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'Scandal' Finale: Judy Smith, The Inspiration For Olivia Pope


There once was a handsome president and his gorgeous top aide who helped him get elected and then fell in love with him and slept with him and then went on to start a powerhouse firm filled with shadowy former intelligence operatives who helped elect people and kill people and - never mind. I can't keep up either.

So by now, you've likely figured out we're talking about "Scandal," the hit ABC show created by producer Shonda Rhimes and starring Kerry Washington. The show's final episode aired Thursday night after seven seasons but not before launching a thousand think pieces about the significance of an African-American woman as the lead and a morally ambiguous one at that.

With all the wild plot twists, though, it's easy to forget that "Scandal" was based on a real person - Judy Smith, the show's co-executive producer. Smith was an aide to President George H.W. Bush. After leaving the White House, she became a, quote, crisis manager helping clients out of embarrassing, scandalous situations. Judy Smith stopped by our studio yesterday, and she said she thinks "Scandal" was a success in part because it filled a void.

JUDY SMITH: And I think that void was filled by a woman. And these are the things that were important to me about the show - that the woman had to be a strong character. She had to be a strong woman, good at what she does and comfortable with that.

MARTIN: So remind us of how this started. You were a deputy press secretary serving in the administration of George H.W. Bush, and you'd already left, and you were in private practice. And you had a lot of high-profile clients. And, in the spirit of full disclosure, I want to mention that you did work with my husband on a number of cases some years ago. So how did this all start? Was it that just you had this idea and you pitched it to...


MARTIN: ...Shonda Rhimes, who...

SMITH: I actually had a book agent and an agent as well. And they had said that, you know, you should talk to someone about a TV show. And they had set up meetings with a few folks, including Shonda. And I think what was supposed to be a 15-minute meeting turned out to be a hour-and-a-half meeting, and by the time we got to the parking lot, she called and said, I want this show.

MARTIN: Is it true that, at one point, you called former President Bush to say there's this...

SMITH: There's this thing where (laughter)...

MARTIN: It's made-up. This is fiction. Because...

SMITH: Right.

MARTIN: ...Just for the sake of clarity, you never had an affair with the president.

SMITH: No. No. No. No.

MARTIN: You never did any of that. You never killed anybody.

SMITH: No. We should...

MARTIN: You never tortured anybody.

SMITH: No. Absolutely - no.

MARTIN: No. None of that.

SMITH: There's a long list. No sleeping with the president, moving dead body from crime scenes. My father didn't run a undercover operation. But probably, like any good crisis communicator, you want to try to control the narrative.

And so when Shonda and I were talking about the show, she had said, well, I'm thinking about, you know, a relationship with the president. And I said, well, you know, I have a relationship with him. You know, we'd - I'd talk to him on a regular basis. And she said, no. You're not really understanding. And finally, I started to understand. I said, oh, let me call him first.

And so I picked up the phone and called him. And his chief of staff had said, no, he knows about the show. He's so proud of you. He's so excited. He can't wait to watch it. I'm thinking, oh, no. I'm in trouble. And so I said, well, tell him to call me. I just need a few minutes. And I was on a conference call, so he left a message and said, love you. You are the one that left me. Give me a call. This is the former leader of the free world.

And so I called him up. I said, see, this is exactly why I'm calling you right now - because you need some talking points here. We cannot joke about this. And he said, you remember? I'm, like, no. There's nothing to remember. Absolutely not.

MARTIN: That's Judy Smith, the co-executive producer of "Scandal," which aired its final episode Thursday night. She's also the chair of Judy Smith and Company, and she was kind enough to join us here in our studios in Washington, D.C.

Judy Smith, thank you so much for speaking with us. Congratulations.

SMITH: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.