After Salahis attend state dinner, questions center on White House's Desirée Rogers

By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 2, 2009

On the night of the Obamas' first state dinner, White House social secretary Desirée Rogers glided past the rope line of press and photographers at 6:53 p.m., pausing to boast, "We are very excited . . . everything looks great." Little did she know that the evening would end up tarnishing her vaunted reputation as an overachieving perfectionist.

Virginia socialites Michaele and Tareq Salahi managed to get past Secret Service, proceed into the dinner -- uninvited, the White House says -- and pose for pictures with VIP guests and shake hands with the president. Now questions have been raised over whether Rogers, whose office drew up the guest list, was so busy basking in the limelight that she failed to notice what was unfolding in the shadows.

On Thursday, a House committee wants answers from her about how this could happen. A key question: Was anyone from Rogers's office staffing the front gate? Even though Secret Service has accepted full responsibility for the security lapse, Rogers also has indicated that none of her staff was present when the Salahis arrived. As a result, her managerial style is under scrutiny. And her Hollywood persona, fairly or unfairly, could prove to be the most damning evidence of all.

Rogers -- the point person for the high-profile, high-security, high-stakes diplomatic gala for the Indian prime minister -- was dressed in a pale peach gown from the avant-garde Japanese design house Comme des Garcons. It was the sort of attention-getting dress, with its translucent sleeves and strands of pearls encased in layers of tulle, that proclaimed the wearer a fashion savant.

"Just because she has this job, it's not going to make her a worker bee," says a friend who did not want to be identified in order not to offend. "She's glamorous."

That Tuesday night, everything seemed to go off without a hitch. The day's rain had ended and the mist dissipated. The tent, which was actually an elegant pavilion, was breathtaking with chandeliers and enormous urns brimming with magnolia branches. The table settings -- granny-apple green and violet -- were romantic. And the entertainment -- the National Symphony Orchestra, Jennifer Hudson, A.R. Rahman -- went over big, with Hudson even receiving a standing ovation. The worst complaint seemed to be that the evening went on a bit too long, with the president's toast coming nearly an hour late. Still, it seemed as though Rogers, in her first grueling, high-pressure test as social secretary, had passed with flying colors.

"Desirée is very exacting, very detail-oriented. She absolutely knows how to entertain in an elegant, classy fashion. She definitely know what she's doing," says her friend Judith Byrd.

Although the state dinner was Rogers's responsibility, with its myriad moving parts, she was on the official guest list, along with other Obama intimates from Chicago, such as her ex-husband John Rogers, Marty Nesbitt and his wife, Anita Blanchard. Instead of remaining behind the scenes, like a discreet stage director, Desirée Rogers had a seat at the most exclusive dinner in town. She was not the first social secretary to be seated at a state dinner, although others typically pulled up a chair only after they'd mastered the role.

"Having observed Desirée that evening, she sat for a total of about five minutes," says Capricia Marshall, former Clinton social secretary and now the U.S. chief of protocol. "She worked around the clock; she did what she needed to do."

But this was the Obama administration's debut. And it was particularly complicated to pull off. The event had been moved from the State Dining Room, which holds about 130 people, to the tent, which could accommodate nearly 400. Rogers might have been confident, but she was not an old hand.

In recent years, social secretaries had always quashed their own public profiles, demurred from seeking the limelight, in service to their position and in deference to the first lady. Indeed, the names of the most recent social secretaries -- Cathy Fenton, Lea Berman and Amy Zantzinger probably ring no bells outside of Washington circles. Those who have more prominent profiles such as Ann Stock, who worked in the Clinton administration and now at the Kennedy Center, and Letitia Baldridge of the Kennedy years, waited until their post-White House years to step into the spotlight.

No one with a clipboard and walkie-talkie was standing sentry at the southeast gate when the Salahis arrived, identifying themselves as guests, according to the White House. Such velvet-rope vigilance is common everywhere from third-tier nightclubs to Seventh Avenue fashion shows and celebrity-drenched parties. And there's the matter of former White House staffer Cathy Hargraves, who predated the Obamas as in-house guest-list guru and abruptly quit in June, according to Newsweek, because she had been stripped of much of her responsibility by Rogers.

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