- The Washington Times - Monday, April 16, 2001

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Paradoxically, in high-profile, proud Washington, the White House social secretary is probably most effective when she is least visible.She is a presence on the scene monitoring certain key events involving the first family, but if the planning she has done ahead of time goes off without a hitch, she may hardly be noticed at all.

One of the most discreet White House employees is responsible for some of the first family´s most public moments, such as dinners for visiting heads of state. At these functions, the mansion´s fanciest, she is maitre d´ in evening dress overseeing a million and one details involving guests, food, decor and entertainment.

The new secretary is tall, blond, blue-eyed Catherine Fenton, 47, the 15th person in the job, who, conveniently enough, spent nine years as a deputy social secretary between 1984 and 1993, working for both President Reagan and President Bush under Gahl Hodges Burt and Laurie Firestone. From 1993 to 1995, she was social secretary for Japan´s ambassador to the U.S., Takakazu Kuriyama and his wife, Mimi.

People who know Mrs. Fenton best invariably use the word "nice" to describe the poised willowy executive, who is a commuting wife and mother of a 6-year-old "just graduating from kindergarten." Her husband, a consultant in the field of international medical sales, stayed home in New Jersey where the couple lives just outside Princeton.

They plan a move to Alexandria sometime this summer, not far from where her parents reside. Her father is a retired Marine, she says proudly. Her temporary Washington abode is a house owned by her mother-in-law in Rosslyn. Her in-laws spend most of their time in Florida.

"It really is a homecoming," she says of the move she made following the election late last year. In the late 1990s, staying home to be with her son, she did volunteer work for both the Dole-Kemp presidential campaign and New Jersey Gov. Christie Whitman, new head of the Environmental Protection Agency.

"She knows me a little better now," Mrs. Fenton says.

On what it´s like to serve both a father and son president, she says only, "They are a different generation my parents´ generation.

"They are very generous people and have a real comfort level with others.

"I offer institutional memory," she says, modestly enough.

Last Wednesday, while diplomatic fur was flying between China and the United States, President Bush was talking up education in North Carolina and Laura Bush was on her way to Texas. So Mrs. Fenton took off for New Jersey for a really long Easter weekend her first lengthy break in a month. Normally she can squeeze in barely two days a week with her family.

Taking the job didn´t involve so much anxiety about the responsibility, she says, as anxiety about the strain on her family. "I think presidents always are aware of the priorities of family," is her judicious response to a question about Bush White House policies in this regard. "But for a public figure to make it public is progressive."

Most days she is in her office at 8 a.m. until around 7 p.m. unless she is needed for an evening event, such as the party the first couple hosted recently for Billy Crystal´s "61" held in the White House screening room. She waited until guests were seated but didn´t stay for the HBO movie about the rivalry between Yankee baseball players Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle.

"I´ll have to educate myself more about baseball because I come from a family of basketball players," she says. Mr. Bush was a part owner of the Texas Rangers.

She supervises an average two events a day, working in conjunction with Andi Ball, the first lady´s chief of staff.

She describes her job as one of constantly juggling "simultaneous priorities," tending to last minute changes on a guest list, organizing menus and being sure everyone gets through the White House gates. "You have to be quick on your feet."

It hasn´t been all work and no play, however. She managed two weeks ago to attend a concert at the Japanese embassy. Mimi Kurayama had called her in December, just before Christmas. "I owe them a letter," she says wistfully, mentally sizing up a wish list of things to do, the endless prioritizing that may be the cause of a few worry lines around her startling blue eyes.


The social secretary´s office in the East Wing is a decidedly feminine venue, where a staff of four works in relatively cramped quarters. Mrs. Fenton never had met the current first couple before accepting the job because they were seldom in Washington when the elder Bush was in the White House.

The April edition of Texas Monthly sits beside the television set, which is tuned to CNN. A picture of the first lady is on the magazine´s cover, with a headline calling Laura Bush "her husband´s secret weapon."

"I have never ever heard anyone say anything unkind about her," special events planner Carolyn Peachey says about Mrs. Fenton. The two have worked together on and off for a decade. "When word filtered out that she was the pick, that it was a done deal, everybody just said, 'How nice.´

"If you can make the perfect choice, the Bushes made it. She is not a limelight person. It´s the best of both worlds someone who knows the town and knows them, having worked for President Bush´s father.

"Anybody in a leadership field tends to hire people who reflect what they themselves are about," Ms. Peachey says.

Ann Stock, now Kennedy Center´s vice president for institutional affairs, came out of the world of fashion and commerce as an executive with Bloomingdale´s to become the Clintons´ first social secretary. She was succeeded by her assistant, Capricia Marshall, a lawyer like Hillary Clinton.

The first White House social secretary in history, Mrs. Stock says, was Reathel Odum of Benton, Ill., who served in the Truman administration. Past and present secretaries make up a sort of club, Mrs. Stock says. "They all had a lunch for me when I was named." Only two failed to show that day, she recalls.

Mrs. Fenton, she says, "was very helpful when I was going into the Clinton White House, giving me the lay of the land and what to expect, because nothing is written down.

"It´s a special bond among those who go through a variety of situations" something of an understatement.

Mrs. Stock´s worst memory in office was the day a freak thunderstorm broke on an outdoor congressional picnic and threatened to douse the Olympic torch scheduled to be on view. (It was kept under cover on the Truman balcony until the rain ended.)

Her best memory was successfully coordinating a celebration for the 50th anniversary of the United Nations, involving 160 heads of state. "It was like planning for World War II."

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