Five falls ago, I prepared a profile piece on retiring Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-CO). At the time, Campbell was one of only two Native Americans serving in Congress and chaired the Senate Indian Affairs Committee. It was natural for me to seek out Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-HI), then the leading Democrat on Campbell’s panel.
Inouye gave a good interview. He talked about his relationship with Campbell. Issues they worked on over the years. The importance of having a voice in Congress for Native Americans, Pacific Islanders and Alaska Natives. I then asked Inouye if there were any funny stories involving Campbell. Maybe a moment of levity. Something that was lighthearted.
Inouye said no, he couldn’t really recall any. And then the Hawaii Democrat said that he and Campbell viewed the work they did in Congress as “very serious.”
I pried more. But Inouye didn’t budge. The austere Inouye talked more about the diligent approach he and Campbell took to legislation.
Daniel Inouye is about as steady a hand as you’ll find on Capitol Hill. Voters elected him to the Senate in 1962, just three years after Hawaii became a state. He now chairs the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee, charged with controlling how much federal agencies spend on particular programs. Inouye speaks in a resonant, solemn tone. Republicans and Democrats alike think of him as a voice of reason in the Senate. He doesn’t seek the limelight. He doesn’t appear on TV often or grant many interviews. The low-profile Inouye is just methodical about the “very serious” nature of the legislative process. And he completes his work with little fanfare.
Which brings me to White House State Dinner crashers Michaele and Tareq Salahi.
I don’t know much about the couple other than what I’ve read and heard over the past few days. But I’ve twice visited Oasis. That’s the Salahi family's now-bankrupt winery at the center of a legal dispute in rural Virginia. My visits to Oasis left me with two impressions. First, their wine is average. And secondly, this couple is trying very hard to prove something.
The Salahis certainly concoct an ostentatious image with their splashy polo matches and spa appointments at toney Georgetown salons. At Oasis, you’d think they’d pour their patrons wine in Waterford crystal.
Oasis remains the only winery I’ve visited where my wine was served in a Solo Cup. Mind you, not the hard tumblers used to serve wine in at a housewarming party. But a flimsy, plastic cup that churches use to serve pre-schoolers McDonald’s orange drink.
As I strolled around Oasis, the “trying hard to prove something” nature of the Salahis was evident. And it stood in stark contrast to the flimsy vessel from which I sipped my wine. The Salahis decorated their winery walls with dozens of photos of themselves. In each photo, the couple hobnobbed with a professional athlete. An actor. A politician. A musician. A philanthropist. Celebrities of all stripes. And at the time, I wondered what was really going on with this extravagant couple, dressed to the nines. And what they were trying to prove.
The over-the-top presentation of the Salahi photos disturbed me. It distracted from the experience and more importantly, the wine. The photos left me with the impression that this couple either knows everybody. Or tries to make it appear that they know everybody.
After all, this is Washington. Define yourself. Or be defined. Craft your own image. Develop your own spin.
On Capitol Hill, barely a week passes where some celebrity doesn’t waltz through the halls of Congress to testify at a hearing or conduct a press conference for a cause. In just the past few months, I can account for visits by Jennifer Garner, January Jones, Jessica Alba and Nicole Kidman. It’s become cliché to watch the extraordinary crush of Congressional interns and junior staffers who squeeze into hearing rooms or hallways to get a glimpse of a celebrity. Or better yet, pose with them for a picture.
Now I’ll be the first to admit it’s fun to have photos with the rich and powerful. Visitors to my house know that my walls bear photos with presidents of both parties, a vice president, various Congressional leaders, the former General Secretary of the Soviet Union and even the Muppet Elmo. I’ve framed a few kind, handwritten notes that political figures have sent me over the years. But none of these photos are pictures I’ve sought. They’re photos that others have shot of me sitting next to these people at the Radio-TV Correspondents Dinner. Chatting with them in a corridor while on the job. Interviewing them for a story. (Yes, I even interviewed Elmo when he testified on Capitol Hill). All of these pictures involve me at work.
But when celebrities visit Capitol Hill, the clamor of aides and interns to snare a photo can be obscene. It trivializes the cause these figures represent when they come before Congress. And I’ll bet that most of the thrill-seekers who show up to see these folks can’t tell you what issue these luminaries are attempting to bring attention to.
For the record, Nicole Kidman visited the Capitol to bring attention to violence against women. January Jones was there to save the sharks.
Certainly, there are iconic moments in Washington between average people and the powerful. I’d argue that’s the case for the 1963 photo of President Kennedy and President Clinton. At the time, the 16-year-old Clinton was a delegate to Boys Nation and shook hands with the president at the White House. It was a natural part of the event.
I’ll contrast that experience with what I witnessed a few summers ago. I had an intern who trolled the halls of the Capitol with a camera. He snapped a photo with every figure who came down the pike. President Obama when he was a senator. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Donald Rumsfeld. And the intern didn’t learn a single thing from any one of them. Each episode was just a shallow, 20-second encounter in the corridor. But the intern’s vanity enabled him to impress everyone back home with a gallery of big shots he rubbed shoulders with in Washington over the summer.
The intern’s moments of glory cheapened the “very serious” work Daniel Inouye spoke of on Capitol Hill. There are big decisions to be made. And lives, security, jobs and economies swing in the balance. Certainly there are places for smiles and laughs. But the “celebritization” of Washington clouds this focus.
And that’s apparently what happened last week with the Salahis.
Indeed, a White House State Dinner is a festive occasion. But this encounter featured a meeting of the President of the United States with the leader of the world’s largest democracy. This is the first state dinner held by the first African-American president who is determined to alter the perception of America abroad. And the state dinner is in honor of a leader whose nation suffered a horrific terrorist attack last year.
Some could argue that the Salahis' thirst for glamour at a state dinner mocks the import of two leaders breaking bread at a crucial time on the world stage. That’s what happens all the time when people from Capitol Hill plaster photos on Facebook of them posing with the latest celebrity who’s swung through the halls of Congress. It detracts from the seriousness of the work Daniel Inouye spoke of.
Inouye has quietly gone about his work on Capitol Hill for more than 46 years. His sober approach has yielded impressive legislative results. But few headlines.
The Salahi incident proves that Washington isn’t about quiet, behind-the-scenes operators like Inouye any more. It’s about splashy photo-ops, attention-grabbing stunts and who you know.
Or who you want people to think you know.
It can be superficial.
Nice winery. Nice pictures.
And plastic wine cups.
- Chad Pergram covers Congress for Fox News. He’s won and Edward R. Murrow Award and the Joan Barone Award for his reporting on Capitol Hill.
- The Speaker’s Lobby refers to a long, ornate hallway that runs behind the dais of the House chamber. Lawmakers, aides and journalists often confer there during votes.