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The party czar's stylish White House exit strategy Add to ...

When Desirée Rogers announced she was leaving her job as U.S. President Barack Obama's social secretary, the reaction from Washington insiders seemed to be clear: Don't let the White House door hit your Comme des Garçons-clad behind on the way out.

The job she had been hired to do was about tending to VIPs, not acting like one.

And although the 50-year-old Chicago public-relations executive with the killer sense of style had won the respect of Vogue, she had also organized a state dinner attended by two social-climbing gate-crashers, a couple who snuck into an event for which Ms. Rogers held the guest list.

Even though it was an error on the part of the Secret Service, who were the ones to alert Ms. Rogers to the incident, she took the bullet for the scandal.

Georgetown politicos are characterizing her departure as a high-profile comeuppance for someone who didn't recognize her place in the social hierarchy and are pointedly describing the woman who replaces her, the unglamorously named Julianna Smoot, as a woman who "doesn't put herself on a pedestal."

But rumours of Ms. Rogers's loss of stature may be premature. Known for an exacting attention to detail, she may actually be demonstrating another example of her immaculate timing.

"She was a hot commodity before she arrived in Washington, and her value has only gone up," said the Brookings Institution's Stephen Hess, who served in the Eisenhower administration.

By saying her goodbyes after just a year, Ms. Rogers leaves while the administration still has a largely favourable public perception, and before a major loss in this fall's midterm elections ends the party she has been hired to plan.

It also gives her a chance to cash in on the image she has cultivated as an Obama insider and to recoup the financial hit she took in accepting the White House job to begin with.

Not only was Ms. Rogers the first black social secretary, she was also the only one with an MBA from Harvard.

Before joining the Obama team, taking a job that paid her $113,000 (U.S.) a year, Ms. Rogers earned a $350,000 salary in 2008 from Allstate Insurance, where she was working on a financial social-networking program.

Before that, she reported a $1.8-million salary as president of Peoples Gas and North Shore Gas, while pulling in $170,000 a year from corporate boards and collecting investments worth at least $2.1-million.

And drawing up seating charts, even ones attended by the leaders of the free world, may not have been much of a challenge to someone whose close friends include Kanye West, Barbara Walters, Oprah Winfrey, auto executive Mel Farr and Ebony publisher Linda Johnson Rice.

Always the trendsetter, with her unmatched Rolodex, Ms. Rogers now joins the ranks of those who left the White House early … and maximized their potential.

The first West Wing staff members to leave often set the template for those who follow, leading the way into highly paid private-sector positions, onto the speaking circuit or into the halls of Ivy League academe. During the Bill Clinton era, George Stephanopoulos was one of the first out the door, and left with a million-dollar book contract.

He has been in the public eye ever since, most recently being hired as co-host of Good Morning America. With him as an example, Dee Dee Myers and James Carville have segued their time in the Oval Office into talking-head ubiquity.

Ms. Rogers is expected to go home to Chicago, where Mayor Richard M. Daley has said he is eagerly awaiting her return. There, she will probably find no shortage of job offers. The city lost many of its most powerful corporate and philanthropic players to the Obama administration and will be eager to have one back.

Ms. Rogers would not be the first to leverage a position as social secretary at the White House. Letitia Baldrige, who worked for Tiffany & Co. before her role as Jackie Kennedy's social secretary, has written 20 books on etiquette since the 1960s. Outside the PR circuit, former Bloomingdale's executive Ann Stock, who worked in the Clinton White House, is currently awaiting Senate confirmation as assistant secretary of state for education and cultural affairs.

Alexia Hudson, a Pennsylvania university librarian who maintains a website called The Black Socialite, has been following Ms. Rogers since 1999. She was thrilled when her role model was named Mr. Obama's "chief style maven," and loved watching her bring everyone from inner-city kids to the band Earth, Wind & Fire into the White House.

And Ms. Hudson has been angered by suggestions that Ms. Rogers should have dumbed herself down for the job: "Less social and more secretary," in the words of Mr. Carville.

"You look at the depth and breadth of her contributions, both in the business sector and in philanthropy, and now there's an attempt to throw all of that under the bus because of this one faux pas," Ms. Hudson said. "I don't buy it. I think she's going to do extremely well."

What she will do first is still up in the air, but others who have left the Obama administration have not taken long to get back on their feet.

Green jobs czar Van Jones resigned from his position in early September, 2009, claiming "a vicious smear campaign." He is now a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.

And former White House counsel Gregory Craig, who also left amid savage criticism, started a new job this week at the global legal giant Skadden Arps, instead of returning to the small litigation firm where he spent most of his career.

"I was looking for something bigger in scope, and Skadden's got that," he told a law blog. "Its scope is huge. It's got tax, M&A, regulatory, energy. It's in China and other parts of Asia and all over the world. That appealed to me."

Furthermore, the first one out the door gets to tell her side of the story. While Ms. Rogers did not testify in the White House party-crashing incident, now, she can openly defend herself to the press.

As for Ms. Rogers, not only Chicago, but also Seventh Avenue, the fashion capital of Manhattan, will vigorously court her, for her look, talent and connections, Mr. Hess said.

"People who never met her are going to be lining up for her autograph," he said. "Not to mention her signature on a contract."

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