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Former White House Social Secretaries On The Value Of 'Treating People Well'

Jan 9, 2018
Originally published on January 9, 2018 7:53 pm

Lea Berman and Jeremy Bernard have organized state dinners and congressional picnics, each serving as White House social secretary for different administrations. Bernard worked for President Obama; Berman for President George W. Bush. And they've collaborated on a new book that uses their White House experiences to draw out lessons in how to handle crises, defuse awkward moments and manage expectations. It's called Treating People Well: The Extraordinary Power Of Civility At Work And In Life.

The book is about "the everyday situations we find ourselves in," Berman says. "Sometimes it's an awkward relationship with a co-worker. Sometimes it's just a difficult situation at home. And what we're really saying is by treating people well in a very self-interested way, you will cause them to treat you well in return."


Interview Highlights

On what a social secretary does

Lea Berman: The White House social secretary is responsible for every event that takes place within the grounds of the White House, with the exception of the Oval Office and the press room. So it's hundreds of events each year, and it's everything from a two-person lunch in the family residence to a state arrival ceremony, which can be [7,000] or 8,000 people.

On feeling impostor syndrome on the job

Jeremy Bernard: That was difficult in the sense that there was that insecurity, but the excitement of being there overran the fear, for lack of a better word. So I think that part of it was — you play the part.

Berman: What we learned very quickly being at the White House is that everyone coming there is intimidated, they're nervous, they're excited. But they also don't really know what to expect, and it became so much easier for our guests if we made the first move. And there were so many times when we would watch people arrive on the state floor, particularly if it was their first time to the White House, and they look around and they realize that they share this common heritage as Americans with all the people who've lived in that house, and it becomes very emotional for them and they get very happy. It's also a little volatile because people are exuberant, but the social secretaries are there to smooth and soothe.

On White House guests who overindulged

Bernard: That was, unfortunately — I don't want to say common — but not terribly unusual at holiday parties. ... [At the White House], there's one eggnog that is non-alcoholic and then there's the other eggnog that is strong as can be. And [President Obama] ... when he made remarks, would say, "Be careful of the eggnog. It'll hit you hard later." And sure enough, there would be someone that it would hit them, and all of a sudden, they start to feel sick, and they don't want to get sick on someone, so the natural reaction was to aim for one of the Christmas trees. So we would talk about which trees were the most likely to get hit. And, you know, the only thing we could do is kind of play with it.

On Berman's first advice to Bernard

Berman: I told him not to do any outdoor events without a backup, and he ignored me. ... He was lucky — it all worked out.

Bernard: That was the Germany state dinner, my first state dinner ... a high stakes one. I was young and foolish. But I remember thinking, "If this goes wrong, I will be the shortest term social secretary ever." And I looked at the gate, and I thought, "That's the gate I'll go running out of." ...

My main advice [to my successor] was to keep it low key. It's not about you, and you never want to do anything that will embarrass the president or first lady.

Fatma Tanis and Emily Kopp produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Sydnee Monday adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Our next two guests have organized state dinners and congressional picnics. Jeremy Bernard and Lea Berman each served as White House social secretary. He worked for President Obama, she for President George W. Bush. And they've collaborated on a new book that uses their White House experiences to draw out lessons in how to handle crises, diffuse awkward moments and manage expectations. The book is called "Treating People Well: The Extraordinary Power Of Civility At Work And In Life." Lea Berman is here with us in Washington and Jeremy Bernard in our Culver City studios. Welcome to both of you.

LEA BERMAN: Thank you - great to be here.

JEREMY BERNARD: Thank you.

SHAPIRO: Would one of you began by just describing what a White House social secretary does?

BERMAN: The White House social secretary is responsible for every event that takes place within the grounds of the White House with the exception of the Oval Office and the press room. So it's hundreds of events each year, and it's everything from a two-person lunch in the family residence to a state arrival ceremony, which can be 7,000 or 8,000 people.

