Tony Blankley, who died this weekend at the age of 63, was one of Washington’s hidden stars. He was a political adviser, an intellectual, a sensational writer, and a gifted individual who lived several lifetimes in his short 63 years. As a long-time colleague and friend, I will miss him.
Tony’s own unusual path to Washington made him a unique figure. His life combined several careers, each of which could have filled a feature length movie. In the coming days many writers will dwell on his outstanding political life, but there was more to his life than politics.
Tony was born in London in 1948 but fully embraced American exceptionalism and Americana. When his father moved to Los Angeles to work at a Hollywood studio, he auditioned Tony for a bread commercial. He soon became a television child actor and lived every kid’s dream by playing in the hit series Lassie. Later he appeared in the cool TV show Highway Patrol and played Rod Steiger’s son in the 1956 movie The Harder They Fall. He met the legendary Humphrey Bogart as Bogey performed in his final film. Life could have kept him in Hollywood but Tony was a guy with ideas.
He went to UCLA and to law school and he zoomed to the top. Although he always was elegant with a wisp of a British accent, he learned about justice and life’s tough spills as a prosecutor with the California attorney general’s office. He served there for a decade. For many people that career also would have been enough.
Instead he traveled to Washington with a congressman and later ended up as a speechwriter and aide to President Ronald Reagan. Then Tony made history when he became press secretary to Speaker-elect Newt Gingrich. Many don’t recall the profundity of the moment, but Gingrich was the first Republican to run the House of Representatives in 40 years. And as Newt would say, Tony was the first Republican press secretary in the position for 40 years. That’s when I met Tony.
At the time I was the Washington producer for ABC’s Good Morning America. Most of the Capitol Hill press corps had disdain for Gingrich. But Tony had the best antidote for their ill will — a wonderful, sparkling sense of humor and a gift for story telling. Tony never won over many members of the MSM, but I was won over. We did not play favorites but I sought to give Newt a level playing field at ABC — something the rest of the news business was unwilling to do. Tony and I never forgot that tough period of Washington politics.
So over time I got to know Tony. He had a gentle, affable personality and could tell wondrous stories, quote Plato and Churchill, regularly impart pearls of wisdom as well as discuss the intricacies of science, politics, philosophy or religion. And he got Newt to do things on time.
For Newt and Tony it was a marriage made in heaven. They were like bookends. He was once called the “Speaker’s Speaker.” Both loved history. Yet both also were futurists. Although much of the MSM castigates Newt as a right-wing conservative, the speaker’s favorite couple was Heidi and Alvin Toffler, liberal futurists who wrote the best selling book, The Third Wave. If the industrial revolution was the second wave, the Information Age was the third wave. And they were right.