There is an unwritten rule in Washington: If you want to last, don’t stand out. Those who do—think Tom DeLay with his cigars, Jack Abramoff with his restaurant—tend to get clipped before too long. Some call it the “tall poppy syndrome,” probably owing to an anecdote, recorded by Aristotle, of Periander’s advice to Thrasybulus: “Always put out of the way the citizens who overtop the rest.” I know of a lobbyist in town who talks about his “big-you, little-me” strategy for success. The smaller you make yourself, in other words, the more power you can acquire.
So we are left with a city of influential clerks, quiet, bland and bespectacled by breeding and training, riding the subway in ill-fitting suits, nicked shoes or the occasional short strands of pearls. Lips flutter, hearts palpitate and breathless emails are exchanged whenever someone attempts to upset this careful order, which is, in a way, what has been happening since the arrival of Desirée Rogers, the glamorous Obama family confidant who holds the title of White House Social Secretary.
Rogers is defiantly unapologetic about herself and her vision for her office, a whirlwind of ideas and enthusiasms and designer clothing. When I interviewed her last May, our conversation consisted of several delightful monologues, which I struggled to interrupt with questions. “Take a chance on yourself and be comfortable about it,” she told me at one point. On the wall of her East Wing office, she had hung an over-sized photograph of a New Orleans shotgun house, a reminder of her birthplace, where she lived before her Harvard MBA, her career as a natural gas company executive and her turn running the Illinois lottery.
She is, among other things, not a quiet clerk. Shortly after arriving in Washington to work at the White House, Rogers traveled to New York for fashion week, where she sat next to Vogue’s Anna Wintour at the Donna Karan and Carolina Herrera runway shows. The Wall Street Journal photographed her in a Viktor & Rolf trench, with Cartier earrings, for an article in which Rogers declared, “We have the best brand on earth: The Obama brand.” This was outrageous stuff, for old Washington hands. Soon the knives came out for her, and Rogers’ interviews were curtailed by the West Wing. Obama’s political advisers did not need yet another distraction.
But Rogers remained, in a more subdued way, a poppy above the pack, and her detractors did not go away so much as they positioned themselves for the next pounce. The opportunity came last week, when two Would-Be Washington Socialites (is there a less desirable title?) Tareq and Michaele Salahi snuck into the White House for a State Dinner wearing pancake makeup without an invitation.
Rogers’ sin, if it can be called one, was apparently in making herself a guest at the State Dinner—a star not a clerk, you see—for which she wore a cream-colored Comme des Garcons number, which was so high fashion that it looked like she might have made it herself. She also did not assign a staff person to hover over the Secret Service gates checking off guests as they arrived. Security is not her office’s responsibility, everyone agrees, but it was possible, some mused, that Rogers or her staff might have provided a second set of eyes to spot interlopers when the Secret Service failed to do its job. Both the Secret Service and the House Homeland Security Committee have promised investigations, but that has not stopped a chorus of conclusions.
“Where, oh where, was Desiree Rogers?” asks Lloyd Grove, in the Daily Beast. “In the past, White House social secretaries have worked, not partied.” All-purpose Obama-basher Michelle Malkin posts a long list of Rogers’ fashion spreads to make the point. Newsweek’s Michael Isikoff reports that Rogers demoted the person who once minded the State Dinner invite list, a woman named Cathy Hargraves, who now claims that she would never have allowed the Secret Service to make such a blunder. Meanwhile on Monday, the White House press corps, bored by failed attempts to pry out previews of the new Afghan strategy, blitzed Press Secretary Robert Gibbs with questions about Rogers’ potential role in the Salahis’ incursion last week. (See the video here, courtesy of TPM.)
“I appreciate the observation that somebody could or could not have been at a certain gate,” Gibbs responded, somewhat testily. But he added that no one in Secret Service ever sought to check a name with the social office. “Nobody picked up the phone to relay the information,” he said.
As with so many Washington mini-scandals, the scandal here may not be about what it is supposedly about. Is it upsetting that a couple of unapproved boobs snuck into the White House, so they could paw at the President and the Vice President? Or is it upsetting that the staff member in charge of the party had a seat at the table? In this case, the answer is, apparently both, though I hope everyone would agree that the latter is far less important than the former.
UPDATE: Rep. Peter King of New York, the ranking Republican on the Homeland Security Committee, has said he will ask Rogers to testify on the Salahis’ incursion. It is unclear if Rogers will accept the invitation.
ALSO: The Salahis did the Today Show Tuesday morning, saying vaguely “We were invited, not crashers.” (One Pentagon official who corresponded with the couple says that she never offered them a ticket. A precious, only-in-D.C. detail: The official, Michele S. Jones, was called by a Washington Post reporter and asked about her contacts with the Salahis. She responded: “I am not going to say anything at this point at all. Oh, my goodness.”)