By Lois Romano
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 24, 2008
Desirée Rogers, a prominent Chicago businesswoman and Harvard MBA, will be named the first African American White House social secretary, sources in the presidential transition office said yesterday.
Rogers, 49, is a friend of Michelle and President-elect Barack Obama's, and a leader in Chicago corporate and civic circles; her appointment signals that the first couple consider the job crucial to how they introduce themselves to the country and the globe. She was a major fundraiser for Obama.
"This appointment sends a strong message that the Obamas want to use the White House strategically, to maximize its use in a way that is consistent with their philosophy -- [to] open it to a broader range of people, " said Valerie Jarrett, an Obama intimate and friend of Rogers's who also will work in the White House. "Desirée is a heavy hitter -- she comes with her own range of contacts from around the country. She's close to Michelle and she knows everyone who will be working in the West Wing, so she will be able to create a synergy."
The position of social secretary is more influential and far-reaching than the title might suggest. Although the job is associated with working with the first lady and with entertaining -- and best known for staging state dinners for heads of countries -- the social secretary's office is responsible for every event or ceremony that occurs in the White House or on the grounds. The day after the inauguration, for example, Rogers will be responsible for organizing the swearing-in of the Cabinet. Ann Stock, a social secretary in the Clinton White House, was once charged with pulling together the signing of the historic Mideast peace agreement in four days, for 4,000 guests.
"It's like running a small agency," said Stock, who briefed Rogers on the job last week. "Her business savvy, her marketing skills will all come into play. Her close relationship with the Obamas is very important because she comes to the job already understanding their preferences."
Ann Jordan, who has known Rogers for years, says: "She's a very talented, successful, well-educated women who uses her skills well -- she's very organized. She'll be working for two very outgoing people, both of whom are professional successes. They come with their own networks and opinions, and Desirée has the skills and familiarity with them to help them put their mark on the White House."
Rogers will come to the White House from Allstate Financial, where she was hired last summer to create a social network of consumers and clients for the mammoth business. Prior to that, Rogers was the president of Peoples Gas and North Shore Gas, a $2 billion utility that she had headed since 2004; she worked at the company starting in 1997 as its chief marketing officer. In the early '90s, she was director of the Illinois Lottery. She received her undergraduate degree from Wellesley College, and her daughter is a student at Yale.
Rogers has long been part of the Obamas' inner circle. She was once married to John Rogers, a close friend of President-elect Obama's, who played basketball with Michelle Obama's brother Craig Robinson at Princeton. John Rogers will be a co-chairman of the inaugural committee.
Last week, Desirée Rogers hosted Jarrett's birthday party, an intimate affair that included the president-elect and Michelle Obama. "She has extraordinary flair and exquisite taste," Jarrett said. "My party was perfect -- she had my favorite food, my favorite flowers."
"The president-elect and Mrs. Obama wanted a social secretary with extraordinary accomplishment who would bring vision and a fresh approach to the White House," said Stephanie Cutter, spokeswoman for the presidential transition.
Stock said that Rogers, whose résumé includes numerous civic commitments and board memberships, expressed an interest in also becoming a part of the fabric of the Washington community.
Rogers is also committed to making the White House a fun place for the Obama daughters, Malia, 10, and Sasha, 7, sources said. Most important, the Obamas and Rogers will develop creative ways to bring a broad spectrum of people through the White House, "so it's the people's house again," Jarrett said. "This campaign engaged a lot of people in ways they had not engaged before. This is about continuing to capture that excitement."