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What are the responsibilities of the social secretary?

The social secretary works with the first lady in the overall planning, arrangement, coordination and direction of all official and personal social events given by the president and his family. This includes the form and wording of invitations, the compiling of guest lists, the setting of menus, the seating, the choice of decorations and the selection of entertainment.

How is institutional memory passed from one administration to another?

There is no guidebook for social secretaries to follow when they begin their job at the White House. It has become a tradition for the current secretary to host a welcoming luncheon attended by all the former secretaries to get acquainted, exchange ideas, answer any questions, and offer advice. The Chief Usher and his staff also provide an invaluable support system and knowledge gained by years of experience.

How does the social secretary assemble guest lists for state dinners at the White House?

After being notified of an official state visit by the president’s national security advisor, the social secretary issues a memorandum to senior White House staff asking for input for the State Dinner guest list commensurate with their area of responsibility. This input is added to the official party, a list comprised of the visiting head of state’s entourage provided by the State Department. The president and first lady’s suggestions are included as well as those of congressional and military leaders. After assembling these names, the social secretary suggests additions to diversify the list including cultural and academic figures, athletes, entertainers, and other persons of interest.

First Lady Betty Ford and Social Secretary Maria Downs in the State Dining Room preparing for the Anwar Sadat (Egypt) State Dinner.

Courtesy of Maria Downs

What difficulties does the social secretary face when planning an event?

The social secretary is responsible for ensuring that everything associated with an event is the best it possibly can be whether it involves the guest list, the food and wines served or the entertainment chosen. One of the golden rules that social secretaries follow appeared in a Washington Post article by Sally Quinn: “When putting together a guest list for the approval of the president and first lady you had to be sure to invite people who should be invited, soothe those who are not invited but think they should be, and don’t invite people who should not be invited.”

How has the growth of technology impacted the role and duties of the social secretary?

Changes in technology over the past century have greatly impacted the responsibilities of the social secretary. In the early twentieth century, the social secretary was responsible for answering hand-written correspondence and telephone calls. Since the advent of the internet, cell phones, and digital communication, the social secretary’s job has become less encumbered with details and tied to the 24/7 news cycle and the increased prominence and scrutiny of the White House and the first family.

Describe the relationship between the social secretary and the military social aides to the president.

The social secretary and the military social aides are a team that work closely together to make certain that every presidential event flows smoothly and enjoyably. The military office performs a wide variety of responsibilities from military command and control missions to ceremonial duties at presidential events. The uniformed White House Military Social Aides serve as representatives of the president and first lady. They welcome guests at social events, engage them in conversation, and introduce them to other guests to ensure an enjoyable time. These dedicated men and women volunteer in this capacity in addition to their official military duties.

Social Secretary Lucy Winchester Breathitt briefs White House social aides in the Blue Room in April 1970.

White House Historical Association

What other offices does the social secretary consult when planning an event for the President and First Lady?

The social secretary works closely with the White House Chief Usher and the Usher’s Office, the Secret Service, the State Department, the Office of the Chief of Protocol, the White House Military Office, and the Office of the White House Press Secretary.

How does one become the social secretary? What sort of background or skills does it take?

Every social secretary’s path to the White House is unique. Selecting individuals to fill this role depends greatly on how the first lady views the position and the guidelines she sets for the social secretary. Some, like Nancy Tuckerman (social secretary to Jacqueline Kennedy) were friends with the first family prior to their tenure; others like Maria Downs (social secretary to Betty Ford) were recommended by White House colleagues and chosen after submitting a state dinner proposal that captured the first lady’s fancy and approval. Most of the modern social secretaries would agree getting that job was mostly happenstance. As Amy Zantzinger (social secretary to Laura Bush) once said, “[Being social secretary] isn’t a job you necessarily apply for. It’s much more a job that you ease your way into . . . you’re in the right place at the right time.”

What do the president and first lady do with gifts they receive from constituents or from heads of state?

The Foreign Gifts and Decorations Act of 1966 governs the handling of gifts from foreign officials to any federal employee, including the president and first lady. The White House Gift Unit is responsible for the conservation or disposal of any foreign official gifts that the president and first lady receive. Any gifts not given from foreign officials are considered domestic gifts. The president and first lady can keep or dispose of these gifts in any manner that they wish. Foreign official gifts are transported to the National Archives and become part of the first family’s museum collection. Domestic gifts are often donated to charity, given to other recipients, or held in the National Archives.

Pianist, Tong-Il Han, performs concert for diplomatic children in the White House while Social Secretary Letitia Baldrige, background, listens.

White House Historical Association