ABC bases ‘Scandal’ on D.C. insider Judy Smith
By Neely Tucker,
This is almost beyond belief. For more than two decades, few high-profile people in Washington have been as invisible as Smith. She famously represents the well-to-do who are in high-end contretemps — Monica Lewinsky, the Chandra Levy family, Michael Vick, BP after the Gulf oil spill — and she just as famously stays off camera.
Her crisis management and communications firm, Smith & Co., is not listed in phone directories. It has no Web site. She says she has no current business cards. When you ask to meet at her office, she says she’ll come to you. When she calls you on the phone, the caller ID reads “Verizon.” When Betsy Beers, another of the co-executive producers of “Scandal,” searched the Internet for a picture of Smith before their first meeting, she found a total of one — Smith pushing a camera out of her face in a Lewinsky media scrum.
So you just know the stories she could oh-so-thinly veil in “Scandal” and a tell-all memoir. The Bush White House during the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings! The U.S. Attorney’s Office during the (first) Marion Barry prosecution! Monica! Enron! William “Cold Cash” Jefferson! Larry Craig in the men’s room!
And . . . have you lost your mind? Can you spell “confidentiality clause”? You think, having seen the media beast up close, she’s about to spill her guts to TMZ?
“When you’re working in crisis situations, people have a tendency — particularly the media — to stake out your house,” she says, explaining her extreme sense of privacy. “Having done this for 20 years, I understand what that is like.”
What it’s like: During the height of the Clinton impeachment scandal, she hid Lewinsky from the tabloids and the television cameras on some days at a church’s homeless outreach program, says her friend Robin Marcus, a teaching instructor at George Washington University. Lewinsky volunteered and worked there for several days over several months. That’s how bad it can get.
So Smith is happy to be the inspiration and consultant for “Scandal,” but when her character, Olivia Pope, both kisses and slaps the president of the United States in the very first episode?
“Really, really, really didn’t happen,” she laughs. “It’s television.”
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It’s easy to see why Beers and Shonda Rhimes, the creator/writer of “Scandal,” “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Private Practice,” were taken with Smith when they first met her in 2009. Beers’s agent told her about Smith, and the idea of a show blossomed the first time they all sat down together.
“I’m very proud of what I do, even if it’s hard to talk about on the record, and there really hasn’t been a show like it on television,” Smith says.
Her career has spanned two tumultuous decades both in Washington and across the national stage, often at the center of white-hot scandal. She’s a lawyer (degree from American University Washington College of Law; undergrad from Boston University) and a public relations executive who once was a suit at NBC, as the senior vice president of corporate communications. It’s difficult to think of many people who have been the confidant of so many in such dire trouble for so long.
“We talked to Judy for something like two hours — it was just scheduled for 20 minutes — she left the room and Shonda turned to me and said, ‘Okay, we have to get that,’ ” Beers says.
Plus, Smith has a striking appearance that seems tailor-made to foster television interest: She’s 53, 5-foot-9, high cheekbones, slender, long raven hair and a perfect smile. She also has a long reputation — even among reporters — for being honest, straightforward and willing to work marathon hours.
“Not everyone representing the interested parties in the Lewinsky impeachment scandal was accurate or fast in getting back to you, but Judy was both,” says Michael Duffy, executive editor of Time magazine. “She keeps her word.”
Plato Cacheris, one of the lawyers who represented Lewinsky, was happy to throw Smith to the media lions: “She was really very adept in . . . fielding the tough questions and giving the right answers.”
That, of course, is gold in Washington. The lone mention of her being anything other than poised may be in a story about a 1992 White House news conference over a flap about the Bush administration’s travel expenses. The Post article, which ran on page 20 of the A section, mentions “shouting reporters” and Smith, then a deputy press secretary, being “at times flustered and combative.”
Marlin Fitzwater, her boss in the White House and a press secretary for Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, knows the intensity of the news conference as blood sport. He remembers installing a full-length podium in the briefing room so that “the television cameras wouldn’t see my knees shaking.” A good many of his nights, he says, were spent “dreaming of ways I was going to get even with [combative ABC reporter] Sam Donaldson the next day.”
He thinks the crisis management work she does now is much harder.
“You never know a client that well, and you’re not designing words for you to say as a spokesman, but for them to say. You don’t know if they can survive, or if they’re going to blow up and respond to the pressure.”
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Smith grew up on 14th Street NE in the District near Montana Avenue, one of five children of William and Evelyn Smith. Her dad was a heavy-equipment operator at Andrews Air Force Base by day and a taxi driver by night. Her mom was a secretary and administrative assistant and cleaned office buildings at nights. She went to St. Francis de Sales and what was then the Academy of Notre Dame (since merged into Archbishop Carroll High School).
She was and is best buddies with graphic designer Michele Wells, who lived one street over. By middle school, Wells says, Smith was already a peacemaker, trying to patch up romances or resolve playground disputes. This was fine until they went to a dance at another middle school. A group of girls confronted them, ready to fight.
“We were getting out of there as fast as we could, and Judy was still saying, ‘No, let’s go back and talk to them,’ ” Wells says, laughing. “She was about to get us beaten up.”
Smith says she learned from the incident — by earning a black belt in karate, which she maintains.
Today, she has gone from her government spokeswoman career to NBC to private practice in crisis management to running her own boutique firm. She’s married to Bill Boulware, a veteran television writer and producer. They have two adult children, Cody and Austin.
“I really like to shield them from what I do,” she says. “I like it to be tranquil at home. We don’t even talk about work. It’s more like, ‘Oh my God, are we having waffles again?’ ”
This reserve also extends to the television show and her book.
While “Scandal” is clearly based on Smith’s career — an African American crisis manager who once worked at the White House — Rhimes says none of the episodes stems from behind-the-scenes drama Smith told them, because Smith told them almost nothing.
Writing the seven-episode first season, Rhimes said, was a process of her and her staff creating situations, then asking Smith how she would handle them. One thing that did bleed through: Smith’s habit of telling her staff, “I need more.”
“She’s the inspiration for the show,” Rhimes says, “but Olivia Pope is not Judy.”
“Good Self, Bad Self,” meanwhile, is a self-help book, with a subtitle of “Transforming Your Worst Qualities into Your Biggest Assets.”
It’s a step-by-step approach to identifying your strongest traits — say, ambition or patience or a healthy self-regard — and understanding that these same traits can lead you over the cliff. To save yourself and your career when you screw up, she writes, you have to examine these traits, understand where you want to be when this mess is behind you, then rearrange your company or your self to reach that point.
She uses lots of examples — not her clients — of people who have emerged from the abyss, such as actor Rob Lowe. Once ensnared in a sex scandal with a teenage girl, he has since revived his life and career. The key? A sincere apology, a return to what you do well, and years of living that example.
“A wonderful quality about America is that we love redemption stories,” she writes. “We’re quick to lash out and assign blame, but we also draw from deep reservoirs of forgiveness.”
That’s her target, she says — guiding her extremely flawed clients into a second act, in which they are forgiven for their sins.
It might make for good television, it might not. But in Washington or in L.A., it’s a career with legs.
debuts Thursday, April 5, on ABC at 10 p.m. EST.