by Clarence Page

Once there was a time when you became famous by doing something that mattered. Not anymore. In the age of instant celebrities like Paris Hilton, Perez Hilton and the Kardashian sisters, one needs only to be famous in order to matter.

This Internet-age reasoning drives the fame junkies of our age, which apparently helps us to understand Michaele and Tareq Salahi, better known far and wide as the White House gate crashers, the couple who sneaked into President Barack Obama's first state dinner.

For the record, the Virginia couple deny that they crashed the president's party, despite their lack of an invitation or a name on the guest list. Details, details.

The House Homeland Security committee quickly set hearings to give the Salahis a chance to explain themselves, and the Salahis said they would cheerfully attend. Sure. Judging from various reports, calling them before more TV cameras is like throwing Uncle Remus' Br'er Rabbit in the briar patch.

Despite their professed innocence, the Salahis could not deny that they charmed, cajoled and otherwise oozed their way past the velvet White House rope at the state dinner to honor India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. They passed through the required metal detectors and behaved in no more of an annoying fashion than any of the dinner's other swells, all the way up to the president himself, with whom they exchanged small talk while the cameras snapped away.

There's a lesson here, America. You, too, can feed your fame addiction. Simply stroll into the presence of famous people while projecting all of the upright, self-assured sense of entitlement that would be expected from someone who actually belonged there.

Fame junkies are all the rage. Recent months have made it hard to tell the truly interesting Americans from those who merely want to play one on TV.

The Salahis were under consideration for the cast of cable-network Bravo's reality-TV show "The Real Housewives of D.C." A film crew followed them through their daylong preparations for the dinner -- to which, apparently unbeknownst to Bravo, they were not invited.

The Salahis easily remind us of Richard and Mayumi Heene, Colorado parents of the so-called "Balloon Boy" hoax and veterans of "Wife Swap," a reality show no less unreal than the one for which the Salahis were in the running.

They also remind us of Nadya "Octomom" Suleman, who parlayed her multiple births into a TV series, and Jon and Kate Gosselin, who let us watch their family with eight children fall apart on camera.

The celebrity-sprinkled photos on the Salahi's Facebook page and various news reports on their social lives reveal the couple to be social climbers of a particularly adventurous bent with a Zelig-like skill for blending into unsuspecting social crowds. They managed to get within elbow-rubbing distance of Prince Charles, Oprah Winfrey, the Black-Eyed Peas and Obama, as a senator and as president. Michaele even blended into parties for alumni of the Washington football team's "Redskinettes" cheerleaders.

Her husband, we are told, was a polo-playing chief executive of now-bankrupt Oasis Winery in Virginia, which his father founded. Michaele reportedly is involved in the sort of high-profile charity work that puts you in touch with the rich and well connected.

But, alas, their White House stunt infuriates those of us who expect something a bit tighter in terms of White House security. The Secret Service is embarrassed, especially Director Mark Sullivan, who issued a rare apology -- one that, as I recall, sounded a lot like the one he issued when President George W. Bush had two shoes flung at him during a news conference in Iraq. Neither episode marks the Secret Service's finest hour.

If further social climbing was their goal, the Salahis hunger for camera lenses may well have blown whatever respect they might otherwise have gained from Washington's famously uptight and reserved elites. But maybe the local snoots don't count like they used to. Fame for its own sake defines a new upper crust in America. Publicity, good or bad, becomes like gold to a new narcissistic elite. It makes you matter.


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