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February 27th, 2014
03:35 PM ET

Washington "Scandal"-ized

By CNN's Deena Zaru

Reality is what you choose to show and not necessarily what is; public image is invaluable and what you say can and will be used against you not only in the court of law, but in the court of public opinion; and sometimes silence is more dangerous than anything you might say.

Welcome to Washington D.C. – where if the media and the public pay attention to you, chances are you are in need of an adviser, an image consultant – and in the midst of scandal – a cunning, capable and calculating crisis manager.

Enter Olivia Pope.

Remember one thing: it’s even more scandalous if it’s real.

As the third season of the ABC series “Scandal” returns, gladiators everywhere sit on the edge of their seats, Olivia-style, with a glass of red wine in hand and a fresh bowl of popcorn, in anticipation of what comes next in a fictional world inspired by the all-to-real life drama of the Washington political arena.

Joe Morton, who plays Rowan Pope in Scandal and most recently won an NAACP Image Award for his role, was a recent guest on State of the Union and Candy Crowley talked to him about Scandal’s depiction of Washington D.C.:

“Do you think it’s a fairly accurate portrayal of shenanigans in Washington?” asked Crowley.

“Before we taped the show today, I sort of talked to some of your colleagues and I said, when you watch the show, does it feel like Washington, D.C.? Now because from my standpoint … it's fiction,” said Morton.

Though he pointed out some story lines have real life parallels.

“The Fitz character could be Bill Clinton in terms of the affairs.  The congressional things that come up in the show, also all those things feel like Washington,” said Morton.

They do, because after all, Olivia Pope’s character is inspired by legendary D.C. crisis manager Judy Smith.

2012 Winter TCA Tour - Day 7While one can enjoy a harmless dose of political scandal on a Thursday night following the latest developments in Olivia Pope’s affair or indulging in the latest schemes concocted by the ruthless Congressman Frank Underwood on "House of Cards", when political scandal is real, the consequences are painful.

Scandal’s plot is highly influenced by real D.C. scandals and by Smith’s insider knowledge of Washington politics that inform the storyline and make it compelling. She was the spokeswoman for Monica Lewinsky amid the Clinton affair and impeachment. She also worked for the family of Chandra Levy, the D.C. federal intern who vanished after completing her internship and having an affair with Congressman Gary Condit (D-CA).

Former White House intern Monica Lewinsky (2nd R)In Season 2, Pope advises the Senate majority leader to resign after having an affair with an intern, not unlike Condit, who had pressure to resign after his affair with Levy. NSA analyst Artie Hornbacher steals information to prove that the government is spying on American citizens much like Edward Snowden did in real life and Sen. Richard Meyers is caught sexting, which has allusions to former New York City mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner’s own sexting scandal.

When it comes to dealing with real life scandals, things might not always be as spicy or fit for a day in the life of Olivia Pope, but they are always difficult and the stakes are always high.

“Scandal is not realistic because it doesn’t reflect the reality of every crisis, which is the tension between attorneys and the crisis manager,” said Lanny Davis, a crisis manager and a lawyer who served as Special Counsel to President Bill Clinton from 1996-1998 amid the Monica Lewinsky scandal. “When I worked for President Clinton in the White House I learned firsthand about the tensions between lawyers and people in politics who are more worried about saving the President’s reputation than winning the legal case.”

While, the strain between attorneys and crisis managers is a constant theme in every crisis, Davis believes that the two can be reconciled.

“Since childhood, as we are caught with our hands in the cookie jar, it has been in our DNA to deny, deny, deny. And if you can’t get away with denying, evade. Don’t answer the question and for sure, if there’s something really bad, hide it,” said Davis.

This is the philosophy of lawyers amid a political scandal, as they work to ensure that nothing a client says can become a liability or a risk to winning the case. But sometimes a client’s silence can hurt public opinion and damage their reputation.

“Every time someone says “no comment,” people think they’re guilty,” said Davis recounting his experience working with Martha Stewart, who amid her insider trading scandal was asked by the lawyers to remain silent.

Frustrated with her inability to speak out, Stewart turned to Davis. He advised her to get out ahead of the “bad facts” that were already public knowledge.

“Tell it early, tell it all, tell it yourself because in crisis management you know that no matter how much you wish for bad facts to go away, they won’t” said Davis. “You have to bring them out and put them in context.”

However, if a crisis manager is not a lawyer as well, they might not be able to get all the facts they need about a case because they don’t have the advantage of attorney client privilege.

Whether it’s covering the latest developments of the Anthony Weiner sexting fiasco, Former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer’s (D) prostitution scandal, Rep. Michael Grimm’s (R-NY) violent threats to a reporter who asked him about campaign funds, the arrest of Congressman Trey Radel (R-FL) for buying coke or whether Governor Chris Christie (R-NJ) was involved in Bridgegate or withheld Sandy funds, political news starts to sound like the tabloids.  But after all, when you are a public figure seeking the people’s trust and the people’s vote, the court of public opinion can either build you up or tear you down.

When it comes to power and politics, there is always scandal. As the legendary Watergate reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein quoted in “All the President’s Men”:

"Whoever was responsible for the Watergate break-in would have to be somebody who doesn't know about politics but thought he did… Anybody who knew anything wouldn't be looking over there for real political information. They'd be looking for something else ... scandal, gossip."

And tonight, as Scandal fans sit on the edge of their seats, red wine in hand, to see what will happen to the Jake/Olivia/Fitz love triangle, or await the Mysterious Man’s next move, real scandal might be brewing in Washington D.C. and behind every campaign catastrophe and every politician’s blunder, somewhere in a back room, behind closed doors, a trusted and talented crisis manager is already plotting their comeback and determining their fate—an avoidable or destined fall from grace.

*all images are Getty Images.

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