Monday, December 14, 2009

Personal Asides: Desiree Rogers—Brand Manager…Jim Houlihan for Next Mayor?


As a taxpayer you’re entitled to know that on the night of the first Obama state dinner Desiree Rogers…Chicago’s contributor to high fashion hauteur and the first African American presidential social secretary …wore a “multilayered dress,” described as “nude in color” designed by Comme des Garcons: this is how it was reported in The Washington Post.

Earlier for the high fashion magazine WSJ, she modeled (a) a 18k white gold ring from Cartier, (b) stud earrings ($110,000 at Cartier’s) and (c) a Duchesse jacket by Prada. Not that she has neglected her fashion-following friends in Chicago. She was on the cover of the new Michigan Avenue magazine wearing a $3,370 Louis Vuitton coat, a $7,900 freshwater pearl and diamond earrings by Jorge Adeler.

A 49-year-old social princess of Chicago’s and New Orleans’ black elite, her critics now say she temporarily forgot her job as White House staffer in her quest to show up in the fashion spotlight. She hit the White House like a tornado. Understand the social secretary is responsible for every event that goes on in the residence—which means you must coordinate with chefs, florists, lighting technicians, military aides, Secret Service (more about that later), musicians and some temperamental guests. “Willowy and fashion-forward,” gushed The New York Times, “with a chic haircut, a designer wardrobe and a Harvard MBA, Ms. Rogers promptly broke the dowdy mold for the job.” She strode like a professional model down the runway at the Thakoon fashion show in Washington and copped the capitol city’s “best dressed woman” by The Huffington Post.

She talked incessantly about how she was managing “the Obama brand”—drawing on her experience in marketing. Hip jazz musicians were invited to a Stevie Wonder concert and in a decided turn to the cultural left, she invited gay couples to the White House’s traditional Easter egg roll. On St. Patrick’s Day she broke with tradition and invited non-Irish guests which made the headlines. She led culinary students through the mansion’s kitchen. She organized and publicized a number of new-new events: a poetry slam (if you’re not with the “in crowd” like me, know that a poetry slam is poetry reading by authors where the audience votes them up or down). She has boldly emphasized that Christmas at the White House won’t be old-fashioned (as in Christian) which thrills the Left.

Warming to her fancied role as a female Svengali over Obama, Desiree talked to the press about how she was molding the president as a marketing brand not unlike …well…a box of ready-to-eat breakfast cereal.

Everything went swimmingly, hip and cool…the imaginative events much favored and publicized by the Washington liberal crowd. But then it ended with a thud on the evening of November 27.

That was supposed to be the premiere event of all: Obama’s first formal state dinner for the prime minister of India. Her social enemies…many envious, true…claim that Desiree was so intent on puffing herself that she allowed herself to attend the event as a guest (sitting next to her ex-husband from whom she is amicably, make that very amicably, divorced). She didn’t bother having her staff check the invitees. Result: a pair of aspiring reality television wannabes, Tareq and Michaele Salahi managed to invade the party and get up close to cage personal contact with the president and his cabinet.
Of course, the Salahis’ Arabic surname didn’t hurt in enabling them to slip through the net. The administration has made a point of courting Muslim influence and the poor Secret Service people figured they belonged. They waved the frauds through unaided by the Social Secretary staff while Desiree was enjoying the party as a guest, not a working stiff. That was a gross error and the blame belongs to Ms. Rogers. The Secret Service is accustomed to be ready to take a bullet for the president…but three members have already been placed on administrative leave for what Desiree failed to do.

Some congressional Republicans demanded Desiree be subpoenaed to testify about how the lapse occurred. But the White House has protected her citing “executive privilege.” Executive privilege is a constitutional right that was first invoked by George Washington in 1796 to prevent minutia of the Jay Treaty from being divulged to Congress. Blocking a social secretary from testifying through invocation of Executive Privilege puts Desiree right up there with protections argued by the 1st president for Jay through Eisenhower’s refusal to release materials to the Congress on the Army-McCarthy hearings in 1954, the Watergate battle known as United States v. Nixon 1974, Bill Clinton’s attempt to deny files concerning Monica Lewinsky (1998) and George W. Bush’s reliance on the privilege to deny materials concerning Dick Cheney’s meetings with energy officials. Pretty heady stuff for a staffer who is supposed to do nothing more than handle flower arrangements and see that the waiters pour refills of coffee on time.

