Back when Gatecrashgate hit in November, Desiree Rogers, the White House Social Secretary, held her ground. She avoided calls from the press, refused an opportunity to testify before Congress, and then appeared smiling and attentive at each of the subsequent White House holiday parties, gleefully greeting journalists, staff and members of Congress, as if there was nothing at all amiss. It sure seemed like that her days in the White House were numbered.
And so they were. The Chicago Sun-Times’s Lynn Sweet breaks the news today about Rogers’ plans for a graceful exit. “As we turn the corner on the first year,” Rogers tells Sweet, “this is a good time for me to explore opportunities in the corporate world.” Rogers leaves declaring victory, noting that she oversaw over 330 events, including many notable departures from the normal White House pomp and populations. But her departure can be read just as easily as another lesson in how much trouble Team Obama is having changing the twisted ways of Washington.
Let us recall Rogers’ alleged crime: On the night of the first state dinner of 2009, at least three bottomfeeder social types snuck into the White House without tickets. The Secret Service, which is charged with sealing a bubble around the President, bungled their gig. And while the gun-totters were blowing it, Rogers was yucking it up, walking in as an invited guest dressed in a designer gown that looked like a paper bib with inlaid pearls. Neither she nor her staff were positioned at the entrances with clipboards to serve as a double-check, trouble-shooters for the Secret Service. An internal review by the White House later concluded that though the Secret Service had made the mistake, White House staff like Rogers might have helped prevent the breach. “The President believes that the men and women of the Secret Service put their lives on the line everyday to protect him, his family and many others,” the memo read. “We need to do whatever we can to help them succeed in their mission.”
So Rogers changed her ways, but she was already fatally wounded in the bizarre social logic of Washington, which tends to be much less forgiving of the sins of women than men. The Washington Post’s Sally Quinn, who has long exemplified the worst of the city’s sick aristocratic tribal culture, led the charge by calling for Rogers resignation. The rationale? “From the start, Rogers was an unlikely choice for social secretary,” Quinn wrote. “She was not of Washington, considered by many too high-powered for the job and more interested in being a public figure (and thus upstaging the first lady) than in doing the gritty, behind-the-scenes work inherent in that position.”
In other words, Rogers had committed two crimes: Not only was she not part of Quinn’s tea party set, but she had also–gasp!–introduced herself to D.C. as her own person, on her own terms, not as just another member of the hired help. Quinn, who describes herself as “a legendary wit and hostess” on one book jacket, took to the cable network circuit doing her best imitation of Lewis Carroll’s Queen of Hearts. “You have seen it in Washington year after year after year,” she said on MSNBC. “When there is some terrible mistake made, someone has to take responsibility. There has to be consequences.”
At the time, I argued that all of this was a bunch of back-stabbing poppycock, a modern-day version of what the Greeks understood as “tall poppy syndrome.” “Always put out of the way the citizens who overtop the rest,” Periander advised Thrasybulus. Rogers had come to Washington to shake it up. She had changed the job of Social Secretary, transforming it from just a staff position and to more of an artistic template for her own vision, which was apparently embraced by the Obama family. “Take a chance on yourself and be comfortable about it,” she told me once, describing her own philosophy and that of her employers.
But change, as the Obamas have learned, does not become of Washington–whether one is talking about influence brokering or party planning. Rogers had come to make waves, she made waves, and then she got wiped out. If there is any consolation to this whole sorry tale, it is that the crooked viciousness of the social set does not spare anyone. Earlier this week, Sally Quinn lost her column in the Washington Post, after using it to write a particularly petty and catty piece about an internal squabble in her own family regarding wedding dates. The tall poppy tyranny plays no favorites, you see. Our nation’s capital is imbued with the same social silliness as a middle school. You can’t just walk in and sit at any lunch table you choose. If you do, they will find a way to get you.