Rubbing Elbows

The No-Joke Olivia Pope

Scandal-ous look at crisis guru Judy Smith


judy smith
Vincent Ricardel

My phone starts buzzing a few minutes after Judy Smith was supposed to call for our scheduled interview.

"Hello," she says in a warm-yet-professional, calm-yet-pressed voice. "Can I call you back in a few hours? I'm having a crisis at work."

Of course she is. But, to paraphrase F. Scott Fitzgerald, Smith's idea of a crisis is not like yours or mine. Crises are the currency in which she deals, and they've made her fabulously successful and increasingly famous. In turn, she's provided her clients—a Who's Who of they-shouldn't-have-done-that—with opportunities for a second act following some very public problems.

That her words are spoken without a hint of irony demonstrates why she's become so entrenched in the milieu of American celebrity gone bad. The access to society's boldest names, the hit network television show based on her career: it's all secondary to Smith. Her primary goal has remained simple: What's the client's objective, and how can I help them achieve it?

Smith, WCL/JD '86, is Washington's ultimate fixer. Her name has become synonymous with the field of crisis communications, a pressure cooker brand of PR designed to protect (or salvage) an individual's or corporation's reputation. When a politician or noted athlete or actor gets caught with their hand in the cookie jar, they call Smith. She's also become linked to her small screen alter ego Olivia Pope, the no nonsense, problem-solving heroine of ABC's Scandal.

In our conversation, Smith is measured and reserved when discussing her work—much of which aims to mitigate transgressions much more serious than tawdry trysts—and guarded when speaking about herself. You'd never know her job is to parachute into the most stressful of media feeding frenzies or the stickiest of legal jams and align herself with the person squarely in everyone's sights.

You'd never know that you were speaking to a true gladiator.

Smith was born and raised in the nation's capital, the second youngest of five children. Much of her hard-nosed work ethic comes from the example set by her parents. Her father drove a truck by day and a cab at night, while her mother worked as a secretary from nine to five before heading out to clean office buildings. Occasionally, Smith would tag along.

After leaving the city to earn a bachelor's degree in public relations from Boston University, she felt the pull of home.

"Somebody told me that I argued well, so I should try law school," she says. "It really wasn't a compliment, but I took it as one."

At Washington College of Law, Smith became the first female African American executive editor of the law review, clerked for a judge, and worked in bankruptcy court. Her first major job after earning her law degree was as associate counsel and deputy director of public information in the office of independent counsel Lawrence Walsh, who was investigating the Iran-Contra Affair.

It was not the last affair she'd have to navigate on behalf of others.

In 1991, Smith was appointed special assistant and deputy press secretary to President George H. W. Bush. The girl from northeast Washington had reached 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

"What the White House did was help sharpen my skills," she says. "You are, in a lot of ways, in the center of what goes on in the world. Things move so quickly. If someone is practicing crisis communications in the corporate setting, you have time to plan, to prepare. But at the White House there is something happening every minute of every single day that you have to comment on, that you have to respond to, that you have to think about the messaging. You have to do that at an incredible speed with precision."

Smith worked in communications at NBC and was a partner at several Washington firms before striking out on her own. She steadily built a roster of clients, but didn't truly burst into the public consciousness until a former White House intern retained her in 1998. Smith helped Monica Lewinsky choose a legal team, and crafted a communications plan designed to protect her from the onslaught of media coverage in the wake of special prosecutor Kenneth Starr's investigation of President Bill Clinton.

"We tried to portray her as a young woman at a certain point in her life, vulnerable and exposed to certain things," Smith told the Los Angeles Times in a 2012 profile. "Our goal was to get an agreement and make sure she didn't have to go to jail."

That was her client's objective, and she achieved it, in large part, by employing another of her governing principles.

"One of my golden rules is that you should tell the truth in a crisis," she says. "You need to have message discipline in a crisis, you need to be very clear about what the facts are, and there needs to be leadership through a crisis with a level of clarity."

Over the years Smith's provided just that for A-listers including actor Wesley Snipes, football star Michael Vick, Jesse Jackson Jr., and a host of others. She compiled her experiences and philosophies into a book, Good Self, Bad Self: Transforming Your Worst Qualities Into Your Biggest Assets, which led to a meeting with television producer Shonda Rhimes, of Grey's Anatomy fame. What was scheduled to be a quick meet-and-greet turned into a three-hour conversation.

"I was fascinated by a world in which someone swoops in on the worst day of a person's life and takes over," Rhimes told the LA Times. "I love the notion of a fixer. And I'm always in love with the idea that everyone has dirty little secrets, even the powerful, even our heroes."

Scandal debuted in 2012 with an episode in which a woman who says she's been sleeping with the president shows up at Pope's office. The steely, self-assured Pope is skeptical of the woman's claim until she reveals that the married commander in chief called her "sweet baby," the same term he used for another of his on-again, off-again lovers . . . Olivia Pope. Cue the dramatic music. And we're off.

The show is a fast-moving, only-in-DC soap opera on steroids in which the term "fix it" is uttered frequently and everyone walks and talks lightning fast. Fans, who like Pope and her associates call themselves "gladiators," can't get enough. It has more than 1 million followers on Twitter and has received the Peabody Award for Excellence in Television. Smith serves as co-executive producer, reading all the scripts.

"When Judy and I first met, she said, 'Call me anytime, here are my numbers, any questions you have,'" Kerry Washington, who plays Pope, says in a promotional video. "But now when the phone rings she goes, 'What Kerry?' because I call her constantly and email her every day with questions. I want to make sure I'm getting inside the strategic mind of a crisis expert."

In January, the show returns for its sixth season, and its popularity—along with her book—have thrust the normally reticent Smith into the spotlight.

"One thing about my work, just like on the show, there's no shortage of crises," she says. "It's not for folks that are not committed to the cause, because it's always 24/7. You don't get bored."

Smith now is recognized as a celebrity in her own right. On talk shows, at parties, on the street—invariably she's asked the same question.

"No, I haven't had an affair with the president," she says, laughing.

But if you have, Judy Smith just may be able to help.