Still, by rejecting a congressional subpoena to testify, Desiree enters history with those aforementioned precedents. That tells you that Desiree Rogers is not just another presidential social secretary. She also carries the title Assistant to the President. She’s Valerie Jarrett’s and Michelle Obama’s closest friend. And she is on the highest paper with the Chicago Squid whose operative she is in the Obama White House.

Desiree Does High Fashion.

Let’s look closely at what happened on Nov. 27 which may have been her Bay of Pigs. In the late afternoon as prelude to Obama’s dinner honoring Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Desiree invited a news pool awaiting the beginning of dinner for a private screening of her own finery of attire. More than any other social secretary to a president, her background is as well known as Joe Biden’s gaffes. She is the descendent of a Creole voodoo priestess named Marie Laveau Glapton. She was twice named queen of the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club, (I’m not making this up it’s the provocative title of the black ceremonial group involved in sponsoring elegant Mardi Gras parties).

Let’s say she has not had a rough time of it growing up in New Orleans high toned black ceremonial society which sponsors Mari Gras balls. In all, Desiree has been inured to setting the fashion pace.

A Catholic, she graduated from the exclusive Academy of the Sacred Heart in New Orleans…the same school from which Cokie Roberts graduated… and went on from there to earn a bachelor’s degree in political science from Wellesley (as did Roberts as well). Then on to Harvard where she copped an MBA—leaving Roberts behind in the dust.

After Harvard, she moved to Chicago where with her good looks and power resume, she landed a job as a net-worker for prominent real estate developer and restaurateur Larry Levy, who built Levy Restaurants into a national culinary and hospitality business including Spaggio and Bistro 110. She still was nothing more than an upper middle-class New Orleans transplant until she married one John Rogers, which marriage inducted her into the Chicago elite.

John Rogers heads Ariel Capital Management, the nation’s largest minority-run mutual fund firm. Rogers is the son of one of the very few—but special—Republican women blacks: Jewel Stratford Lafontant who was the first black woman to graduate from the University of Chicago law school. The late Jewel Lafontant graced every Republican dais and was a stylishly beautiful black woman who placed Richard Nixon in nomination in 1968 and was number two to Nixon’s solicitor general, Robert Bork.

John Rogers may have thought he was destined to be a prosperous Republican as well but at Princeton he played as co-captain of its award-winning basketball team with star forward Craig Robinson, Michelle Obama’s brother who now coaches at Oregon State. And frankly there was no social or political future for a fast rising black investment banker in Chicago and his wife unless he connected with The Squid. Rogers signed up right away.

The Squid Converts Rogers.

The Squid was good to new convert John Rogers. He got a lot of investment business from his political connections. He serves on the boards of AON, Exelon (which runs Com Ed the giant electrical utility), and McDonald’s, is a trustee of the University of Chicago, has served as president of the Chicago Park District, is a sometime columnist for Forbes, is a trustee on the Oprah Winfrey foundation, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
Desiree’s courting by The Squid took longer. “Five feet 7 with gorgeous legs which she displays beguilingly” as the Sun-Times reported, she held high posts at Allstate Financial, at age 31 was named to head the Illinois Lottery (by Republican Gov. Jim Edgar) and went from there to become president of two subsidiaries of Exelon: People’s Gas and North Shore Gas. He a Democrat, she a Republican: ah, they comprised a super-powerful couple, charter members in the Chicago Beautiful People Club.

Alas, a Divorce.

Then a shock for the Chicago power elite. What? The Roberts’ were getting a divorce! They did in 1997. But wait. You’ve heard of “amicable divorces”? Theirs is a super-amicable one as they both consulted on the rearing of their daughter who is now at Wellesley. And lo! John was in attendance at the Obama state dinner. In fact one reason Desiree deserted her staff duties that evening is to sit and chat amicably with John.

Desiree served as a delegate to the 2000 GOP national convention that nominated George W. Bush. But that was her last official act a Republican. By 1998 The Squid had completed its seduction of her—City Hall and its allies having recommended her for partnership in Equity Residences, a $15 billion residential real estate trust and putting her name up for Harvard’s Kennedy School Woman and Power Conference. She gave $2,000 to Bush in 2004 but the same amount to John Kerry his Democratic opponent. That started the slide to The Squid.

The emergence of Barack Obama was the clincher. John and she, amicably single, worked together on Obama campaigns very closely and well: John raising money for Obama senatorial and presidential campaigns and in 2008 heading the big Project Vote registration drive to swell the black voter pool…Desiree with superb marketing skill managing as a volunteer the black media blitz for Obama—but not forgetting to grab cover shots of herself for People and Oprah’s magazine O.

