By Darlene Superville
WASHINGTON— White House social secretary Desiree Rogers is stepping down three months after an uninvited couple crashed the Obama administration’s first state dinner and she was heavily criticized for her role in allowing the embarrassing episode to happen.
President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama issued a statement last Friday thanking their longtime friend from their days together in Chicago, for the “terrific job she’s done” organizing more than 330 events in little more than a year in the post.
They indicated no reason for the departure, effective sometime next month after a transition period.
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said a short time later that Rogers was neither forced out nor asked to leave. He also said he didn’t think the dustup over the state dinner factored into her decision.
“She’s decided it’s time to go back to doing other things that she loves,” Gibbs said.
Rogers’ handling of the Nov. 24 state dinner came under fire after a celebrity-seeking northern Virginia couple got into the exclusive South Lawn affair without a formal invitation, despite heavy White House security. As social secretary, Rogers was in charge of the event.
It was a huge embarrassment for the White House that Tareq and Michaele Salahi got into the dinner uninvited, let alone close enough to top officials to shake hands with Obama in the receiving line and take photos with Vice President Joe Biden, which they posted on Facebook.
Rogers later acknowledged not having staff from her office at security checkpoints to help identify guests, a departure from the practice in previous administrations. Lawmakers had demanded that she testify about her handling of the event, and one wanted to subpoena her. The White House would not allow her to testify, citing the constitutional separation of powers.
Secret Service Director Mark Sullivan told Congress that normal security protocols were not followed, and three officers were put on administrative leave following the breach in what normally is tight White House security.
Obama said weeks later that he was unhappy with everyone involved in what he described as a “screw-up” and said it would not happen again. Mrs. Obama also was said to be angry about the incident. The White House reviewed its policies and decided to station staff at its security checkpoints to help clear up discrepancies about guests.
Tall and glamorous, Rogers also was criticized for having a profile higher than the social secretaries before her. She gave interviews, appeared in glossy magazine photo spreads and dressed in high-end designer labels. She also had a front-row seat next to Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour during New York Fashion Week last year.
Rogers, 50, told the Chicago Sun-Times on last Friday that she was leaving because she had achieved a major goal of the Obamas: turning the White House into the “people’s house” by opening it up to many of those who normally do not get to visit.
“My work was really to create this framework. I think I completed that work,” she told her hometown newspaper. “Our office has been able to lay the foundation for what will be known as the ‘people’s house’ and it has already taken shape.”
Rogers said she planned to explore opportunities in the corporate world, where she worked before joining the administration. She arrived in Chicago after getting an MBA and has worked at AT&T and a gas and utilities company.
Gibbs said she personally informed the Obamas of her decision around the beginning of the year.
“When she took this position, we asked Desiree to help make sure that the White House truly is the people’s house and she did that by welcoming scores of everyday Americans through its doors, from wounded warriors to local schoolchildren to NASCAR drivers,” the Obamas said.