Antony Blinken steps into the spotlight with Obama administration role

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters - U.S. Deputy National Security Adviser Tony Blinken speaks on Syria at the White House on Sept 9.

As a precocious teenager growing up in Paris, Antony J. Blinken asked his stepfather, the world-renowned lawyer Samuel Pisar, to open up about his experience surviving Auschwitz and Dachau.

“He wanted to know,” Pisar said. “He took in what had happened to me when I was his age, and I think it impressed him and it gave him another dimension, another look at the world and what can happen here. When he has to worry today about poison gas in Syria, he almost inevitably thinks about the gas with which my entire family was eliminated.”

Blinken is deputy national security adviser to President Obama, who has also invoked the Holocaust as his administration wrestles, often painfully, with how to respond to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s alleged use of chemical weapons. One of the government’s key players in drafting Syria policy, the 51-year-old Blinken has Clinton administration credentials and deep ties to Vice President Biden and the foreign policy and national security establishment in Washington. He has drawn attention in Situation Room photos, including the iconic one during the May 2011 raid of Osama bin Laden’s compound, for his stylishly wavy salt-and-pepper hair. But what sets him apart from the other intellectual powerhouses in the inner sanctum is a life story that reads like a Jewish high-society screenplay that the onetime aspiring film producer may have once dreamed of making. There’s his father, a giant in venture capital; his mother, the arts patron; and his stepfather, who survived the Holocaust to become of one of the most influential lawyers on the global stage. It is a bildungsroman for young Blinken — playing in a Parisian jazz band, debating politics with statesmen — with a supporting cast of characters that includes, among others, Leonard Bernstein, John Lennon, Mark Rothko, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, Abel Ferrara and Christo.

Despite being astoundingly pedigreed, Blinken further distinguishes himself in this transactional town by being almost universally regarded as unassuming and collegial. It is a character trait that has smoothed over significant policy rifts with his bosses and aided his long career in a field trudged by enormous egos. Beyond the White House gates, he shares a Dupont Circle home with his equally photogenic wife Evan Ryan, a former Hillary Rodham Clinton scheduler, Biden campaign staffer and now a State Department nominee. And Blinken periodically dusts off his guitar to jam the blues and Beatles covers with White House press secretary Jay Carney and other Washington pals. (“He’s a good singer,” said Dave McKenna, a writer and bandmate.)

Discreet even among his closest family, Blinken, who declined an interview request for this article, has for decades been Washington’s consummate staffer. But now, as he transfers from aide to policymaker in the middle of what is perhaps the administration’s most delicate and volatile foreign policy crisis, he is inching into a spotlight.

A much-discussed Wall Street Journal article in January attributed greater administration focus on Syria to Blinken, who frequently insisted that “superpowers don’t bluff.” On Sept. 6, Blinken caused a mini-stir on NPR, saying that “it’s neither [Obama’s] desire nor intention” to strike Syria without congressional backing. Three days later, he told MSNBC’s “Daily Rundown” that the United States doesn’t do “pinprick” attacks, a line repeated by Obama in his national address Tuesday night. Blinken “seemed to be the leader of the pack” in a briefing with counterparts from the State and Defense departments in his old Capitol Hill stamping grounds, according to Rep. Steven Cohen (D-Tenn.), who also participated in a Blinken-led call with other Jewish lawmakers.

Blinken, his advocates say, seems groomed for this enhanced and increasingly public role.

“Tony Blinken is a superstar and that’s not hyperbole,” Biden said. The vice president joked that “the president recognized that after four years with me and stole him.” Blinken, he added, “could do any job, any job.”

Process over advocacy

Deputy national security adviser might sound like a junior job, but in a town where winning bureaucratic arguments can determine national policy, Blinken wields enormous influence by helping to set the agenda.

