By Jason Horowitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 27, 2010; A01
White House social secretary Desirée Rogers, whose tenure was marred in November by a highly embarrassing gate-crashing of the administration's first state dinner, will leave her job to return to the private sector, the White House said Friday. Her resignation marks the first fraying of the tight circle of friends and advisers President Obama brought with him from Chicago.
The president and the first lady, Michelle Obama, issued a joint statement confirming the resignation of their longtime friend. "When she took this position, we asked Desiree to help make sure that the White House truly is the People's House," said the Obamas' statement. "And she did that by welcoming scores of everyday Americans through its doors, from wounded warriors to local schoolchildren to NASCAR drivers."
It was an awkward choice of words with which to send off Rogers, given the scrutiny she came under when uninvited guests entered the White House for a state dinner in honor of the Indian prime minister. She oversaw the evening's planning, though Secret Service took the blame for the lapse. Subsequently, a White House probe into the matter suggested that representatives from Rogers's office assist the guards in checking names at future events. Rogers, who sat among the guests at the dinner, remained silent despite inquiries from the House Homeland Security Committee and the media about her role in the breach.
Asked in a Friday press briefing whether the state-dinner incident played a role in her departure, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said, "I don't think it did, no."
"She's not been asked to leave," Gibbs explained. "She's decided it's time to go back to do other things she loved."
Rogers, whose ex-husband, John Rogers Jr., played basketball at Princeton with the first lady's brother and raised money for President Obama during his campaign, said in an e-mail, "I am headed back to the private sector. I like meritocracies."
According to one person with whom Rogers shared her grievances and who would only speak anonymously to divulge details of a sensitive topic, Rogers complained that the White House's effort not to antagonize the Secret Service led to the White House making an example of her. (The Secret Service director publicly took the blame and the White House declined to make Rogers available to the House committee.) According to the friend, Rogers said she felt the knives in the White House were out for her.
There are conflicting accounts of how long Rogers's departure has been in the works and whose idea it was for her to leave. According to one administration official, who was granted anonymity to talk about private deliberations, the decision to remove Rogers had been made by Christmastime, as a direct result of the disastrous state dinner, which Tareq and Michaele Salahi and another fame-seeking uninvited guest attended.
The official expressed admiration for Rogers's work ethic, but said her eagerness for media exposure and taste for haute couture did not sit well with some administration officials who were mindful of appearances during dire economic times. (Trading in her Mercedes for a made-in-the-U.S.A. Buick, apparently, wasn't enough.) During the holiday season, Rogers assumed a lower profile by personally greeting guests at parties in a demure black suit.
"Once the state dinner deal went down," the administration official said, "people who had other political agendas started micromanaging every part of her business."
According to other administration sources, Valerie Jarrett, the president's trusted special adviser and Rogers's old friend from Chicago, had noticeably put some distance between her and the woman she helped bring to Washington, even though the two lived in the same Georgetown building and worked in the White House.
In a telephone interview Friday evening, Jarrett dismissed that characterization, calling Rogers "one of her oldest" and "very dear" friends. Jarrett said she chatted with Rogers daily, including Friday, and that Rogers first spoke to her about returning to the private sector in "early November," before the state dinner.
Asked whether the resignation signaled an unraveling of the Chicago inner circle with which Obama had surrounded himself, Jarrett said, "Why can't people in Washington just wish her well and say she's done a terrific job and is going back to the private sector? Why can't it be just that simple?"
The leading candidate for Rogers's job is Julianna Smoot, a well-known figure on the donor circuit who served as the Obama campaign's financial director and currently serves as chief of staff to U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk.
Rogers left Chicago with an impressive résumé. A 1985 graduate of Harvard Business School, she held prominent positions at the Illinois Lottery, a natural gas company and several large corporations.
Recently, Rogers spread word among friends of her frustration, saying she would leave of her own accord, but not happily.
They said she complained about the limits of the job, which she expected to be broader than that of a glorified party planner. The more substantive role she imagined would have given her a hand in administration arts policy, and other areas that the economic crisis minimized as priorities.
"All these things are on the drawing board," Rogers said in an interview with The Post in January 2009. "We want to celebrate American arts, American film, American dancers, American intellectuals, American scientists. To create this place where all these skills, all these wonders come together."
During the interview, in her brand-new East Wing office, Rogers brimmed with enthusiasm for her new job.
"I gaze out when I walk along the colonnade," Rogers said. "That is typically a picture I have seen since I was a young child of the president making that walk between the two wings. And so that is what I daydream about: 'Oh my goodness, I am really here.' "
Staff writers DeNeen L. Brown, Robin Givhan, Anne Kornblut, Roxanne Roberts and Michael D. Shear contributed to this report.