White House Gate Crashers: Who's To Blame?

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Secret Service director Mark Sullivan is expected to testify before the House Homeland Security Committee on how uninvited socialites were able to crash a state dinner at the White House last week. While a lot of blame has been aimed at the Secret Service some say equal blame should fall on the White House Social Secretary Desiree Rogers. Host Michel Martin talks about this with Chicago Sun-Times columnist Mary Mitchell and Washington Post Fashion editor Robin Givhan.


And now an update on Crasher-gate, or Gate-gate, or whatever you want to call it. For days now, media and the public around the world have been transfixed by the story of the Virginia couple who evidently talked their way into the most important social event so far of the new administration, that November 24th state dinner, held in honor of the prime minister of India.

Secret Service director Mark Sullivan is scheduled to testify before the House Homeland Security Committee today. While he'll be pressed to answer how Tareq and Michaele Salahi were able to get past Secret Service screeners, attention is also being focused on the role of the White House social secretary, Desiree Rogers, whose office plans and manages such events.

Rogers was also asked to testify before the Homeland Security Committee, but the White House yesterday said it would be invoking the separation of powers to keep her out of the hearing. But the whole kerfuffle has put a new focus on Desiree Rogers. Robin Givhan, fashion editor at the Washington Post, just wrote a fairly tough piece about her. She's here with us to talk about this along with Mary Mitchell, a columnist at the Chicago Sun-Times. I welcome you both. Thank you for joining us.

Ms. MARY MITCHELL (Columnist, Chicago Sun-Times): Thank you.

Ms. ROBIN GIVHAN (Fashion Editor, Washington Post): Thank you.

MARTIN: Robin, I'm going to start with you. Desiree Rogers came to Washington with much fanfare. She's been the subject of many, many, mostly glowing profiles to this point. She's the first African-American social secretary.

You wrote a piece in yesterday's paper titled "Rogers's Unwanted New Guest: Scrutiny," in which you say, quote, "no one with a clipboard and walkie-talkie was standing sentry at the southeast gate when the Salahis arrived, identifying themselves as guests. According to the White House, such velvet-rope vigilance is common, everywhere from third-tier nightclubs to 7th Avenue fashion shows and celebrity-drenched parties."

You go on to say you - you go on to quote an anonymous friend, you describe this person as a friend, saying: "Just because she has this job, it's not going to make her a worker bee. She's glamorous."

So what is the traditional role of the social secretary at these types of functions? Is she expected to stand at the door with a clipboard and a walkie-talkie?

Ms. GIVHAN: Well, generally, the social secretary has been, in recent years, has been very much a behind-the-scenes sort of character. I mean, this is someone who essentially functions as the stage director for this diplomatic spectacle. And what was very striking about the way that Desiree came into town was that she was very much about Desiree Rogers. I mean, she was very much this sort of flamboyant, out-there personality, which is very much in keeping with the kind of personality that she had in Chicago, but was very much different from the way that social secretaries had recently behaved.

MARTIN: Is that so wrong, to be different? Is different necessarily bad?

Ms. GIVHAN: No, no, not at all. I mean, and I think that in many ways, it was sort of good for Washington to, you know, to see this accomplished, smart, sort of dazzling black woman who was very confident in her role. But I think it also did open her up to criticism that perhaps she was too focused on her own image and not as focused as she should have been on the nitty-gritty details of the job and making sure that the president and first lady's needs were served before her own.

MARTIN: The investigation is ongoing. As we mentioned, there's a hearing scheduled for today, and it's not clear exactly who will testify other than the Secret Service. But that being said, you've been reporting on this story. Do you feel that this failure is Rogers'?

And I do want to mention that the rest of your piece about the event is quite complimentary. You say that that Tuesday night, everything seemed to go off without a hitch. You said the tent, which was actually an elegant pavilion, was breathtaking and so forth. You said that it's actually a very lovely evening, other than - but it seems to have been overshadowed by this lapse. So do you think that the failure was hers?

Ms. GIVHAN: At the end of the day, the Secret Service is responsible for who gets into the White House. So in that sense, no. She's not responsible for making sure that there were no security breaches. But I do think what's happened is because of the way that she manages her office, because of her high profile, because of the fact that she was a seated guest at this dinner, even if she's only seated for five minutes, this was her first outing with this kind of large event, which was larger than the norm. It was not in the White House. It was in this pavilion. There were all of these different elements to it that she was unfamiliar with, and I think the question is being raised, rightly so, that perhaps she put herself in a position in which she made things more difficult than they needed to be.

MARTIN: Mary, how is all this striking you, as a Chicagoan, as a - you know, as a person who is not unacquainted with social events yourself? How does all this strike you?

Ms. MITCHELL: Well, I have to say that in Chicago, we were all tee-heeing about it because we expected - we weren't surprised that something like this happened because it was always strange to us that Desiree Rogers, who is much a socialite herself and was a socialite long before Michelle and Barack Obama came on the scene, that she would somehow be working for the Obamas in the role of a social secretary, that she would somehow be standing at a gate with a clipboard, taking names.

I mean, she is center stage, and that's the way it's always been. And so the fact that she had a table and that she was sitting at a table - again, even if it was for five minutes, seemed just out of character for someone who is serving as a social secretary.

MARTIN: Do you - is anybody hearing any hateration here? I'm hearing a little hateration going on here.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MITCHELL: You know, it's not hateration. And, you know, that's the reason - here's the thing. You're kind of up - your back is up against a wall when you talk about stuff like this because you don't want to come off sounding like you're hating on Desiree Rogers. But after all, she did have a job to do.

First and foremost, she has a job. And if she doesn't do that job properly, then how can someone turn around and ignore that? I think she has shared responsibility in all of this because even if she didn't want to be on that door, then maybe she should have had - made sure someone else was standing in her place.

MARTIN: I'm not sure that the social secretary herself is the person who stands at the door. But I guess I wonder, Robin, do you - I'm asking you to speculate, and I apologize. Do you think her job is in jeopardy?

Ms. GIVHAN: I - you know, it is - it's tough to speculate on that. I mean, my sense is that, you know, the East Wing is very much supportive of her and really is upset, actually, that blame is attempting - people are attempting to put blame at her feet.

I don't know that the West Wing is as enthusiastically behind her, but that's just a guess. I mean, one thing that I would say, though, on the subject of hateration is that, you know, Desiree Rogers is in a difficult position because she comes to this not just as their peer, of the Obamas, but as someone who, in fact, had social standing for a long time that was higher than the Obamas.

MARTIN: And Mary Mitchell, very briefly, if you would, your perspective. Do you think her job should be in jeopardy?

Ms. MITCHELL: I don't think it's in jeopardy. I think that this will blow over. She will learn from it. She is a special assistant to the president and a very, very good friend of Valerie Jarrett, and I think that's going to carry her a long way.

MARTIN: Mary Mitchell is a columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times. She joined us from Chicago. Robin Givhan is the Washington Post fashion editor. She joined us from our studios in Washington, D.C. We'll have links to the pieces that both of you have written about this on our Web site. Just go to npr.org. Click on Programs and then on TELL ME MORE. Ladies, thank you so much for speaking with us.

Ms. GIVHAN: Thank you.

Ms. MITCHELL: Thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: Still to come, it's become the mantra of pundits, policymakers and educators alike: The more education you have, the better off you are. And that's still true. So why are college-educated black men twice as likely to be unemployed as college-educated white men right now? We'll talk about that just ahead on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

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