Obama Social Secretary Ran Into Sharp Elbows
By PETER BAKER
WASHINGTON — Long before the State Dinner party crashers and the tension with her White House colleagues and the strain in her relationship with the first lady, Desirée Rogers began to understand she was in trouble when David Axelrod summoned her to his office last spring to scold her.
Ms. Rogers had appeared in another glossy magazine, posing in a White House garden in a borrowed $3,495 silk pleated dress and $110,000 diamond earrings. But if the image was jarring in a time of recession, Mr. Axelrod was as bothered by the words and her discussion of “the Obama brand” and her role in promoting it, according to people informed about the conversation.
“The president is a person, not a product,” he was said to tell her. “We shouldn’t be referring to him as a brand.”
The confrontation that day between Ms. Rogers, the White House social secretary, and Mr. Axelrod, the senior adviser to President Obama, put at odds two longtime Chicago friends of the first family. And it foreshadowed a deeper, wrenching conflict that would eventually cost Ms. Rogers her job and tear at the fabric of the close-knit inner circle around Mr. Obama.
The rise and fall of Desirée Rogers, the glamorous Harvard-educated corporate executive who brought sizzle to the State Dining Room but became a victim of a publicity stunt by a pair of aspiring reality show stars, is a tale familiar to almost any White House. A new president comes to town and installs friends he trusts, but inevitably some of them wind up burned by the klieg lights and corrosive politics of Washington.
While it has happened to past presidents, though, this was the first time it has happened to Mr. Obama, who prided himself on running a campaign free of the typical petty rivalries and personal subplots that distract other politicians. And it happened with a friend who at first was celebrated for personifying the fresh, new-generation approach that the Obamas promised to bring to Washington.
For Ms. Rogers, associates said the episode proved a searing experience that has soured her on Washington. She believes she was left largely undefended by the White House, by her colleagues, including Mr. Axelrod, Robert Gibbs and even her close friend, Valerie Jarrett. And while she is unwilling to discuss her story publicly, several associates shared her account in the belief that her side has been lost in the swirl of hearings, backbiting and paparazzilike coverage.
“As she put it, ‘They never lifted a finger to help me set the record straight,’ ” said one of the associates, who insisted on not being identified to avoid alienating the White House. “She didn’t get any help from Gibbs, no help from Axelrod, no help from Valerie Jarrett. Nobody came to her defense.”
White House officials who asked not to be named rejected that, pointing to instances where Mr. Gibbs and the others publicly defended her, even if it was not as vigorously as she may have wanted.
Asked for comment, Katie McCormick Lelyveld, Michelle Obama’s press secretary, praised Ms. Rogers’s “track record of success as an incredibly successful leader of a team here that turned out 330 events over 13 months.”
The tension with her colleagues was building long before November when Michaele and Tareq Salahi, socialites from Virginia, managed to slip uninvited into the State Dinner for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of India. Ms. Rogers’s hip style, expensive clothing and presence at fashion shows at first were seen as symbolizing a new Camelot but ultimately struck many as tone deaf in a time of economic hardship and 10 percent unemployment.
The White House eventually clamped down on her public profile. She was ordered to stop attending splashy events and showing up in fancy clothes on magazine covers. When Michelle Obama learned one day that Ms. Rogers was on a train heading to New York to attend an MTV dinner, the first lady told her longtime friend to cancel, associates said.
After the Salahi incident, these associates said Ms. Rogers was barred by the White House from testifying before Congress or giving interviews or even answering written questions. She was told she could not attend the Kennedy Center Honors, a major annual Washington event. And even her decision to finally resign leaked before she could secure a new job.
So Ms. Rogers is leaving the White House and Washington never having been allowed to describe publicly what happened that night four months ago. But in conversations with associates, she has defended herself by noting that she had positioned a staff member to greet guests at the East Portico landing just as the Social Office had sometimes done in the past. And she has expressed disappointment that her work at creating a “people’s house” for the first couple has been overshadowed by one lapse.
“It’s been very difficult for her,” said Amy Zantzinger, who was President George W. Bush’s last social secretary and has become a friend of Ms. Rogers’s. “And I think what can’t be lost is there are all these unbelievable events they did at the White House when she was there, particularly bringing in all the artists and musicians. I don’t think that’s ever been done before to this magnitude.”
Representative Peter T. King of New York, the ranking Republican on the House Homeland Security Committee, faulted Ms. Rogers for not having a staff member at the outer checkpoint on the street and complained that the White House “just totally stiff-armed us” in terms of getting answers to what happened.
But Mr. King suggested Ms. Rogers was left hanging in the wind by the White House. “She was in a tough spot,” he said. “All of us in public life dread the screw-up which is going to come back to haunt you.”
Public life has singed presidential friends over the years with striking regularity, people like Bert Lance during Jimmy Carter’s administration, Vincent W. Foster Jr. and Webster L. Hubbell during Bill Clinton’s, and Harriet E. Miers and Alberto R. Gonzales during George W. Bush’s. Washington can be seductive and then destructive.
