Not your mother’s social secretary
|To Desiree Rogers, it made perfect sense — the first-ever White House “poetry jam,” held Tuesday night. It was a way to bring a little more of America — modern, nontraditional, bold even — into the president’s house.
Some would say Rogers is doing the same with her approach to her new role. Her title — White House social secretary — evokes a tea-and-cookies past, an image of an anonymous figure straightening the place cards at a state dinner. Instead, Rogers already has emerged as the most visible social secretary in the history of the job, another high-profile figure in a White House that already burns bright.
Vogue, The Wall Street Journal and Capitol File magazine have all come calling, featuring Rogers in glamorous spreads, decked out in designer duds. During Fashion Week in New York, she was on the front row, next to Vogue’s legendary editor Anna Wintour.
Like her longtime friends the Obamas, she is Chicago-by-way-of-Harvard, a formidable businesswoman in her own right before ever walking through the doors at the White House.
Longtime friend Sugar Rautbord, a prominent Chicago philanthropist and writer, said Rogers was a fixture on the social and business scene in Chicago and has what “certain politicians have: part glamour, part intelligence, part aloofness, part approachability. It’s a perfect combination.”
But her out-front approach to what is normally an understated staff job has raised eyebrows in certain circles — a certain tsk-tsking privately among some in the society set that she might be ever-so-slightly too out in front. Rogers’ talk in the Journal of nurturing a “Brand Obama” from the secretary’s post induced a few cringes among some who said the president should be pure Main Street, not Madison Avenue.
“My impression is that there is more public eye attached to this social secretary than ever before. White House staff tend to do their jobs quietly and then they recede,” said William Seale, author of “The President’s House.” “There is a time, within my memory, that being in the public eye would have been looked down upon as inappropriate, but times change.”
Rogers, however, sees her role as one that perfectly fits the Obama White House — both in the public’s interest in being part of it and in the Obamas’ interest in getting more people involved in what goes on inside the executive mansion.
As social secretary, she is the person who can make that happen, Rogers said.
“In my mind, part of this office’s responsibility is to create those opportunities to bring people together in a way that is different than a discussion or a dialogue across the table about the economy or housing or education or health care,” Rogers said.
“There is so much enthusiasm and interest in the people that are working here in the White House. That’s just a sign of the times, and so I am part of that team,” she continued. “There is interest in what’s going on. We want that. I want people to call and say, ‘How can I be a part of that?”
Some of her predecessors agree — notably Letitia Baldridge, social secretary in the Kennedy administration, who recalled what it’s like to have a president and a first lady, Jacqueline Kennedy, that the world couldn’t seem to get enough of. Baldridge recalled that, like Rogers, she could at times be a stand-in to feed the insatiable appetite for the media for all things Kennedy.
“Jackie enchanted the world, and she didn’t always want to deal with the press, so I stepped out and I was a sad substitution,” Baldridge recalled. “Still, I was better than nothing.”
“There is the danger of too much publicity in every job in Washington, but Desiree is smart enough to pull back,” Baldridge added. “As it is, she is doing the first lady a great service by satisfying the interest in the first lady, and she is getting the administration’s message out.”
Being in the limelight is hardly new to Rogers. In Chicago, she was a well-connected businesswoman with an eclectic Rolodex; the public face of the Illinois lottery; a high-level executive at People’s Energy, a natural gas company; and, later, the president of social networking at Allstate Financial. Crain’s Chicago Business named her one of the Top 25 women to watch in 2007.
“Desiree has the Harvard M.B.A., and she has this thing of being so statuesque and photogenic; she is fit and disciplined; and she is entirely efficient and never tardy,” Rautbord said. “She is not chatty or gossipy. She kept her counsel to herself, and it serves her very well in this job. She is meticulously discreet, and that serves her well. And she is very well-liked in Chicago.”
During the campaign, Rogers hosted what was supposed to be a 300-person Obama fundraiser in her duplex, at which 1,300 of Chicago’s wealthiest showed up. They lined up down the block for Barack Obama, but the real draw was Rogers, Rautbord said.
“She simply just picked up the phone, found an apartment in the building, made all the living room furniture disappear, had the bodyguards in the kitchen, and Barack spoke twice that night,” Rautbord said. “It was done gracefully. She reacted and responded and did it correctly. It was through her business and charitable connections that she had the ability to pull people out. Nobody said, ‘I’m leaving and going home because our host was Desiree Rogers.’”
Tuesday night’s reading represents something of a change, too. It will be literary, with a dash of urban Chicago and a little Hollywood — and very much in keeping with Rogers’ approach, as she has worked to put a cultural stamp on the White House that matches the era and the Obamas’ style.
The Obamas have put a younger, hipper flair on traditional events while constantly talking up the idea of the White House as “the people’s house.” Pop diva Fergie sang the national anthem at the Easter Egg Roll, for which tickets were distributed online for the first time. Earth, Wind & Fire played the Annual Governors’ Dinner, which had state officials getting down in a conga line by the end of the night.
Seale, the White House expert, said Rogers may simply be the first to grasp the powerful intersection between the White House and popular life, and she could elevate the role in a way that sticks for a long time to come.
“We may see a development in the social side and the East Wing, and it might become something very different in the years ahead and this may be the beginning,” Seale said. “It is constantly changing, and the requirements are getting larger. Social secretaries may become public figures, like chiefs of staff.”
Rogers believes her role is one that can help the White House be more accessible to all.
“That’s going to keep it fresh, real and keep it being responsive to what people want, because I really view the White House as a reflection of what America is. It’s a thing, but how do you make it more than a thing? How do you make it a symbol for the American spirit? How do you make it come alive?” Rogers asked. “Well, by the thoughts of Americans.”
“I happen to be the receptacle by which those ideas are coming in, as well as people that work here. We’re not just sitting here at a table saying, ‘Let’s do this, let’s do that, this is what we like.’ We can’t do this by being inside,” she said. “All of these things have come due to relationships, … through being available and being visible.”
|© 2009 Capitol News Company, LLC|
May 13, 2009
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