Monday, January 9, 2012

Tony Blankley, Requiescat In Pace, 2012

If punditry were like many religions, and had saints, my late and dear friend
Tony Blankley would be one of the very few from its ranks to be named one. As
it is, if there is a real heaven, Tony is. as I write this, checking in at the gate to
receive well-earned eternal rewards for an exemplary and full, if slightly
abbreviated, life.

I count myself as one of his friends, but there are family members and other
friends who knew him longer and better. His life story is as varied and rich as few
others I’ve known, and I know few others who simply enjoyed it more thoroughly
and with such lifelong awe at its civilized pleasures, its frightening dangers and its
sheer unpredictability.

But I began by citing Tony’s saintliness, and that’s because beyond his unlikely
and marvelous resume, the fascinating characters and figures he knew and
worked with, his always distinctive manner, and his eloquent voice, aloud and
in print, Tony was one of life’s rare totally decent and good men, an old world
gentleman because he cared to be so, and a loving family member or friend
because it was in his DNA.

British-born, Tony emigrated to the U.S. as a child with his parents. His father
had been Winston Churchill’s accountant, but decided after World War II to
come to Hollywood and establish a new successful career. Young Tony, in this
environment, was soon cast in movies and television series of the 1950’s,
appearing, with famous stars. But Tony was not destined for an acting career.
After attending law school he did go to work for another former actor, Ronald
Reagan, and after campaigning for him, served as a prosecutor in the
California attorney general’s office for ten years. When Reagan became
president, Tony went to work as one of his speech writers, and then
worked for the Secretary of Education. In that position he met a young
congressman named Newt Gingrich. Tony then became Gingrich’s press
secretary and adviser, serving Gingrich through his speakership. (There are
some of Tony’s friends who think if Newt had ALWAYS taken Tony’s
advice, he would still be speaker.) Tony soon had the reputation as one of the
best, as well as one of the most congenial, on either side of the aisle in his

After the Gingrich speakership ended, Tony was invited by John F. Kennedy
Jr. to join the staff of his new magazine George as an editor, and after that,
Tony was named as editorial page editor of The Washington Times. In full
disclosure, Tony soon invited me to contribute an almost weekly column to the
Times. We had met when Newt was speaker, and stayed in touch over time,
but I was a bit surprised, albeit very pleased, to become a contributor under
his editorship because I was known as a political centrist, and not as a
a Republican or doctrinaire conservative. It did not matter to Tony who
quickly filled the Times’ editorial pages with a variety of provocative
writers. Tony read everything I wrote in advance, but instructed his staff
to publish everything I submitted, after spelling and typo corrections, and
occasional shortening when I had gone on too long. In seven years of
writing op eds for Tony, only one was rejected, and that because a delay in
publication made it out of date. He was this freelancer’s dream editor.

My best memories of Tony, however, were the little adventures we had
together. Some were at the Hay Adams Hotel dining room, to where
on every visit I made to the nation’s capital, Tony would invite me for
breakfast. Breakfast with Tony Blankley at the Hay Adams Hotel was a
magical experience. He would arrive always impeccably dressed in one of
his custom-made suits (along with our mutual friend Michael Barone,
Tony was easily one of the best-dressed pundits in America), and we
would enjoy the Hay Adams lavish power breakfasts (the only restaurant I
know which serves fresh-squeezed guava juice). Ostensibly, the breakfasts
were for Tony to get my out-of-the-beltway midwestern perspective, but the
truth is I learned far more from him than he could have possibly obtained
from me. Our two-hour breakfasts covered Tony’s account of recent
political history of Washington, DC since the Reagan years. inside stories
of famous and often pretentious politicians, and most of all, as I had come
to learn, Tony’s incredibly well-informed and prescient insights about what
was happening in the world.

We had other great occasions together. One of them was an all-night phone
conversation on Election Night, 2000, especially in the wee hours as the
incredible result was becoming clear. Another occasion was when I hosted
Tony in the Twin Cities for the 2008 Republican convention held in St.
Paul, and I took Tony from party to party. (We were more like fun-loving
teenagers at Disnyeworld than two older blase pundits.) Most memorable,
perhaps, was a symposium I organized in 1999 on the theme of public
communication, and to which I invited Tony as Newt’s former press
secretary, and Mike McCurry, as President Clinton’s former press
secretary to share the podium and speak about media at the highest level
in Washington. The result was classic. It was broadcast on C-SPAN, and
someone from the major networks saw it, asking both Tony and Mike
subsequently to do a network show together for a time.

There was much more than can be retold here. Tony always carried with
him an impish and sophisticated sense of humor, a genuine intellectual
openness, a caring personality and old-world gentlemanly charm. I think
his history as a DC staffer (albeit for Reagan and Gingrich), and his talk
show appearances, may have led some to underestimate Tony’s original
and visionary mind. The best evidence of that are his recent books
"The West's Last Chance" and "American Grit" which, in my opinion,
will outlast a lot of books by "official" historians and analysts whose work
is currently trendy and popular. My sadness at his early loss is thus not
only personal and selfish (one gets to have few friends in a lifetime like
Tony), but also because he had more books with more profound insights
to give, insights I might suggest, that might have been critical to the
survival of a civilization and a republic whose best traits Tony Blankly
stood for and practiced every day of his exemplary life.

Copyright (c) 2012 by Barry Casselman
All rights reserved.

1 comment:

  1. My condolences, Barry. It sounds like you two had a wonderful friendship. Thanks for sharing some memories with us.