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Obama's Social Secretary Is, Shall I Say...Quite Fly

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Vogue Magazine Presents Ms. Desiree Rogers

Barack Obama's new social secretary, Desirée Rogers, keeps an eye on tradition as she welcomes the next generation to the White House. William Norwich reports.

Photographed by Jonathan Becker

In Chicago on a Saturday before the Inauguration, Barack Obama taped a Meet the Press interview in which he described his vision for social life in the White House during his presidency, likening the place John Adams built to a "bully pulpit" he will use to inspire Americans, especially young Americans, with a renaissance of culture, poetry readings, concerts, and science lectures. "Our art, our culture, our science," Obama said, are "the essence of what makes America special, and we want to project that as much as possible in the White House."

In Washington that same Saturday, Desirée Rogers, the woman who will be responsible for every social event and ceremony—from a tea for two to a peace-treaty signing for thousands—in the Obama White House, was visiting Letitia Baldrige prior to officially stepping into her new job as special assistant to the president and White House social secretary, a position Baldrige held during the Kennedy administration.

Baldrige, now in the midst of writing her memoirs, When the World Loves You Back, kindly offered Rogers some helpful tips, like always having a backup plan if the First Lady is unable to attend a function or, for state dinners, checking whether any of the guests have children and, if they do, arranging for a signed gift from the First Family to mark the occasion—something special, like a book, that they will remember for a lifetime.

"Desirée is so poised and so charming, so substantial and capable, but nonetheless I told her how important it is to always stand up to the West Wing," Baldrige recounted later. "The West Wing is the men's side, and they will want to push you to put all those politicians on the dinner lists, and you've got to be strong and say no. Always represent what the First Lady and the president want. In the case of the Obamas, it's an exciting mix of people—not paybacks."

Rogers's appointment, in late November, did not come as a surprise to anyone in the Obama inner circle, including Valerie Jarrett, one of her best friends and a senior adviser to the new president. Days before the announcement, Rogers had hosted a small birthday party for Jarrett in Chicago attended by Barack and Michelle Obama, who rejoiced in being able to spend some downtime with a few of their closest pals, including Rogers, after the campaign's long haul. "My party was perfect," Jarrett told The Washington Post later, adding that Rogers "has extraordinary flair and exquisite taste."

Rogers never really had any serious hesitation about accepting the job, but before telling the Obamas yes, she discussed the decision with Washington insiders, including the philanthropist Ann Jordan and Ann Stock, a social secretary in the Clinton White House, to make sure her view of the job was "in sync" with the Obamas' vision. Knowing for sure that "it is," she told me when we met on a day she was visiting Manhattan for the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater's opening night at New York City Center, she hasn't looked back. How could she? There isn't time.

Shuttling between Chicago, Washington, and New York before the Inauguration, Rogers had already visited the White House, invited by Amy Zantzinger, the most recent social secretary for the Bush administration. Rogers—whose credentials include Wellesley College and a Harvard MBA—was delighted to meet Rear Admiral Stephen W. Rochon, the White House chief usher, who will be her closest East Wing ally. He got things off to a great start by presenting her with a package of pralines, a Louisiana specialty.

"Admiral Rochon is from New Orleans, my hometown, and he knew my dad [the celebrated City Councilman Roy Glapion, Jr.], who is deceased," said Rogers, whose first big task after the Inauguration will be to organize the swearing in of the new Cabinet and, in February, the annual Governors Dinner at the White House. "Talking to him about my father, and then receiving those pralines—well, we instantly bonded."

Although her father was immersed in political life, Rogers herself always aspired to a career in business. Her first job out of Harvard Business School, in her 20s, was turning a chain of office-building newsstands into chic shopping destinations by redesigning their facades and adding affordable impulse items. Her early success made her a star in Chicago's business world. Rogers went from strength to strength, as president of the utilities Peoples Gas and North Shore Gas, a more than $2 billion concern she ran from 2004, and last year creating a social network of consumers and clients for Allstate. As a high-profile civic and business leader, and a longtime Obama supporter and fund-raiser, Rogers became a local celebrity: tall, best dressed—she favors American designers, with direction from Chicago boutique owner Ikram Goldman—and photographed around town.

But of all her jobs, the one she says has prepared her best for her new role is running the Illinois Lottery in the early nineties, during which she "met a true cross-section of people. The common thread among them never was just getting rich, but being able to do something wonderful—like adding a room to the house for an elderly mother, or paying for the grandkids' tuition," Rogers said. "If I can re-create that kind of enthusiasm at the White House, then I'm doing my job."

