Unless you've been on line for and unpacking your purchases from some Black Friday sale for the last two weeks, by now you have probably read, watched, and heard more than you ever cared to about Michaele and Tareq Salahi, the Virginian couple who crashed the White House state dinner on November 24th. The incident has been met by a wide array of reactions, but to many the prevailing sentiment has been lament.
"What has become so terribly wrong with our country?" asks Lea Lane in The Huffington Post.
"We live in an age obsessed with 'reality' and overrun by fakers. The mock has run amok," observes New York Times' columnist Maureen Dowd.
"Can we send the Salahis up in a mylar balloon and watch them float aimlessly across the country on CNN?" wonders Joel Achenbach in the Washington Post.
Indeed, most of the analysis of the Salahis' actions has focused on what it says about us as a country and what the proper course of action for dealing with the Salahis might be. This sort of "big picture," "forward-looking" type of thinking is all well and good for the liberal intelligentsia that is the mainstream media, but I'm more concerned with what really matters. While others tend to question whether the Sahalis committed any federal crimes and what the moral ramifications of their answers might be, I am more concerned with a different code: the rules of Wedding Crashers.
Wedding Crashers tells the hilarious story of John Beckwith (Owen Wilson) and Jeremy Grey (Vince Vaughn), a pair of best friends who frequently "crash" wedding parties to meet women, working from a set of strictly adhered to rules. The rules of crashing weddings are sacrosanct and any deviation from them can undermine the fundamentals of the system or, worse yet, spell a sex-less night for the transgressor (Rule #4: No one goes home alone.) The rules have been carefully crafted and choreographed to serve as the perfect model for how to behave like you belong in a place that you don't.
So, how did the Salahis fare?
Rule #2: Never use your real name.
The Salahis' main mistake. If they had given fake names and stayed anonymous, none of this would have ever become a story and we would all still have our sanity.
Rule #3: When crashing an Indian wedding, identify yourself as a well-known immigrant officer or a county lawyer.
A particularly apt rule, given that the dinner in question was in honor of Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. The Salahis were probably wise not to pose as government officials while attending an event at the White House. We'll give them a pass on this one. Although a well constructed high priest Mola Ram or goddess Kali costume could have worked nicely.
Rule #7: Blend in by standing out. Rule #8: Be the life of the party.
The Salahis definitely heeded this one. Rather than trying to blend in by staying on the side and just hoping not to be noticed, they went to the other extreme. They posed for pictures with Joe Biden and met President Obama, acting like they belonged rather than hiding in the background. In addition, I have it on good authority that Michaele Salahi sang a rocking version of Don't Stop Believin' during dessert.
Rule #66: Smile! You're having the time of your life.
And say "cheese."
Rule #9: Whatever it takes to get in, get in.
Even if it means lying to the United States Secret Service.
Rule #10: Invitations are for pussies.
And the Salahis are dicks.
Rule #47: You forgot your invitation in your rush to get to the church.
Or missed the voicemail informing you that you weren't invited because your "phone battery died." Same difference.
Rule #15: Fight the urge to tell the truth.
What urge to tell the truth? See Rule #9.
At their core, the rules of Wedding Crashers are designed to teach you how to fit in at an event that you have no business being at. They are a how-to guide for being the person you always wished you could be - charming, sensitive, and smooth with the ladies - even if it's only for a few hours. They are a fool-proof guide to gaining entrance to the most exclusive of destinations: a beautiful woman's bed.
And that's what Wedding Crashers is about. Or at least the first part of it. The rest of the movie has a distinctly different tone and theme to it. When John and Jeremy crash the wedding of the daughter of Treasury Secretary and aspiring presidential candidate William Cleary (a pursuit they realize leaves "no room for error. Secret service. Consequences." If only the Salahis had as much foresight as a movie character played by Vince Vaughn,) John becomes enamored with the secretary's younger daughter Claire. He and Jeremy accompany the family back to their home for the weekend, where John continues to fall for Claire despite the fact that she is in a committed relationship with her boyfriend Sack (Bradley Cooper.)
John comes to realize that his past wedding crashing ways were childish, juvenile, and pathetic and that there is a better path to true joy. To achieve real happiness and find someone that fulfills you for the long haul, it is not enough to play the character for a couple of hours. Rather, you need to become that person for real or, better yet, become that person by being yourself. As John explains to Claire in the final scene, as he pleads with her to give him a second chance, "that person that you met back at your folks' place, that was really me. Maybe not my name...or my job, but the feelings we felt, the jokes, the stupid laughs, that was all me." And by being himself, by really being the person that she wanted, he gets her.
I submit that the Salahis forgot to watch the second half of Wedding Crashers. (Honestly, I can't blame them. The second half had fewer jokes and fewer boobs.) Because while they managed to pull off the crash of the century by (mostly) abiding by the rules for the few hours they were there, the second they left Pennsylvania Avenue, they came up small (Rule #76: No excuses. Play like a champion.) They posted their pictures from the dinner on Facebook for all their friends to see, not exactly the behavior of someone who's "been there before." They came off as "unconvincing" during their appearance on the Today Show, in which they denied that they were "crashers" ("Erroneous! Erroneous on both accounts!")
Predictably, the general consensus has become that they are attention-craving hacks desperate for a payday. Their failure has been in their inability to play the part beyond the crashing itself, instead becoming the latest in an endless procession of hackneyed, paparazzi chasers who seek fame as an ends in its own right rather than as a corollary to achievement. While it is clear that the lessons John learned were lost on the Salahis over the last couple of weeks, the more interesting question is to what extent this message has been internalized by the man who hosted the dinner they attended.
To win the presidency, Barack Obama ran perhaps the most brilliant campaign in political history. He dazzled us with his masterful rhetoric and captured our hearts with the promises that anything was achievable. However, the eleven months since he has taken office have been marked by hesitance and equivocating, fading our memories of the bravado and gravitas he used to win us over last summer and fall.
To some, such as New York magazine's John Heilemann, the primary cause for this has been Obama's inability to progress from campaign mode to governing mode. When it came to the stimulus, the administration rejected the $1.2 billion figure proposed by the Council of Economic Advisers, instead opting for a smaller package that would be more palatable to Congress. Similarly, the White House's strategy for tackling health care has been one of deferring to Congress, allowing them to take the lead on drafting the particulars of the bill. In both of these policies, Obama has failed his constituents and himself by not governing with the same degree of fortitude that he displayed in the campaign.
"What Obama is learning," says a prominent anonymous Democrat quoted in the Heilemann piece, "is that it's easier to get elected out of nowhere than it is to govern from nowhere." Said simpler, it's easier to pick up a girl for one night at a wedding than to make her yours for real. The good news is, his presidency is still young and there is still more than enough time to turn things around. Let's just hope they screen Wedding Crashers at the next White House movie night. That might speed things up a bit.
This article has been reprinted with the permission of the author. It originally appeared at The Vertex.