At a media preview on Thursday of the menu and place settings for Friday’s state dinner honoring Chinese President Xi Jinping, White House social secretary Deesha Dyer didn’t have time to linger. She greeted the reporters and photographers snapping away at the dusky-pink draped tables in the ornate State Dining Room, but swiftly turned on the heel of her pointy-toed pump.
“I’ve got a little bit of work to do,” she said by way of explaining her quick exit.
That’s an understatement. She’s the woman in charge of overseeing every minute detail of the Friday-night event, from seating charts (who will sit at the president’s table?) to the timing of the after-dinner entertainment (R&B artist Ne-Yo). And only the relationship between the United States and the world’s largest economy are at stake. No biggie.
All of this, under a microscope: it’s Dyer’s first state dinner, arguably the job’s toughest assignment, since she was promoted to the post in April. Washington watchers — not to mention the notoriously sensitive-to-protocol Chinese — will be close-reading the evening’s events. Will there be a gaffe? A big enough one can cost a social secretary her job — just ask Desiree Rogers, who held the post during the dinner infamously crashed by reality TV stars, and lost it soon thereafter.
Adding to Dyer’s to-do list, there were a few other things happening this week. Like, you know, a visit by Pope Francis that brought 15,000 VIPs and regular folks to the White House lawn on Wednesday.
“She certainly is getting a baptism by fire. No pun intended,” joked White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest at a press conference on Tuesday. He added that the entire social team was “well aware of the microscope that they’re under right now.”
Lea Berman, who was social secretary under George W. and Laura Bush, understands the challenge of pulling off a state dinner. “It’s like throwing an enormous wedding, or putting on a Broadway show,” she said. “There are a lot of people involved and many moving parts.”
But she’s confident that Dyer will ace her inaugural — after all, she noted, unlike many social secretaries who are plucked from outside the East Wing, the young Philadelphia native has assisted with a number of other state dinners (she was the right-hand woman to former social secretary Jeremy Bernards). “She’s seen this all before, she’s just calling the plays now.”
Dyer’s not the only one making a behind-the-scenes debut. The dinner also marks a first for Roshan Ghaffarian, the Iranian-born California florist who will soon be taking over as the head florist at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. She’s not in charge of the rose-and-dahlia floral arrangements for Friday’s dinner, as she will be at future state dinners once she officially joins the White House staff on Oct. 18. But she will, according to the White House, be “on hand,” presumably taking notes for future events.
And the best way to measure the success of the new team? If neither one of their names ends up in a headline the next day.