Desiree Rogers: From Salahi Slip-Up to Corporate Success

Former White House social secretary discusses her slip-ups in the Obama admin.

April 11, 2011— -- In her first network television interview since leaving the White House as social secretary, Desiree Rogers talked openly about the pitfalls of her tenure as with the Obama administration and of getting back on her feet after the 2009 Salahis scandal that tarnished her reputation.

The descendant of a Creole voodoo priestess named Marie Laveau Glapion, Rogers touted her "headstrong," Southern charm. The 51-year-old Washington insider and friend to the Obamas has reinvented herself as the CEO of Johnson Publishing Co., which produces Jet and Ebony magazines.

"It feels liberating," she told "Nightline's" Bill Weir. "I feel like, for the first time, I'm in a position that allows me to really use all of my assets in a very powerful way."

Watch the full story on "Nightline" tonight at 11:35 p.m. ET.

Rogers talked at length about that fateful night when Tareq and Michaele Salahi, socialites from Virginia, managed to slip uninvited into the state dinner for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of India in 2009.

"It's unfortunate that, you know, this happened and ... it's over," she said. "It's the past, it's behind us and that's the end of it."

Although tensions already were building between Rogers and her colleagues, the Salahis' security breach, which launched an investigation, became the trigger for her dismissal from the White House in February 2010.

"I think a less mature person might be resentful," she said. "My job is to make certain that I've done what I was asked and my department has done what we were asked to do by the president and the first lady and the State Department. I believe that we accomplished that."

Secret Service director Mark Sullivan testified in a House Homeland Security panel in December 2009 that the Salahis were able to talk themselves past the Secret Service detail at one of the White House gate checkpoints without an invitation. They then were screened and passed through into the East Wing for the state dinner on Nov. 25, 2009.

It wasn't until the following day that reports began circulating over who they were and how they got into such a high-security event.

"It was raining," Rogers said in defense. "People were trying to be helpful and, you know, [the Salahis] were just making a fool of them. It was horrible."

Looking back, Rogers felt most sorry for the Secret Service details who were working that night. She said they were professionals who became distracted.

"I think I feel the worst for, really, the agents that, you know, have to work there every day doing their jobs," Rogers said. "To have these two think this is a game, and it's really not."

Although she was asked to testify at the panel hearing, the White House invoked executive privilege to keep her out.

"Under normal circumstances, I certainly would have been, you know, willing and able to answer all the questions," she said. "Those aren't normal circumstances."

The Salahis were one of the couples featured on the Bravo reality show, "The Real Housewives of D.C.," and cameras were rolling the night they went to the state dinner.

The Secret Service later used the footage in its investigation.

Rogers said she did not watch the Bravo episode because she "already knew what had happened."

Ultimately, Rogers said, her departure from the White House was a "joint decision" made between her and Valerie Jarrett, a senior advisor to President Obama.

"I was never sure that I wanted to be there for, you know, four years," she said. "I'm a business person at heart."

Still, she referred to her relationship with Jarrett as "strained."

"This is work," she said. "You have to separate that from your own, you know, personal endeavors."

Desiree Rogers on Starting Fresh

But other slip-ups in Rogers' public life played a part as well. While working as White House social secretary, Rogers often was criticized for being too frank with the press and dressing in expensive, high-fashion clothing -- too stylish for Washington, especially during a recession.

"I don't consider myself flashy at all," she said. "I mean, did I dress like the average Washingtonian? No."

Rogers also was chastised for doing magazine cover profiles, including one for the Wall Street Journal magazine in August 2009, in which she discussed how she was selling "the Obama brand." She admitted she now regrets the attention.

"I would have declined more interviews that were brought to me," she said. "I'm not certain what the fascination was with me in particular. ... I think, you know, we could have managed all of that better."

That same year, Rogers also caught flack for attending the 2009 New York Fashion Week. She was photographed sitting in the front row next to Anna Wintour, the editor-in-chief of Vogue. Rogers defended herself and said she met Wintour during Obama's campaign.

"In fact, I think I was invited to I don't know how many fashion shows and I went to one," she said. "But that became, you know, this, 'Oh my gosh, she's gone to a fashion show.'"

The fashion shows turned out to be a great place for meeting talent, Rogers said, that she could later use to book for events.

"The reason that I was at Fashion Week, which is on a day off by the way, was [because] many times that people that we were working with in this White House, that's where creativity gathers," she said. "It was like one-stop business shopping."

But clearly, leaving the White House hasn't held Rogers back, not even from politics. She recently was involved with former White House chief-of-staff Rahm Emanuel's transition into becoming the mayor of Chicago.

With her new position with Johnson Publishing, Rogers said it was all about getting back to basics. But she was looking forward to a boom year.

"I don't do ordinary work," she said. "That is not me in the least."