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Just as Jackie Kennedy used the relatively new medium of TV to bring the public inside the White House with her Feb. 14, 1962, tour, Rogers sees the potential to use the Internet to involve voters in the famous residence’s social scene.
“How do we take that push for winning and say, ‘OK, now we have to fight for ourselves and for our nation. We’ve taken some hits here recently. Now what?’” says Rogers, who will get her first close-up look at the White House today when she meets with President Bush’s social secretary, Amy Zantzinger, and chief White House usher, U.S. Coast Guard Rear Admiral Stephen W. Rochon. “People want to celebrate, want to feel pride and joy. That’s not frivolous. That’s an important part of who we are as a nation.
“How can we create that visual among all Americans?’’ asks Rogers, who adds she is thinking about a “variety of events. Americans may not love all of them, but hopefully, we will be able to give them something to love by bringing people in. Not everyone can get to the White House. Through the technology we have today, we are working to create personal relationships with the White House. How can we bring that to life for Americans?’’
That attitude excites at least one person: blogger extraordinaire Arianna Huffington, founder of The Huffington Post.
“The Obamas have more than 10 million people on their e-mail list. I’m sure Desiree Rogers will expand our understanding of her role,” predicts Huffington as she imagines ways to use the Web to expand the idea of traditional White House entertaining. “She’ll reach through culture and the arts, and not just entertaining.’’
Rogers, 49, insists that the new first couple will honor all the rituals of traditional White House entertaining — and then some. “We’ll keep the historical calendar of events, and then layer on top of those the events the President-elect and first lady want to host. Will there be state dinners? I’m sure there will be. How many, I don’t know.’’
Things are bound to change, though, especially given the historic nature of the new White House and the team. Rogers is the first African-American to be social secretary and is looking forward to working with Rochon, a man she calls “The Admiral,” who’s director of the Executive Residence and the eighth chief usher in White House history. “He’s from New Orleans, just like my father,’’ says Rogers, daughter of the late Big Easy city councilman Roy Glapion Jr.
Known as “the life of the party,’’ Rogers has exactly the right social connections for the job. In November, she gave a birthday party for her friend, Valerie Jarrett, one of President-elect Obama’s first picks on his White House staff. The future president and first lady came to celebrate. Fashionwise, Rogers likes to “mix it up’’ with a lot of different designers, including Cuban-American designer Isabel Toledo, who designs for Michelle Obama; Valentino; Carolina Herrera; Oscar de la Renta; Bottega Veneta, and Viktor & Rolf.
Already, her appointment has created a buzz in the business community, where Rogers demonstrated early on her talent for introducing product lines. A graduate of Wellesley College and the Harvard Business School, she hit the ground running, according to her former boss, Larry Levy, founder of Levy Restaurants in Chicago, which pioneered Spiaggia and Bistro 10. Levy hired Rogers when she was still in her 20s and dating her future and now ex-husband John Rogers, a Princeton basketball teammate of Michelle Obama’s brother, Craig Robinson. Levy challenged his young protégé with improving the margins at his signature Lobby Shops — newsstands located in the lobbies of his burgeoning office-building empire.
“Desiree brought a lot of panache to those stores that sold snacks, tobacco and newsstand items. She brought great items to sell there, some gift items, impulse items, that helped change the nature of the business and gave the stores more style,’’ says Levy, who most admires the personal side of Rogers’ social skills when it comes to bringing people together.
“She has one of the best divorces of anyone I know,’’ he explains. “They are each others’ biggest fans.’’
“Just because two people divorced doesn’t mean they don’t have tremendous respect, admiration and love,’’ says Rogers, whose ex-husband, John Rogers, co-chairman of the Obama inaugural committee, is founder and chief executive officer of Ariel Investments. Their daughter, Victoria, 18, is a freshman at Yale.
“You don’t have to always put yourself first,” she adds. “That’s the part we all have to push back from. If I’m selfishly thinking about me as opposed to the benefit of the team, that’s not a good thing. It’s not always about the individual. If you let go of that, it’s amazing what can happen in your life.’’
Correction: Desiree Rogers graduated from Wellesley College, not Princeton University. This was incorrect in the original published version.