The Salahis, Congress and the Celebrity-Industrial Complex

Andrew Belonsky :: Wednesday, January 20th, 2010 12:10 pm

It’s hard not to be disappointed in Washington these days. The health care debate’s dragging on.  There’s an unemployment crisis.  Scott Brown has won a seat on the Senate.  As you can probably tell, there’s ample material for critical fodder.   As if this weren’t enough, there’s Tareq and Michaele Salahi, who gained fame after crashing a state dinner at 1600. Everyone under the sun, from officials to the public, was absolutely furious, of course, and the Secret Service launched an official investigation into the matter. Apparently, that wasn’t enough, because Congress also launched its own review.  Already, some of the stylists involved with the Salahis, arriving in a stretch SUV limo, have faced a grand jury, and today the Salahis themselves will plead the fifth before the House Subcommittee on Homeland Security. The appearance won’t amount to much. It does, however, mark the final thrust in Washington and Hollywood’s tawdry affair.

Politics and entertainment have always had a symbiotic relationship. Lawmakers (showmen in their own right) use movie stars to fill their coffers and celebrities use politics to boost their public image. Their romantic worlds often intertwine, as with Peter Orszag and ABC newswoman Bianna Golodryga. And ever since 1944, when Broadway actress Helen Gahagan Douglas entered the House of Representatives, plenty of celebrities have entered public servitude, like Al Franken, Ronald Reagan, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and many more. As time goes on, however, more and more lawmakers are making their way into the entertainment industry.

Some politicians take a more respectable, humble approach to Hollywood, like John McCain’s cameo in Wedding Crashers or Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth. Our culture venerates celebrity, however, and officials often become so infatuated with the celebrity pool that they can’t resist jumping in feet first. Take, for example, Tom DeLay, who found a cult following while on Dancing with The Stars. And then there’s Rod Blagojevich, who has perhaps overinflated his status by signing on to NBC’s Celebrity Apprentice. These developments indicate that the relationship between Hollywood and Washington has become so tangled - so mangled! - that it’s no longer symbiotic, but parasitic.

The rise of the Salahis fits perfectly into contemporary America’s politics-obsessed culture.  Above all else, they’re attention whores who hoped to be on reality television. It seems that alone can make someone a star these days. The White House event, regardless of whether they were invited, as they say they were, successfully pushed the couple into DC’s limelight, thereby giving them an air, however odious, of notoriety. Certainly one can’t take too much umbrage with this development. We, as a society, reward the revolting and idolize the mediocre in both Hollywood and Washington. It’s only natural that the Salahis have ridden the zeitgeist to the front pages. But now they’ve turned the Capital into a red carpet and are distracting from an actual real problem: national security.

Washington’s intelligence and security communities have had a hell of a time lately. There was the Fort Hood shooting, that tremendously misguided underwear bomber, and, of course, the double agent suicide attack in Afghanistan, in which seven CIA agents lost their lives. Despite all of this, the House Homeland Security Subcommittee is wasting its time debating two fame-seekers. Yes, I understand we need to know how these two fools got into the White House, people should be fired and changes should be made. There’s no reason for Congress to indulge the Salahis – or the public’s tabloid-driven obsession with them - by holding a hearing. They are not only wasting time that could be spent on other security matters, but they’re rewarding and, in fact, institutionalizing reprehensible behavior. Tareq Salahi described today’s hearing as “historic.”  Thus marks the birth of the celebrity-industrial complex. We now live in a world in which fame-seekers receive as much scrutiny as potential terrorists, which is just another signifier of our debilitating obsession, cleverly disguised as disdain, with celebrity culture.   This story reads like a well-written satirical piece on our insane, television-based society, but unfortunately, that satire has become our reality.

Image via bencossette’s flickr.