Mike Cassesso’s email late last month to a general inbox for the local staff of the Washington Post could have easily been ignored, buried beneath news releases sent daily to the paper’s reporters. But Cassesso, a former staffer on two senatorial election campaigns, was pretty sure his message – a complaint that the federal government’s shutdown meant he couldn’t get married Saturday at the Thomas Jefferson Memorial – would easily tantalize.
He just didn’t know by how much.
In four days, the AARP legislative analyst’s note to the Post led to stories on news sites around the world, and to appearances on NBC and CNN. As if that weren’t enough ludicrous attention for Cassesso and his partner, MaiLien Le, the couple also participated in a two-part, 10-minute wedding ceremony on Comedy Central’s “The Colbert Report,” featuring the actor Mandy Patinkin, who blessed them with a Hebrew prayer and, of course, pronounced the day and time when his CIA thriller “Homeland” airs on Showtime.
Cassesso and Le, who aren’t Jewish and don’t even watch “Homeland,” weren’t the only ordinary people leaping to shutdown stardom. There were all of those elderly veterans who “stormed” the National World War II Memorial. And there was the National Park Service ranger caught on viral video getting scolded by a Texas Republican congressman for denying access to those World War II veterans. (The anonymous ranger got an extra spin in the news cycle after Vice President Biden’s office tweeted that Biden had called the ranger, telling her, “I’m proud of you.”)
For Cassesso and Le, however, the shutdown was easily the best thing that could have happened to their wedding.
“When the Post ran the original story, we assumed it was the high mark,” Cassesso said. “Then, we got the calls, the tweets and emails about doing stuff with local and national media, and we thought, ‘OK, this is the zenith.’ Then ‘Colbert’ happened, and we couldn’t believe it. We kept saying, ‘How did we get here?’ ”
Cassesso, 29, and Le, 30, a project coordinator for an executive search firm, know something about politics and the media. He has worked for Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., and Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo. She has been a researcher for Hillary Rodham Clinton’s presidential campaign and worked on the re-election campaign for Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat .
Cassesso said it was his idea to write to the Post about the shutdown shutting down their wedding site. That day, he and Le had reached a boiling point: The National Park Service had confirmed that they could not get married on the west lawn of the Jefferson Memorial, even though they had paid for the $50 permit and were just days from the event, with friends and relatives already flying in. The shutdown meant any wedding – any family trips, school tours – could not take place at any of the country’s 401 national parks. Cassesso and Le were among 24 couples scheduled to have weddings on the National Mall this month.
“I knew our story would have this human-interest angle and might be catchy and explain the unforeseen, unintended consequences of the shutdown,” said Cassesso, taking a moment during his media-frenzied wedding week to further reflect on the frenzy. “I’ve done ‘field’ for them. I’ve done grass-roots organizing, door-to-door contact and phone calls,” Cassesso said, adding that his media savvy has been shaped by his years of working for politicians. “Messaging and communications is messaging and communications, whether it’s face-to-face or on TV. You need to make sure people know where you’re coming from.”
After the Post story ran, the couple’s cellphones exploded with calls from reporters and producers nationwide.
In reaction, the Episcopal bishop of Washington said that all couples whose weddings were to be on federal property could get married instead in one of the gardens at the Washington National Cathedral. Others were less sympathetic. “WON’T SOMEONE PLEASE THINK OF THE YOUNG DC OPERATORS TRYING TO HAVE ‘A ROMANTIC WASHINGTON WEDDING?’ ” tweeted Julia Ioffe, a senior editor at the New Republic.
On Oct. 2, while the couple were getting interviewed by a local television station near the Jefferson Memorial, they got a call from a “Colbert Report” producer. Le, a longtime fan of the show, said she was “silently screaming.”
And finally, the next night, with about 15 friends and relatives, they had their wedding, taped in New York before a live audience. Someone dressed up as Smokey Bear joined as a groomsman. (Smokey was available due to being furloughed, Colbert explained.) After Colbert pronounced Cassesso and Le husband and wife – “by the power vested in me by the state of New York and the entire Viacom family of entertainment networks,” Colbert introduced Audra McDonald, the Tony Award-winning singer, who serenaded them with Billy Idol’s “White Wedding.”
Now back in Washington, Cassesso and Le are basking in multiple Facebook likes and all the attention for their media attention.
They are also trying to be ordinary again.