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An Inviting Presence

Through the years, the Bermans are regular contributors to Republican candidates: They were Pioneers for the 2000 Bush-Cheney presidential campaign (raising $100,000) and Rangers in 2004 (raising $200,000). In addition, they have given to dozens of Republican senators and representatives and are on a first-name basis with administration officials.

In 2000, they purchased the four-story Washington home of the late philanthropist Paul Mellon for $4.5 million. The Bermans allowed the 13,000-square-foot residence on Embassy Row to be used as the National Symphony Orchestra's annual decorator's showhouse, then moved in next to neighbors such as Sen. Hillary Clinton and architect Leo Daly and began hosting low-key dinner parties and political fundraisers with guests such as Vice President Cheney and White House Chief of Staff Andy Card. Her formula: "You invite them into your home, find ways to please them, make them relax, introduce people who may have similar interests who they haven't met before," she says.

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)

Sheila Tate, former press secretary to Nancy Reagan, describes a dinner in honor of former Nixon counsel Fred Fielding. "There was a lot of personal touches. The guest list was carefully chosen, the right people made remarks. It was very thoughtful but fun and relaxed."

The Bermans met the current president and first lady while working on the 1988 presidential campaign of Bush 41. Berman confined her professional career to organizing small political fundraisers until 2001, when a friend approached her about working for Dick and Lynne Cheney as their social secretary. She held that position for two years before becoming Lynne Cheney's chief of staff. Last year she moved to the Bush-Cheney 2004 presidential campaign, working as a troubleshooter in the coalition and finance divisions and heading up the "W is for Women" initiative.

In December the White House announced that Laura Bush had selected her as the new social secretary. "I didn't know her well," says Berman. "I'd met her a few times in receiving lines. I hadn't had a lot of interaction with her." The first lady hired her, says spokesman Gordon Johndroe, based on a "great" recommendation from Lynne Cheney.

"It's really more of a social job than a political job," says Berman. "That means everyone who comes to the White House is made to feel welcome the way Mrs. Bush would want them to feel welcome -- whatever their political background, or leanings or interests. If they're a guest at the White House, they should come away with a singular, very positive experience."

After the election, Laura Bush said she and the president intend to do more entertaining in the second term. In the first, the Bushes hosted very few official parties, partly as a reaction to Sept. 11, 2001. But the predilection to party also follows the social trajectory of two-term administrations: During the first term, presidents like to portray themselves as outsiders rather than leaders of Washington's social elite. In the second term, they embrace all the traditional institutions of the office, including formal, full-dress White House entertaining.

The social secretary is responsible for executing all aspects of White House entertaining. "Her job is to make seating recommendations to the first lady -- or, in the case of a state dinner, the West Wing [staff]," says Tate. "You can't make political or social mistakes. You have to know or reach out to everyone. You have to work with the chef, the florist, the chief usher -- it's a backbreaking job."

In Berman, the first lady has a like-minded ally with similar tastes and sensibilities who is undaunted by the best foods, wines, decor -- someone who is socially self-confident and secure in her judgment. "She knows what she likes," says Thaddeus Dubois, the new executive pastry chef at the White House.

She likes what the first lady likes -- or you'd have to torture her to get her to admit otherwise. This is a woman who has probably never blurted out anything in four decades. During a quick break in the Red Room, she is full of praise for her new boss, complete with examples. She's not in awe, but clearly quietly thrilled to be here helping create menus, selecting flowers and defining the taste and style of this administration.

"Mrs. Bush has a very keen sense of what's going on in the world of flowers and what's going on with beautiful food," says Berman. "She'll sometimes say, 'I found this recipe. Why don't we try it?' She's seen it in a magazine."

In the larger sense, it means assisting her in revamping the East Wing. Berman will help in the search for a new executive chef, who will almost certainly be American. "I think we're pretty open-minded, but there's such great things happening with American food -- I don't know how we could not use an American chef," she says.

The newly beefed-up White House social calendar began with a black-tie Valentine's dinner in the Blue Room. In previous years, the Bushes hosted the dinner for a dozen friends; this year, the guest list expanded to 60, including the British and Japanese ambassadors, Herbie Hancock, Jack Valenti, Willie Mays, Lynn Swann and a number of folks from the arts world.

There will be more state dinners, those red-carpet extravaganzas that official Washington loves, although none have been announced yet. "It accords great respect to the country that is asked to be the recipient of a state dinner, and it's probably very good for foreign relations," says Berman.

Invitations to the White House are always highly coveted, and most coveted of all are invites to these dinners. It's harder to snag one since the first lady shifted the dinners from the East Room, which holds more than 200 seated guests, to the State Dining Room, which seats a maximum of 134. Laura Bush prefers the intimacy of the traditional dining room and believes smaller dinners are much nicer than the bashes of the Clinton era. Every guest list is determined by a series of meetings between the White House and State Department to discuss proposed names. After the president, first lady and senior administration officials, and the official delegation of 14 with the visiting head of state, there are only about 50 invitations (invitee and guest) remaining for each of the high-profile dinners.

White House social secretaries are always lobbied about inclusion on the list, but Berman says that hasn't happened to her -- yet. "It's such a waste of time to ask because it's not within the realm," she says. "Social secretaries are implementers. They're not strategists. We get lists, and we invite people."

Social secretaries are modest and downplay their influence. At least, the smart ones do.

On Sunday night, the snowstorm she feared was still far away. There were no dropped trays, no political gaffes, no grumbling guests. The toasts went off without a hitch, Marvin Hamlisch performed after dinner, there was a bit of dancing, then it was over. Berman had the first big, black-tie dinner under her belt. One down, and no disasters.

And, true to the president's penchant for early nights, she was home at 10:58 p.m.

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