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Merlene Davis: Woman who inspired ABC-TV's 'Scandal' speaking at UK

Actress Kerry Washington, left, portrays a character on ABC Scandal inspired by Judy Smith, right, founder and president of a crisis management firm.
Actress Kerry Washington, left, portrays a character on ABC Scandal inspired by Judy Smith, right, founder and president of a crisis management firm.

I've had to watch videos of the first season of ABC's hit political drama Scandal in order to understand how powerful Judy Smith must be.

Olivia Pope, the main character in Scandal who is played by Kerry Washington, was fashioned after Smith who, for more than two decades, has been stamping out ticklish kerfuffles and dousing major ignominies that could have spelled the end of corporations, celebrities and even government officials.

Smith is the founder and president of Smith & Co., a crisis management and communications firm in Washington and in Los Angeles. She is also the former White House deputy press secretary and special assistant to President George H. W. Bush, an author, and the co-executive producer of Scandal.

When Paula Deen was submerged in negative press last year, she hired Smith to help save or rebuild her folksy image. And it was Smith who, in photographs from 1998, can be seen trying to shield Monica Lewinsky from journalists and cameras during the sexual scandal involving President Bill Clinton.

Smith has worked with other politicians, corporations and athletes such as NBA stars Kobe Bryant, Chris Webber and Juan Howard; NFL players Michael Vick and Donté Stallworth; and MLB's Gary Sheffield during their encounters with the judicial system.

That's pretty impressive.

The reason I had to familiarize myself with the TV series, which premiered in 2012, and with the woman who inspired the series, is because Smith will be speaking on Nov. 11 at Memorial Hall on the University of Kentucky campus.

My daughter and her friends, who are big fans of the show, just might camp out at Memorial Hall to ensure they get a seat for the free event. Passersby could think there is another Big Blue Madness event in the making instead of simply a group of young women hoping to glean advice and pointers from an intelligent and skilled woman of color.

Sponsored by the Multicultural Committee of the UK Student Activities Board, Smith's appearance is part of a series of lectures called "Women of the World."

"The foundation of the series lies in harnessing and highlighting the power that we women have," said Kristyn Cherry, SAB director of Multicultural Affairs and host of the event. "I don't think society as a whole showcases it enough. Our goal is to celebrate women from diverse backgrounds who have any type of influence in the social, political and economic arenas."

Cherry said SAB sends out an all-students survey one semester prior to the date of an event. The results help the organization plan for more than 100 entertaining, educational and enriching events in the upcoming semester for the university community and general population in Lexington.

"So, essentially, it's the student who picked Judy Smith," Cherry said. "We want to be sure that we're serving our student body because that's what our organization is all about."

More lectures are planned, she said, but she wasn't ready to reveal any names.

"The current survey includes some amazing names that we'd like to keep private," she said, "but there are a multitude of other women that we would also love to bring to UK."

Smith points out in her 2012 book, Good Self, Bad Self: Transforming Your Worst Qualities into Your Biggest Assets, that we all have problems in our lives that need to be smoothed over. The methods she uses in high-profile cases can calm the troubled waters we find ourselves in, she says.

A wife and mother of two grown children, Smith writes there are seven traits at the root of a crisis: ego, denial, fear, ambition, accommodation, patience and indulgence. If one of those traits is out of balance, bad behavior usually results.

While she was writing that book, her agent asked if she would meet with people who produce TV shows. She has said she was scheduled to talk with Shonda Rhimes, creator and producer of successful ABC's Grey's Anatomy and Private Practice, for about 20 minutes, but the conversation continued for more than two hours. A deal was signed soon after.

Not everything in the show is true to life. Smith has said she and Bush never had an affair, unlike Pope and the show's president. However, Bush has teased that such a rumor would give him credibility with the younger members of his staff, she said.

Smith has said her first "gig out of law school" was working with Lawrence Walsh, special prosecutor of the Iran-Contra investigation. She had commented to a friend that the messages about the Reagan administration's illegal sale of weapons to Iran were not transparent, consistent or believable. The next day Walsh called and hired her to improve the public's take on the scandal.

"Smith is an incredibly inspirational woman and we're so excited for her to open our lecture series," Cherry said. "I hope that attendees are able to appreciate her story and realize that she is just one of millions of inspirational women of the world."

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