The One To See If You Want In
Thursday, February 5, 2009
For every one stride Desirée Rogers takes, you take two, trying to keep up as she hurries through the White House. She is the new social secretary, the doyenne of state dinners, the honcho of hospitality, with society and civilization resting on her shoulders as she briskly descends from her East Wing office, blows past Marine guards in the White House hush that seems all the more noticeable when punctuated by the percussion of her designer black heels, with red soles flashing.
This is her afternoon walk, from East Wing to West Wing. She takes it to give herself a moment to soak in history. She doesn't give herself a lot of time.
"I am big on efficiencies, and I'm trying to get as much as I can out of the moment," says Rogers, 49, a Chicago businesswoman, a Harvard MBA, the first African American social secretary at the White House. Divorced from Chicago businessman John Rogers, another close Obama associate, and co-chairman of the inauguration. Black slacks, flared, and a crisp white shirt. Pearls. She has appeared in Vogue. She is the sort of woman who makes other women want to touch up their lipstick. She wields the power of fashion and the power of her position, no cuteness or coyness or deferential sweetness on view.
She opens a French door to the Rose Garden, her destination, and steps outside. The rose bushes have been pruned, and the sunlight is wintry on white columns, but it's all she needs.
She says: "That is typically the picture I have seen since I was a young child, of the president making that walk between the two wings. And so that is when I daydream about, 'Oh my goodness, I really am here!' "
May you ask another question? No, that's enough, she says politely. She strides back to her office, back to work.
This is no tea-party social secretary.
* * *
The White House social secretary is impresario for the president, organizer of all White House social functions.
"It is one of the most political jobs in the White House," says Ann Stock, social secretary during the Clinton administration. Stock invited Rogers to her house in November and they talked about the job.
"You are running a communications agency with a business strategy and a marketing strategy," she says. "If you look at Desirée's job, she . . . has to work with the president, the political shop, the Cabinet shop, the legislative shop."
"Her boss will ostensibly be Michelle Obama," says Carl Sferrazza Anthony, historian of the National First Ladies Library. "But she is really working for the president and Mrs. Obama and will be tailoring all kinds of entertainment. Not just state dinners, but events based on what the president and first lady are intending to signify and symbolize."