Washington just got a little more beige. Tony Blankley—pundit, political strategist and, most famously, former press secretary to then- House Speaker Newt Gingrich through triumph and disgrace in the 1990s—died Saturday night of stomach cancer, two weeks short of his 63d birthday.
A man of impressive intellect, appetites and personal style, Blankley knew and loved history and literature. He was beautifully spoken, with a whiff of a British accent acquired from his birth in London and strategically retained in Hollywood, where his expat father was a well-placed studio accountant and little Anthony was a child actor. He would grow up to become a Republican, a California prosecutor and a Reagan political appointee. But it was working for Gingrich that put Blankley on the power map—and frequently at odds with the press--until ethics woes forced the speaker to resign in 1997.
The spokesman became a columnist and editorialist for the Washington Times. This master of the pithy sound bite—he was, after all, an actor and a litigator--also became a gifted TV talking head, spiking his gravitas with spot-on levitas. By 2007 he’d gone corporate as an Edelman public relations executive vice president.
What else about Tony Blankley?
*That however partisan he might be in public, he tried not to let ideology poison a friendship. “He was one of the people who represented the old Washington, where you could be friends across the political divide,” said Democratic consultant Bob Shrum, a frequent TV sparring partner and longtime pal.
*That as a kind of gentleman farmer in Great Falls, Va., Blankley oversaw a menagerie that includes horses, peacocks, llamas and chickens, as well as cats and dogs. (An Edelman tech would visit Blankley’s home once a year to remove animal hair from his computer.)
*That his wife, lobbyist Lynda Davis, then a U.S. Navy Reserve captain, was ordered to Bosnia in 1995 for nine months and would have to leave her husband and a pair of young sons, until she became too ill to go; and that they later went to Russia to adopt their daughter.
*That Blankley was an avid cook who liked his cuisine plentiful and picante. Even when stomach surgery drastically limited his intake earlier this year, he would not give up the fellowship of the table. In November, per tradition, he cooked Thanksgiving dinner for 22, never mind that he would only be allowed a few morsels.
At his last meal with Shrum, at Equinox near the White House some months back, “Tony had a quarter of a glass of wine and a half a cup of soup, but he was quite insistent that I have a full dinner.”
*That he was an unreconstructed dandy with a bespoke wardrobe from a Washington tailor who, over time, created suits in several sizes to accommodate Blankley’s yo-yo weight loss regimes. “There was Big Tony and Diet Tony,” said Rob Rehg, president of Edelman’s Washington office. He remembers the day his friend totally dissed the brown suit worn by a stranger on the street. “And there was Tony, wearing some very loud yellow suit and he looked like a huge ice cream cone.”
In fact, it seems as if everyone I talked to had a Blankley story involving food, including Washington Post political writer Karen Tumulty. Back in 1994, a month after Gingrich masterminded the House Republican takeover for the first time in 40 years, she and Blankley had dinner in Cincinnati.
“He was simultaneously smoking, drinking whiskey and cutting into a huge piece of beef, and I asked him if he had ever given up a bad habit. He thought about it for a moment, and then told me, “Yes, when I was a prosecutor, I gave up drunk driving.”
My favorite meal with Tony came at Teatro Goldoni on K Street in the summer of 2008. I’d taken a Post buyout that May and sought some career advice from him and Frank Kauffman, an Edelman colleague I’d known for years.
“So you want to check out the dark side?” Blankley asked gently, knowing some reporters can’t bear the though of jumping from news to P.R. The meal developed a rhythm: Discuss each dish in detail--asparagus, pasta, veal and, if memory serves, a sinful dessert—between questions about what I really, really, really wanted to do next. By the time the check came, we both knew it was not public relations.
“Do what you love. That’s my advice.”
Lord knows, Tony Blankley surely did.