UNION, NJ — Judy Smith, A former White House deputy press secretary and self-described “crisis manager” who inspired ABC’s seven-season political drama “Scandal,” recalled her “worst internship ever” to an audience composed of mostly students at Kean University on Feb. 6.
At the time, Smith was a law clerk for federal district Judge Barrington Parker Sr. in Washington, D.C., and attending law school at night. She described how she would stay up until 3 a.m. working on assignments, only for the judge to tear them up the next day.
“I would go home almost in tears every day,” she said, adding that the position was a challenging one.
On her last day, Smith went to lunch with the judge and told him how awful the internship had been for her. Parker, whose most high-profile case had been the trial of John Hinckley Jr. — who attempted to assassinate President Ronald Reagan — responded that he had been tough on her because he cared and that she “had to be excellent.”
“It was one of those important lessons and it’s something I carry to this day, that we impose our own standards on ourselves, and he helped me with deciding what standards are important to live up to,” she told the audience.
Smith, who has been called a “professional fixer,” considered her job as a crisis manager and offered students advice on their future careers as part of the university’s Distinguished Lecture Series last week.
In 1996, she started Smith & Company, now a leading strategic advisory firm with offices in Washington, Los Angeles and New York. She has worked on many high-profile cases, such as the Iran-Contra investigation, President Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky and the Sony Corporation hacking crisis.
Smith described her work as “issue management” as her company provides strategic advice to help companies and individuals handle critical situations.
“One of the most important parts is to try and control the narrative of the situation,” she said. “This is the first rule of crisis management.”
Smith, who earned a bachelor of science degree in public relations from Boston University and graduated from the American University Washington College of Law, said her line of work is an “amazing combination between communications and law.”
She emphasized the importance of having confidence when entering any career field.
“As you grow into who you are, you have to know what’s important,” she said. “There are certain values and ethics that you need to define for yourself, and that’s critical because that’s going to determine who you become.”
Smith said many activities portrayed by the character Olivia Pope in “Scandal,” played by actress Kerry Washington, do not represent her day-to-day responsibilities, like removing bodies from crime scenes or having a romance with the president.
“I don’t know how anyone could really look that perfect every day,” she joked. “I can barely even walk in heels, let alone do her sashay walk.”
Smith, who was co-executive producer of “Scandal,” which ended in 2018, said Pope was the first black woman lead in a television series in 35 years.
The lecture at Kean was originally scheduled for December 2018, but was postponed so Smith could attend the funeral of former President George H. W. Bush, for whom she had served as special assistant and deputy press secretary.
“It was less about his politics and more about who he was as a person,” Smith said in reference to the funeral service. “He had what my parents would call ‘old-fashioned values’ as he was a kind and decent man.”
When an audience member asked Smith if she would ever consider running for political office, she didn’t have to think twice before saying she would not.
“When I was working in the White House, it killed all of that,” she said. “There are so many ways we can help each other outside of politics.”
On March 6, the next lecture in the Kean series will feature documentary filmmaker Abigail Disney and the Rev. Rob Schenck, who is the subject of her film, “The Armor of Light.”