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An Inviting Presence

Lea Berman Gives White House a Whirl

By Roxanne Roberts
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 1, 2005; Page C01

It is mandatory to assume something can and will go wrong at a presidential dinner party. The job of the new White House social secretary is to imagine the worst -- and then figure out how to prevent it.

A few hours before Sunday's state dinner for the nation's governors, Lea Berman has checked and double-checked the seating for 130 guests, the flowers, the menu. Now she's thinking about last-minute disasters.

White House Social Secretary Lea Berman walks from the East Wing to the State Dining Room, where the Bushes hold smaller dinners than the Clintons did. (Photos Rich Lipski -- The Washington Post)

"The next few hours I'll be waiting to see if some problem develops," Berman says calmly. "I like to organize things as much in advance as possible, so the last few hours are open for any last-minute changes or glitches."

You get the sense that Berman can identify and avert most disasters before anyone knows they existed. She's the kind of person who remembers everyone's name and their birthday, promptly writes thank-you notes, and never has a run in her stocking -- and if she does, she's got a spare pair in her desk drawer.

Her position is one of the most prestigious and influential in the East Wing. She works next to first lady Laura Bush, overseeing all aspects of entertaining in the executive mansion. Social secretaries usually try to stay in the background, but Berman's name popped into headlines earlier this month when the outgoing executive chef, Walter Scheib, named her as a primary player in his ouster and the reorganization of the first lady's side of the house.

"Clearly, with a new social secretary, there is a new set of eyes and a new vision," Scheib told reporters. "She is a very hands-on social secretary, very involved with all aspects of food, flowers, and decor. She clearly has a mandate."

The very public flap was an uncharacteristic bump in the smooth facade of the first lady's office. Berman's mandate is simple: To carry out the wishes of Laura Bush as graciously, efficiently and unobtrusively as possible.

"When she tells me what she wants, then I'll make sure she gets what she wants," says Berman. And you don't doubt her for a second.

The social secretary is the unofficial hostess of the White House, responsible for running every event inside the executive mansion: breakfast to dinner, formal and informal. She (the job has traditionally been held by a woman) sends out every invitation, greets every guest, and makes sure everyone is happy -- especially the president and first lady. The job requires 18-hour days, great tact, political instincts, a photographic memory, entertaining and management skills, and the ability to make it all look effortless.

Berman, 48, has the temperament and résumé for the job. On first meeting, she's low-key but watchful, mentally juggling a dozen balls. Her honey blond hair is well cut but not fussy; her camel jacket expensive but not flashy. On the day of the governors dinner, she's relaxed enough to guide a short tour backstage at the White House: the flower shop, the pastry shop, the kitchen. At each stop, she is quietly complimentary, acknowledging each florist and cook without sounding insincere or overwrought. She remembers names, points out details about the flowers and menu. She deftly deflects the conversation away from herself to others. She's very good at all of this.

You begin to understand her reputation in Washington political circles, where she is repeatedly described in glowing terms, especially for her skills as a supremely adept hostess. "There's no learning curve: She can go in and make things happen," says Ann Stock, who served as social secretary in the first Clinton administration. "She knows how to operate, in the best sense of the term, in that world. That will be an immense asset for the president and Mrs. Bush."

Berman grew up in Ohio and received degrees from Miami University of Ohio and Georgetown University in political science and international affairs before landing a job at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. She specialized in Latin American affairs, worked for Henry Kissinger, and met her husband, Wayne. The couple married in 1982 and have two daughters: Liddy, 18, and Alice, 14, who both attend National Cathedral School. For the past two decades, she was best known as wife, mother and Washington hostess.

Wayne Berman -- described by friends a "total political junkie" -- served as assistant secretary of commerce during the administration of the first President Bush. Now he's chairman of the Federalist Group, a Washington lobbying firm, and vice chair of Jardine Lloyd Thompson, an insurance broker.

Together, they're one of Washington's political power couples, although you rarely find their pictures in social columns. "While they're partisan, they also have the ability to make anyone instantly comfortable," says Debbie Dingell, wife of Democratic congressman John Dingell. "I always have the sense they care about this country first and politics second."

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