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Judy Smith — inspiration for 'Scandal' TV series — on her path to the White House

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From riding past in her father’s taxicab to working inside the Oval Office, crisis management expert Judy Smith tells the little-known story of her path to becoming the first Black woman to brief the White House press corps. Smith, CEO of Smith & Company and the inspiration for Shonda Rhimes’s hit series “Scandal,” tells Yahoo News that at the time, she did not fully realize the significance of her historic appointment as deputy press secretary and special adviser to President George H.W. Bush. Now, following the announcement that president-elect Joe Biden’s administration will see an entirely female senior press team, and only the second Black female deputy press secretary, Karine Jean-Pierre, the real-life Olivia Pope reflects on what she hopes will inspire generations to come.

Video Transcript

[MUSIC PLAYING]

JUDY SMITH: My name is Judy Smith, and I'm CEO of Smith & Company, a strategic advisory firm. And some of you might know I had a little bit to do with the show called "Scandal."

- In Washington, DC, if a scandal is about to break, this is the woman who will make it disappear.

JUDY SMITH: I grew up in Washington, DC. My dad, when we used to drive on Sundays in his taxi, used to go past the White House. And I was saying how pretty it was, and I said I want to get in there.

One day I got a call from Marlin Fitzwater. And he said, I am press secretary to the president of the United States, and I would like to see if you might be interested in coming to work for the president as his deputy press secretary. And I thought it was a prank. I said, oh, sure you're Marlin Fitzwater, press secretary to the president of the United States.

I said now, are you looking for Judy Smith? And he said, yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah. And I said, are you sure about that? I said, you know my parents, we don't have any money. We're poor. I didn't give any big fat contributions. I know absolutely no one in politics.

I just want you to be really sure about that, right? So he said, no, no. I'm sure. In fact, the president was going to run for another term and that his plan was to leave. And so he wanted to make sure that there was a deputy in place that could fill that role and step into that role.

And when I came to talk to the president, we went on Marine One and then Air Force One, and I was just, like, ah, this is not real. This is not real. And it just dawned on me that I'm working for the president of the United States. It was a good relationship.

And honestly, I have to give Marlin credit for that, because he gave us space to develop that, right. Most deputy press secretaries don't have that kind of relationship. You know, part of it was really explaining things from my perspective and how people might see them based from-- from my background.

GEORGE H. W. BUSH: Judy, I don't want this to come out wrong, but you talk about tough women. I mean, she is strong and in a wonderful way. And she takes it and can dish it out just as well. And it is tough out there in that press arena. But boy, she's doing a superb job.

JUDY SMITH: Being a Black woman, right, is never a time where you're not a Black woman. It's very obvious walking into any kind of role as a Black woman and as a woman, you are always conscious of what the makeup of a room, right, looks like. But I didn't understand the significance of what that was getting up briefing at that moment seeing a Black woman behind the podium speaking on behalf of the president to the American public.

There's an element of you just do it. And being in that position as deputy press secretary, you know, having some time to reflect on it, it feels like it's a way for women, and also especially, I think, for Black and brown women, to-- I don't know, to see and understand what it looks like to-- you know, to rise up to an opportunity and to be prepared for it and believing, believing that that can-- that that can happen, right. It doesn't matter to me what your background is, or your-- your past, or what you don't have and thinking that it's not possible.

It is truly, truly possible. So if anybody takes anything away from this, for me, I would say that I am forever grateful, right, for the opportunity. But truly what my hope is that it somehow inspires and it motivates other women to know that you can achieve your dreams, that all that is possible, and it starts right here, right, that ride in the taxicab starts right here.

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