Tony Blankley: Colourful adviser to Newt Gingrich
Known for his commentary on international relations and US politics, Rupert Cornwell also contributes obituaries and occasionally even a column for the sports pages. With The Independent since its launch in 1986, he was the paper's first Moscow correspondent - covering the collapse of the Soviet Union – during which time he won two British Press Awards. Previously a foreign correspondent for the Financial Times and Reuters, he has also been a diplomatic correspondent, leader writer and columnist, and has served as Washington bureau editor. In 1983 he published God's Banker, about Roberto Calvi, the Italian banker found hanging from Blackfriars Bridge.
Wednesday 11 January 2012
Unless you're the White House spokesman, opining daily on matters of war and peace, a press secretary normally doesn't become a public figure in a button-downed place like Washington, drenched in political correctness. The exception was Tony Blankley. For seven momentous years in the 1990s he was spokesman for Newt Gingrich, as the Georgia Congressman led the "Republican Revolution" that in 1994 gave the party control of the House of Representatives for the first time in 40 years. The turbulent and swaggering Speaker-to-be and his somewhat rotund, heavy-smoking aide with a British accent, a gift for soundbites and an unashamed taste for the good things of life, were made for each other.
The running duel between Gingrich and President Bill Clinton dominated the middle part of the decade, and Blankley was invariably in the thick of the action. He promoted, defended and – as best he could – protected his boss amid huge legislative battles over budgets and welfare reform, government shutdowns, and the scandals that afflicted both Gingrich and his frère ennemi in the Oval Office.
In the Whitewater affair that bedevilled the Clintons, Blankley proclaimed that the barely comprehensible imbroglio over a loss-making land deal in rural Arkansas was Bill Clinton's Watergate. "The cover-up is unravelling," he loved to declare at each new twist in the saga. But when the boot was on the other foot, and Gingrich became embroiled in ethics controversies of his own, Blankley dismissed all criticism as "malicious imbecility."
Blankley had moved to the US at the age of one, when his father – who had once been Winston Churchill's accountant – moved to California to become a financial executive in Hollywood. He was naturalised an American citizen and became a child actor, appearing in episodes of Lassie and other television series, and finally as Rod Steiger's son in the 1956 film The Harder They Fall. It was Humphrey Bogart's last film, and his own as well, Blankley later joked.
After graduating from UCLA and Loyola Law School he worked as a prosecutor before moving to Washington as a speechwriter in the Reagan administration before joining Gingrich, then Minority Whip, the second-ranking Republican position in the House. Blankley's enduring British accent and gregarious nature helped turn him into a national persona in his own right. His sense of humour did no harm, either. "With his combination of visionary and political tactician," he once said of his boss, "Newt is a tad like Gandhi – but obviously Gandhi dressed better."
After leaving Gingrich in 1997, Blankley became a fixture as a conservative pundit, TV commentator and author. He supported the former Speaker in his current presidential campaign, endorsing him for the Republican nomination in one of his last syndicated newspaper columns before his death from stomach cancer. Upon learning the news as he campaigned for the New Hampshire primary, Gingrich described his former aide as "a wonderful friend, a sage adviser, and a man who loved life."
But perhaps the best epitaph consisted of Blankley's own words, in an interview with The Los Angeles Times in 1996, at the height of his fame. "In Edwardian England, I'd be perceived as very uninteresting," he remarked. "But if you live in a town of empty suits, then any slight deviation from the norm is noticed. So I was English, I was an actor ... There was just enough different about me so that when the spotlight fell on Newt, a little bit fell on me."
Anthony David Blankley, political spokesman and commentator: born London 21 January 1948; married Lynda Davis (two sons, one daughter); died Washington DC 7 January 2012.
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