When I heard that Desiree Rogers, the White House social secretary and intimate of the Obamas, was finally stepping down, my first instinct was to want to defend her. Rogers's resignation seemed another clear lesson in how intolerant Washington is of mold-breakers, especially any to whom the word (or slur) "uppity" can also be applied.
I, too, had once suffered career consequences -- at a much lower level -- as a woman perceived by others as a bit too "fabulous" for my own good. But Rogers's fall from grace is in many ways no one's fault but her own. From the moment The Washington Post broke the story that two interlopers had grin-and-gripped their way past Secret Service into the very first state dinner of the Obama presidency, it was just a matter of time before Rogers would leave Washington -- sooner rather than later.
With her money, beauty and glaringly obvious displays of wealth and privilege, Rogers is the kind of woman every woman loves to hate. She is 50 but looks 35. Add to the mix her almost constant use of the pronoun "we" when referring to the president and first lady, and her image was cast: Rogers refused to blend into the background -- but the background is precisely where Washington wants its social secretary.
She of the Louboutin stilettos and Commes des Garcons gown never quite fit in in a town where sensible heels and navy blue and charcoal gray business suits are the dress code for most working women. Even if she had followed the rules, she would have stood out from the crowd. She is 5-foot-10 and a strikingly handsome woman with a model's figure and a socialite's graces. But even from the very beginning she never followed the rules: It was about one year ago when Rogers was photographed looking fabulous in a plum-colored embroidered silk suit at the Carolina Herrera fashion show in New York, her bare legs long and toned and showing not a small bit of thigh, seated in the front row right next to the even more fabulous Anna Wintour, editor-in-chief of Vogue Magazine.
And then there were the flashy magazine articles that seemed self-promotional: a piece in Vanity Fair and a story on the cover of the Wall Street Journal's magazine that had Rogers mugging for the camera and looking every bit the mannequin. The layout featured Rogers sporting thousands of dollars worth of excruciatingly chic designer clothes and accessories as she bragged, "We have the best brand on Earth: the Obama brand."
"We." Not "they," as in her bosses.
In all of the tut-tutting over Rogers, there also appears to be a vague and weird racial element -- although it's hard to pin down exactly. Maybe it was when Maureen Dowd chose to compare "Desiree" to Tiger Woods who, if you think about it, is exactly like Rogers except he's a guy, he's not into politics or particularly attractive, he's a man-whore, he's not really that snappy a dresser and he doesn't sashay around. (Or at least if he does any sashaying, it's with no cameras present and only in the company of cocktail waitresses.).
My reasons for initially supporting Rogers are more personal than political. I'm no big fan of the Obama administration, and I'm not all that crazy about the Democratic Party in general. Despite our political differences (although I must note that Rogers was at one time a Republican) I do have a few things in common with Rogers, namely that I am a black woman and I too have been guilty (or at least been accused) of lethal fabulousness.
When returning to Washington as an expat fresh from Paris several years ago, I took a job as a fundraiser at a somewhat conservative non-profit. In Washington, I may have raised a few eyebrows with the Parisian chic I had so carefully and methodically studied and tried to recreate. A few years later when I tendered my resignation, the staffer charged with making the announcement in a division-wide email made no mention of the many things I had achieved during my tenure. He did, however, point out that my "fashionable" presence would be missed around the office.
A bitter pill to swallow but lesson learned. I toned it down and bruised ego aside, there were no lasting ramifications.
Some part of me is surprised that Rogers (who is no amateur) had not learned this lesson sooner. Yes, the fashion mags naturally all flocked to her -- as The Post's Robin's Givhan observed Wednesday: "Of all the bounty the Obama administration offered, Rogers was the most enticing. She was high-ranking, she had the dazzling task of overseeing the social life of the White House, and she was more accessible than the first lady."
Rogers should have had the good sense to, at some point, stop her voguing.
The new social secretary, Julianna Smoot, is the anti-Rogers. She's a Washington insider, currently serving as chief of staff to U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk, and was a top fund-raiser for Obama's presidential campaign. Based on the photos I've seen, she is every bit the traditional image of what Washington expects in a social secretary.
In another Post piece today, Anne Kornblut and Krissah Thompson quote Democratic strategist Steve Hildebrand saying of Smoot: "She has no problem dealing with quote-unquote important people, but she doesn't put herself up on a pedestal. She doesn't see herself as a member of the social elite, and she certainly shies away from press."
So as the pendulum swings from one extreme to the next, Obama is finding that the most appropriate change sometimes means staying the same.
And farewell the fabulous Ms. Rogers, back to Chicago's glittering Gold Coast where she truly belongs.