Julianna Smoot brings an insider's perspective to Obama's inner circle

Julianna Smoot, left, is replacing Desiree Rogers as White House social secretary.
Julianna Smoot, left, is replacing Desiree Rogers as White House social secretary. (The Washington Post )
By Anne Kornblut and Krissah Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, March 3, 2010

With the departure of Desirée Rogers as White House social secretary comes further proof of President Obama's favorite maxim these days: Change is difficult.

A successful Chicago businesswoman, Rogers, 50, brought with her a stylish flair and fresh perspective that embodied the confident Obama chic -- and promised to inject a dose of outsider cool to the staid Washington social scene. She threw open the gates to the "People's House," with a couple of thousand trick-or-treaters at Halloween and eclectic, arty parties on weeknights.

But being an outsider also helped undo Rogers, whose runway outfits and magazine shoots -- and an I-make-my-own-rules attitude -- drew criticism from political circles and within corners of the administration. Her lack of familiarity with the ways of Washington culminated in the state dinner disaster in November, when husband-and-wife poseurs crashed the party and dominated headlines for weeks.

Now, in replacing Rogers, the White House has tapped a savvy insider with a track record of managing political egos and staging huge political events. By naming Julianna Smoot, who has raised hundreds of millions of dollars for Democratic candidates and presided over the Obama campaign's nearly half-billion-dollar haul, the administration has placed a person highly skilled in "donor maintenance" at the center of running the White House social operation. Smoot, who has been working as chief of staff of U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk, becomes the gatekeeper for the guest lists for any number of exclusive events with the president and first lady.

Senior White House officials maintain that there will be a seamless transition from Rogers to Smoot, with the style for both being dictated by the Obamas themselves. "Desirée laid a very firm foundation for how we can reach out in unconventional ways, and I think Julianna will continue in that tradition," senior adviser Valerie Jarrett said.

But some of those who admired Rogers as a trailblazer said they were sorry to see the first African American social secretary also become the first high-level departure from Obama's senior staff.

Perhaps the most obvious superficial difference between the outgoing and incoming social secretaries is one of culture and style: Where Rogers was high-profile and glamorous, Smoot is low-key and a more conventional political operative. A 2007 Washington Post profile described her as having "a blend of Southern charm and brash straight talk." And where Rogers appreciated the power of the limelight, Smoot has a better understanding of the no-drama Obama ethos, several Democratic officials said.

"She has no problem dealing with quote-unquote important people, but she doesn't put herself up on a pedestal," Democratic strategist Steve Hildebrand said of Smoot. "She doesn't see herself as a member of the social elite, and she certainly shies away from press." When Rogers wore a Comme des Garçons gown to the state dinner for the Indian prime minister, she garnered as much attention from the media as Michelle Obama did, which was noted with some displeasure inside the White House.

Those who admired Rogers's comportment said she had been unfairly tarnished for trying to bend the calcified if unofficial rules of Washington's social mores. Alexia Hudson, a university librarian who founded the blog the Black Socialite, has collected Rogers's write-ups in Ebony and Jet magazines, and the buzz around the African American society circuit for years, and offered a cultural critique. She said Rogers had been caught in the trap of blessings and curses that come with being an outsider in a high-profile role.

When Rogers was first tapped as social secretary, magazines raced to profile her, asking if she could "make Washington fun again." But when she erred, forgiveness was in short supply, Hudson said, adding that the calls for Rogers's departure seemed to be driven by something more than the security breach that happened on her watch.

"It happens to firsts. You will be invited in with a lot of fanfare, and somewhere along the line something happens, and you may or may not be aware that there was a cultural misstep that you made," Hudson said. "This is what the manual says, and this is what the job description says, but there are unwritten rules."

Some of the rules are more explicit than others. "A social secretary's job is to help the first family put their own social mark on the White House," Sheila Tate, Nancy Reagan's former press secretary, told Daily Beast columnist Sandra McElwaine. "If it becomes about them," the social secretary and his or her staffers, "then there's a problem."

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