Meet the 1st Black woman to lead a White House press briefing

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WASHINGTON — The podium in the White House Press Briefing Room is the public face of the presidency, and when Joe Biden takes office on Jan. 20 it will look quite different. A few weeks after his election in November, Biden named the first all-female White House communications staff, which includes multiple women of color. It was a milestone for a nascent administration that has prided itself on diversity.

However, Biden’s briefings will not be the first time a Black woman served as the main voice of the presidency; that moment came in 1991, when Judy Smith stepped behind the podium as a deputy press secretary for President George H.W. Bush.

“I didn’t think about it at the time. … What I thought about at the time was that going to work in the White House was … just such an incredible opportunity. … It was a dream come true,” Smith said in an interview with Yahoo News last month. “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.”

After her time in the White House, Smith became one of the country’s foremost crisis communications specialists, and her work inspired the hit television show “Scandal.” Despite this renown, Smith’s role as the first Black woman to lead a White House briefing has rarely been acknowledged and there are few available photos or videos of her time behind the podium.

White House Assistant Press Secretary Judy Smith briefs the press in the White House Briefing Room in 1991. (Screengrab from video: via George H. W. Bush Presidential Library)White House Assistant Press Secretary Judy Smith briefs the press in the White House Briefing Room in 1991. (Screengrab from video: via George H. W. Bush Presidential Library)
White House deputy press secretary Judy Smith briefs the press in the White House Briefing Room in 1991. (Screengrab from video, via George H.W. Bush Presidential Library)

Martha Joynt Kumar, who is director of the nonpartisan White House Transition Project and author of multiple books on the president’s press shop has studied its communications operation since 1975. She believes Smith’s history-making turn didn’t attract more notice because White House briefings were not televised until the Clinton presidency. They went on to become highly rated spectacles, particularly in the administration of President Trump.

“I think it’s because the press secretary and the deputies were not well known until they went on camera in January 1995 … when the briefing was televised,” Kumar said. “Bush was not somebody who spent a lot of time on publicity and I don’t think his staff did either. His Cabinet secretaries were very visible, but less so, was his White House staff.”

Smith’s pioneering role also drew less notice than it might have because Bush and his team didn’t focus on her race. Marlin Fitzwater, who as Bush’s press secretary hired Smith, said he “just didn’t think of it in those terms.”

“She came from a different culture than me. I’m a farm boy from Kansas and she was the city girl from Washington in addition to being a Black woman. … I had a couple of deputy press secretaries who were women so that really wasn’t new,” Fitzwater said. “The fact that she was Black … didn’t have any effect at all.”

Smith similarly suggested her status as one of the few Black staffers in the Bush White House — and the only one who represented the administration at briefings — wasn’t something she or her colleagues fixated on. Still, it was an ever-present part of her reality.

“Being a Black woman [there] is never a time where you’re not a Black woman. Right?” Smith said. “We should be very, very clear about that.”

“Coming into the White House, I was very much aware that I was coming into an institution, like so many others, where there was a lack of diversity. There’s no doubt about that,” she added. “I am always aware of that in any situation and every single day of my life.”

Judy SmithJudy Smith
Smith conferring with President George H.W. Bush in October 1991. (George H.W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum)

While Smith said she was never treated any differently by her colleagues in the West Wing, there were instances in which she faced discrimination outside the White House.

“When I was traveling with the president there were a couple of times I forgot my White House badge and I was stopped because they didn’t believe I was with the president’s traveling party,” Smith said.

Smith — who kept her White House pass as a memento of her time in 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue — wondered whether she would have faced that skepticism if she was white.

Her race wasn’t the only thing that set Smith apart from other White House staffers. Smith’s journey to the Briefing Room podium began with humble roots. She grew up in Washington, D.C., with a father who drove a truck and a taxi. Her mother cleaned office buildings. Smith got her first glimpses of the White House on weekend rides with her father.

“He would drive downtown when he didn’t have a passenger. … We used to go past the White House and I was saying how pretty it was,” Smith recounted. “He said, ‘Well, maybe one day we can go in there.’ … We made a thing of driving past the buildings and the White House every other Sunday. … I said, ‘I want to get in there. I want to get in there.’”

