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The Obamas' social impresario

Desiree Rogers wants White House events to reflect the tastes and

March 22, 2009|Mike Dorning

WASHINGTON — Desiree Rogers once made millionaires of a lucky few. Now she plans to give Americans dinner invitations to the White House.

Rogers, a business executive and socialite -- and a former Illinois lottery director -- is turning again to Lady Luck in her role as social secretary for a White House that hopes to balance glamour, history and an urban sensibility with 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. "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 President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama.

Along with state events and dinners with artists and intellectuals, the calendar she plans includes poetry slams and a ball celebrating everyday American heroes.

The band Earth, Wind and Fire was the entertainment at the Obamas' first formal dinner, hosting the nation's governors. The black-tie dinner had a more casual, modern feel than most such White House ceremonies.

Among the first events were a Super Bowl party and a dinner for congressional committee chairmen and their Republican counterparts.

It was the first time many of the GOP members of Congress had been invited to dine at the White House despite their party's control of the presidency for the last eight years. The Super Bowl party included a children's play area featuring Nintendo Wii.

At Rogers' suggestion, the water in the fountains outside the White House was dyed green on St. Patrick's Day for the first time, inspired by the Obamas' hometown tradition of dying the Chicago River green on the holiday.

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 week before, making it less likely that people would travel a long distance.

For many, the Obamas evoke John and Jacqueline Kennedy, a presidency surrounded by an enduring mystique and sense of possibility. That image was created in part by a 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 name ultimately sticks to the Obama White House, Rogers will be its impresario. And she, for one, rejects comparisons with the Kennedys and Camelot.

"This is not necessarily a presidency that duplicates or copies. The Obamas have their own style," she said.

That style is livelier than the Bushes, more hip than the Reagans, more multicultural than the Clintons, and more accessible than the Kennedys.

"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 Wellesley graduate with a flair for designer clothes. 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 coexist."

A native of New Orleans, the 49-year-old Rogers has been a prominent presence on the Chicago social scene since her marriage to John Rogers, an Obama confidant and founder of Ariel Investments. She and Rogers have since divorced.

Rep. Dave Camp of Michigan, the top-ranking Republican on the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, sat next to Rogers at a recent White House dinner.

"She's someone who puts you at ease instantly," he said. "You feel like you've known her a long time."

Though Rogers has an apartment in Washington, she shuttles back and forth to Chicago, returning three weeks ago for a surprise party for interior designer 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 Illinois 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.

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