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In Defense of Desiree Rogers

4 years ago
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On Nov. 24, 2008, Desiree Rogers was tapped by then President-elect Barack Obama to be the new White House Social Secretary, working in an office of the East Wing overseen by First Lady Michelle Obama. The night before the announcement, Rogers and Mrs. Obama dined privately at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, where they worked out the final details of the position that would transplant Rogers -- a fixture in Chicago's business, social, and political circles -- into the highest profile job of her life.

"During that discussion was when I started to have better understanding of what they had in mind for this post," Rogers told me then.

I asked what that was. "This whole idea of having people feel comfortable, and having people be able to, in the warmth of wonderful surroundings, be able to develop relationships that are really deep is really what this is about."

Fast forward exactly one year later, Nov. 24, 2009. The Obama White House is hosting its much anticipated first state dinner, honoring the Prime Minister of India and his wife. The dinner had been planned for months by Rogers' social office operation, which collaborated with other White House personnel on the menu, the entertainment, and yes, the guest list -- the one that did not include reality TV star aspirants Michaele and Tareq Salahi. By now you know what happened: the Salahis sailed past security checkpoints and crashed the party, meeting the president in a receiving line and posing for pictures with Vice President Joe Biden, Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, and other celebrities. They posted their trophy photos on their Facebook page.

A Washington Post reporter recognized the couple when they walked by the Booksellers Row area of the White House, and thought it was odd that the Salahis were on the exclusive guest list, but it would not be clear to the White House until hours later what happened. Booksellers Row is where reporters were allowed to watch people arrive for the party. It's also the corridor one has to cross to get from the East Wing to the West Wing. Just before the reception started, Rogers hurried past that spot, stopping for the cameras at the shouted requests of the press, with me being one of the shouters. It was the second time I saw Rogers that day. In the afternoon, she worked at Mrs. Obama's state dinner preview event in the White House. As she was walking past the press at Booksellers Row, she confirmed to the reporter who asked that her dress was designed by Comme Des Garcons, offered an innocuous comment, hardly lingered, and was off. The Salahis would whiz by the cameras a short time later.

No one is downplaying the gravity of the security breach. The Secret Service immediately said it was their fault but a second storyline quickly developed: that Desiree Rogers shares some of the blame because she failed to post a staffer at the east portico entrance to the White House to check off the names of guests. Then a third storyline developed, along the lines of Rogers, gasp, took a seat at the state dinner. That's just nonsense.

The Rogers I know is down-to-earth. She grew up in New Orleans, graduated from Wellesley College, picked up a MBA from Harvard, and then built a successful, lucrative business career in Chicago, starting at AT&T. I met her around 1991, when she was the director of the Illinois State Lottery.

The notion that somehow Rogers wasn't totally engaged in the dinner or in her job as social secretary is ridiculous to those who know her best, such as her former husband, John Rogers, who was at the dinner. (John Rogers' connection to the Obamas predates Desiree. It started with his friendship, nurtured by basketball, with Mrs. Obama's brother, Craig Robinson.)

I talked with John Rogers on Friday. "It is disheartening to see how some people have totally mischaracterized her character and work habits," he told me. "The bottom line is she is an extraordinarily hard worker committed to excellence."

"No doubt there were some screw-ups, probably enough to go around," White House Senior adviser David Axelrod told me Friday. "That does not obviate the fact she has done a good job on the core mission of her office." She is getting a bum rap, he said. "It is ludicrous for anyone to assume she is less concerned about the president's security than anybody else."

I asked Axelrod how Rogers was doing in the wake of the controversy. "I thing she's taking it hard because she takes her responsibility seriously."

The House Homeland Security Committee held a hearing Thursday on how the White House entry system failed at the state dinner. The Salahis, Rogers and Secret Service Director Mark Sullivan were invited to testify. Only Sullivan showed up. The Salahis face subpoenas to get them to testify; the White House would not allow Rogers to testify, citing separation of powers, and Democrats on the panel will not force Rogers to appear.

Committee chairman Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) said the Salahi incident "can be an enlightening case study, but it is not enough for us to merely analyze. We must dissect every fact; we must learn the lesson and fix the problem. And after we do these things, we need to give thanks that no lives were lost."

They way I see it, a case study will also show that Desiree Rogers does not deserve to have her entire professional reputation on the line because of the breach.

The events that have unfolded in the past few days, and the attacks on Rogers, reminded me of a line in the 1993 suicide note left by Vincent Foster, the deputy counsel in the Clinton White House, who observed that in Washington, "ruining people is considered sport."

This is the Washington game where the gestalt of the town is to, as Axelrod put it, "want to get someone in the cat's paw."

