Profile of Samantha Tubman, the White House assistant social secretary

By Dan Zak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 14, 2009

Samantha Tubman will say that she's a boring person and -- on the surface, in the most positive sense, with all due respect -- this may be true.

She's super-nice. She's an Ivy Leaguer who radiates modesty and competence. No one will say a bad word about her, even in jest. She dresses well, loves her family, lives near Logan Circle, brunches with friends on Sundays, balks at turning 30 next month, and is one of those former bright-eyed campaign troupers who (cliche alert!) constantly pinches herself when reporting for duty at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

Everyone who went from being a grunt on the campaign trail to a star in the White House has his or her own story of how things fell into place, but perhaps none is as chancy and unboring as the assistant social secretary's. Her origin story starts on a Kentucky plantation in the 1800s, progresses through the highest office of Africa's first republic and ends in planning sessions for the Obama administration's first state dinner, coming up Nov. 24.

But before this marquee international event, Sam Tubman is snapping gingham tablecloths on the South Lawn by the vegetable garden, getting ready for another of Michelle Obama's healthy-living events with schoolchildren. Tubman compliments a White House butler's haircut as she places hand sanitizer on the tables. She asks the National Park Service to fetch rope and stakes to fashion a media corral. She checks the nearby restrooms to make sure they're open and flushable. She strides up and down the grassy expanse in sensible flats, touching base with the pastry chef, the head of operations, the first lady's advance team and anyone else involved with the show.

"She's a genius, she's a hero, she's a one-woman army," says Assistant White House Chef Sam Kass as he eyeballs luscious red calico lettuce in the garden. "She makes this whole thing work."

"This whole thing" . . . the event? The White House? (The nation?) Kass moves on to the purple bulbs of kohlrabi before he can clarify.

But here's what we do know about Tubman: White House Social Secretary Desirée Rogers takes the long view and Tubman makes things happen on the ground, in the moment. She's a maestra of the minutiae behind events that play out all over the White House, making sure the right podium is used, that every player is on the same page, that the ticktock of a program runs smoothly. She's a perfectionist and, from what people say, a total dear. She's happy with this reputation.

"I really don't like people not liking me," Tubman says. "I want to make sure people are happy and get along. . . . I think I'm really hard on myself. I don't like it when things go wrong."

* * *

Tubman's great-great-grandparents were freed from slavery in 1844 and moved from Kentucky to Liberia, and their grandson became the longest-serving president of the African nation. William V.S. Tubman, who held office from 1944 to 1971, had a son who moved to the United States to attend Howard University, married a fellow student and returned to Africa alone before their daughter was born at George Washington University Hospital in 1979. Jo Anne Tubman raised Samantha by herself in Columbia, often taking her little girl to work at NPR, where she was a desk assistant.

Jo Anne didn't want her child to grow up in a solitary apartment lifestyle, so the pair moved to Willingboro Township, N.J., when Sam was 7, to be closer to family. Her presidential lineage was mostly a novelty during her childhood.

"I would go to school and say, 'I'm a princess, I'm a princess!' and the kids would be like, 'What are you talking about?' " Sam says, laughing. "My grandfather was someone who presided over a country -- you'd think for some people it'd be a big deal, but it was never played up in my family."

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