Knives come out for Obama's 'preening' social secretary

The President is under pressure to sack Desiree Rogers, after she was blamed for letting in White House gatecrashers
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The Independent US

She came to town as a certified member of Chicago's great and good: a highly successful professional, an A-list socialiser and a prolific fundraiser for both president-to-be Obama, and for his adopted city's bid to win the 2016 Olympics. One way and another, Desiree Rogers seemed perfect for her new position in Washington – until a couple of Virginia parvenus crashed a state dinner.

Unlike small children, White House social secretaries before her have generally been neither seen nor heard. Obscurity is a sign of success; their greatest moments are when glittering events unfold with the elegance and unobtrusive precision of a Swiss watch. Even close followers of the American presidency might be pressed to name a single holder of the job in the past couple of decades.

Ms Rogers right now is not being heard – she declined to testify at yesterday's Congressional hearing into how Michaele and Tareq Salahi managed, uninvited, to attend last week's gala in honour of India's Prime Minister. But far too much has been seen of her of late, above all in unflattering headlines blaming her for the embarrassment. The question now is, will Barack Obama jettison his social secretary just as he dispensed three weeks ago with the services of the White House counsel Gregory Craig?

Mr Craig had become the face of the administration's failure to close Guantanamo Bay; Ms Rogers' claimed failings, in comparison, may seem rather less significant. Still, it can only be said that the 50-year-old holder of a masters from Harvard Business School had been riding for a fall. The first African-American social secretary, she delighted in making news even before the Obamas took up residence in the White House on 20 January. As Robin Givhan, the fashion critic of The Washington Post, tartly wrote after Crashergate broke, Ms Rogers "arrived in Washington this year to great fanfare, no small amount of it of her own making".

"I don't want to take a job where I'd be picking flowers," she told an interviewer in those heady days. Admiring articles described her as "the most important event planner on the planet", and unusually she was given the rank of "special assistant to the president" to go with the formal title of social secretary. She featured in Vogue magazine a month before the First Lady Michelle, her official boss, and by April was the subject of a spread in WSJ, The Wall Street Journal's glitzy style magazine.

Unfortunately, her critics say, somewhere along the way, Ms Rogers seems to have stopped paying attention to the nitty gritty of her job – like making sure a person from her office was at the White House entrance on occasions like a state dinner, to make sure people who said they were invited actually had been.

Instead, it is said, the Bush administration appointee who had that task was demoted by Ms Rogers, and finally left the White House in June. That fact too was inevitably seized upon, as proof that the new social secretary was just another Chicago operator. According to The New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, she was "unnecessarily politicising an office that required old pros". In The Huffington Post, meanwhile, Jacob Heilbrunn damned her as "a figure out of Vanity Fair – preening and self-indulgent, lording it over her table at the state dinner, while ignoring her own mundane duties".

At one level, the simultaneous assault by two sharp-tongued writers in the goldfish bowl of the capital should not be taken over-seriously. Washington delights in cutting pushy outsiders down to size. Social secretaries are meant to be demure. The present one summons many epithets to mind, but "demure" is rarely among them.

But the episode is also a warning, another small sign of how the mood is starting to sour on the "brand Obama" that Ms Rogers came to Washington so intent on promoting. Among the complaints is that Mr Obama has brought with him his own mafia, an incarnation of the infamous Chicago machine – but a machine that can't even run a state dinner properly.