On policy, Blinken is considered a deeply knowledgeable and nonideological consensus-builder, allowing the facts of each situation to guide his questions and advice and emphasizing process over advocacy. He is also known for his light touch (“He has a way of telling people hard things in soft ways,” said Sandy Berger, Clinton’s former national security adviser and a Blinken mentor) and eye-roll-worthy puns. (He began a recent White House meeting on Arctic policy by saying, “Before I go any further on this topic, I think we need to break the ice.”)

Officials and friends say that Blinken’s lessons learned while working on Bosnia in the Clinton administration and myriad other national security matters play a significant role in informing his views on current issues. They describe him as sharing much of the centrist, realist thinking of Biden and former national security adviser Thomas E. Donilon, another Bidenite with whom Blinken is close, but with a stronger interventionist streak. Blinken surprised some in the Situation Room by breaking with Biden to support military action in Libya, administration officials said, and he advocated for American action in Syria after Obama’s reelection. These sources said that Blinken was less enthusiastic than Biden about Obama’s decision to seek congressional approval for a strike in Syria, but is now — perhaps out of necessity — onboard and a backer of diplomatic negotiations with Russia.While less of an ideologue than Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations (a job for which he was considered), he not surprisingly shares her belief that global powers such as the United States have a “responsibility to protect” against atrocities.

“I came from oblivion,” said Pisar, Blinken’s stepfather. Sent to a labor camp at 13, he survived Majdanek and Dachau, escaped the gas chambers of Auschwitz and, in 1945, emerged an orphan at age 16. A refugee, he got his hands on a BMW 500 and sped over the German highways, turning to thieving and the black market, and he was jailed by American MPs before distant relatives found him and sent him to Paris and Australia. There, he excelled academically and won a scholarship to pursue a PhD at Harvard.

Pisar’s controversial Cold War thesis about coexistence and commerce between the United States and Russia (“a very hot topic today,” he noted) won awards and the attention of then-Sen. John F. Kennedy (D-Mass.), who later recruited the polyglot as an adviser and signed, as president, a special act of Congress making Pisar an American citizen. After Kennedy’s assassination, Pisar practiced law in Hollywood and counted many stars among his clients. He eventually returned to Europe as a UNESCO official and opened a law office in Paris representing high-watt names, including Catherine Deneuve, Jane Fonda, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, whose first divorce he negotiated. He counseled President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing of France, represented Coca-Cola and the Republic of China. Pisar met Blinken’s mother, Judith, at a New York soiree in 1968.

Judith was then married to Donald Blinken, the son of an influential Yonkers lawyer, and had given birth to Antony in 1962. Judith managed Merce Cunningham’s dance company and socialized with Arturo Toscanini and Bernstein at the couple’s Park Avenue home. Donald was a New York powerhouse and arts patron, counting Rothko and Robert Rauschenberg among his friends. When Tony Blinken interviewed for the exclusive Dalton school as a kindergartener, the teacher asked him what he thought of a painting on the wall.

“ ‘Some people would call it a painting,’ ” Blinken said, according to his mother, “ ‘but I would call it a picture.’ ”

Blinken was Dalton material. His mother recalled him sitting in the pit at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, where she was the director of music, as John Cage conducted and let the boy play with whatever he wanted. “It didn’t matter if another strange sound was heard,” she said.

The Blinkens divorced in 1970, and Judith married Pisar the following year and relocated to France with Antony.

“I was concerned how he would take to being shipped abroad so suddenly to live in a strange city with a different language and his parents divorced,” said Donald. “And it could have worked out very badly. But, happily, both his mother and I were supportive of him all along, and he never blinked.”

Pisar said that he was careful never to try to supplant Blinken as the boy’s father. “I was his friend and maybe his mentor a little bit,” Pisar said.

As chairwoman of the American Center for Students and Artists in Paris, Blinken’s mother further expanded his horizons. The artist Christo, who hired Pisar as his lawyer to assist in a project to wrap Paris’s Pont Neuf, recalled Blinken as a “very exquisite, demanding and curious” young man. “His mother was taking him around to all the exhibitions.”

