Voices of Power: White House Social Secretary Desiree Rogers
By Washington Post Staff Writer, Lois Romano
Fri. February 27, 2009
MS. ROMANO: Welcome, Desirée Rogers. Thank you for having us at the White House where you are now the new Social Secretary.
MS. ROGERS: Well, thanks for coming by.
MS. ROMANO: Few people really understand the magnitude of the job of White House Social Secretary. Describe the job to us.
MS. ROGERS: Well, I guess other than the people in the office--
MS. ROMANO: Right.
MS. ROGERS: --we all now get it. We now get it. I think the Social Office is really the office where East meets West. For those that don't know, the East side is typically the First Lady's side of the house. The West side is typically the President's side of the house. So it's where East meets West, where business meets social, where the President meets the First Lady, and where husband and wife meet. So we really are balancing all of the demands for events and use of the White House assets. That's what we do.
MS. ROMANO: Now, you hesitated a little bit before you accepted the job because I think I saw a quote where you said, "As a businesswoman, I don't want to take a job where I'd be picking flowers."
MS. ROGERS: You know, people have made so much out of that. It is really a joke, and I wouldn't say that I hesitated, but certainly, you know, one of the things that we do is create ambience here in the home, but it's certainly not the major part of the work that we're doing, and so I think that was kind of a tongue-in-cheek joke that somehow people have like really gravitated towards. I like picking flowers.
MS. ROMANO: How did Mrs. Obama describe the job to you?
MS. ROGERS: Basically, when we sat down, she really described it as wanting this to be the people's house, wanting it to be inclusive, wanting it to be a celebration of American strength, spirit, pride, saluting all that's good about America; and really, as we talked about it, we thought, this will be really a symbol of the Presidency in so many ways to so many people, and so how do you create events, how do you create dialogues, how do you have art and culture here, how do you have intellectuals here really all rejoice in who they are, but also inspire all of us to be better. So...
MS. ROMANO: Now, did the President have a view of the job also?
MS. ROGERS: Absolutely. They've known me for a long time. So they know the kind of work I do, what I'm interested in. I love bringing people together. I think that the environment is so important in terms of what kind of relationships you might be able to create, how people get to know each other. I mean, certainly, one of the things that is really a stronghold in the Obama Presidency or Obama way is this whole idea of bringing people together and really not being afraid to talk with and have dialogue and entertain and have fun with even those that may differ from you in many respects, including their opinion on things.
MS. ROMANO: You have talked about bringing everybody together and making great minds and great Americans and ordinary Americans, but there's also--aren't there a lot of competing demands and agendas to get on those guest lists?
MS. ROGERS: Well, it's only one office, and quite frankly, the rooms are a lot smaller sometimes than I would like. You know, can't we squeeze one more chair in there? And so the tendency, I think, could be to really try to squeeze people into these small quarters, but then you really destroy the experience for everyone else. So I try to think forward, one event at a time, you know, making certain that everyone that is here really enjoys that, and knowing that, you know, if they didn't get into that one event, they'll be another one. And we've got four years here, hopefully eight.
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MS. ROMANO: You ran a billion dollar utility. Do you feel like a CEO now? Are there comparable aspects of the job?
MS. ROGERS: This is what I would say. And had I not had that experience, I would not be able to do this job, and so I think the jobs that I've had have given me a certain amount of maturity to be able to handle all of the inputs in a way that I think is working and also in a way that doesn't have all the structure or all the support that perhaps you would have in those types of positions. So, in many respects, we really are trying to not run the Social Office like a business, but we do have a strategy. We do have a mission. We are trying to standardize certain things so that our time is not spent on, you know, picking flowers or linens, that we've got standards. We have modules that we can use and pick and choose from so that we really can create the type of experiences I'm talking about. We won't be able to do that without standardizing kind of the regular dinners and lunches and those types of things.
MS. ROMANO: Valerie Jarrett said that by hiring you, the Obamas were signaling that they wanted to use the White House strategically. So is there a long-term plan to kind of define who they are--
MS. ROGERS: Well, I mean, certainly --
MS. ROMANO: --through the work you're doing?
