One of the Teachable Moments that emerged from last week’s Crashergate scandal might be this: when you sign on to make your employer shine, your own light will have to be dimmed a little. Especially if you were a star to begin with.
Desiree Rogers became White House Social Secretary and Special Assistant to the President precisely because she was a star—and a good friend. Her corporate and social résumés were impressive and she is universally acknowledged to be a charming, generous host for her own private parties, and the more public ones she has agreed to sponsor in the past.
That panache got Rogers listed in some of the nation’s most prestigious fashion and entertaining bibles, and no doubt brought her to mind when the White House began looking for exactly the right person to head the office that would showcase its style to the outside world.
But anyone with that much charisma has a problem, even when her employers are themselves significantly charismatic: this is the time to make sure your employers are front and center. Always.
Rogers’ appointment follows a well-established pattern of social secretaries being good friends to the First Ladies they serve. The most famous example is Leticia Baldridge, probably the last great social secretary who, with her employer, set the tone for the Kennedy White House, went to boarding school with Jacqueline Kennedy.
But they always made their bosses shine first. Even today, Baldridge says “we” and “Mrs. Kennedy,” not “I.”
So it wasn’t a big deal for these women to stand on the steps and greet guests as they entered the White House for state dinners.
Now the newest social secretary is being pasted for not greeting guests, but being one: she walked the press line, posed for photos and became fodder for the chattering classes by sticking out from the formal versions of Ann Taylor-wear normally seen at state occasions by coming to dinner in cutting-edge Japanese couture.
Some have even suggested that Rogers step down, since they feel she can’t contain her own ego needs to serve the First Lady. That probably won’t happen. For one thing, Rogers has a powerful protector and loyal friend in Obama mentor Valerie Jarrett. For another, Michelle Obama values Rogers’ style and savvy; the First Lady clearly feels her social secretary has her back when it counts, regardless of what she’s wearing.
Every new administration has its learning curve, and this may have been Rogers’. It’s a sure bet that she didn’t get as far as she’s gotten by not grasping what’s important right away. And if I were a betting person—which I’m not—I’d be betting that she’ll be the woman overseeing the next state dinner, that she’ll be personally greeting guests as they ascend the White House steps and that she will be still be gorgeous, but less obvious.
Karen Grigsby Bates’ newest book, A Century And Come Change: My Life Before the President Called My Name, by Ann Nixon Cooper with Karen Grigsby Bates. (Atria), will be published in January.
is a Los Angeles-based correspondent for NPR News and co-author, with Karen Elyse Hudson, of The New Basic Black: Home Training For Modern Times (Doubleday).