In some cases, they were ill equipped for the jobs they were given, unable to transform success in private life or smaller-scale politics to the White House. In other instances, the cutthroat politics proved too caustic to stomach. In the most extreme example, Mr. Foster, a law partner of Hillary Rodham Clinton before he became deputy White House counsel, committed suicide in 1993 leaving behind a note saying that “here ruining people is considered sport.”
Off to Washington
A native of New Orleans, Ms. Rogers graduated from Wellesley College and earned an M.B.A. from Harvard University. She got to know the Obamas some 20 years ago through her husband at the time, who went to Princeton University with Michelle Obama’s brother, Craig Robinson.
Ms. Rogers’s glamorous looks, fashion taste and on-the-town profile in Chicago obscured a fast rise through the management world, as she served as head of the Illinois lottery, then president of Peoples Gas and North Shore Gas, and finally as a senior executive at Allstate Financial. During the 2008 campaign, she helped bring in roughly $600,000, according to a person familiar with campaign finances.
Tall and striking, Ms. Rogers can easily pass for younger than her 50 years. She seemed to the Obamas to be a natural for White House social secretary. The first African-American to hold the job, she swept into Washington brimming with ideas for executing the Obamas’ vision of opening the White House to a wider circle of people, and became an instant magnet for attention.
After taking an apartment in the same exclusive Georgetown building as her friend, Ms. Jarrett, Ms. Rogers quickly became a hot Washington draw. She posed for a spread for Vogue and later accompanied its editor, Anna Wintour, to Fashion Week in New York. Within months, other magazines came calling, including Town & Country, Vanity Fair, Michigan Avenue and Capitol File.
But it was a spread in The Wall Street Journal’s magazine, WSJ, with the expensive clothes and jewelry provided by the magazine, that got her in trouble in the White House.
Mr. Axelrod called her in for a long conversation about her interviews and photo shoots, warning her explicitly that she was flying into dangerous territory and that Washington loves to watch people become too big and ultimately crash and burn, according to people familiar with the conversation. Ms. Rogers noted that everything she had done had been approved by the White House. She viewed her trips to fashion shows and other events as a way to make connections in the creative community and find talent to perform at the White House.
But her profile was deliberately lowered. Mr. Gibbs, the White House press secretary, had already canceled a proposed photo shoot of Ms. Rogers wearing an Oscar de la Renta ball gown in the first lady’s garden, officials said. Michelle Obama’s new chief of staff, Susan Sher, more closely scrutinized Ms. Rogers’s public activities, to her aggravation.
Praise and Criticism
Amid all this, Ms. Rogers earned widespread praise for the events she organized at the White House, including a summer luau for members of Congress, a poetry jam and a Halloween party for 2,000 trick-or-treaters. She managed to put on 309 events in 2009, compared with 231 produced in the last year of the Bush White House.
“If you look at the totality of her time here,” said Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff, “she did a good job of projecting a White House that was open, family friendly and classy.”
Shawnelle Richie, a Rogers friend from Chicago, said, “She is a multitasker of the first order.” Ms. Richie added: “She did a good job. If the impression is she didn’t, I think people are wrong. They’re misinformed.”
For all the attention to Ms. Rogers’s photo spreads, Ms. Richie said, Ms. Rogers kept focused on the job at hand. “Glamour wasn’t a distraction,” she said. “If everybody were to look at her complete work and her history and her background, as opposed to an isolated event, they would see she was the right person for the job at the right time.”
The isolated event, of course, was the State Dinner in November, which in fact received near universal acclaim as an elegant, memorable evening until the next morning when the first reports of the party crashers emerged.
As she put together plans for the dinner, Ms. Rogers and her staff consulted records of two State Dinners held by Mr. Bush before leaving office. The records indicated that the social office in both cases sent a person to the East Portico of the White House, where the metal detectors are stationed for State Dinners, in case any guests are not on the Secret Service list. Her office copied that arrangement.
In the Spotlight
At State Dinners in the past, though, the social office stationed a person, or even more than one, at the outer checkpoint. Critics like Mr. King faulted Ms. Rogers for not doing that. Still, the Secret Service acknowledged it was not supposed to allow the Salahis in without checking. And the officers on duty that rainy night as the long line of wet celebrities and power players waited impatiently did not check with anyone from the social office when the Salahis showed up.
The White House afterward issued a memorandum announcing the policy would be changed. In interviews afterward, both the president and first lady praised the State Dinner, with Mrs. Obama calling it “an outstanding success” and dismissing the gate crashers as “a footnote.” But she and Mr. Obama bypassed opportunities to defend Ms. Rogers. “I was unhappy with everybody who was involved in the process,” the president said. “It was a screw-up.”
Lisa Caputo, who worked in the East Wing under Mrs. Clinton when she was first lady, said Ms. Rogers had weathered the hothouse glare of Washington with grace. “She’s done a fantastic job of opening the White House,” Ms. Caputo said.
“She was put in a position where the spotlight was put on her in a different way,” Ms. Caputo added, “coming in as someone who was not a Washingtonian, coming into a high-profile senior role and being the first African-American in that role. The combination of all three makes it not easy. I would venture to say she’s had a larger mountain to climb.”