MS. ROGERS: There is a view that we really want to make certain that we don't look at the end of the year and say we just did all these events, but for what reason. You know, we really want people not only to experience the wow of the house, but really the wow of the experience of being here, the impact that even--you know, just last night, we had a young girl here who then went on to hear the--the speech. I mean, this is going to be an impression in her life, all of her life. I mean, just coming, so many people have just said, "Just being here is marvelous for me," and so I just think that we have this tremendous asset, that we need to make certain that people can touch and feel, even if it's not being here, but through the Internet. So that's another piece that we really want to talk--
MS. ROMANO: Tell us about your Internet lottery idea.
MS. ROGERS: Well, I think that it's important that we create opportunities for people to be able to come to the house, and so it would be great to have some kind of Internet lottery where one of the seats is to a lucky winner through the Internet. I mean, you're going to see us using the Internet a lot more for events.
MS. ROMANO: Have you started planning something that you're going to do?
MS. ROGERS: Well, we do have a concept in mind, and we're working on it for an event, basically the Easter Egg Roll.
MS. ROMANO: Can you tell us a little bit about that?
MS. ROGERS: Well, we're still working on it. But we are hopeful that we'll be able to use the Internet for people to be able to sign up to come to the hunt.
MS. ROGERS: Yeah, as opposed to all that standing in line for long periods of time.
MS. ROMANO: Oh, for the general public.
MS. ROGERS: Yeah, yeah.
MS. ROMANO: And then what about using the Internet to let people see events?
MS. ROGERS: Well…. I've only been here a few weeks, so that [we're looking] at how we can--can interface with people through the Internet. I mean, I think that through the campaign, it was just a wonderful thing. There were lots of people that like to communicate that way. You can reach so many people, and so many shared experiences, you know, can get to other people. So you don't always have to be here to meet and hear what someone thinks of their experience. It would be great to be able to talk to people afterwards and have them on video or on the Internet saying, you know, "I was here. This is what I saw. Boy, you should come," or maybe not or, you know, just their comments about what the experience was for them and bringing that into people's homes because we know not that everyone can't come to Washington.
MS. ROMANO: You were quoted, talking about the idea that not all work gets done at the conference table.
MS. ROGERS: Mm-hmm.
MS. ROMANO: Have you found that Washington is a place where a lot of business gets done after hours, and are you thinking that way in your events?
MS. ROGERS: You know, I'm from New Orleans, and I know that people do like to sit and talk and drink and, you know, have conversation, you have dialogue. I think, even already, I was at the Governors Dinner earlier this week, and just sitting with the governors, hearing them talk, hearing them relax a bit, seeing them dance, seeing them walk through the house and meet each other and say, gosh, I haven't talked to so and so in such a period of time, you could just tell that as the evening wore on, you know, probably conversations were being had, deals were being made, or at least people were deciding that they wanted to meet again more informally. So I really feel that we had great success with that, with that group, and I had heard that they were a more, you know, difficult group. They didn't seem difficult at all to me. They seemed like very willing to have a good time, every willing to enjoy themselves.
MS. ROMANO: Was it weird having people--Republicans in the White House that had been on the morning shows criticizing the President?
MS. ROGERS: You know, I don't know that it was weird. I think that people have their own opinions. Sometimes you can get caught up in the disagreement or what they're disagreeing about, and sometimes it's difficult, without question. But at the same time, you have to work together and so it's sometimes very hard to put those things aside, but at the same time, it's almost like you have to start fresh again.
MS. ROMANO: Right.
MS. ROGERS: And you'll never win if you're not speaking. You'll never change someone's opinion if you've made a decision that you're not going to really communicate or have a dialogue. I always think of it as a challenge to convince people to see things a different way.
MS. ROMANO: There were some comments after the dinner that maybe it wasn't appropriate to have a fancy dinner in these economic times. What do you say to those people?
MS. ROGERS: Well, I think a couple of things. I think that one of the things is we prided ourselves on maybe not having such a fancy dinner, and so-- one of the things I was told over and over again is "Boy, this isn't as formal as it usually is," and so we really focused on American cuisine. We really worked hard to make certain that we incorporated different parts of the State, and I think that it is right to have the first dinner, formal dinner be that, be a dinner American governors. I mean, we need the governors working and talking together. There's so many issues here in America that I think it feels right to have them here, have them working and talking together, and also having them have some fun together. We're all working hard. America is working hard, and I don't think that we want to eliminate those opportunities that we have to, in fact, celebrate. I mean, nobody is going to cancel all birthdays or all anniversaries, and so I think we have to be reasonable. It's extremely important to be reasonable, but at the same time, I think you can go to the opposite extreme. I think they should have been really energized to work really hard on Monday morning.
