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A New White House Social Secretary, And A New First

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A New White House Social Secretary, And A New First


A New White House Social Secretary, And A New First

A New White House Social Secretary, And A New First

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

When first lady Michelle Obama went looking for a new White House social secretary, she did not choose someone with years of experience throwing parties in Washington.

Jeremy Bernard has been tapped as the new White House social secretary. A former boss describes Bernard as someone who always "liked people, liked to network." That's a skill he'll need in a job that will require him to throw hundreds of White House events a year. Photo courtesy of Michael Schwartz /Politico hide caption

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Photo courtesy of Michael Schwartz /Politico

Instead, she tapped Jeremy Bernard, who has spent most of his adult life in Los Angeles. Bernard is currently chief of staff to the U.S. ambassador in Paris. But those are not the most unusual aspects of his appointment.

In a job that has always been held by women, Bernard is breaking the gender barrier.

'A Mix Of Substance And Style'

Liz Perry and Marc Nathanson live on opposite sides of the country. Perry has known Jeremy Bernard only a couple of years; Nathanson has known Bernard a couple of decades. Yet they describe the new White House social secretary almost exactly the same way.

"He and I were the last to go through the buffet line because we were talking to everybody," says Perry, who first met Bernard at a dinner party. "And I thought, 'Oh! He likes to meet everyone at a party, too!' "

At that point, Bernard was the White House's liaison to the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Rewind 20 years, when Bernard was 30 and working far down the totem pole, as an administrative assistant to Los Angeles businessman Marc Nathanson.

"He never stopped working. He never stopped socializing," says Nathanson. "But I don't mean socializing in a phony way — he actually liked people, liked to network, and particularly people who had a passion on politics."

That's a requirement for a job where Bernard will throw hundreds of White House events a year, from state dinners to Broadway cabarets.

"The White House social secretary has to blend a mix of substance and style," says Gordon Johndroe, who used to be a spokesman for first lady Laura Bush.

"Any number of policy events can be turned into a White House social event, so someone who can bring together the policy people from the West Wing, the policy staff of the first lady, as well as all the people involved in putting on an event, is really the ideal person for the job."

Inside The World Of Democratic Politics

Bernard grew up in Texas. A gay Democrat, he didn't exactly blend in with the wallpaper.

During his years in Los Angeles, he moved from the world of business to the world of fundraising, often blending those two to push causes and candidates that he believed in.

Hollywood and Broadway producer Scott Sanders is one of Bernard's closest friends.

"As both of us have sort of grown up on the inside of Democratic politics, we've looked to how the Democratic Party and how our leaders can be nudged and pushed to take a stronger position in equal rights," Sanders says.

Bernard helped raise tens of millions of dollars for the Obama presidential campaign. Fellow fundraiser Marge Tabankin worked closely with him during that time and says he didn't sleep for about a year.

She remembers the way he handled big donors on the campaign trail, some of whom had their own opinions about how things should be run.

"When people who are very prominent and very wealthy and very talented are used to calling the shots themselves, often it's a little startling when somebody starts telling you what you should say or what you shouldn't say, and Jeremy really walked that line brilliantly," Tabankin says.

That's a skill he'll need at the White House, where the social secretary does far more than choose place settings. When something goes wrong, like a couple of party crashers at a state dinner, it can dominate headlines for days.

Friends say Bernard is ready to handle the job but still hasn't lost his wide-eyed fascination with the world of Washington.

Sanders remembers a snowy day in Nashua, N.H., where the two of them were going door to door asking primary voters to support Barack Obama.

"At the little diner we went to have lunch, Dan Rather was getting out of his car and walking down the sidewalk to come and have lunch in there alone, and I remember how excited we were. This is Jeremy, who has met presidents, and there we both were, almost pinching ourselves — 'Oh my god, there's Dan Rather. We're going to meet Dan Rather!' "

Now as White House social secretary, Bernard will manage the most coveted guest lists in the country. Friends say he's probably still pinching himself.