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Party Planner for the President

New White House social secretary Lea Berman checks details before a dinner in the State Dining Room. Her position is one of the most prestigious and influential in the East Wing. She works next to first lady Laura Bush, overseeing all aspects of entertaining in the executive mansion.
 (Washington Post / The Spokesman-Review)
New White House social secretary Lea Berman checks details before a dinner in the State Dining Room. Her position is one of the most prestigious and influential in the East Wing. She works next to first lady Laura Bush, overseeing all aspects of entertaining in the executive mansion. (Washington Post / The Spokesman-Review)
Roxanne Roberts Washington Post

WASHINGTON – It is mandatory to assume something can and will go wrong at a presidential dinner party. The job of the new White House social secretary is to imagine the worst – and then figure out how to prevent it. A few hours before Sunday’s state dinner for the nation’s governors, Lea Berman has checked and double-checked the seating for 130 guests, the flowers, the menu. Now she’s thinking about last-minute disasters. “The next few hours I’ll be waiting to see if some problem develops,” Berman says calmly. “I like to organize things as much in advance as possible, so the last few hours are open for any last-minute changes or glitches.”

You get the sense Berman can avert most disasters before anyone knows they existed. She’s the kind of person who remembers everyone’s name and birthday, promptly writes thank-you notes, and never has a run in her stockings – or, if she does, she’s got a spare pair in her desk drawer.

Her position is one of the most prestigious and influential in the East Wing. She works next to first lady Laura Bush, overseeing all aspects of entertaining in the executive mansion. Social secretaries usually try to stay in the background, but Berman’s name popped into headlines recently when outgoing executive chef Walter Scheib named her as a primary player in his ouster and the reorganization of the first lady’s side of the house.

“There is a new set of eyes and a new vision,” Scheib told reporters. “She is a very hands-on social secretary, very involved with all aspects of food, flowers and decor. She clearly has a mandate.”

The very public flap was an uncharacteristic bump in the smooth facade of the first lady’s office. Berman’s mandate is simple: to carry out the wishes of Laura Bush graciously, efficiently and unobtrusively.

“When she tells me what she wants, then I’ll make sure she gets what she wants,” Berman says. And you don’t doubt her for a second.

The social secretary is the unofficial hostess of the White House, responsible for running every event inside the executive mansion: breakfast to dinner, formal and informal. She (the job has traditionally been held by a woman) sends out every invitation, greets every guest, and makes sure everyone is happy – especially the president and first lady. The job requires 18-hour days, great tact, political instincts, a photographic memory, entertaining and management skills, and the ability to make it all look effortless.

On the day of the governors’ dinner, Berman, 48, is relaxed enough to guide a tour backstage at the White House: the flower shop, the pastry shop, the kitchen. She is quietly complimentary, acknowledging each florist and cook without sounding insincere or overwrought. She remembers names, points out details about the flowers and menu. She deftly deflects the conversation away from herself to others.

You begin to understand her reputation in Washington political circles, where she is repeatedly described in glowing terms. “There’s no learning curve: She can go in and make things happen,” says Ann Stock, social secretary in the first Clinton administration. “That will be an immense asset for the president and Mrs. Bush.”

Berman received degrees from Miami University of Ohio and Georgetown University in political science and international affairs and worked at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. For the past two decades, she was best known as wife, mother and Washington hostess.

Her husband, Wayne, assistant secretary of commerce for the first President Bush, is chairman of the lobbying firm Federalist Group and vice chair of the insurance broker Jardine Lloyd Thompson.

The Washington political power couple were Pioneers for the 2000 Bush-Cheney presidential campaign (raising $100,000) and Rangers in 2004 (raising $200,000). They’ve also given to dozens of Republican lawmakers and are on a first-name basis with administration officials.

In 2000, they purchased the $4.5 million home of the late philanthropist Paul Mellon and began hosting dinner parties and political fund-raisers with guests such as Vice President Dick Cheney and White House Chief of Staff Andy Card. Her formula: “You invite them into your home, find ways to please them, make them relax, introduce people who may have similar interests who they haven’t met before,” she says.

