Sunday, August 2, 2009

Social Secretary: The Iron Butterfly

Weddings between centuries old protocol and the technicolor of modern life can embrace or clash in the White House. Work of or through the Office of the Social Secretary keeps evolving as presidential terms today require public and private events coordination with efficiency and effectiveness on everything from a private coffee clutch for the first lady to events with tens of thousands of excited citizens or the president meeting a head of state or his cabinet. Its a tough job and no two people bring the same skills or approach. In the future, certain White House gender roles have yet to reach cosmopolitan cross-pollination, but the future holds promise for the first female Chief Usher, male Social Secretary (A Deputy is male) or a couple with the first female President and First Gentleman. Sterling events shape the tenor of White House. (Floating toy sharks going into the South Lawn Fountain for the June 2009 Congressional picnic that was an Obama Ohana Luau. Photo courtesy AP)

Desiree Rogers day of the Congressional picnic as she checks last minute details on her blackberry.
Amiability and ability to get along and communicate with multiple departments and constituencies for each and every White House moment with scheduling changes at the last moment make it seem like juggling revving chainsaws, grisly if you miss, and any near misses or straight out flops are seen by everyone. Who can forget Queen Elizabeth being greeted at the White House for a state visit in the early 1990's with her voice heard from the podium, but only her magnificent hat could be seen as there were no steps for the rather tiny Queen of the British Empire to stand upon. The Social Secretary is responsible for ensuring that those sorts of details are clear. Gerald & Betty Ford had their own fun social gaffe when the president asked the Queen to dance and the Marine Corps band went straight into their repertoire of music from Rodgers & Hart, The Lady is a Tramp. Catchy.

White House Social Secretary is a central component of a fully pledged East Wing Operation. Most of the Social Secretary's of the past came with experience at cotillions, collegiate network and a Rolodex in Washington that made things sparkle behind the scenes. Some were absolute nightmares because of their ties to the first lady while others could soothe troubled waters with smooth as silk words. No Social Secretary will be successful in a modern White House without paying homage to the person who is responsible for every direct White House hire, event and procurement, the Chief Usher. During the Camelot era, Letitia Baldridge brought a state department background a social pedigree to the Kennedys as she served both as Social Secretary & the first lady's chief of staff. Ann Stock was the Clinton social secretary from 1994 until 1997. The position also opens doors to other opportunities as Capricia Marshall was the Clinton Administration's Social Secretary with a current nomination to be President Obama's Chief of Protocol that the White House Social Secretary office must work and with daily.(Letitia Baldrige 1961 - 1963 upper left, Capricia Marshall 1997-2001 courtesy of The Washington Post)

Laura Bush's Social Secretary, Lea Berman, ran a tight shop that sat few state dinners but smaller versions of them, but she did one large mega event for the Queen of England in 2007. Lea succeeded Cathy Fenton after the 2004 election, hired straight from being Lynne Cheney's Chief of staff. She cleaned house, exiting the Executive Chef like it was a TV reality series and with the urgent need to find a pastry chef that could live up to Roland Mesnier one of a kind pastry & gingerbread house standards. At that time, the East Wing had everyone in an intense state of roiling stomach acid there was so much turbulence and turf protection. (Lea Berman, Social Secretary for Laura Bush 2005 - 2007 walks along the East Colonnade towards the residence Photo courtesy the Washington Post)

The blowback in the current administrations Social Office has been minimal so far. Desirée Rogers has handled many thing really well by virtue of her executive experience, education and foremost her relationship with the first lady. Innovation in White House entertainment is part of the Obama Charm with the Easter Egg Roll, picnic and the Governor's Ball. Desirée has had a jaw-dropping gaping hole in her judgment by even considering having herself photographed in Michelle Obama's Kitchen Garden wearing an Oscar de la Renta ball gown and needed a veto from the West Wing before the idea was fully dropped. As previously fretted about, Desirée Rogers penchant for publicity is a two-edged sword as the role is not at all about her - yet her self-stylized branding is about her being a cultural liaison (do the Obamas need a translator) before she has even put on a full state visit. The ramifications of even thinking of a state dinner in this economic climate would be as loopy as even dreaming of having your picture taken wearing a high-end designer trench coat by Viktor & Rolf and Cartier earrings in the East Room and your not even the first lady.

The recent contretemps in the East Wing With the 4 month on the Job Chief of Staff, Jackie Norris, leaving for a lower profile job with a volunteer organization has some genesis in the friction between her & Rogers. Susan Sher, Norris's replacement, is a great friend of Rogers and senior West Wing official Valerie Jarrett and a former boss of the first lady. A noticeable detail is how much the Social Secretary is photographed with the first lady or the family at events. The Secret Service are probably the best at being omnipresent and positioning themselves out of the frame of certain shots.(Photos courtesy Wall Street Journal)

One of the toughest jobs for a Social Secretary had to be during the Carter presidency. Gretchen Householder Poston was the WH Social Secretary at an an intense time that saw a reduction in lavish entertainment by Mrs. Carter during a recession and a scaling back due to the Iran Hostage crisis. There was also an intense negotiation to get the Camp David Accords and the resulting event at the White House is now world history.

Each one has had challenges, intrigues and time will tell how this works out for the Obama presidency. Most do not stay the full tenure of a president & first lady as the job is a tough, time consuming one that encompasses the needs of the West Wing with the changing demands of the East Wing. Hats off to all who have had the opportunity to serve in this capacity!

Happy Birthday Mom! From both of us, NanaRh.


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