Blinken talked politics with family friend Jean-Jacques Servan-Schreiber, the author of “The American Challenge,” and other U.S. dignitaries that Judith called the “hungry Americans,” including Sens. Jacob Javits (R-N.Y.) and Henry “Scoop” Jackson (D-Wash.). But Blinken also had a more carefree side. As a high school student at the Ecole Bilingue, he delighted in puns, played hockey and scored gigs in a jazz band to raise money for the school’s first yearbook. He sneaked out of his family’s apartment on Avenue Foch Square, facing the Debussy garden shared by the pianist Arthur Rubinstein and Prince Rainier and Princess Grace of Monaco, to see a Rolling Stones concert, recalled one friend.

“He wasn’t a goody-goody,” Judith said.

He asked his stepfather for a motorcycle, and Pisar, recalling his reckless postwar rides, suggested a car instead. Blinken also spent time with his half-sister Leah, who also became a Clinton administration official, at the Pisars’ apartment in New York, where the family displayed a 96-inch-wide Christo drawing of the Pont Neuf above the modernist living room. He took in Yankees games with his father.

By then, the elder Blinken had co-founded E.M. Warburg, Pincus & Co., a powerhouse global venture capital firm. He was also president of the Rothko Foundation and a major Democratic donor, and was named chairman of the New York state university program by Democratic governors. Tony Blinken made his bar mitzvah at Temple Emanuel in Yonkers and spent summers in East Hampton, where his father got him a job as a counselor at Boys Harbor, a camp for underprivileged kids.

While Blinken was not religious, his father said, thoughts of the Holocaust always lingered. The year before Blinken received his French baccalaureate degree, Pisar published his memoir, “Of Blood and Hope.”

Blinken also pursued the writing life. At Harvard, he joined the Crimson as a freshman and ultimately edited the paper, as well as the weekly art magazine, What Is To Be Done, with the highly regarded New York political reporter Errol Louis. Blinken wore his hair long, played the guitar and cherished a John Lennon autograph his mother scored for him one day after she spent hours reading poetry with the musician and Yoko Ono.

Friends say he was torn about whether to pursue a career in the arts or in politics. He attempted to split the difference by interning at the New Republic, writing pieces critical of Reagan administration and Republican hedging on apartheid. He graduated from Harvard in 1984, the year of the Los Angeles Olympics, which he attended with his stepfather, then general counsel of the International Olympic Committee. Seated upfront for the 100-meter dash, Blinken’s sister complained about being splashed with Carl Lewis’s sweat as the sprinter blazed past. “Shut up and bottle it,” his stepfather recalled Blinken saying.

In Paris, Blinken organized a film festival and his family hosted a gathering for Spike Lee, who, Judith recalled fondly, “kept calling me ‘sister.’ ”

Blinken, too, had filmmaking ambitions, even organizing a short film festival in Paris. “I talked him out of it,” Pisar said.

“Everyone age 21 wants to make films,” said Donald Blinken, adding that he and his second wife, Vera, “hoped that he would go on to law school.”

He did, attending Columbia and furthering his education in international affairs. In 1987, the same year Blinken worked as a summer associate at the prestigious Rogers & Wells law firm, Praeger published his Harvard senior thesis — “Ally vs. Ally: America, Europe and the Siberian Pipeline Crisis.” (“I’ve reserved the rights for the miniseries,” he told the Los Angeles Times. “But we haven’t discussed who’ll play the part of the pipeline.”) He also became active in Democratic politics, helping his father raise money for Michael Dukakis’s 1988 presidential run. The campaign’s finance director, Robert Farmer, recalled Blinken fondly as bright, but “not an outgoing young man.” He remembered Blinken bartending at fundraisers at his Brookline home.

From N.Y. to D.C.

The Clinton administration was in many ways an adult version of Dalton — a magnet for gifted, ambitious Democrats with sterling credentials and impressive connections.

In 1993, during Blinken’s stint at another white-shoe New York law firm, a friend of Pisar, “a significant individual and important journalist” whom Pisar declined to name, suggested that Blinken apply for an opening at the State Department.

