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

By Anne Kornblut and Krissah Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, March 3, 2010; C01

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."

Rogers has continued to make waves since the announcement last week that she will leave her post. On Monday, Rogers spoke for the first time about the state dinner incident, flatly denying that her office was to blame for allowing Tareq and Michaele Salahi, a Virginia couple, to crash the White House event.

"It's wrong," Rogers said of reports that she had left the gates unmanned. She made her remarks in an interview with the Times-Picayune of New Orleans, saying that the idea that she was personally responsible for checking guests at the gates against a list was "hogwash."

"Everyone is saying the same thing, and it's wrong," Rogers said.

Privately, administration officials said Rogers's public self-defense on her way out the door was not helpful in trying to turn the page on the incident. Jarrett, in an interview, said that, in fact, all of the White House shared some responsibility.

"We did a review of our procedures and determined that although, ultimately, the Secret Service are responsible for who enters the White House, we could have done more to help them do their job," Jarrett said.

Smoot, 42, comes to the position as an Obama campaign veteran who also worked as the finance chairman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. She is credited not just with helping launch Obama's successful Internet fundraising operation but also with matching -- and at times surpassing -- the traditional Clinton money machine, tapping new people to be "bundlers" who brought together large donations. Allies describe her as a talented political organizer -- not just a financial rainmaker -- with a good sense of humor and ability to prod her staff to do unpleasant tasks.

Stephanie Cutter, who met Smoot on her first day at Smith College in 1986 and served on the school's Senate budget committee with her, said she had this "unbelievable ability to make people feel good about their budgets, even if it was being cut."

Hildebrand, who recommended that Obama hire Smoot as one of his first advisers when the fledgling campaign got underway in 2006, described her as "no-frills" and said the "social aspect of the job will be a little bit secondary for her."

Around Washington, operatives said that appointing Rogers had made some sense as Obama sought to bring a different look and feel to the White House. But when it became clear her style was not working, it was also natural for the Obamas to turn to someone who gets politics and knows the people who run the capital, they said.

"There's an argument that it's good to have someone come in with a fresh look at things, but the flip side to that is, it's good to have an understanding of what it's like to be part of a big part of an organization," said Democratic strategist Kiki McLean, a managing director of the Washington office of the public-relations firm Porter Novelli. "There are benefits to both, and both are assets."

Yet as Rogers leaves, so, too, does what she represented for her African American followers. Monica Mingo, a 40-year-old housewife who lives in Montgomery County, said she and her friends came to view the first black social secretary as a kind of ultra-stylish role model who played against stereotype.

When she heard the news of Rogers's resignation Friday, Mingo picked her favorite photo of Rogers vamping in a black dress and created the Facebook group: "Toast to Ms. Desiree Rogers, White House Social Secretary."

"She was sacrificed * sigh *," Mingo wrote.

"Devastated" is how Mingo describes feeling. "She is flyness. I know people come and go in any administration, they move on, but I just feel that she was such a force to me personally." The Facebook group Mingo created for Rogers now has 176 fans.

With Rogers out, "the potential still exists for Washington's social scene to be more dynamic and diverse, but it remains to be seen whether the new White House social secretary will continue what the previous one began to usher in," said lobbyist and sports agent Lamell McMorris, who has attended White House events.

For her part, Rogers has said she was determined to fulfill the Obamas' vision of making the White House the People's House and opened it up to those not traditionally invited to participate in events. Her office ran 330 events in her 13-month tenure. Local children were welcomed to trick-or-treat at the White House for the first time last Halloween. Aspiring musicians participated in jam sessions before part of the concert series she orchestrated. Children from Bancroft Elementary became regular fixtures at Michelle Obama's White House garden.

"Go back and look at the White House's healthy children's fair and at all the brown faces there. Have we ever seen anything of that scale before?" asked Aminah Hanan, the Chicago-based managing editor of the blog Michelle Obama Watch, which has closely followed the East Wing. "I just hope that Ms. Smoot can keep the same tradition going."

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