Some of the biggest names in show business were at Barack Obama's first State dinner on Tuesday, from film moguls David Geffen, Steven Spielberg and Jeffrey Katzenberg, to Ari Emanuel, the Hollywood agent and brother of Rahm Emanuel, the White House Chief of Staff, singer Jennifer Hudson, actor Blair Underwood and – reflecting the bilateral nature of the event – the Indian-born screenwriter M. Night Shyamalan.
And then, milling inconspicuously around the South Lawn, sipping cocktails, nibbling canapés and by all accounts getting gently sozzled, were Tareq and Michaele Salahi.
The couple had travelled up from Virginia, dressed to the nines, for a big night out. At precisely 9.08pm, they used the website Facebook to tell friends they were "honoured to be at the White House for the state dinner in honour of India with President Obama and our First Lady!" Shortly afterwards, the Salahis posted a photo of themselves cuddling up to the grinning Vice President, Joe Biden.
There was only one problem: the duo had never actually been invited to the elite gathering. They were not on any of its lengthy guest lists, had never been contacted by the White House's social secretary, and certainly didn't have seats reserved at the elaborate five-course banquet on the South Lawn, which lasted long into the night.
Instead, when the dust settled and hangovers began to clear, it emerged that the Salahis had managed to execute one of the most audacious gatecrashes in modern history, penetrating multiple layers of intense security to come within bread-roll-throwing distance of the Most Powerful Man in the World.
Yesterday, after details of their extraordinary coup were made public, pertinent questions were being asked at the highest level of government: who on earth is this bizarre couple? Why on earth did they do it? And what, in the age of hi-tech counter-terrorism, had gone so drastically wrong with the White House's security network?
The Salahis, who are both in their forties, are now being widely described as "reality TV stars." In fact, that is only partly the case. Rather they are socialites from Virginia who are moderately well-known on the local polo circuit. In recent months, they have been followed, at several glamorous events, by a camera crew making a Washington-based version of the popular Real Housewives television series for the Bravo entertainment channel.
Their involvement in the forthcoming show, which tends to caricature its wealthy and often tasteless subjects, has yet to be confirmed, and now may never happen. The couple's only other brush with celebrity involves a long-running feud with Tareq's parents, Dirgham and Corinne, over control of the once-lucrative family business, the Oasis Winery near Hume.
The dispute has been widely covered by local newspapers, particularly following an incident in which Tareq alleged that he'd been punched by his parents' attorney. The firm was meanwhile recently reported to have filed for bankruptcy, listing Tareq as one of its principal debtors.
If the couple hoped to restore their finances via a television career, then gatecrashing the White House did, at the very least, represent an impeccable publicity stunt with which to kick things off. They certainly know their way around the canapé circuit, and their appearance – Tareq looks every inch the bloated plutocrat, while Michaele is a willowy former cheerleader for the Washington Redskins – would have helped them blend in.
They arrived at the White House, on a rainy evening, about halfway through the crowd of 300 guests. Although their names were not on any checklist, event staff are unlikely to have wanted to force them to wait outside in the cold and wet while an organiser was summoned. A quick check of their personal IDs against terrorist databases doesn't appear to have sent up any "red flags."
The Salahis were then waved through to an airport-style security point along with all the other guests, where it was confirmed that they weren't carrying weapons. They then stopped to pose for photographers who had gathered to chronicle the guests arriving. He was dressed in a double-breasted dinner jacket and fake bowtie, she in a red and gold lehenga, a formal Indian garment.
After that, they walked up a long hallway to the red carpet then on to a cocktail reception in the East Room. Here, the Salahis introduced themselves to the great and good before posing for souvenir pictures with such luminaries as Katie Couric, a CBS news anchor and Adrian Fenty, the Washington Mayor.
Once guests were invited into the dinner marquee, which had been erected on the South Lawn, the couple got down to serious mingling. One picture, swiftly uploaded to their joint Facebook page, shows them embracing the Oscar-winning Bollywood composer AR Rahman. Another has them cuddling up to a slightly bemused Rahm Emanuel. The last in the series involved Mr Biden.
When dinner was eventually called, threatening to blow their cover, they appear to have scarpered. There are no security screening points on the way out of the White House, and reporters and photographers had already left.
Their exploit was first uncovered on Wednesday afternoon by The Washington Post, who were alerted to the Salahis' pictures on Facebook, and contacted them to ask what on earth they'd been doing there, given that access to State dinners is usually restricted to prominent cultural ambassadors, along with high-ranking politicians and diplomats.
Mr Salahi initially responded, via a Facebook message that it was "a last minute attending" in connection with a polo event, "since Polo is one of the primary sports in India. However when the White House later confirmed that they'd been poodle-faking (a spokesman formally denied they were on any guest list), the couple got a PR spokeswoman, to issue a statement: "The Salahis were honoured to be a part of such a prestigious event... They both had a wonderful time."
Secret Service officials weren't being so blithe. You only have to witness a Presidential motorcade to realise the level of paranoia that surrounds White House security. The agency's Office of Professional Responsibility said it was now conducting a formal review into what had occurred.
"A checkpoint did not follow proper procedure to ensure these two individuals were on the invited guest list," admitted Ed Donovan, a somewhat sheepish spokesman. "Everyone who enters the White House grounds goes through magnetometers and several other levels of screenings. That was the case with the state dinner last night. No one was under any risk or threat."
As to the Salahis, they will now face a trespassing charge. Unless, that is, the White House decides to draw a line under the embarrassing affair by granting an official pardon.Reuse content