Stephen Oxman, then the assistant secretary of state for European and Canadian affairs who hired Blinken, recalled that a former colleague, Laurence Grafstein, brought Blinken to his attention. Oxman said he wanted the new perspective a “smart cosmopolitan” could bring to his team.

It was a banner time for the Blinken men. Bill Clinton appointed Tony’s uncle, Alan, as ambassador to Belgium and then named his father ambassador to Hungary, where he helped the government in compensating Holocaust survivors. Around that time, White House speechwriter Robert Boorstin lured Tony Blinken to the National Security Council staff, where Blinken eventually became the president’s chief foreign policy speechwriter. “I was looking for somebody who both could write speeches for President Clinton and think a little bit more broadly about where we were headed more strategically,” said Berger, then the deputy national security adviser.

But Blinken also remained involved in cultural pursuits. In 1995, he earned an associate producer credit on Abel Ferrara’s “The Addiction,” a gritty New York vampire movie starring Lili Taylor and Christopher Walken. (“It was so long ago,” Ferrara wrote in an e-mail.) That year, Blinken noticed Evan Ryan, the attractive granddaughter of a former Secret Service director and the first lady’s scheduler.

Within four years, Blinken found himself, as Berger put it, making the “leap from communications to substance” as senior director of Europe at the NSC. When Berger left the White House, Blinken, film producer to the wonks, put together a “Star Wars”-themed send-off video.

The ascendancy of George W. Bush in 2000 pushed Blinken out of government, but he was now entrenched in the foreign policy establishment. He became a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and in 2002 trudged around Idaho in his uncle Alan’s ill-fated Senate campaign to defeat Republican incumbent Larry Craig.

The 39-year-old Blinken had better luck in his personal life. He married Ryan, then a 30-year-old colleague from a D.C.-area middle-class, Irish Catholic family, at Georgetown’s Holy Trinity Church in a bi-denominational ceremony.

“At first his mother was quite skeptical about it,” said Rabbi Harold White, who co-officiated with a Catholic priest. At the reception, Blinken spoke about bringing different nations and religions together and with guest Hillary Clinton in attendance, thanked the “the 40-odd million people who voted for Bill Clinton because without them I would never have met Evan at the White House.”

A month later, Blinken embarked on another enduring relationship — with Biden. As staff director to the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he worked on issues involving the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, relations with Pakistan and nuclear disarmament. In the process, he became “a member of the family,” said Carney, who was brought into the Biden fold by Blinken.

Foreign policy veteran Les Gelb recalled a lengthy delay on a shuttle from New York to Washington during which he and Biden discussed a proposal to end the Iraqi civil war by partitioning the country into a federalist system. “At the end of it, [Biden] says, ‘Okay, now you do it all again with Tony Blinken,’ ” Gelb said.

Blinken went on to work on Biden’s 2008 presidential bid and returned to the Senate with Biden after the unsuccessful run. Bad luck turned to good fortune when Obama selected Biden as his running mate, catapulting Blinken back into the White House.

The president gave Biden — and by extension, Blinken — a broad portfolio that included overseeing the administration’s Iraq policy.

“We would not have gotten out of Iraq in a way that left the government with a fighting chance to make it without Tony Blinken’s hard work,” Biden said. “He was the go-to guy. He still is the go-to guy.”

Blinken had, by this time, also become close to Obama and an integral part of a small circle of national security experts, including Biden, Donilon, his deputy Denis McDonough and counterterrorism chief John Brennan, who briefed the president daily. “That was a very highly stable group for 41 / 2 years,” Donilon said.

That lineup has changed since Obama’s reelection, with Donilon leaving government and McDonough becoming chief of staff. Now, the national security team Blinken helps lead is under intense criticism for the administration’s response to the Syrian conflict. But if his past is any indication, he’ll remain part of the inner circle and his influence will be felt for some time to come.

“I’m glad he’s in the room,” Berger said.

 
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