With what she described as “that little seed” planted, Smith began to pursue a career in law — and breaking barriers. At American University’s Washington College of Law, Smith became the first Black woman to serve as executive editor of the school’s law review. After graduation, Smith was set to work at a law firm when she went out for lunch with a friend who was working for Judge Lawrence Walsh, the independent counsel investigating the Iran-Contra Affair. During that meal, her friend asked how the counsel’s communications team was doing and Smith deployed the frank honest advice she has since become known for.

“I don’t think it’s going great for you guys,” Smith said. “The messages aren’t clear, it’s not resonating. It’s not going well.”

Smith’s friend then brought her in for a meeting with Walsh, at which she reiterated her critique of the messaging operation. He hired her on the spot.

After getting involved in political communications, Smith took a position in the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia. That post gave Smith her first taste of scandal: when in 1990 Washington Mayor Marion Barry was arrested after being filmed smoking cocaine in a hotel-room sting operation.

“It was very intense,” Smith said, describing calls that came in from around the world. “It was really one of those first moments in time where a video went viral.”

This file frame from a black-and-white FBI videotape shows Washington Mayor Marion Barry allegedly lighting a crack cocaine pipe in a Washington hotel room in January 18, 1990 as Rasheeda Moore stands behind him. (Barry Thumma/AP)This file frame from a black-and-white FBI videotape shows Washington Mayor Marion Barry allegedly lighting a crack cocaine pipe in a Washington hotel room in January 18, 1990 as Rasheeda Moore stands behind him. (Barry Thumma/AP)
A frame from an FBI videotape shows Washington Mayor Marion Barry allegedly lighting a crack cocaine pipe in a Washington hotel room in 1990. (Barry Thumma/AP)

Her work in the hot seat earned Smith notice. When Fitzwater, who was planning to depart the White House if Bush won a second term, began searching for a new deputy, a colleague recommended Smith.

“I remember getting a call from MarlIn. … He said, ‘Hi, this is Marlin Fitzwater. I’m the press secretary to the president of the United States and … wanted to see if you would be interested in being deputy press secretary,” she recalled. “I’m thinking, ‘Oh, sure, this is MarlIn Fitzwater. I immediately thought my buddy … had played a prank on me.”

But it was no joke. Fitzwater, who worked as press secretary for both Bush senior and Reagan, said he felt Smith was “perfect for the kind of talent I was looking for.”

“I wanted somebody who can deal with the press and she had done that. I wanted somebody who had a legal background. … I had lived through a lot of problems,” Fitzwater explained. “Bush was my second president, I was also press secretary to Reagan. … Between the two of them, we’d come up with a lot of legal difficulties. … I really thought she was good.”

Fitzwater put Smith through three interviews.

“I needed to make sure that she was comfortable working for a Republican president. She didn’t have anything in her background that was particularly political, but you just kind of assume in the District of Columbia, they’re probably a Democrat,” Fitzwater said, noting the fact residents of the nation’s capital almost uniformly vote against the GOP.

Smith told Fitzwater she had studied the president’s policies and was “fine” working with him. He said she also indicated her work in communications was “not particularly political” and, as someone who came out of the career bureaucracy, he empathized with that.

To this day, Smith is rather cagey about her personal politics. She declined to answer questions about Fitzwater’s assumption she might be a Democrat and simply said there were some instances where she wasn’t on the same page with the Bush administration.

“As you can imagine there were a lot of things that happened in the White House that I didn’t agree with,” said Smith. “But anybody who knows me knows that I don’t shy away from making my position known.”

One of those instances was the Los Angeles riots in 1992. Smith was among several White House staffers who objected to Bush’s crackdown on rioters and looters who took to the streets after police in the city were filmed brutally beating a Black man named Rodney King. Smith said she spent several hours walking on the White House grounds with the president talking with him about the reasons for anger and frustration in the community.

George H.W. Bush George H.W. Bush
Bush speaks about civil disturbances in Los Angeles following the Rodney King verdict, May 1, 1992. (Arnie Sachs/CNP/Getty Images)

Though she described herself as awestruck upon first meeting Bush in person, Smith said she strove to be frank with him. That included during the 1992 elections, when Bush began to struggle against Bill Clinton. Smith recalled an instance where new poll numbers came in. They didn’t look good. She called Bush, and he asked her to come speak to him in the residence even as she tried to break the news over the phone. Smith arrived to find Bush and the first lady, Barbara Bush, in bed in their pajamas.

