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The Most Diplomatic Gifts, According to White House Social Secretaries

Photo: Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP

If there is one type of person who knows how to give an appropriate and tasteful gift, it’s a White House social secretary. So we found two: Lea Berman, social secretary for George and Laura Bush, and Jeremy Bernard, social secretary for Barack and Michelle Obama, who happen to also be co-authors of the forthcoming book, Treating People Well: The Extraordinary Power of Civility at Work and in Life. They picked out five sure-to-please, and will definitely not offend, gifts (that would be good for co-workers or people you don’t know that well), as well as some lovely holiday cards.

“Every December, the current social secretary would host lunch for the former White House social secretaries in the West Wing, in the Ward Room, which is located a floor below the Oval and across from the Situation Room. For dessert, we moved to the State Floor, so they could enjoy the holiday décor. At the conclusion, the florist arranged flowers and the pastry chef prepared a selection of cookies, wrapped in clear plastic with a bow. They were handed out as the socials departed. Holiday cookies can make for a perfect gift for guests (or as a hostess gift). Cheryl’s cookies were a favorite of East Wing staff during the holidays.”

“When a clever staffer hung a GoPro camera on the Bushes’ Scottish terrier, Barney, a star was born. The footage of the little terrier padding through the White House holiday decorations went viral, drawing more traffic to the White House site than ever before. The way to a dog lover’s heart is through a GoPro camera — endlessly entertaining, and a good way to see what your buddy is up to when you’re not home.”

“The White House pastry chef and staff spend weeks constructing an elaborate gingerbread version of the White House. The First Families’ pets would often be included, in front or looking through one of the windows. It was displayed in the State Dinning Room, and always a favorite for photos or just to see up close.”

“President Obama and Mrs. Obama both gave photo books to staff at the holidays. The president’s had a red leather cover with the presidential seal in gold. Mrs. Obama’s book had a photo cover, and both contained photos taken at staff meetings and various trips and events. (They were always mindful to make sure each staff member was included in at least one photo. The White House photographer, Pete Souza, was diligent about this.)”

“The First Ladies carefully selected the White House holiday cards each year. They were always very aware what an impression it would make. At the same time, they were careful for it not to be too similar to the previous years. One year was a photo, the next year an artist’s rendering of one of the rooms, and in 2015, we had the first White House Pop-Up holiday card. And 2016 was the first interactive card with a bar code. From a smartphone, a video would pop up with a message from the Obamas. We like these student-designed holiday cards — students from across the country submitted artwork to the White House, and we used some of them as invitations to holiday receptions. These cards support the Second Street Youth Center Foundation in Plainfield, New Jersey. Colorful, original, and charming.”

“Showing appreciation of service members and veterans was so important to the Bushes and Obamas. Mrs. Obama always wanted one ‘service member’s tree.’ One year, the Blue Room Christmas tree was filled with framed letters that children wrote to service members. Another year, a tree was filled with ornaments representing all military divisions. And every year there was a Gold Star dedicated to these men and women, decorated with ornaments sent by children of service members and included notes of love and support. Each year, there was a Gold Star family tree in the East Wing, as guests entered for a tour or party. Send a batch of brownies and support our veterans at the same time!”

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The Best Gifts, According to White House Social Secretaries