NEW YORK — Stepping out in New York City to talk about culture, Desiree Rogers made one thing clear: This White House social secretary doesn't intend to stay closeted in her East Wing office for four years.
"One of the things the president and the first lady want to do is celebrate America," Rogers told The Associated Press as she arrived for an arts event Thursday evening. "So when it comes to arts and culture, we need to be out there. We need to see what people are doing."
Also, she noted, traveling outside Washington is a crucial way to find interesting artists and cultural figures to bring into the White House: "A lot of collaborations are born this way."
Rogers was the main attraction at the annual meeting of the Creative Coalition, a politically active, bipartisan group of entertainment industry figures founded by the late actors Christopher Reeve and Ron Silver. During a cocktail reception, she could barely move for all the well-wishers eager to meet her and press business cards into her hand.
Afterward, in a discussion moderated by actress Dana Delany, Rogers spoke of her dual mission: To both respect history and create new traditions at what she emphasized was "the people's house."
The nation's first black social secretary also spoke about another key way she's different from past social secretaries: She's a special assistant to the president, as well, meaning she's part of both the president's and the first lady's staffs.
"They wanted me to be able to really think about (the job) in a different way," Rogers told Delany. "It's also important that we work as a team."
Rogers, a tall, striking woman who's often noted for her fashion sense _ just like the first lady she works for _ already has made a mark on the job with such events as a poetry jam in May, where poets and playwrights celebrated the spoken word, and Monday's White House jazz concert, where musicians like Wynton Marsalis taught jazz technique and history. Next up, she said: "Country music!"
She told the crowd she'd already organized 150 events at the White House, earning an appreciative whistle. Among them was a sit-down dinner early in the new term for the nation's governors, which she said she initially had no idea how to plan.
"I didn't know where the kitchen was, or where the ballroom was," Rogers said. "They don't leave you any files when you come here." She said she didn't want the governors to just be sitting the whole time, even though people told her they wouldn't dance. "So we got Earth, Wind and Fire," Rogers said. "And by the end, they were doing a Conga line."
Then there was the Easter Egg Roll, before which, she confessed, she'd used her marketing experience as a former executive (her last post was as president of social networking at Allstate Financial) to conduct a focus group _ of kids. But it wasn't easy.
"They were all like, 'Hate that, hate that,'" she said in mock exasperation. "We ended up having hip-hop, Fergie, Ziggy Marley and yoga."
Rogers, who turned 50 this week, also gave a glimpse into her daily life in the White House, which begins with three back-to-back morning meetings: First, the morning meeting in the West Wing of the president's senior advisers, then a social office meeting and then one with the first lady's office.
She told the audience how the new administration is slowly modernizing the place. Many people working in the White House, she said, have been there for years. "Now they have BlackBerrys," she said with a smile.
She also recalled the emotion of Inauguration Day, when she was helping move in the Obama family. "I saw the pride and joy of these people," she said of the White House's black employees. "This gentleman who'd been there 50 years, he's close to retirement, told me: 'I never thought I would see a president the color that I am.'"
The Creative Coalition event was attended by diverse figures in the arts like former talk show host Dick Cavett, actors Tim Daly and Tony Goldwyn, who are co-presidents of the coalition, and Rocco Landesman, President Barack Obama's nominee to be the next chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts.
Delany said she was hugely impressed with Rogers.
"She's definitely the modern social secretary," the actress said. "I think she's great."