SHAPIRO: And I think people would be surprised to learn from this book that many of the challenges you experience at the most famous address in the world are similar to the challenges in any workplace. And one that I think many people would relate to is imposter syndrome. You write, (reading) we both had the uneasy feeling that getting our social secretary jobs had been some kind of karmic joke. Neither of us fit the profile of a typical White House social secretary. Past occupants of the position typically came from prominent political families.

So how did you overcome the sense of not belonging?

BERNARD: That was difficult in the sense that there was that insecurity. But the excitement of being there overran the fear, for lack of a better word. So I think that part of it was you play the part. And I know that the beginning of that was just like the beginning of my first job at a bank. You're nervous. You don't know if you really fit in. How did you get this job? So it is similar to any of my past experiences at a job where I'm wondering, wow, where am I really capable of this?

SHAPIRO: How do you play the part? What's the trick that you use to make yourself believe or make others believe that you do belong there even if in your heart of hearts you feel like maybe you don't?

BERMAN: What we learned very quickly being at the White House is that everyone coming there is intimidated. They are nervous. They're excited. But they also don't really know what to expect. And it became so much easier for our guests if we made the first move. And there were so many times when we would watch people arrive on the State Floor, particularly if it was their first time to the White House. And they look around, and they realize that they share this common heritage as Americans with all the people who've lived in that house. And it becomes very emotional for them. And they get very happy. It's also a little volatile because people are exuberant. But the social secretaries are there to smooth and soothe.

SHAPIRO: I mean, when you say things can get a little volatile, I think many people would assume that everything at the White House always goes according to plan. I learned from this book that people have occasionally had too much to drink and been sick in potted plants in the White House, other things (laughter).

BERNARD: Yes. That was unfortunately - I don't want to say common but not terribly unusual at holiday parties. And the eggnog at the White House - there's one eggnog that is non-alcoholic. And then there's the other eggnog that is strong as can be.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

BERNARD: And the president would - when he made remarks - would say, be careful of the eggnog; it'll hit you hard later. And sure enough, there would be someone that it would hit them. And all of a sudden, they start to feel sick. And they don't want to get sick on someone. And so the natural reaction was to aim for one of the Christmas trees.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

BERNARD: So we would talk about which trees were the most likely to get hit. And you know, the only thing we could do is kind of play with it because...

SHAPIRO: You kept a sense of humor about it.

BERNARD: Right, exactly.

BERMAN: (Laughter).

SHAPIRO: OK, so a lot of people I think have had the experience of being - whether it's at a work Christmas party or you're hosting a dinner party - and it goes off the rails. Somebody does have too much to drink. Things do not go according to plan. How do you keep your poise? How do you get through it?

BERMAN: And that's really what this book is about. It's about the everyday situations we find ourselves in. Sometimes it's an awkward relationship with a coworker. Sometimes it's just a difficult situation at home. And what we're really saying is by treating people well in a very self-interested way, you will cause them to treat you well in return. It almost always happens that way.

SHAPIRO: Lea, do you remember what your first advice to Jeremy was?

BERMAN: I told him not to do any outdoor events without a backup. And he ignored me.

(LAUGHTER)

SHAPIRO: And did you call him the first time his outdoor event was caught in a rainstorm?

BERMAN: No. I knew he was - and it didn't. He was lucky. It all worked out.

BERNARD: That was the Germany state dinner, my first state dinner.

SHAPIRO: Oh, that's high-stakes one.

BERNARD: A high-stakes one - I was young and foolish, but I remember thinking, if this goes wrong, I will be the shortest-term social secretary ever.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

BERNARD: And I looked at the gate. And I thought, that's the gate I'll go running out of.

SHAPIRO: Jeremy, have you given any advice to your successor?

BERNARD: Yes. My main advice was to keep it low-key. It's not about you, and you never want to do anything that will embarrass the president or first lady.

SHAPIRO: Jeremy Bernard was social secretary to President Obama, and Lea Berman held that job under President George W. Bush. Their new book is "Treating People Well: The Extraordinary Power Of Civility At Work And In Life." Thank you both so much for coming in and talking with us.

BERMAN: Thank you.

BERNARD: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF GEORGES DELERUE'S "CHORALE (DAY FOR NIGHT)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.