12.20.09

The New White House Wallflower

As 50,000 people attend 28 White House Christmas parties, glamorous social secretary Desiree Rogers is on the sidelines. Sandra McElwaine on the new security policies—and how her ex-husband is trying to help.

Desiree Rogers will no longer be swanning about at White House parties. Au contraire. Ever since the glamorous social secretary was hobnobbing with celebrities, oblivious to two reality-TV wannabes who were crashing the Obamas’ first State Dinner in November she has been given a timeout.

Even though her Louboutin stilettos still click down the historic hallways of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, there have been no more appearances in designer gowns or pronouncements about pushing the unique Obama brand. Instead, the sophisticated Harvard MBA seems to be adapting to a more formal protocol and attempting to play a more traditional behind-the-scenes role as she oversees the care and feeding of more than 50,000 guests at 28 different holiday receptions.

“She’s out there looking like a working stiff, a fashionable one, but not dolled up like before.”

Being on the sidelines is not a familiar place for the 50-year-old Rogers. The descendant of a Louisiana voodoo priestess, she has always been a star with a penchant for publicity. Once married to a powerful hedge-fund manager, John Rogers—they remain close friends (“John is very shy, Desiree is always out front,” says a friend)—Desiree Rogers was a leading member of Chicago's business and philanthropic world. It was Rogers who introduced the Obamas to the social elite, not the other way around. (She also helped raise $200,000 for his presidential campaign.)

“She’s a big deal in politics and the community and so well connected Obama can’t fire her,” says a well-placed Chicagoan. “I’m surprised she took this job. I didn’t know she wanted to work this hard.”

Until Desiree Rogers, White House social secretaries were considered worker bees who stayed in the shadows compiling lists, organizing events and seating charts, and averting last-minute disasters, but the high-flying business executive had no intention of playing an inconspicuous or subservient role. From the moment she arrived, she quickly broke the mold by flaunting her upscale lifestyle and interests, sometimes outshining her boss, posing for Vogue and other glossies, and announcing a totally new agenda for the social office. “You have to think about [the social secretary job], in my mind, almost like a business,” she told The Wall Street Journal in April. “Otherwise, you never get there. You get caught in linen hell and flower hell, list hell.”

Her outspokenness did not endear Rogers to the elite clique of former social secretaries. Many inside the Beltway felt she was too wedded to the Obamas’ inner circle, known as the Chicago Mafia, and much like others in new administrations, she seemed reluctant to leave her cocoon in order to learn the ways of the capital.

“They realized she never had a clue how to plan a State Dinner,” says one Washington socialite. “This is such a different environment from Chicago. You simply can’t do what you did there.”

According to one recent partygoer, a visibly chastened Rogers has now had to tone down her glitzy image: “She’s out there looking like a working stiff, a fashionable one, but not dolled up like before.”

Since the Salahis incident at the State Dinner—when the Secret Service assumed responsibility for the security breach while Rogers stayed silent—there are new regulations and protocols in place at the White House. All guests must now run a lengthy official gauntlet before entering the presidential mansion. For starters, there are two checkpoints manned by a representative of the administration and a Secret Service officer. Next, attendees will now be asked to provide a photo ID at two other checkpoints, while aides swirl around to deter any unexpected visitors.

Finally, at the East Colonnade, guests are now greeted by Rogers, sporting a chic black suit, a standard White House identification badge around her neck, a clipboard in hand. ”Welcome to the White House on behalf of the Obamas,” she says with a dazzling smile.

Despite the new policies, there was already a kerfuffle over invitations to two of the White House press parties last week. Apparently, the invitations went out late and the White House did not issue them by name. Rather, they sent a batch to the manager of each bureau, who doled them out to whomever they wanted. As such, a number of reporters who cover the White House for leading newspapers and other news organizations were never included. This latest misstep was blamed on press secretary Robert Gibbs, but many in Washington blame Rogers.

“They realized she never had a clue how to plan a State Dinner,” explains a Washington socialite. “This is such a different environment from Chicago. You simply can’t do what you did there.”

Another recent flap involved the White House receiving line. The Obamas decided not to shake hands and pose for pictures with every guest at every party, as their predecessors had done. Being denied a prized photo op has created considerable angst among a number of invitees—including Dee Dee Myers, President Clinton’s former press secretary, who observed: “I totally understand that doing a receiving line is exhausting, yet people have come to expect it. It means a lot to them.”

Rumors abound about plans to resurrect Rogers' reputation. Will she stay on for a grace period and then be reassigned as ambassador to some neutral country like Switzerland or Luxembourg? "Once you put yourself out there the way she has, it’s hard to come back in,” observes a friend.

Even her ex-husband has been talking to an eclectic mix of journalists about the best way to revive her fortunes. One concept under consideration: orchestrating a humorous mea culpa as Nancy Reagan did at one of the annual Gridiron Dinners. Known for her extravagant taste and fancy outfits, the former first lady donned oversize rubber boots and a seriously frumpy dress and waltzed out on the stage singing “Second Hand Clothes” to the tune of “Second Hand Rose.” Her performance brought down the house and all was forgiven.

Might this ploy this work for the troubled social secretary? After all, Washington is a city of redemption. Speech writer and humorist Landon Parvin, who wrote those lyrics for Nancy Reagan, doubts that frivolity will solve her problem. “She can’t get out of it with a one-liner," he says. “What she needs to redeem herself is not humor but the truth. She should admit her mistake and tell us exactly what happened. The sooner the better.”

Sandra McElwaine is a Washington-based journalist. She has been a reporter for The Washington Star, The Baltimore Sun, a correspondent for CNN and People, and Washington editor of Vogue and Cosmopolitan. Currently she writes for The Daily Beast, The Washington Post, Time, and Forbes.