Let's look at some facts:

The Secret Service, not the social office, is ultimately responsible for not letting people in the White House who are not supposed to be there. It is stunning that the Salahis got through without having their names cleared by the White House. Yes, it is a shared responsibility, but not equally shared; the overwhelming proportion of the responsibility -- I'm pegging it at 90 percent -- is on the shoulders of the Secret Service.

Sullivan testified at the hearing that the Secret Service and the White House had a meeting to go over how they would handle the state dinner guests. The Secret Service signed off on the plan to have social office personnel roving in the area and not standing at the entrance checkpoint, clipboard in hand.

Sullivan testified several times that the procedure for dealing with people not on the guest list was not followed; that's the reason three Secret Service officers on duty that night were put on administrative leave with pay.

If not on the list, Sullivan said, "the procedure would be that they should not be allowed entry at that point. For this particular event, the protocol would be that, that officer should contact their immediate supervisor. The supervisor would get together with an individual from the White House staff. They would determine if, in fact, that individual was cleared to come in. Additionally, we would call over to our control center to see if these names had been provided for clearance." Asked by Thompson if any of this occurred on Nov. 24, Sullivan said, "It did not."

Rep. Peter King (R-NY), the ranking Republican on the panel, who requested Rogers' testimony, wanted to know why the planning meeting resulted in White House staffers not being posted at the entrance as was done in past Obama White House events and in prior administrations. Asked King, "Did you ask the Social Secretary's Office not to be there or did they ask not to be there?" Sullivan said he did not know.

I'd like to know the answer too, but in the bigger context it is not a smoking gun to be aimed at Rogers even if it turns out her office suggested roving, rather than stationary staffers on duty. In the end, it is the job of the Secret Service is to figure out what they need to protect the president and the White House and make that happen. That's what an agent I talked with over the weekend said to me. The Secret Service has been dealing with state dinners and White House parties for decades. The Obama team has been in office since Jan. 21.

Now in hindsight, everyone agrees that it would be helpful to have more White House staffers working with Secret Service personnel and that is going to happen.

New guidelines were issued on Wednesday by deputy White House Chief of Staff Jim Messina, who concluded, "clearly we can do more, and we will do more" to assist the Secret Service. Though there were staffers outside between the checkpoints, now a staffer will be paired with a Secret Service agent to check off guests.

One of the other raps against Rogers is that she was on the state dinner guest list and had a seat at one of the tables. To that I say a big SO WHAT when it comes to the Salahi incident. A reception preceded the dinner. By the time anyone sat down to eat the damage was done. The Salahis had shaken hands with the president, worked their way down the receiving line, and had gotten their bragging rights pictures. Whether or not a social secretary should eat with the guests -- many other Obama staffers were at this dinner by the way -- is a minor question that does not relate to the security issue.

The suspended Secret Service agents -- the ones who did not call Rogers' office to alert her staff to a problem and could have gotten help if they only asked -- are nameless at this point. Rogers is a human face to put on the story; that triggers the Washington "game."

Rogers, 50, did take a star turn when she arrived in Washington. I saw the stories and puffy profiles with her wearing glamorous clothes and jewelry. There probably was too much focus on her in the beginning, but I can see why. The storyline was tempting -- an Obama friend turned staffer in one of the most visible White House positions. I saw the splashy coverage as her flying too close to the sun. When you get that rush of positive publicity so fast in this town, you can end up getting burned.

Rogers was hired by the Obamas because she has the ability to pull off events with style. She is there to help Mrs. Obama execute one of her main agenda items, to open up the White House to the community, run programs and events that are inclusive and creative, and share them with the nation. That's what she has done.

Look at the record.

Rogers has presided over some 170 events at the White House since Jan. 21: bill signings, Easter Egg rolls, St. Patrick's Day and Halloween parties, a breast cancer awareness event, a music series, dinners for the nation's governors and the state dinner last month. Students from area schools have been a part of most of these events. Each music night, for example, featured daytime workshops with the performers.

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs gave a vote of confidence to Rogers the other day. "The president, the first lady, and the entire White House staff are grateful for the job that she does and think she has done a terrific and wonderful job pulling off a lot of big and important events here at the White House."

Axelrod told me, "I think the Obamas appreciate as I do -- all of us do -- all the great things she is doing."

This is the busiest season for the Obama White House; 28 holiday events this month. Rogers didn't take a day off to lick her wounds. An acquaintance of mine at the Thursday night holiday party saw Rogers, with a clipboard in hand.

The bottom line remains that White House and presidential security is the main responsibility of the Secret Service -- not the social office.

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