Desiree Rogers once made millionaires of a lucky few everyday people. Now she plans to give Americans dinner invitations to the White House.
Rogers, a svelte, stylish Chicago business executive and socialite – and a former Illinois lottery director – is turning again to Lady Luck in her new role as social secretary for a White House that hopes to balance glamour, history and an urban sensibility with plenty of populism.
“Something that we’ve talked about from early on is making it the people’s house,” said Rogers, sitting at a table in her East Wing office, a view of the Truman Balcony behind her. “How can we salute – encourage the American spirit? That means many different things to many different people.”
Her vision includes inviting ordinary citizens chosen by lottery to join in a social life that reflects the eclectic interests of a sophisticated, young first couple, Barack and Michelle Obama. Along with glittering state events and intimate dinners hosting artists and intellectuals, the calendar she plans includes edgy poetry slams and an egalitarian ball celebrating everyday American heroes.
You can already see changes. The R&B band Earth, Wind and Fire was the entertainment at the Obamas’ first formal dinner, hosting the nation’s governors, and soul legend Stevie Wonder was honored with a White House concert. The black-tie governors’ dinner had a more casual, modern feel with mixed-china place settings.
Among the first events have been a Super Bowl party and a dinner for congressional committee chairmen and their Republican counterparts. It was the first time even many of the GOP members of Congress had been invited to dinner at the White House despite their party’s control of the presidency for the past eight years. The Super Bowl party included a children’s play area featuring Nintendo Wii.
The traditional White House Easter Egg Roll this year is planned to be the largest ever, with tens of thousands of visitors and tickets distributed to the public online for the first time. The idea is that an assured spot will make it easier for families to come from across the country to join the egg hunt on the South Lawn; in the past, tickets were distributed in Washington the previous Saturday, making it less likely people would travel a long distance.
For many, the Obamas evoke John and Jacqueline Kennedy and Camelot, a presidency surrounded by an enduring mystique and sense of possibility. That image was created in part by an elegant White House social life that included a storied dinner with Nobel Prize winners and a performance by classical cellist Pablo Casals marking his celebrated return to America. Even before the election, Vogue editor at large Andre Leon Talley dubbed the Obama era “Black Camelot.”
Whatever phrase ultimately sticks to the Obama White House, the 49-year-old Rogers will be its impresario. And she, for one, rejects comparisons with Camelot: “This is not necessarily a presidency that duplicates, or copies. The Obamas have their own style,” she said in an interview.
That style is livelier than the Bushes, more hip than the Reagans, more multicultural than the Clintons and more accessible than the Kennedys.
In an office that derives its greatest power from the opportunity to forge a direct relationship with the American people, and amid a celebrity culture that elevates the details of personal life, style can be critical.
“To have a successful presidency, the social life of the White House has to match the times. That’s when it becomes such an added benefit to the presidency. It happened in its greatest form with the Kennedys,” said Kennedy biographer Laurence Leamer. “There’s no book that tells you how to do this. You have to feel your way through what you want to do.”
The woman who will be helping the Obamas feel their way is a poised 5-foot, 10-inch Wellesley graduate with fashionable, close-shorn hair and a flair for designer clothing. Long before Rogers was associated with the White House, she was profiled in the September 2004 issue of Vogue, which praised her as “proving that chic and executive can co-exist.”
A native of New Orleans and two-time queen of the Zulu Mardi Gras krewe, Rogers has been a prominent presence on the Chicago social scene since her marriage to (now ex-husband) John Rogers, an Obama confidant and founder of Ariel Investments.
“She’s a wonderful person to have in a room. She’s fun and witty and lovely to look at,” said Linda Johnson Rice, chairwoman and CEO of Johnson Publishing, a longtime friend and frequent guest at Rogers’ Art Deco duplex in Chicago’s Gold Coast. “When you walk into her home, everything is perfect: the candles are the right scent, the flowers are perfect and she’s very welcoming.”
Michigan Rep. Dave Camp, the top-ranking Republican on the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, who sat next to Rogers at a recent White House dinner, gushes, “She’s someone who puts you at ease instantly. You feel like you’ve known her a long time.”
Though Rogers now has an apartment in Washington, she still shuttles back and forth to Chicago, returning three weeks ago for a surprise party for interior designer and Table Fifty-Two co-owner Julie Latsko.
Not only is Rogers the first African-American to be White House social secretary but she is the first with a Harvard MBA. She’s spent much of her career at the intersection of politics, business and marketing.
After working as state lottery director, Rogers was a communications executive at People’s Energy Corp. and then president of its two regulated utilities, steering them through a political backlash against rapidly rising gas prices. Before coming to the White House, she worked in another highly regulated industry: insurance. At Allstate, she was in charge of creating a social network to connect with customers.
Rogers is bringing some corporate marketing techniques to her new job. As she looks for ways to incorporate more modern touches in the Easter Egg Roll, she plans to test ideas with a focus group of children, said Cynthia Torres, a business school roommate who remains a close friend.
“She’s investigating and trying to think through each event,” Torres said.
Though Rogers approaches planning events with an eye toward imagery that will reinforce Obama’s vision of the presidency and help him build relationships with the capital’s other political players, she said her job ultimately is about “creating environments where people can kind of relax a little bit and experience a tiny slice of what America has to offer.”
Like the conga line at the governor’s ball.
“In the course of the evening, I looked up and they were doing a conga line,” said White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett. “That’s the perfect example of how comfortable people were able to get very quickly. And, you know, when you’ve done the conga line with somebody, it’s very hard to have a heated dispute with them the next day.”
Copyright 2009 McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.