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11.28.09

'They Need a Spanking'

The embarrassed mom of the White House gate crashers talks to The Daily Beast about her son's reckless behavior. Plus, former White House staffers weigh in on the breach—and dish about Desiree Rogers surprising behavior that night.

Consider it a Thanksgiving miracle that Tareq and Michaele Salahi were just fame-whores.

The couple—she a pin-thin Ann Coulter type; he a grinning polo nut—crashed the Obamas’ first state dinner at the White House Tuesday night, with apparently no greater desire than to cozy up to Joe Biden for a really killer Facebook pic.

But it could have been much worse, especially for a president whose security needs have far outstripped those of any other chief executive in history, and who has been the object of intense vitriol and regular assassination talk since the earliest days of his campaign. The White House acknowledged Friday that the gutsy duo finagled actual contact with the first couple by hopping on the official receiving line—a virtually unfathomable security breach. Secret Service Director Mark Sullivan confessed “ deep concern and embarrassment” over the event and launched an investigation into how the couple snuck in, even after their car was turned away at the first checkpoint and they hoofed it to the entrance gate.

Click Image to View Our Gallery of the Gate Crashers.

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“It’s a serious issue when someone can get into the White House who isn’t on the list,” said Sheila Tate, Nancy Reagan’s former press secretary. “Every single volunteer who comes in to help decorate the house for Christmas is cleared. That somebody could bamboozle their way past security and actually spend a couple of hours in there is really kind of frightening.”

Even Tareq Salahi's mom disapproved of her son's audacious behavior. Visited at their vineyard Friday, Corinne Salahi, a white-haired Belgian woman in sweatshirt and jeans, expressed exhaustion with the whole affair, which she described as “all too Hollywood.”

“Certainly there are more important stories out there,” she said. “I think it makes America look not too serious in the world.”

And what of her son and daughter-in-law?

“I think they need a spanking,” she said. “They probably deserve more than that.”

How on earth did it happen? Since when can someone throw on a red sari, knot a bowtie around her husband’s meaty neck and traipse into the White House, makeup artist and camera crew in tow? And—in a question asked over turkey and stuffing at the homes of several former White House social and press secretaries yesterday—where, oh where, was Desiree Rogers?

Breaking with tradition, Rogers was a guest to the state dinner, which honored Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his wife. She arrived solo, in a cream-colored Comme de Garcons dress, a curious choice that has since been the subject of considerable sniping online.

In the past, White House social secretaries have worked, not partied, on the nights of major events, racing around to make sure everything is going according to plan. But Rogers has occupied a bigger spotlight than her predecessors, doing more interviews, making more public appearances, and generally cutting a more glamorous figure. Just a few weeks after President Obama swore the oath of office, Rogers turned up at New York Fashion Week, sitting in the front row of three shows and taking photographs with Anna Wintour. According to three former White House officials, Rogers made it clear from the beginning that her approach to running presidential social functions would be a sharp break from past custom.

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In February, 2009, in a longstanding tradition, all of the former White House social secretaries gathered for a private luncheon at the Four Seasons to welcome Rogers to the post and pass on their collective wisdom. Said one person in attendance: “She was very friendly, but her position was clear: They’re different. They got here differently. These are different times. The old rules are going out and the new rules are being made up.” Rogers told the Associated Press Thursday that no one from her office had been at the security checkpoints to assist Secret Service members in managing the flow of guests and verifying their place on the list. The former White House officials, all from previous administrations, said they considered this a jaw-dropping oversight.

Likewise, some of New York’s top party planners were aghast, saying they take far more precautions to block gatecrashers for movie premieres and benefit galas—events with considerably smaller security risks.

“I'm not surprised there are those ballsy enough to try crashing a White House party,” said Cinema Society founder Andrew Saffir, who hosts frequent, celebrity-heavy premieres and film screenings. “Though it is rather jarring that something as seemingly impenetrable as the White House could be so vulnerable.” Saffir employs “gatekeepers” to watch over his doors to unsparingly enforce the official guest list. “They’ve heard just about every line, every lie, and every ruse, and are usually able to stop a fake before it’s too late,” Saffir said.

Joey Jalleo, another prominent New York party guru, whose colleagues call him the “Events Nazi,” described such a high-level breach as an unpardonable offense. “Your guest list is your bible,” he said.

Joey Jalleo, another prominent New York party guru, whose colleagues call him the “Events Nazi,” described such a high-level breach as an unpardonable offense. “Your guest list is your bible,” he said.

The office of the White House press secretary released the final list of expected attendees at 5:42 p.m. ET, well before the first Town Cars started inching up the White House driveway. Armed with this list, a teenager with firm resolve could have prevented Tareq and Michaele Salahi from sneaking in for their hours-long photo session with Rahm Emanuel, Adrian Fenty, and other luminaries of the Obama era.

“This is a little bit of a statement on where we are in our society that people would try to do something like this,” said Anita McBride, a former assistant to George W. Bush and chief of staff to Laura Bush. “This couple used this important event at the White House for their own purposes, and it was a distraction from the success of a major diplomatic event that the Obamas hosted.”

The couple, who married in 2003, were regular, if odd, fixtures on the Washington social circuit. Tareq, whose parents run the Oasis Vineyards in Virginia, is the founder of America’s Polo Cup, an organization with ties to the Indian embassy and no affiliation with the official United States Polo Association. In May, Salahi’s polo organization came under scrutiny for claiming to be a nonprofit—and soliciting money for charitable purposes—without actually being one.

Michaele Salahi, who, at 44, is three years older than her husband, is in contention to be a cast member on the upcoming Washington edition of Bravo’s Real Housewives series, a dubious and yet widely coveted honor, according to one Washington socialite. Since the gate-crashing revelation came to light, Bravo has made no comment about whether the couple is still being considered for the show.

The Salahis haven’t answered phone calls to their $660,000 home in a Virginia housing development. They are reportedly involved, as plaintiff and defendant, in more than a dozen lawsuits. Tareq’s parents, Corinne and Dirgham, have said they’re being forced to sell off the vineyards to pay back more than $1 million in debts racked up by their son and his wife.

Rebecca Dana is a culture correspondent for The Daily Beast. A former editor and reporter for The Wall Street Journal, she has also written for The New York Times, The New York Observer, Rolling Stone and Slate, among other publications.

Lloyd Grove is editor at large for The Daily Beast. He is also a frequent contributor to New York magazine and was a contributing editor for Condé Nast Portfolio. He wrote a gossip column for the New York Daily News from 2003 to 2006. Prior to that, he wrote the Reliable Source column for the Washington Post, where he spent 23 years covering politics, the media, and other subjects.