During her tour of the White House, she was greatly relieved to find a ready solution for one of her main worries—"those seating charts." Rogers was given a preview of "a huge computer screen, programmed with all the tables, so you can drag the names of guests around until you get it right." She also saw the extensive archives of social events from prior administrations, material that she and Michelle Obama can study. "There is a history and tradition to these events," said Rogers—the Christmas-tree lighting, for example, and the Easter-egg hunt. "Yes, we are about change and about finding a new way, but 'new' doesn't mean that we walk away from history."

Many observers have compared Michelle Obama to Jacqueline Kennedy, and I asked Rogers how closely she and the First Lady are looking to Jackie's White House. "It is definitely an inspiration for us because we hear people talk about it all the time," she answered. "We would be remiss not to study those years carefully, not in order to duplicate them but to be inspired by them."

The mandate the Obamas have given her, Rogers said, "is about instilling pride." Her job "is helping people visualize what the Obama presidency is about, the feelings Americans voted for—inclusion, transparency, embracing people you might never otherwise learn about—and also translating the splendor, that sweetness, that comfort of the White House to everyone." She paused and smiled. "Enormous task."

Indeed, in these troubled economic times, how exactly will the Obamas revitalize the White House? "Using the assets already there," Rogers said. "We have to be balanced. People think that being 'social' means hosting a lavish party, but that's not true. We all thrive on social interaction, and we must continue to," despite the economy.

One of the great assets, of course, will be the Obama daughters, Sasha and Malia. It's been decades since young children have lived in the White House. "The wide-eyed amazement of the Obama children will draw in the enthusiasm of other children and families, I am sure," Rogers said.

Another asset is the First Puppy. Would Rogers be open to hosting an annual dog show on the White House grounds to compete with the Westminster Kennel Club's in Madison Square Garden? "That dog is going to be something else," Rogers said, mindful of the phenomenal interest in the pet. "I am not certain what the girls have in mind, but we'll think of something." Rogers also commented on the possibility of instituting an Internet lottery to become a guest at a White House event, akin to the ones Obama ran during the campaign in which winners got to attend the presidential debates. "It would be fun," Rogers said, "but we've got to work all the details out"—including, in the spirit of transparency, Internet video coverage of these and other White House happenings.

"Will the president have impromptu pickup basketball games?" I asked.

"Probably," Rogers answered.

"With videos of the games posted on the Internet?"

"Why not?"

"What about celebrities? They seemed to have been banned during the campaign. Will celebrities be invited to the White House?"

She laughed. "Of course. Why not? They're people too. Remember, we are inclusive. We want everybody."

Rogers is a lot of fun—in fact, back in the Windy City, she was often described as "the life of the party." But she isn't the least bit concerned that all the White House protocol and attendant offstage orchestrations will put a damper on her effervescent spirit. "I get great joy seeing people being entertained," she explained. "The joy for me will be the moment before they arrive, making certain we have created a great environment for the Obamas and their guests. I'll have more fun watching than being in the party."

Just as Baldrige discovered during her tenure, the hardest thing Ann Stock had to learn as social secretary was becoming "Dr. No—saying no through a smile and never stringing anyone along."

The advice she has given Rogers emphasizes the importance of one's friends and contacts. "Desirée already has a huge network of people in the business and social world, and she will continue to broaden it." Describing a nearly three-hour dinner with Rogers at her house near Washington, over homemade white bean chili ("major social-secretary faux pas: The wicks in the candles on my table had already been burned"), Stock said, "You get into the White House and sometimes, because of the aura about the place, there's a disconnect from people. You need to rely on your network to feed you information about what is happening in the real world, information that you can make come alive in the White House, whether it's news about emerging talent in the arts and fashion, a scientist doing amazing work, or a charity doing something huge, like the Fashion Targets Breast Cancer event during the Clinton years."

For now, deluged with suggestions about how to improve White House social life and requests for invitations—"People aren't subtle"—Rogers has been occupied with finding an apartment near the White House for herself and for her daughter, Victoria, eighteen, when she visits from Yale. Washington life will keep Rogers in close proximity not only to her best friends, like Valerie Jarrett and Ann Jordan, but also to her ex-husband, John Rogers, who played basketball with Michelle Obama's brother, Craig Robinson, at Princeton and is a cochairman of the Inaugural committee.

"We're very close, but we just couldn't live together," Rogers said of her former husband. "Everyone is always mad at the ex-husband, but you shouldn't be. Let it go; it's so much easier to get along with him than not. You have to think so much about not getting along, don't you?"

I asked if she was seeing anyone at the moment. She is not.

"The most eligible woman in Washington!" I exclaimed. "What a scoop! Would the social secretary care to comment?"

She shook her head. "We'll see," she said, and smiled. "We'll see."

"Life of the Party" has been edited for Style.com; the complete story appears in the February 2009 issue of Vogue.

Posted by Shelia

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