02.27.10

Don't Cry for Desiree

Embattled White House social secretary Desiree Rogers finally stepped down yesterday. Sandra McElwaine on why she was always the wrong person for the job—and how she might bounce back.

Don’t cry for Desiree even though she’s gotten the hook.

Let’s face it, she was never right for the job. Traditional White House social secretaries are behind the scenes, detail-oriented worker bees who toil from dawn to dusk polishing guest lists, overseeing menus, and delicately smoothing over last-minute catastrophes. The highly visible and glamorous former corporate executive could never play that role. With her trendy designer clothes and penchant for publicity, she was determined to be a star, and simply too high-profile and too in your face.

“Chic people are what she cares about,” she says. “They don’t have to be rich—just chic!”

It didn’t take the gate-crashing episode at the Obamas' first State Dinner in November to predict the end of this front-page career. She began the process herself by blitzing the media last April. In a revealing Wall Street Journal interview, she crowed about a “strategic plan" to launch "the best brand on earth: the Obama brand."

"Our possibilities are endless," she enthused as she spoke of marketing the “crown jewel,” the White House. She then went on to discuss her job, which she described as a business. "Otherwise you never get there. You get caught in linen hell and flower hell, list hell.”

Wait a minute—isn’t that what the job is supposed to be? Many former social secretaries were taken aback and grumbled discreetly among themselves. It didn’t take long for a number of Washington insiders to realize she would soon be toast.

”A social secretary’s job is to help the first family put their own social mark on the White House, and it’s not about them, it’s about the family, about the first lady and the president. If it becomes about them, then there’s a problem," observes Sheila Tate, Nancy Reagan's former press secretary. "There’s a difference between staff and principles. Sometimes people who have been important in their private career can’t make that adjustment."

"I don’t understand why she took the job, and I think she was quickly bored with it,” says a longtime acquaintance of Rogers'. “Arranging flowers and picking out tablecloths is definitely not her bag."

The same person also dismisses Rogers' claim that her goal was to turn the Executive Mansion into “the people's house.”

“Chic people are what she cares about,” she says. "They don’t have to be rich—just chic!”

After the security breach, for which the Secret Service took the rap, Desiree tried to play down her glitzy image, but a number of political players saw an opportunity, stepped in, and supervised every decision she made. Some say that in December she was told to start pulling up stakes and planned to head back to Chicago, where her ex-husband, John Rogers, with whom she remains close, is an immensely wealthy and powerful hedge-fund manager. (He had been trying for months to orchestrate his ex-wife’s resurrection by talking to a variety of media mavens around town.)

Before coming to Washington, Desiree was a high-powered executive who raised funds for her close friends Michelle and Barack Obama, and introduced them to the philanthropic and social scene. With these illustrious connections, she seemed invulnerable.

When the news of her resignation broke Friday, many speculated that a fight between Desiree, presidential adviser Valerie Jarrett (who was still furious over the Indian State Dinner debacle), and Michelle Obama's chief of staff Susan Sher expedited her departure. The three women were friends and lived in the same Georgetown apartment building. Apparently, they battled over East Wing turf. “I think this is a good time for me to explore opportunities in the corporate world," Rogers told the Chicago Sun-Times Friday.

Jarrett’s response: “I completely respect her decision to return the private sector.”

According to Desiree, she made her decision to move on in January but did not intend to announce it for some time. When it leaked, the Obamas issued a short statement thanking their longtime friend for her service and wishing her “all the best in her future endeavors."

It’s hard to tell whose hand wielded the dagger in this particular caper. As a White House reporter reflected, "I think the real reason is that she wasn’t a good fit, not used to being an underling. In Chicago, Desiree was the queen bee—a CEO and social powerhouse—and the Obamas were just that nice young couple from the South Side.”

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. She writes for The Daily Beast, The Washington Post, Time, and Forbes.