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.
There was a new social sheriff in town and, for better or worse, she was one like no other.
The 50-year-old Rogers arrived in Washington this year to great fanfare, no small amount of it of her own making. She entered the East Wing in a whirlwind of media exposure. She was featured in the glossy pages of Vogue -- beating the first lady's appearance in the fashion bible by a month. For a profile in WSJ, the Wall Street Journal's slick magazine, stylists outfitted Rogers in luxury fashions from Prada and Jil Sander and she posed in the first lady's garden tossing a flirtatious smile over her shoulder.
Early in her tenure, Rogers made a trip to New York City during February's fashion week. She sat in the front row of runway shows such as Donna Karan and smiled for the flock of photographers who descended on the striking Obama gatekeeper with her pixie cut, stylish wardrobe and high-altitude heels. She dabbled in a world of hipsters and art scene know-it-alls in her attempt to bring a contemporary gleam to the White House. And she seemed to thrive on all the attention. She has come across as a big-picture manager, not one focused on details.
That's in contrast to her reputation at Peoples Energy. There, says her former boss Thomas Patrick, she was so intent on learning the customer relations business from the ground up that she put on a hard hat and went out into the field with the workers who managed the pipes.
None of this was surprising to longtime friends who knew her from her Chicago days, when she was a mover and shaker in the city's high-culture society circles, and who worried that Rogers was putting herself out in front of the public too fast and too furiously. They warned her of the ways of Washington, its desire for discretion, and urged to keep her profile low. In the nation's capital, no one need know whether the social secretary wore Nina Ricci or Halston, just that she was appropriately clothed.
But Rogers has never been an introvert. The New Orleans native has waved to the crowds from a perch atop a Mardi Gras float. In Chicago, she was known for her eclectic mix of guests at her dazzling parties. She has stood up to dance by herself in cocktail bars, as friends sat by and watched in amusement. She is a coquettish life-of-the-party.
She came to the White House having known the Obamas for two decades, an introduction precipitated by her ex-husband, who played basketball with Craig Robinson, the first lady's brother. Desirée Rogers was a prolific fundraiser for Obama's presidential campaign and had donated to his Senate run, though she did not contribute to his early campaigns for the Illinois state legislature.
Of all those inside the Obama inner circle, she is closest to Valerie Jarrett. Rogers, Jarrett and Linda Johnson Rice of Johnson Publishing, which owns Ebony magazine, were the three musketeers in Chicago, profiled by a local magazine as a fearsome threesome. It's the connection to Jarrett that is Rogers's protective cocoon as she straddles the line between the East Wing and the West.
"All this talk about Desirée being lifelong friends with the Obamas is bunk. She's there because of Valerie," says someone who has known Rogers for years but didn't want to be identified so as not to upset her.
Rogers is having to negotiate a new relationship with the Obamas, one made difficult by her own heat-seeking personality. She arrived at the White House as a friend and peer of the first couple. But her own social stature and wealth exceeded that of the Obamas for many years. Long before their ascent, she was a star in Chicago society, running with the city's elite.
"She and her former husband, and then she alone, were very important social figures in Chicago. She belonged to all of the A-list clubs and charities and certainly had a great understanding of how that world operated," says Patrick, retired chairman of Peoples Energy. "She was my tutor in that world."
The Obamas were the nice couple from the South Side. She was a cut above. And now she has a job in which she is expected to serve at their pleasure.
Staff writer Roxanne Roberts and staff researcher Eddy Palanzo contributed to this report.