Judy Smith, the inspiration behind the tough, sexy Olivia Pope, heroine of the ABC television phenomenon Scandal, feels the pain of your hellish divorce, your professional plummet, your gaffes — and she is there for you.
Smith is the Washington crisis manager — a former deputy press secretary to President George H.W. Bush — who went on to represent such clients as Monica Lewinsky, Paula Deen and various corporate giants, sports stars and celebrities.
Co-executive producer and technical adviser for the political drama, Smith, in her book, Good Self, Bad Self, aims to help us all pick ourselves up from life’s tumbles and avoid future falls.
This week, in advance of Saturday’s sold-out Jungle Island author’s luncheon, sponsored by the Greater Miami chapter of The Links Incorporated — aptly titled Scandalicious — I spoke with Smith about the business of crisis management and the show that made her and her vocation household names.
Thanks to Scandal, the words “fixer” and “crisis management,” once reserved for political and corporate-strategy sessions, are now part of the American lexicon.
It’s easy to see how Smith gets it done, as she chats you up as if you’re an old friend, even when she skates past a question, with confidence and finality, a la Ms. Pope. She won’t dish on her notorious clients, including Lewinsky. However, in a telling Scandal moment, Olivia Pope says, “You know who else was a good person? Monica Lewinsky and she was telling the truth, and she still got destroyed.” And no, as she has said many times, she never slept with the president. Olivia Pope, the creation of Scandal writer, director and producer, Shonda Rhimes, who also gave us Grey’s Anatomy, is having a steamy affair with the Republican president.
When did you decide this is what you wanted to do?
Smith: I can’t really say it was one of those “a-HA” moments. I think a lot of times your skill set and the things that you’re good at sort of drive you to where you need to be. One of my first cases was Monica Lewinsky and President Clinton. And certainly having worked at the White House and the experience that I had was extremely helpful. I don’t think I made that conscious decision. In a lot of ways, as I say in the book, it’s sort of been in my DNA, and it found me, if that makes sense.
Have you ever turned down a client?
Smith: Yes. What we really do when we decide to take on a client is start from the end goal, the end solution, of what the client might want, and we try to map out a strategy to see if we can get there. And the question is really whether you can assist in rebuilding the brand, whether you can move the needle or not. And if it can’t pass that test then we don’t move forward.
There’s some personal preference involved too.
Smith: You just know it when you see it. You know what I mean. I’m sure you’ve been in that situation. You know it when you see it. And that’s a good thing. I think that comes not only with instinct, but experience and wisdom, as well.
Twenty years ago, you advised Clarence Thomas during his confirmation hearings for the Supreme Court. Anita Hill is now somewhat of an icon, with a new documentary out this month. Would you have advised her to do anything differently at the time?
Smith: Well, you know when I was at the White House, I was President Bush’s deputy press secretary and worked on a whole host of issues, but I would not attempt to advise her.
What skills are required of a fixer?
Smith: I think it’s important that the client, whether the client is a corporation or an individual, is able to trust the person sitting across the table from them, that the client feels that that person is obviously good at what he or she does. I think you have to have good sound judgment, and a sense of calmness about you. I think the communication skills are important, and being a strategic thinker.
Don’t you think it clouds the issue when a person or entity is “fixed”?
Smith: It depends on what it is, and I’m not trying to vague. There are certain politicians who have a reputation of being forthright and honest. So it would be inconsistent for anyone, if you were a press secretary or communications director, to try to change what the perception or the reality of the voters and members of the community already have.
At times we’ve probably all wished that there was someone who could swoop in and fix our situations at work or home. Is that what you’re trying to tap into with Good Self, Bad Self?
Smith: Yes, the purpose of the book was to take the experience that I’ve had over the 20 years, and really point out that some of the same qualities and traits that I’ve seen in crisis are the same that everyday people have.
The only difference that separates us from high-profile folks is just that. My thought was that we all go through challenges, ups and downs and, hopefully, in the book there are some tips that are helpful.
What’s next for you?
Smith: I’m going to keep doing what I’m doing. I love it. At 9 o’clock, we could have a corporate crisis with a product defect, at 11 something involving a celebrity. Twelve o’clock, it’s a politician or athlete. You never get bored.