The Obama Brand Manager.

In all, it was a labor of love. Desiree landed spots for Obama nationwide in Vogue, Ebony, Jet and using her contacts with Shawnelle Richie, a Chicago-based TV exec for CBS got some network face time for him. In between photo shoots, she held parties at her house and contacted old Harvard classmates and contacts in New Orleans to raise as much as $200,000 according to federal records. All the while John Rogers, doing the same, pulled in several million for Obama.

Where Desiree went wrong…and time will only tell whether she will be able to recover…was not just that she forgot about details concerning the guest-list—but that she used her social secretary status to equal the First Family’s. This has spurred criticism from none other than Chicago’s most prominent black woman columnist, Mary Mitchell of the Sun-Times. “She just forgot her place,” wrote Mitchell with a touch of female cattiness. But Rogers’ foremost critic is not Mitchell at all: it’s the acid-penned duenna of the political Left, Maureen Dowd of The New York Times. Dowd has devoted two columns to Desiree filled to the brim with barbs like these:

“Even if Desiree thought Congress was grandstanding, it was goofy of her to use the Constitution to get out of a Congressional summons. The Obama White House is morphing into the Bush White House with frightening speed. It’s transparency is already fogged up.”

“The smart thing would have been for Desiree to sail up to Congress wearing designer sackcloth and pearls of remorse for the oversight at her first state dinner and promise it won’t happen again. It just made her look weaker that she couldn’t simply accept some blame publicly for what happened at a dinner she was in charge of, and draw the heat away from the First Family she serves. She’s no G. Gordon Liddy.” ( Liddy was the goofy supervisor of the Watergate break-in who decided to take the full rap for the debacle without implicating Nixon. He was sentenced to 20 years for conspiracy, burglary and illegal wiretapping and ordered to pay a $40,000 fine. He stayed mum for 4-1/2 years until he was pardoned by Jimmy Carter which pardon made his eligible for parole.)

“[Desiree] mistook herself for the principal, sashaying around and posing in magazines as though she were the First Lady rather than a staffer whose job is to stay behind the scenes and make her bosses look good. [Even if Obama is a brand, Desiree shouldn’t talk like the First Marketer or call him a brand—and she definitely shouldn’t refer to it as `we.’”

Last week, Desiree’s strongest defender was…guess? John Rogers! In the breathless style of The Enquirer and other supermarket tabloids, do you think this will presage the two getting together once again? Stay tuned!

Richard Daley’s Future.

Ever since Chicago lost the 2016 Olympics bid at Copenhagen in the first round, rumors have had it that Mayor Richard M. Daley will not run in 2011 when he normally would be campaigning for his sixth four year term. Reason: if he had won the Olympics, he could use the money to pay bills and continue to evacuate the poor out of Chicago to make way for the forthcoming Olympic Village…which (although nobody dares breathe its intent) would serve the double purpose of building vast city improvements and relocating minorities from the power base which would make them less likely to elect one of their color or ethnic base over the Irish who run The Squid.

But losing the Olympics dashed all that and Chicago is now hip-deep in debt. Last week something else eventuated. The mayor announced that his beloved wife, Maggie…and no one, not the most cynical Chicagoan doubts that this is one of the most beautiful marriages in city history…has to be confined in a wheelchair. Why? She is undergoing treatment to battle a cancerous lesion on her lower right leg which will require her to be in the wheelchair for the duration of radiation. She was first diagnosed with cancer in 2002. She had surgery to remove a tumor in her right breast. Earlier this year she underwent a biopsy of a bone lesion that showed subtle changes in imaging procedures. The cancer has now metastasized.

Speculation about the future of The Squid is always rife in this town. The other day I dropped in at Gene and Georgetti’s the restaurant-saloon where operatives of The Squid chomp steaks, slug down scotch and confer on weighty philosophical topics such as the works of the early Ionian thinkers. Although a known Republican which…come to think of it… is the very greatest unprotected minority in this town, I happened to plop down for a few minutes with two such operatives—and we were joined by a third: who happened to be the Cook county assessor, a man of great girth and intellectual prowess. Best of all he has superb Squid credentials since he’s named Houlihan. Jim Houlihan. Well, when I happened to ask if they thought Daley would run again I was greeted by a deathly silence and exchange of glances between them. They said they had never, ever entertained such a seditious thought.
“Well, you should!” I said. “The Squid needs you. Maybe you would have to draft Mr. Houlihan here.”…

Then I left to join others.

As I strode away, their heads were closely together.
I don’t think I was the first to give them the idea.

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