Jeremy Bernard could have had Paris.
It could have been a blast, another chapter in the life of an irreverent, shrewd insider who can get away with playfully tossing an ornamental gourd in a fancy Washington restaurant without any repercussions. But after only three months at the apex of diplomatic cool at the U.S. Embassy in the French capital, Bernard is returning to Washington.
On Friday, the Obama administration introduced Bernard as the new White House social secretary — the first man and first openly gay person to serve as keeper of the nation’s most coveted, gold-engraved invitations.
Bernard, a 49-year-old with a penchant for outrageous humor, has been a force in Democratic politics and in the gay-rights movement for the past two decades. He raised millions for Barack Obama’s presidential campaign and corralled donors for glamorous fundraisers, such as the 1,500-guest soiree at Oprah Winfrey’s estate in Santa Barbara, Calif., in September 2007.
For the past two years, Bernard has served as White House liaison to the National Endowment for the Humanities, but he recently moved across the Atlantic to Paris to work as senior adviser to the U.S. ambassador, a job that was soon trumped by the one at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
“Jeremy shares our vision for the White House as the People’s House, one that celebrates our history and culture in dynamic and inclusive ways,” Obama said in a statement released by the White House. In the statement, Bernard said he has “long admired the arts and education programs that have become hallmarks of the Obama White House and I am eager to continue these efforts in the years ahead.”
But who gets ushered into the people’s house will be of particular interest to campaign-finance watchdogs and GOP rivals as the 2012 reelection effort intensifies — campaign donor lists will surely be checked closely against White House invitation lists.
Bernard, who declined interview requests, is the third person named to the job in two years. For Bernard to land such an inside-the-gates gig sends a signal that the White House is ready to open doors to wealthy supporters who have felt frozen out, according to several who requested anonymity to speak freely.
Chicago businesswoman Desiree Rogers — the first African American to hold the job — arrived in Washington with fanfare, and she elevated what had been a behind-the-scenes job into a high-profile stage for events at the executive mansion. Her colorful tenure was cut short after three uninvited guests crashed Obama’s first state dinner in November 2009.
Rogers was replaced by Julianna Smoot, a campaign-finance maven with political skills that the White House reluctantly concluded were too valuable for her not to work on the reelection campaign. Smoot announced she was leaving last month.
Bernard, a San Antonio native, will likely cut a bigger figure than the demure Smoot. “They do everything big in Texas — his sense of humor and laugh reflect that,” said Scott Sanders, a close friend who is a major Broadway and Hollywood producer.
At a young age, Bernard moved to Los Angeles where he started his long tenure as a political fundraiser, and was rewarded in the 1990s by President Bill Clinton, who appointed him to a Kennedy Center advisory committee. Bernard also served as a board member for several gay organizations and advised the Los Angeles sheriff’s and police departments on gay issues.
His left-leaning political philosophy was shaped “behind enemy lines” in deeply conservative Texas, his ex-partner, Rufus Gifford, said in an interview Friday. The guiding light was Bernard’s father, the late Herschel Bernard, a respected lawyer known for championing liberal causes, such as farmworkers’ rights and civil rights for African Americans.
Amid the confusion and anguish of the 1980s AIDS crisis in Los Angeles, Bernard was known as someone who could bridge gaps between the gay and straight communities, said his friend, Marylouise Oates, a former journalist and wife of political consultant Bob Shrum. The West Los Angeles home that he shared with Gifford was flung open for garrulous dinners that stretched into the wee hours.
“He makes that Texas stuff — chili,” Oates said.
“You could go to his house for dinner and find a U.S. senator and also somebody who had just been doing some carpentry work for him,” said Bernard’s friend, David Mixner, a prominent gay rights activist and political consultant. The two worked together on Clinton’s first presidential campaign, and on gay rights issues.
Bernard took to the streets with Mixner for the 1993 March on Washington for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Rights. Bernard got the call when Mixner was arrested outside the White House by the Park Police. “All right,” Mixner recalled Bernard telling him, with a hint of a scolding, “I’ll come get you out. But I should leave you in!”
“He didn’t want to get arrested,” Mixner said. “That wasn’t his gig.”
In Los Angeles, Bernard and Gifford embodied the ideal of a power political couple — personally and professionally. “Jeremy and I weren’t just life partners, we were business partners,” Gifford said.
They founded a political consulting firm and “our first client was Senator Barack Obama,” said Gifford, who is poised to become finance director of Obama’s reelection campaign. Their firm also represented an array of candidates such as Democratic Sens. Mark Begich of Alaska and Kay Hagan of North Carolina.
When they arrived in Washington more than two years ago, they immediately turned heads. They were named one of the 50 most influential gay couples in the country. Friends talked of Bernard’s “wild” sense of humor — like the time he cracked up the table by throwing an ornamental gourd at a friend in the Blue Duck Tavern. The couple settled into a trendy “green” building on Logan Circle with their beagle, Lucas.
The couple split recently — Gifford got custody of Lucas — but they remain close. “We grew apart,” Gifford said. “But to this day, I consider him one of my best friends.” (On Friday, Gifford posted a Facebook shout-out: “Another very proud day!”)
Bernard left the White House in November for the embassy job in Paris — and found himself interviewing for the East Wing job just two months later.
Although the social secretary reports to the first lady’s office, Michelle Obama, who wasn’t quoted in Bernard’s announcement, appears to have less of a day-to-day role in official entertaining and trusts the details to her staff. The social office is responsible for a variety of events at the White House — everything from state dinners, political gatherings (Sunday’s dinner for the nation’s governors), themed concerts such as Thursday’s salute to Motown celebrating Black History Month, as well as quieter receptions and lunches. The position requires a sense of production values and diplomatic skills in dealing with competing agendas inside and outside the White House.
“It’s one of the most important positions in the White House,” said Philip Dufour, who was social secretary to Vice President Al Gore and the first man to hold that job (and who would presumably have been the first to get the White House gig if the 2000 election had gone Gore’s way). Dufour said the social secretary is one of the few staffers to report to both the president and first lady, which makes it “one of the best jobs in Washington — interesting and complex at the same time.”
There were about a dozen serious contenders, said a source familiar with the process, but Bernard’s name was recommended by several who cited his organizational and management skills, gracious manner and sense of humor. Donors were offended by the lack of outreach early in the administration, then heartened by Smoot’s appointment and now see Bernard as one of their own, according to several interviewed Friday.
Bernard’s pioneer status as the first male to guide the social office was played down by many, including one predecessor.
“Someone asked me today what I thought about a man in the job — I said, ‘Why not?’ ” said Ann Stock, former White House social secretary and currently assistant secretary of state for educational and cultural affairs. The important factor is his private-sector, public-sector and diplomatic experience, a potent combination. “You get a sense of what you need to do and how you need to do it,” she said.
Staff writer Jason Horowitz contributed to this report.