ship. It is like the scene in a John Updike Rabbit novel when an arriviste couple steps on an etiquette landmine at a cocktail party, and the author marks down the score with a mordant, "Back to nowhere, Fosnachts."
Back to nowhere indeed. One thing that the Salahis never imagined when they provoked the goddess Celebrity was that She would snarkily expose them as fame grifters of modest roots, the coup de gras being the deliciously symbolic surrender of Tareq's Patek Phillipe watch to a debtor, which turned out to be - a fake. (Rim shot!)
If the Salahis' dreams are limited to a flicker of recognition on the low brow of reality television, they will surely find it, but the paper trail suggests something very different: The couple mistook torrential visibility for what the lackadaisical Virginia hunt country to which they aspire thinks of as "class," the Salahis' real fantasy, and one pillar of class is surely an absence of desperation.
Their punishment for wanting to get "above themselves," as the British say, is our culture's Zapruder-style continuous loop of their final ride back to nowhere.