Judy Smith, the top-level US crisis manager, has now even inspired a TV show. Photograph: Jonathan Newton/Washington Post
Before this year, an internet search for photos of Judy Smith yielded just one result. But what a picture. Smith, in white trouser suit and sunglasses, leading her client Monica Lewinsky through a crowd of cameras and sharp elbows, the month before she was due to testify before Ken Starr’s grand jury. The media scrum was ravenous, but lawyers and journalists paid tribute to Smith’s impeccable calm.
Smith has become a legend in crisis management, working on everything from the Enron scandal to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, with clients from Kobe Bryant to Wesley Snipes. And her status was confirmed again yesterday, with reports she is advising Jill Kelley, one of two women involved in the David Petraeus scandal.
The crisis is being described as the most significant Washington sex story since Clinton. Kelley herself triggered the storm when she complained to an FBI agent that she had received harassing emails. These turned out to be from Paula Broadwell, Petraeus’s biographer. It then emerged Broadwell had been having an affair with Petraeus, director of the CIA until he resigned last Friday. It has also transpired that General John Allen, the top US commander in Afghanistan, is being investigated for 20,000-30,000 pages of emails sent between him and Kelley. And that unnamed FBI agent Kelley initially approached? He is under scrutiny for sending her shirtless photos. Some scandals are love triangles. This one could turn into a love decahedron. Still, Smith should be able to handle it. Linda Kenney Baden, a private trial attorney who has worked with her extensively, says she is the ultimate crisis manager. With degrees in public relations and law (and a black belt in karate), Smith “brings the unique experience of being able to navigate in both worlds … she listens, first of all – she doesn’t impose. And she’s not threatening in any way, to anyone, and yet she’s very firm. She’s also very discreet.”
This last quality comes up repeatedly in discussion of Smith – she is hard to reach, with no telephone number on her company website, and directory enquiries confirming it is unlisted. But earlier in 2012 her profile leapt as it emerged she had inspired Scandal, the first network TV drama with an African-American female lead in 38 years. This came about when Smith met writer and producer Shonda Rhimes for a 20-minute chat – and the pair spoke for more than two hours. But both have emphasised she did not break any confidences, and that is the key to understanding Smith, says Kenney Baden: “She doesn’t get out there to get fame for herself.” By nature, she is a force behind the scenes to be reckoned with.