WASHINGTON — For every one stride Desiree Rogers takes, you take two, trying to keep up as she hurries through the White House. She is the new social secretary, the doyenne of state dinners, the honcho of hospitality, with society and civilization resting on her shoulders as she briskly descends from her East Wing office and blows past Marine guards in the White House hush that seems all the more noticeable when punctuated by the percussion of her designer black heels, with red soles flashing.
This is her afternoon walk, from East Wing to West Wing. She takes it to give herself a moment to soak in history. She doesn't give herself a lot of time.
"I am big on efficiencies, and I'm trying to get as much as I can out of the moment," says Rogers, 49, a Chicago businesswoman, a Harvard MBA, the first black social secretary at the White House. Divorced from Chicago businessman John Rogers, another close Obama associate, and co-chairman of the inauguration. Black slacks, flared, and a crisp white shirt. Pearls. She has appeared in Vogue. She is the sort of woman who makes other women want to touch up their lipstick. She wields the power of fashion and the power of her position, no cuteness or coyness or deferential sweetness in view.
She opens a French door to the Rose Garden, her destination, and steps outside. The rose bushes have been pruned, and the sunlight is wintry on white columns, but it's all she needs.
She says: "That is typically the picture I have seen since I was a young child, of the president making that walk between the two wings. And so that is when I daydream about, 'Oh my goodness, I really am here!' "
May you ask another question? No, that's enough, she says politely. She strides back to her office, back to work.
This is no tea-party social secretary.
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The White House social secretary is impresario for the president, organizer of all White House social functions.
"It is one of the most political jobs in the White House," says Ann Stock, social secretary during the Clinton administration, who spoke with Rogers about the job in November.
"You are running a communications agency with a business strategy and a marketing strategy," she says. "If you look at Desiree's job, she ... has to work with the president, the political shop, the Cabinet shop, the legislative shop."
"Her boss will ostensibly be Michelle Obama," says Carl Sferrazza Anthony, historian of the National First Ladies Library. "But she is really working for the president and Mrs. Obama and will be tailoring all kinds of entertainment. Not just state dinners, but events based on what the president and first lady are intending to signify and symbolize."
In Washington, there is fascination with Rogers: How will she transform the job? Will the White House once again be the setting for spectacular state dinners? The Bushes hosted only six in eight years.
Rogers says she is working on incorporating tenets of the Obama campaign's inventive outreach into White House social life.
She says she will try to celebrate "all things American." American art, film, dance, music; American scientists and scholars. "It doesn't always have to be cookie-cutter: 'This is about art.' Well, what's wrong with mixing art and science? What is wrong with mixing artists and scientists together with educators? How can you bring people together to address some of the issues that face us in a more creative way? Even if the dialogue only begins here, it is a move in the right direction."
You ask about state dinners.
"One of the things I was shocked to learn early on is there were only 130, 140 seats," she says. Guest selection involves careful winnowing. Her democratic instincts make her worry about this. "It would be great to have someone invited purely by luck or chance," she says.
A regular person?
"I would just call them an American, because I think all of us in our own way have something to offer."
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Desiree Rogers was born in New Orleans. From her home there, Rogers' mother, Joyce Glapion, recalls Desiree as driven and focused by age 6. "I never had to say, 'Go do your homework.' She wasn't any help in the house, but other than that she was a good kid."
Rogers graduated with a BA in political science from Wellesley College and went on to Harvard, where John Rogers first saw her.
"Many of us went to school out East and got to know each other," she says. "And certainly there was the whole Hyde Park connection and the University of Chicago connection."
By his middle 20s, John Rogers started Ariel Capital Management, and by 1986 it had more than $45 million in managed assets. He is described as a major fundraiser for the Obama campaign.
She and Rogers separated amicably, divorced in 2000 and continue to appear in the same social circles. Their daughter, Victoria, 18, is a freshman at Yale.
In Chicago, Desiree had a circle of high-powered female friends including Valerie Jarrett, senior adviser to the president, and Linda Johnson Rice, head of Johnson Publishing, which owns Jet and Ebony magazines.
"These women are politically savvy, tough-as-nails operators with significant influence and clout in Chicago's civic and cultural life," columnist Laura Washington said in Chicago magazine.
Rogers recently worked at Allstate insurance, where she was in charge of creating a social networking program. Earlier, she was president of Peoples Gas and North Shore Gas. Before that, she was director of the Illinois Lottery, helping launch the Mega Millions multistate game.
When offered the job of White House social secretary, she hesitated. "Partly for me as a businessperson," she recalls, "it was very important this not be a job that I would be picking flowers all day — even though I think that is fun. That is not what I want to do for my job. I don't think that is where I would add the most value."
Instead, she talks about "the importance of the time we are in. The history and the weight of the responsibility on this presidency. The preparation to get to this point. It's wanting to make it work. Wanting all the hope and change and aspirations and pride that people have exhibited by selecting our president — that we deliver on that. And it's a big wish for the nation. So we want to get it done."