“It just dawned on me that I’m working for the president of the United States right at that particular moment. But it also reminded me, too, of something my parents really instilled in me, which is that, at the end of the day, we are all people. Right? And we are all the same,” Smith said.

Ultimately, Smith’s willingness to speak frankly with the president helped them forge a close bond. Colleagues describe the pair as sharing a close and sometimes jocular relationship. Smith said she was able to find a surprising amount of common ground with Bush, despite his patrician New England upbringing.

“We used to talk a lot and we used to take walks on the South Lawn. … Part of it was really explaining things from my perspective and how people might see them based from my background,” she said, adding, “It’s very different from his upbringing and his background. … I think that he understood how important hard work is, and values, and ethics. And so, there was common ground.”

During the election, Bush requested that Smith remain at the White House rather than going out on the trail with the campaign team. If he had won the race, she was a potential successor to Fitzwater in the press secretary role.

“She would have been a natural candidate at that point,” Fitzwater said.

At one event, Bush praised Smith as “tough.”

“She is strong and in a wonderful way,” he said. “She takes it and can dish it out just as well. And it is tough out there in that press arena, but boy, she is doing a superb job.”

Fitzwater echoed that assessment.

“She was very strong and could handle herself in dealing with the White House press corps, which is not a place you want to throw up a shrinking violet, you know?” he said.

From left, Andy Card, Judy Smith and George H.W. BushFrom left, Andy Card, Judy Smith and George H.W. Bush
Smith with Bush and deputy White House chief of staff Andy Card, circa 1991. (George H.W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum)

When Bush lost the election, Smith pointed out, he handled it far differently than the current occupant of the White House, President Trump, who has falsely disputed his loss to Biden and sought to have the vote overturned.

“It’s completely, obviously, opposite of what we have experienced with President Trump,” Smith said of Bush. “He was just so gracious with it.”

Bush gave Smith a leg up as she began her career in the private sector. When their time in the White House ended, Smith began hearing from CEOs and business leaders, and she discovered that Bush had made calls enthusiastically recommending her for jobs. The pair remained in touch, and she said the former president was “so very proud” when her crisis communications work inspired the show “Scandal.”

Their joking also continued — even when Smith tried to stop it. One prominent storyline on the show involved an affair between the character inspired by Smith and a fictional president. Smith said she called up Bush to warn him about the plot and “make sure that he didn’t joke about it.” Bush couldn’t resist and ended up quipping that “he could neither deny or confirm the allegations of the affair” during an event at his house.

Kerry Washington, left, and Judy SmithKerry Washington, left, and Judy Smith
Actress Kerry Washington and co-executive producer Judy Smith on the set of ABC’s “Scandal” in 2012. (Vivian Zink/Walt Disney Television via Getty Images)

Smith’s time at the White House makes her just one of a handful of Black staffers who have conducted the briefing. The first Black man to hold the No. 2 position in the White House press shop was Andrew Hatcher, who was associate White House press secretary during the administration of President John F. Kennedy. During his tenure, the magazine Ebony noted that Hatcher’s “appointment was enough to jar ‘the old pros’ who had long become accustomed to Negroes serving only as porters, messengers, maids, clerks and valets at the White House.” Other Black men followed in Hatcher’s footsteps, including Arthur Jones, who was a deputy press secretary for President Bill Clinton, and Bill Burton, who worked for President Barack Obama. However, no Black woman has stepped behind the Briefing Room podium since Smith.

“I think that everybody can agree that 30 years, that’s a big gap. … There’s no answer for that gap — 32 years is way too long,” Smith said.

Now Biden’s incoming press team includes Karine Jean-Pierre, the first woman to serve as a deputy press secretary since Smith.

For her part, Smith said she’s “so happy” and “over the moon” to see Jean-Pierre follow in her footsteps.

“I hope that she gets to do something that I was unable to do as that progresses, that she gets to step into those shoes as … a press secretary to the president,” Smith said.

Smith said she is “rooting for” Biden’s team and hopes it leads to “more roles at senior levels for women” across government. She also wants her own legacy to inspire other “Black and brown women.”

“I am forever grateful 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,” said Smith. “It starts right here. Right? That ride in the taxi cab. It starts right here.”

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