After years of handling crises behind the scenes, Judy Smith is in the spotlight as the inspiration for the ABC political thriller Scandal, which chronicles the adventures of Washington fixer Olivia Pope.
Like Pope, Smith is a former White House press secretary with her own Washington crisis management firm, Smith & Co. Like Pope, she is a poised, savvy, charismatic and sharp-dressed African-American woman.
But Smith told a roomful of McKenna Long & Aldridge’s women lawyers and clients gathered for the firm’s annual Women’s Leadership Event last week at the Carter Center in Atlanta that not everything about Pope’s character was drawn from her life.
She wanted to get one thing clear. "I did not have sex with the president," she said.
Smith said she was a bit concerned when she was told that one of Scandal‘s story lines was Pope having an affair with the president.
Smith called her former boss, George H. W. Bush, to give him the heads-up. His chief of staff told her not to worry, that Bush knew about the show.
She replied that the former president didn’t know everything and asked for him to call her.
When Bush called back, Smith was on a 12-person conference call. She said he left her a voicemail saying, "I love you. I want you. You broke up with me. Call me back, from the leader of the free world."
"See, you need talking points," she told him when they spoke.
Bush was not concerned about the fictive affair, she said. He told her the young people in his office had assured him the plot line would be good for his "rep."
Even though Smith has built a career as one of the go-to people in Washington when a scandal erupts, she was unknown outside of her niche before Scandal. Smith does not advertise. All her business is word of mouth, she said, and she did not even have a business card or a website for Smith & Co. before the show began airing a year ago.
She appeared on the radar of film and TV producer Jerry Bruckheimer and Shonda Rimes, the creator of Grey’s Anatomy, in 2009, after writing a book dispensing her crisis-management wisdom. Good Self, Bad Self: Transforming Your Worst Qualities Into Your Biggest Assets was published a year ago, around the time that Scandal premiered.
Her book agent set up a meeting with Bruckheimer and Rimes, and they hit it off.
Smith, an adviser for the show, said she comes up with ideas for crises and gives notes on the script. "It’s important to me that the woman people see on screen is a strong woman — that she is confident and nonapologetic. She knows she’s good. And she’s nonjudgmental and compassionate," said Smith, clad in a tailored gray pantsuit with a black shirt and pumps.
The attrition of women out of law and other professions because their career advancement has stalled is a hot topic for professional women right now, but not for Smith.
"I was raised to believe I can do anything," she said. "I’m not big on that visualization stuff. Life requires action."
Smith’s clients are a mix of celebrities, corporations and politicians. Tampa, Fla., socialite Jill Kelley engaged her last fall, she said, so she’s in on the David Petraeus scandal.
She’s worked with Monica Lewinsky, Larry Craig, Michael Vick and Wesley Snipes as well as Wal-Mart, AIG and Waste Management Inc. and the heads of a few small countries she did not name. She also handles the corporate communications strategy for M&A deals, intellectual property litigation, product recalls and diversity issues.
Smith, who has a law degree, was asked if she relied on attorney-client privilege in her communication with clients. "I don’t go to the restroom without attorney-client privilege," she laughed.
Smith said one thing she’s learned from handling crisis is the importance of balance. "You have to draw boundaries," she said.
But her notion of boundaries may not be that of the average person.
"I caught the red-eye here because I’m in the middle of a crisis," said Smith, adding that she was talking to her client on the phone while brushing her teeth in the hotel bathroom, getting ready for McKenna’s Women’s Leadership Event. "I’ve been doing that for 20 years."
The Washington native started out working in public relations while attending law school at American University at night, where she was the first black woman to edit the law review.
She landed a job with the White House Office of Independent Counsel working for Lawrence Walsh on the prosecution of the Iran-Contra affair, handling both PR and legal work. Then she worked as a prosecutor for the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia. As special counsel she oversaw the press for civil and criminal cases, including the prosecution of former Washington mayor Marion Barry after he was arrested for smoking crack.
In 1991 she became deputy press secretary for President George H. W. Bush, where she handled the fallout from Anita Hill’s testimony at the Senate confirmation hearing for Justice Clarence Thomas.
She opened Smith & Co. after working as a vice president of corporate communications for NBC and then as a partner at several Washington PR firms.
Smith, who has two sons in their early 20s, said she’s worked hard to protect her family time amid client crises.
"I’ve done a few wars, I’ve done a few coups," Smith said. "If you guys followed me every day you’d be bored to tears. I’m like you, going to work every day and trying to raise kids."
She revealed to her audience of professional women that she drove a blue minivan earlier in her parenting career.
She was driving her 10-year-old son to a basketball tournament in the minivan when the president of a country she didn’t identify called to tell her there’d been a coup.
Her son piped up from the back seat that he didn’t want the call to interfere with his basketball game and he ended up talking to the potentate, extracting a promise of candy for taking his mother’s time away from his game.
Smith’s idea of work-life balance is a bit more rarefied than that of most minivan driving moms. She said that when another beleaguered despot called with political problems a few years ago, she agreed to come and help only if he supplied a private plane to get her back to Washington in time for her son’s high school prom night.