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.