WaPo's Givhan Mourns Desiree Rogers, the 'Sacrificial Ma'am' Who 'Aided Women Immensely'

Washington Post fashion writer Robin Givhan was completely overwrought over the departure of White House social secretary Desiree Rogers in Wednesday’s paper. The headline transformed Rogers into the "Sacrificial Ma’am." Givhan must have needed a hanky as she wrote:

Of all the bounty the Obama administration offered, Rogers was the most enticing. She was high-ranking, she had the dazzling task of overseeing the social life of the White House, and she was more accessible than the first lady.

She brought New York City fashion sense to Washington, but it was not appreciated:

Still, in the end, Seventh Avenue did Rogers no favors, although she may have aided the fashion industry -- and women in general -- immensely.

Rogers's departure has the fashion industry practically in mourning. No one has expressed a whiff of excitement over her replacement, Julianna Smoot. Instead, there's concern that Washington might end up in cultural retreat.

This whole lament of "cultural retreat" seems blind to the way Rogers became a political liability. In the midst of ten percent unemployment, is it always a political plus to act like a diva and flaunt "honest-to-goodness, straight-from-the-runway fashion, even avant-garde Japanese designs, for heaven's sake"? Did Givhan ponder if the $540 Lanvin sneakers were a great fashion choice for Michelle Obama to serve the poor?

But Givhan can only bring in her favorite fashionistas to mourn alongside her:

"I think it would be sad if we all decided to bury Washington fashion now that Desirée's left town and to conclude that every ambitious woman inside the Beltway should just pull on her pantsuit and her sensible shoes from here on out," says Glamour Editor in Chief Cindi Leive. "I'd like to think that we're a little past that and that we realize that the average person is capable of caring about what she wears to work and still doing a good job when she gets there."

One could argue that Rogers, more than any other woman, should have been the epitome of stylish and fashionable. "Wasn't her entire job about standing for good taste at the White House?" Leive asks rhetorically. "Isn't she supposed to care about appearances? Do we want the person in charge of the nation's most important events to be marching around in a burlap sack?"

Givhan almost entirely avoided what made Rogers most politically radioactive – allowing in uninvited guests to a state dinner who could have killed the president while she seated herself at a table as a noteworthy guest. Instead, Givhan pretended it was all about dowdy Washington snapping back at the fashion-fabulous:

In federal Washington, after all, a modest Armani suit still can get one a best-dressed award. For that crowd, taking the measure of Rogers, a special assistant to the president, dressed in Prada and Jil Sander, would have been a bit like someone trying to make sense of an NFL team's strategy diagram based on their knowledge of Foosball.

The Post also offered a piece puffing the new social secretary, Julianna Smoot, as a no-nonsense political operative who will put the Obamas first, where Rogers signaled she came first. But reporters Anne Kornblut and Krissah Thompson also floated a racial element, that Desiree was axed because she was the first black in the role:

Those who admired Rogers's comportment said she had been unfairly tarnished for trying to bend the calcified if unofficial rules of Washington's social mores. Alexia Hudson, a university librarian who founded the blog The Black Socialite, has collected Rogers's write-ups in Ebony and Jet magazines, and the buzz around the African American society circuit for years, and offered a cultural critique. She said Rogers had been caught in the trap of blessings and curses that come with being an outsider in a high-profile role.

When Rogers was first tapped as social secretary, magazines raced to profile her, asking if she could "make Washington fun again." But when she erred, forgiveness was in short supply, Hudson said, adding that the calls for Rogers's departure seemed to be driven by something more than the security breach that happened on her watch.

"It happens to firsts. You will be invited in with a lot of fanfare, and somewhere along the line something happens, and you may or may not be aware that there was a cultural misstep that you made," Hudson said. "This is what the manual says, and this is what the job description says, but there are unwritten rules."

Tim Graham
Tim Graham
Tim Graham is Executive Editor of NewsBusters and is the Media Research Center’s Director of Media Analysis