Ms. Romano: You told Vogue, I believe, that you are finding that people are not subtle about wanting to get invited to the White House. Tell me a little bit about that.
MS. ROGERS: Well, they're not. I mean, people are--and that's okay. I'm a very direct, kind of honest person. So, if you want it, you just say it, and we'll see what we can do. I mean, I can't accommodate everyone, but people they want to be here.
MS. ROMANO: So are you very popular right now?
MS. ROGERS: I can be. You when I leave here, I usually spend--I'm spending a lot of time here in these--in these early--early months. So I'm not out that much.
MS. ROGERS: I can be. You when I leave here, I usually spend--I'm spending a lot of time here in these--in these early--early months. So I'm not out that much.
MS. ROMANO: Now that you've been here a while and you see how everybody is working, I have to ask you about Andy Card's comment criticizing the President for showing up in shirt sleeves in the White House. You've seen the culture of the place now. So what do you think of that comment?
MS. ROGERS: I don't know that we should be worried about what people have on. I just think there's so much work to be done. If someone's comfortable in the short sleeves getting their work done, hey, let them wear their short sleeves. Now, had he come to the Governors Dinner in short sleeves, you know, that's a different story.
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MS. ROMANO: Let's talk a little bit about Mrs. Obama.
MS. ROMANO: How will you help her shape and define her role as First Lady?
MS. ROGERS: I think Michelle is shaping her role just fine. I think I'm here as support. I'm here as a friend. I'm here as a colleague to some extent, and you know, we had great fun, for example, with the governors dinner just making certain that when she had her own special touches bringing in the staff and making certain that they were able to speak about the food that was prepared, bringing in young children or--I wouldn't say they were that young, but bringing in students that are studying, cuisines and having them be able to talk to the chefs here. So I think the combination of the two of us working together on this, these things, is just great. We give her a platform, and then she takes it the next step.
MS. ROMANO: Now, she's called herself the "Mom-in-Chief." Does that mean she wants to become a national symbol of motherhood and being a wife or--
MS. ROGERS: I think she wants to be a national symbol of who she is, and in my mind, that is a woman that is not afraid to say "I want to be Mom-in-Chief," whatever that means to her and so I think what she's saying to women is that you can create a life and you can craft a life that is meaningful to you whether that's Mom-in-Chief I'm a mother to my children first, a daughter to my mom, and also supportive of my husband and the things that I think are important to me. I think that's what she's showing us. If I want to wear no sleeves to hear my husband speak, that's what I'm going to do. If I want to be involved with military families, healthy eating, work-life balance, I mean, she's showing us there are ways to get that done.
MS. ROMANO: There's a lot of expectations from a First Lady and we all project onto her what we want her to be. So here's a woman who is Ivy League educated. How does she find a way to do substantive work to feel fulfilled-- but yet balance the ceremonial expectations on her?
MS. ROGERS: You know, because I think she makes decisions about what she wants to do what she wants to be involved in, and I think it's easy to project onto someone that is weaker that may not be as self-assured that may be doubtful of who they are and what they want. That's not what we have here. I think we have someone that is very sure of who she is and is thinking about very carefully, you know, what role and what impact she wants to have, and so, certainly, she's open to opinion and open to listening, but at the same time, she's very self-assured and very confident in the role that she's taking.
MS. ROMANO: During the campaign, her approval ratings were mediocre and now they are soaring. What's changed?
MS. ROGERS: Well, she is the First Lady. I mean, I think she's handled herself extremely well. I think as more and more people get to know her and see her they really see the warmth and she has changed some things. You are seeing, you know--I don't know how--how do I say that? You are seeing someone that you're thinking, "Well, that's maybe what I would have done. I would have maybe had children--kids come and see how the--how the kitchen works. You know, maybe I would have thanked the chef." You know, you're seeing kind of a very natural reaction to moving here. You're hearing someone say, "You know, I had an adjustment. I like the waffles." I mean, so you're getting a real sense of someone's personality as opposed to any kind of snippets or little pieces. You're really seeing someone go through the paces of this major change in their lives, and you're saying, "Okay, she's human. I like what she's saying. I can't wait to hear what she's going to say next."
