The most interesting end-of-the-week-dump-of-the-news-you-want-buried was the Friday afternoon announcement by the White House that social secretary Desiree Rogers would be leaving her post:
On Friday afternoon, Ms. Rogers said she would resign soon, after a year that was groundbreaking but grueling, filled with criticism of her statements, her handling of the Obamas’ first state dinner and even her designer outfits.
“It has nothing to do with being glamorous — that is all make-believe in the eyes of the press,” she said in a telephone interview. “I’ve always dressed this way. This is who I am.”
Like the First Lady, Rogers has some pretty fabulous threads, and her sense of style is definitely more hit than miss. But nevertheless, I find her comment, “I’ve always dressed this way. This is who I am” much more than disingenuous. It’s not that I don’t believe her. I do. I’m sure that her closet is full of designer duds. She can afford them, so why not?
Why not, indeed. As a private citizen Rogers can now wear whatever she wants whenever she wants. As a (soon to be former) employee of the White House, though, she had to abide by rules not of her making, difficult as that is, rules that are largely unwritten and rooted in professional decorum and common sense.
Let’s start with her job title, social secretary, and all that it implies. Unlike a cabinet-level official or a corporate capital-S Secretary, a social secretary is a small-s secretary, holding a critical and important position to be sure, but one defined by its attention to detail, its fealty to routine, and most of all its lack of original initiative. A social secretary’s job is no different in this sense from any other small-s secretary’s: make the boss look good. Anticipate problems and fix them before they happen or as soon thereafter as possible. Let the boss take credit for your work. And never, ever upstage the boss. If you do, you’ll find yourself at Union Station with a one-way ticket on the Lake Shore Limited.
Right now you are protesting: But Desiree never upstaged Mrs. Obama! They’re friends! They are friends, and Mrs. Obama’s generosity of spirit in permitting her friend-employee to grace the cover of WSJ is admirable. But as soon as the Salahis elbowed their way into last fall’s state dinner, Rogers became the center of attention, a position that is way, way out of her pay grade, as her other boss would say.
For me Rogers departure makes sense. She wanted to work at the White House, who wouldn’t? But she probably hadn’t reckoned with the crippling effects of tradition, the squeaking disapproval of her predecessors from prior administrations, or, most of all, the difficult and ultimately impossible transition from making the rules to following the rules.
A social secretary is the little wren that hovers at the perimeter of the pecking order: drab to the point of invisibility, she is at her best when nobody knows she’s there. It may be an upstairs job, but it requires a downstairs sensibility. And Rogers, who cuts a regal figure, whose familial and educational pedigrees are impeccable, and whose prior work experience is executive-level, simply does not fit that mold. That she thought she could break the mold was her hubris and her undoing.
I’m guessing that spending a year trying to be someone she so obviously is not was worth it to Rogers for the chance to be a White House insider. When forced to choose—her wardrobe or her livelihood—she didn’t drop a stitch.