Sheila Tate, former press secretary to Nancy Reagan, describes a dinner in honor of former Nixon counsel Fred Fielding: “There was a lot of personal touches. The guest list was carefully chosen; the right people made remarks. It was very thoughtful but fun and relaxed.”

Lea Berman was organizing small political fund-raisers until 2001, when a friend approached her about working as the Cheneys’ social secretary. She held that position for two years before becoming Lynne Cheney’s chief of staff. Last year she moved to the Bush-Cheney 2004 presidential campaign, working as a troubleshooter in the coalition and finance divisions and heading the “W is for Women” initiative.

In December the White House announced that she was Laura Bush’s new social secretary. “I didn’t know her well,” Berman says. “I’d met her a few times in receiving lines. I hadn’t had a lot of interaction with her.” The first lady hired her, says spokesman Gordon Johndroe, based on a “great” recommendation from Lynne Cheney.

“It’s really more of a social job than a political job,” says Berman. “That means everyone who comes to the White House is made to feel welcome the way Mrs. Bush would want them to feel welcome, whatever their political background, or leanings or interests. If they’re a guest at the White House, they should come away with a singular, very positive experience.”

In the first term, the Bushes hosted very few official parties, partly as a reaction to Sept. 11, 2001. But the predilection to party also follows the social trajectory of two-term administrations: During the first term, presidents like to portray themselves as outsiders rather than leaders of Washington’s social elite. In the second term, they embrace all the traditional institutions of the office, including formal, full-dress entertaining.

The social secretary, Tate says, “can’t make political or social mistakes. You have to know or reach out to everyone. You have to work with the chef, the florist, the chief usher – it’s a backbreaking job.”

When it comes to food, wines and decor, Berman likes what the first lady likes – or you’d have to torture her to get her to admit otherwise. This woman has probably never blurted out anything in four decades. She is full of praise for her new boss, complete with examples. She’s not in awe, but clearly quietly thrilled to be helping create menus, selecting flowers, and defining the administration’s taste and style.

“Mrs. Bush has a very keen sense of what’s going on in the world of flowers and what’s going on with beautiful food,” says Berman. “She’ll sometimes say, ‘I found this recipe. Why don’t we try it?’ She’s seen it in a magazine.”

The newly beefed-up White House social calendar began with a black-tie Valentine’s dinner. Previously, the Bushes hosted the dinner for a dozen friends; this year, the guest list expanded to 60, including the British and Japanese ambassadors, Herbie Hancock, Jack Valenti, Willie Mays and Lynn Swann.

There will be more state dinners, those red-carpet extravaganzas, although none have been announced yet. “It accords great respect to the country that is asked to be the recipient of a state dinner, and it’s probably very good for foreign relations,” says Berman.

Invitations to these dinners are most coveted of all White House invitations. It’s harder to snag one since Laura Bush shifted the dinners from the East Room, which holds more than 200 seated guests, to the State Dining Room, which seats a maximum of 134.

Every guest list is determined by meetings between the White House and State Department to discuss proposed names. After the president, first lady and senior administration officials, and the official delegation of 14 with the visiting head of state, there are only about 50 invitations (invitee and guest) remaining for each of the high-profile dinners.

White House social secretaries are always lobbied about inclusion on the list, but Berman says that hasn’t happened to her – yet. “Social secretaries are implementers. They’re not strategists. We get lists, and we invite people,” she says.

Social secretaries are modest and play down their influence. At least, the smart ones do.

On this Sunday night, there were no dropped trays, no political gaffes, no grumbling guests. The toasts went off without a hitch, Marvin Hamlisch performed after dinner, there was a bit of dancing, then it was over. Berman had the first big black-tie dinner under her belt.

And, true to the president’s penchant for early nights, she was home at 10:58 p.m.

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