MS. ROMANO: So are you saying that she's feeling more settled and happier, and so that's what the American people are--
MS. ROGERS: Well, I'm saying it's very different-- being on a campaign trail, making a stop --and now being at the White House and people looking at it, okay, day one, what did you do or interacting with the people that live in the House or interacting with the people that are working at the various departments, and I think the expectation of a First Lady has been a little bit--or at least the pattern, the historical pattern of what people may have anticipated they do and what she's doing is very different, and so they may not have thought that a First Lady would go out and talk to the employees and welcome the employees and thank the employees but as human beings I know I think that's a smart idea. I think I would have done that. You know what I'm saying? And so there's this human side that people, I believe, are really connecting with. Mothers are probably connecting, saying, "Yeah, I would say I want to be Mom-in-Chief." She's not afraid of saying, "I want to be Mom-in-Chief," and so I think people are saying, women are saying, men are saying, "Yeah, that's good. That's right."
MS. ROMANO: So the trips to the agencies to go see the employees. tell me what's being accomplished there. You're on your sixth visit now?
MS. ROGERS: Well, I think a couple of things. I think government is hard work. You know, sometimes it can be thankless work, and I think it's important that she is welcomed and that she says, "On behalf of myself and my--we appreciate what you're doing. You know, we all want to work together. We know how important the work is that you're doing," and so some of her first visits are actually out to the groups that are supporting this nation and so all of the--she was a --her husband was elected on behalf of the American people. She is the First Lady. So, in a way, she is using that role to be a conduit for the American public to say, "Thank you so much for all the work that you and your family are doing on behalf of the American people as our as -- her husband is doing the work that he's doing. So, in many respects, I think it's a marvelous use of her time.
MS. ROMANO: And you talked about doing that with military families and military people in general.
MS. ROGERS: One of the things that Mrs. Obama is very keen on is military families. I mean, in many respects, they give so much to our country, that they should be saluted, just as we salute the militia that are going out across the nation to protect us, and so that is certainly, you know, a group that is very close to us. We did a concert during the inauguration where military children and families were really celebrated, and so I would expect that we would continue in that vein.
MS. ROMANO: This is the first time we've had kids in the White House in decades, I guess since Amy Carter. Tell me what you're doing to help make this a very kid friendly place, so these kids can live happily and comfortably in really what's a museum.
MS. ROGERS: Well, they are going to --there's going to be some work that we're doing, probably just kind of getting their opinions on the things like the Easter Egg Hunt. We've made certain--or are making certain that the activities extend to age 10 so that--
MS. ROMANO: So you are consulting with Sasha and Malia.
MS. ROGERS: There's going to be a little bit more. You know, they like Wii. So we had Wii at the Super Bowl Party. You know, so there are ways that you can make certain that you're listening to children without--you know, one of the things I said earlier on as we planned these kid friendly events, let's hear from the kids as opposed to adults who think they're kids, who think they can be kids, "I know what children want." Well--
MS. ROMANO: So do you sit down with them?
MS. ROGERS: I have informally.
MS. ROGERS: I ask them. I ask them questions.
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MS. ROMANO: Do you feel any additional pressure or expectations being the Social Secretary for the first African American President in the White House?
MS. ROGERS: Well I don't know that I feel any pressure--more pressure than I, you know, normally feel in anything that I do. I would say that I feel a certain amount of pride when I see the staff. Most of the staff, many members of the staff who have been here many, many years are African Americans. And so, when they look at me, you can tell they have this certain, like, "Oh, we hope she makes it. We're going to help her. We"-- they just have almost the look of my grandfather in terms of their own pride and own support for the work that I'm doing. So I think that might be a little bit different.
MS. ROMANO: Last week Eric Holder talked to his own staff, and he basically described the nation as a segregated nation still, and his words exactly were that there is "polite, restrained mixing that passes for meaningful interaction, but that little gets accomplished." Do you agree with that?
MS. ROGERS: You know what, I mean, I think everyone is entitled to their opinion. I come from the Deep South. I was educated in the Northeast, spent 20 years in the Midwest. I think you have to work at it, and what I would say is my friends…..they are all different races, all different age groups. but I work at that and so when I'm planning something I don't mind mixing it up with a 25-year-old and a 65-year-old, and so I think you have to work, work at it because I do believe our natural instinct is to gravitate towards people that look like us, and so you have to kind of like fight that a little bit. And I think it just comes out of ignorance to some extent and also laziness and also just thinking, well, this will be easier, when really, if you just take that next step, go--you know, don't look for the--in my case, African American woman in the room, go just one step over and go for someone that doesn't look--you'll find this whole new world that will be just enchanting to you. You just have to try, just try.
