Home The Washington Diplomat White House social secretary talks to embassy counterparts about navigating pandemic

White House social secretary talks to embassy counterparts about navigating pandemic

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White House social secretary Carlos Elizondo, center, with Meridian President and CEO Stuart Holliday to his right, pose with embassy social secretaries and cultural attachés outside in the gardens of the Meridian International Center. (Photos: Anna Gawel)

When your job is to bring people together, what do you do when a pandemic dictates that people stay apart?

White House social secretary Carlos Elizondo talks to guests.

“You bring out the creative juices … tap into your resources and do what you can to amplify your message,” Carlos Elizondo, White House social secretary and longtime aide to first lady Jill Biden, told The Washington Diplomat during the Meridian International Center’s annual celebration of embassy social secretaries on Aug. 11.

Past receptions have paid tribute to what many consider the “gatekeepers” of Embassy Row, but this year’s reception took on added significance because of the pandemic. (There wasn’t even an event last year, so for many diplomats, this was their first time seeing each other in person in well over a year).

Rossy Vargas of Sahouri Insurance, Valeska Ruiken of the Embassy of Norway and Capricia Marshall, the former White House social secretary under President Obama.

Masked up indoors, the embassy social secretaries and cultural attachés talked about Zoom glitches, telework isolation, vaccine mandates and the myriad challenges of hosting and networking during a pandemic.

It’s the same challenges that Elizondo has to contend with every day at the White House — by far the most coveted invite in town.

But those invitations have been, by necessity, scarce, so Elizondo said “the first lady and the president asked me to come up with creative ways of bringing the American people and the world into the White House that unfortunately during the pandemic have not been able to come in.”

“So I did,” he told the Meridian audience, noting that he’s partnered with the Smithsonian to host exhibits for Women’s History Month and Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, along with upcoming events commemorating Hispanic and Native American heritage in November.

Caitlin O’Conner and Annabel Kempe of the British Embassy join Kiyomi Buker of the Japanese Embassy.

Elizondo described the Bidens as “incredibly social people” who are anxious to fully reopen the White House.

Tais Howland of the Embassy of New Zealand and Elisabeth Herndler of the Embassy of Luxembourg.

“That’s not to say that we haven’t been busy or open, but just under strict White House COVID protocols,” he said. “We’ve done Fourth of July. We recently did [German] Chancellor Angela Merkel’s farewell visit to the White House.”

“And last Thursday, the president hosted four back-to-back events…. It would’ve been easier I think to be focused on a state dinner as opposed to four different events, but we survived,” Elizondo joked.

He recalled another jam-packed day several weeks ago with a particularly eclectic guest list.

“The president and the first lady hosted their majesty the king and queen of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. The president went over to the Oval Office with his majesty; the first lady went upstairs to the residence [for] a private tea with her majesty. And that morning, we hosted the championship [NFL] team, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. So I had the privilege of briefing Tom Brady. So I always refer to that day as kings, queens and quarterbacks.”

Bruce Wollman and Ainsley MacLean of the Mid-Atlantic Permanente Medical Group.

Elizondo said he never imagined working at the White House while growing up in a small Texas town called Harlingen.

But after moving here in the 1980s, “I fell in love with Washington, not only for its history, but for its diversity and for the fact that this is a global city,” said Elizondo, the first Hispanic American to serve as White House social secretary.

He also clearly fell in love with the Bidens, serving as their social secretary for eight years when Joe Biden was vice president under Barack Obama.

To show his appreciation when he became social secretary this time around, Elizondo said he gave the first lady and his team a framed card with the word “social” written by calligraphers.

Popy Rufaidah of the Embassy of Indonesia and Mariam Keita of the Embassy of Mali.

“And I just started coming up with words that I thought would reflect the president and the first lady. Using each of the letters, I came up with the words: special, sincere, success-oriented, smart, seriousness of purpose … outstanding, out of the box, optimistic, organized; collaborate celebrate, captivate; innovative, inspiring, inclusive, international; alignment, aware, American, accessible, appropriate, amazing; lasting, learning and, more importantly, laughter — and team social will tell you how much we laugh in my office.

“The first lady, as I said, and team social all have this framed card on our desks as a reminder of the awesome impact and responsibility we have on every person that visits the White House,” Elizondo continued.

Kristin Shoop of the Australian Embassy, Anna Gawel, Katarina Chan and Gwenda De Moor of the Belgian Embassy.

“Whether you’re a frontline worker or a world leader, it is our hope that everyone will take away a special and magical feeling as they exit the White House.”

He closed by quoting the late American poet Maya Angelou: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

Anna Gawel is managing editor of The Washington Diplomat.

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