MICHELE NORRIS, host:
From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Michele Norris.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
And I'm Robert Siegel. Today at the White House, President Obama held a signing ceremony for a new law to try to halt age, race, or gender discrimination in the workplace. It's called the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act.
(Soundbite of applause)
Unidentified Announcer: Ladies and gentlemen, the president of the United States, accompanied by Mrs. Lilly Ledbetter.
(Soundbite of cheering and applause)
SIEGEL: The signing was followed by a reception hosted by the first lady. Invited lawmakers and dignitaries munched on fruit and pastries.
NORRIS: Somewhere in the background, a tall woman in a belted black velvet jacket was making sure everything was just so in the state dining room - from the yellow orchids on the tables to the apricot coffee cake. Her name is Desiree Rogers and she is the new White House social secretary, responsible for planning events from state dinners to the annual Easter egg roll. She comes to the White House armed with a Harvard MBA, a long resume in the corporate world, and a keen knowledge of the first family's tastes as a longtime member of their Chicago inner circle. Desiree Rogers says she's proud to be the first black woman to serve as the White House social secretary. Just don't dare refer to her as the official party planner.
Ms. DESIREE ROGERS (White House Social Secretary): In my mind, there are multi-layers to this position. So I put party planning at kind of E, letter E. Starting with letter A is the overall strategy for the events at the White House. You know, what are we trying to accomplish? How are we supporting the initiatives of the West Wing? So, the other piece to our work will be what kind of events can we create? You know, what makes sense?
NORRIS: What do you have in mind?
Ms. ROGERS: Well, there are things - and I don't know that we'll do all. I mean, an American hero dinner. You know, having the American public select who their heroes are and having a dinner to honor the American spirit and to salute people that communities have chosen. We could possibly have, you know, something where the president reads, the nations reads. You know, how do you share the White House even though people may not be able to visit here? Can we do something on the Internet? You know, of course we'll have state dinners, and we're going to make those as exciting as can be. But, you know, maybe an everyday American is selected via the Internet to come to one of those state dinners. I mean, the sky's the limit.
NORRIS: But your to-do list is quite long.
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Ms. ROGERS: We won't get it all done in the first year. But you start - if you were able to start something, I mean, it starts the ball rolling, I think. And then people just have even more ideas, you know, of what can be done.
NORRIS: How do you balance that big appetite to do new things and take the White House in new directions, how do you balance that with the financial times that we find ourself in, the austerity that perhaps is required as the world goes through this global financial meltdown?
Ms. ROGERS: Right. Just because there's a new spin on something doesn't mean that it necessarily costs more. You know, I think that we do have to be frugal. But at the same time, I think celebration is very important. We saw that with the inaugural. We saw that people were just wanting to celebrate. We're not canceling birthdays and anniversaries. And so as we go through our struggle, there is a need to be prudent, but I think at the same time there's a need to continue with the celebratory spirit that is part of our lives.
NORRIS: Now, I've read that you wanted to make sure that the House, the White House, was more open, more inclusive, more inspirational when you set out to entertain. Inspirational - how are you going to do that? What does that mean?
Ms. ROGERS: Well, today we had the signing of the Ledbetter Bill. And so we did two things. We had the actual signing - you know, so the actual press conference. But then from there we moved into a reception. And this gave the audience a time to talk about what they had just experienced, time to shake hands with the president, time to meet and talk to the first lady and hear her remarks. And also time to, you know, to just relish in the victory.
And so to me that's inspirational. You know, this long fight, this long waiting, and you're not just rushed out after a press conference, but you have a moment to talk, to think, to think about what's next. So if I can have people think about things in a different way or even improve upon their thinking, I mean, that to me is the benefit of this job. That's why I want to be here.
NORRIS: When you walk through the corridors of this majestic building, you see the nation's history and its culture reflected in the art, in the furniture, in - even in the rugs that are on the floor. You don't always see African-American culture, though, reflected in this building. How will that change?
Ms. ROGERS: Well, I'm happy that you mentioned that. We are already working on that. One of the things that is very important to the president and the first lady is that the art be reflective of all Americans. And so one of the things that is already being looked at is the possibility of how can we diversify the art collection. So, that is definitely under way and definitely something that you'll continue to see as we move forward.
NORRIS: The staff at the White House, particularly the butlers, the stewards, many of the people who work in the kitchen, the servers, many of the people who work in the residence, many of them are black. And this is a prominent position. These are people who are full of pride. They are held up in their community, but it is rooted in a very painful past. It goes back to a time when many of the people in the White House who worked as servants were slaves.
And I'm so curious about the reception that the first family got when they first arrived here, that you got when you first arrived here, when you met butlers, stewards, servers who were looking at a first family that look like members of their own family.
Ms. ROGERS: Right.
NORRIS: What was that like?
Ms. ROGERS: You know, emotional, really. I think - I think for one - one gentleman said to me, you know, 44 years I waited for this. You know, so I think for them, they are just so happy. So, it's tough.
NORRIS: It's tough.
Ms. ROGERS: It's tough at a certain level, because you know what these guys have been through.
NORRIS: Have things changed for them?
Ms. ROGERS: You know, I think in...
NORRIS: Do they have a different kind of relationship?
Ms. ROGERS: In many respects, I think, you know, there are - people say, oh, I'm just so happy that you're even speaking to me, you know, or taking the time to ask me my opinion, you know. And so you know they've been through some things. You know, so it's - we're settling into it.
NORRIS: When you talked to previous social secretaries, did they say anything to you that terrified you?
Ms. ROGERS: No.
NORRIS: You're not easily shaken.
Ms. ROGERS: I'm not.
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Ms. ROGERS: You can't be and be in this job. I mean, I think the - probably the most difficult piece that people have hinted at is this whole idea of not being able to get everyone in and having people be disappointed. I think, you know, that's a hard part. That is a hard part.
NORRIS: Desiree Rogers, you have been very generous with your time. Thank you very much.
Ms. ROGERS: Thank you.
NORRIS: Desiree Rogers is the new White House social secretary. And by the way, the president hosted a cocktail party for lawmakers of both parties last night. Desiree Rogers says the White House plans to hold regular Wednesday evening congressional cocktail hours. Whether bipartisan relations are neat or on the rocks, the events are yet another break from the Bush years.