The White House has been, historically, a very white house. Traditionally, all the portraits hanging on the walls have been of white men or, occasionally, white women. The domestic staff, however—the ushers, cooks, maids, gardeners—has often been black. Today, about one third of the 95 permanent staffers working in the White House are African-American. On Inauguration Day, the White House social secretary, Desiree Rogers, watched as a valet, an older black man, hung up President Obama's shirts and ties. She tells NEWSWEEK that she imagined him thinking, I see someone who looks like me that is going to be moving in here. Rogers noticed that other black staffers had "a little extra pep in their step" that day. "I see my grandfather's face in their faces," says Rogers.
The title of White House social secretary conjures up images of ladies pouring tea. But Rogers, a Harvard Business School grad who ran an energy utility in Chicago, describes her job as "one cornerstone of building the Obama presidency brand." Michelle Obama is an old friend (Rogers's ex-husband played basketball at Princeton with Michelle's brother, Craig Robinson). The first lady tells NEWSWEEK that Rogers is doing a "phenomenal job" of creating a "People's House." That means opening up the White House (which Rogers refers to simply as "the House") to the sort of people who don't usually get invited to state dinners. Last week, Rogers brought in some students from a local cooking school to talk to the head chef and first lady as the staff prepared the Obamas' first state dinner. One student asked about the presidential china and inquired whether Mrs. Obama would be designing her own. "Um, I think so," Mrs. Obama replied, looking over at Rogers before adding, "I think that's part of the job." Rogers and Obama smiled.
Neither showed any anxiety, though both knew perfectly well they were stepping around a land mine. Americans are ambivalent about their first ladies. They want them to be regal, like Jackie Kennedy, but scorn them if they act like queens. Both Mary Lincoln and Nancy Reagan took flak for their spending on fancy clothes and furnishings. Mrs. Lincoln complained about the "vampyre press," and it hasn't gotten less bloodthirsty. In January, Laura Bush was chastised for spending $492,798 (from private donations) on new White House china at a time when people are missing their mortgage payments.
Rogers, who grew up in New Orleans, is at once sociable and cool, not unlike the Obamas. But she is sensitive to the symbolic significance of the Obamas in the White House. "They understand what it means to feel like you've been left out," she says. Rogers, who like Michelle Obama has been profiled in Vogue, enjoys a bit of glamour; she recently attended Fashion Week in New York. But two weeks ago, she was smiling as she watched the first lady—and Michelle's daughters, along with about 180 mostly black Washington schoolkids and the children of the Executive Mansion housekeeping staff—sway in the East Room. It was Black History Month, and they were listening to an all African-American singing group crooning mostly upbeat songs, but also a ballad about a man who was killed by the Ku Klux Klan.
Rogers says she wants to modernize the art collection of the presidential mansion: "There is a wonderful collection of art, but what's missing is modern art. And also we'd like to see more diversity of the artists themselves—more women artists, more African-American artists, more Hispanic artists, artists of American-Indian descent, Asian-Americans." Rogers may ruffle feathers if she starts moving out the White House permanent art collection. "You can't get any better than an original Courbet or Picasso," cautions Letitia Baldrige, who was social secretary in the Kennedy White House. Rogers does not seem too worried, however. "Are we having fun yet?" President Obama asked her recently. "Getting there," she answered.