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.
Tony would talk seamlessly about the past and the future. He once called me up to see if I would be interested in having Newt on Good Morning America — not to talk about politics — but to discuss dinosaurs from the American Museum of Natural History. We shot it at the museum and it was a terrific segment.
Tony was one of the first major political commentators to agree to join us on the early days of PJTV. He did not have an attitude about Internet TV which still dominates a large part of Washington. He practiced futurism as well as preaching it.
Tony truly loved all of life. His home was a sanctuary in the woodlands of Great Falls, Virginia, just outside of DC. Before there were animal rights advocates and angry PETA activists, Tony embraced the world’s creatures. His home brimmed with peacocks, sheep, rabbits, llamas, goats, horses, and of course the family cats and dogs. It was a wonderland. It was his own personal statement about the sanctity of life.
Tony also was a smashing dresser. Our clothes are insignias of who we are. For Tony, it also expressed his values for tradition and civility. Until recently, he always sported a great tie, matching kerchief and refined suit. It underlined Tony’s hope for a civilized world with elegance, standards and decorum. It troubled him about the coarseness of our political discussion. Although we did not talk about OWS, I know he would have considered the entire Occupy venture to be vile.
Tony was a deep intellectual with admiration for the great thinkers of our time. He admired Rand, Buckley, Reagan and Churchill. For a brief time his dad actually worked for Winston Churchill. He deeply loved language. He always had a twinkle in his eye and in an instant he could easily pivot from seriousness to humor.
I last saw him last summer for breakfast at the Hay Adams Hotel in downtown Washington. He was suffering from stomach cancer and had lost what looked like nearly half his weight. Yet when he sat down he was the same old Tony who had a glint in his eye and an easy laugh. I will miss him. But more important, the world will miss the character and values that Tony Blankley lived and extolled.