MS. ROMANO: Do you have special opportunities to do that in this job to advance?
MS. ROGERS: Absolutely. Absolutely. I mean, I sat between, you know, two white males on Sunday night. I think what they would say is, not to pat myself, but "she was delightful. It wasn't scary, I was sitting next to an African American." They would say "this is someone who we had a great conversation with and boy somehow you can just kind of put aside any fears or myths." I think people really behave based on what they're comfortable with and the more impressions they have the more occurrences they have to experience, you know, someone that is different and it's a positive experience the more comfortable they'll feel the next time.
MS. ROMANO: So Vogue said about you, that you have managed to combine executive and chic. Do you agree with that?
MS. ROGERS: Well I'm not certain what that means. I think that one of the things that sometimes--you know, I was talking to somebody about this that somehow if a woman looks a certain way, then she must not be very bright, and so I think this whole idea that you can work on your appearance, work with whatever assets you have physically and still be intellectually, you know, stellar. You know, I think that's something that women should embrace. Women should embrace that. It's okay. It's okay.
MS. ROMANO: Is it a challenge, though, to balance that?
MS. ROGERS: Not really. I don't think that it is. I think the perception and how--what people's perception are of women that look a certain way is more the challenge-- as opposed to the woman herself. You know, you see women dressing down or, trying-- to look at certain way. Look the way you are and rejoice in who you are and what you look like. It's okay, you know, and I tell young women. I'm like, "I know your comments could have been smarter than that. What are you doing? Don't try to play this like I'm a little--I'm the dumber role, a little slower. Don't do that."
MS. ROMANO: Well, you seem to enjoy fashion. You were sitting there during fashion week. Was that fun?
MS. ROGERS: You know, it was fun. I think part of what I was doing and quite frankly is scouting. You know, there's such a collection of creative people at these shows. I met a great entertainer that we'll bring here a little bit later in the spring or summer. I had an opportunity to talk to a fashion designer who is very involved in not-for-profits that are doing some amazing things with the children. So my goal really was to kind of get myself linked into that creative community and to really open my arms and say, "We are looking for ideas. We want your input. You know, we really want to make this kind of a mecca for innovation, for thinking for art, for culture. So please think of us as you're thinking through those things that you're involved in, so"--
MS. ROMANO: So it's a sophisticated networking, sort of what you were doing in your last executive job. Right?
MS. ROGERS: A little bit.
MS. ROMANO: Now, I saw where you said you didn't know what designer you were wearing at the Governors Ball.
MS. ROGERS: Yeah.
MS. ROMANO: Is that true?
MS. ROGERS: It was true.
MS. ROMANO: And what was it? So you didn't--
MS. ROGERS: I didn't look it up. I haven't had time.
MS. ROMANO: Now, come on.
MS. ROGERS: Seriously.
MS. ROMANO: Really? You didn't know what you were wearing?
MS. ROGERS: I'm serious.
MS. ROMANO: Oh, okay. So can you clear one thing up? That there's all these little mentions of you having some Republican ties, like being an alternate delegate at the '92 convention.
MS. ROGERS: Mm-hmm.
MS. ROMANO: Were you a Republican once in another life?
MS. ROGERS: No, I worked for a Republican governor---a very moderate Republican governor, who actually I respect a great deal. I mean, he was on the right side of the issues that were important to me, women's rights, those types of things, and so I worked for him in the--I think the early '90s. I ran the State lottery.
MS. ROMANO: So you were not a Republican?
MS. ROGERS: I was not.
MS. ROGERS: But I did support him.
MS. ROMANO: In two years from now what are people going to be saying about the culture and feel of the White House which is another way of asking that is what would you like your legacy to be?
MS. ROGERS: I hope that they'll say that they'll know about it that they'll know that there's some change, and they will feel a great sense of pride that, "Oh, my goodness. You know, look at these wonderful things that are happening in America that we can showcase." I hope they'll have a desire to come-- and not just to do a tour, but to experience something in a different way. I'm hopeful that we can showcase not only people that we all know about, but young people that are just starting out. We can create links and ways for them to--to be with each other and work with experts in the areas that they are thinking about. I am also hopeful that we will be able to create international links with artists, painters that will be able to bring in more modern art, really have this place be reflective of all Americans.