The conservative community lost a sage and distinct voice Saturday evening with Tony Blankley’s passing, and I lost a dear friend who’d been a mentor to me.
I came to know Tony when I handled press for then–House Republican Conference chairman Dick Armey and he did the same for then–Minority Whip Newt Gingrich. In the culture of Capitol Hill, press secretaries tend to be competitive (as opposed to legislative staffers, who tend to be collaborative.) Especially in the ’90s, when the old traditional media were dominant, the mentality of most flacks was a zero-sum one. Every inch of coverage another member of Congress got was an inch your boss didn’t. A bad story about someone else was good for you, and if you needed to go “on background” to help foster that, well, so be it.
Tony was different. He was not only brilliant in advising Gingrich on how to pursue his political and legislative goals through the media, he helped plant positive stories about rising House Republican stars and shepherded a flock of young press secretaries and communications aides, including me.
When Republicans took control of the House in 1994 for the first time in 40 years and Gingrich became speaker and Armey became majority leader, Tony and I were swamped with media requests and news coverage, much of it hostile. We manned the trenches shoulder-to-shoulder, watching out for one another and our bosses, resisting ample efforts by congressional reporters to get us to engage in background sniping to undermine Gingrich or Armey.
Together we marched through the Contract with America’s grueling first 100 days, countered the labor unions’ onslaught of ’95, pulled all-nighters over appropriations bills, and weathered the speaker’s ethics investigation. When the noise was loudest and the media pack was in full-throated howling mode, Tony was the calmest.
My father was in Irish immigrant who grew up in a gritty area of North Philadelphia, and he and my uncle would have to walk to and from school with their backs to one another to avoid being jumped. I told Tony that that’s how I felt we were in dealing with the press in those days.
And he was like a brother to me — an older, more nattily attired, and more erudite, English brother. On Friday afternoons, with the House adjourned and most of the other exhausted staff gone, Tony and I would sit in his Capitol office and reflect on the past week — aided by a cigar and some Irish whiskey (which I insisted he drink!). I should have paid him for those sessions.
Politics is as much a trade as a profession, and Tony was a master of his craft who was willing to share that mastery with journeymen and apprentices. His intellect and personality made it easy for him to transition from spokesman to pundit, and his columns and television commentary were consistently insightful and ahead of the curve.
Tony Blankley possessed a fascinating combination of gravitas and impishness. One moment he would be expounding eloquently on the dangers posed by radical Islam (a threat he recognized long before many others), and the next he’d be giggling over a story he’d heard on the golf course.
I liked to make him laugh because he had a big, open-mouthed “Hahaha,” but I liked more to make him giggle.
I visited with him at Sibley Hospital two days before he passed away, and we reminisced a little about our time on the Hill together, but he was more focused on the future. Despite a recurrence of stomach cancer and complications from a procedure, he was optimistic, working to gain enough strength to start a new regimen of treatment. We talked about Lynda, the love of his life, and their three beautiful children, comparing notes on child rearing. He was a devoted husband and father, and worried about the impact of his illness on his family.
In talking that day about the nature of the political business, and D.C and Capitol Hill, I noted that despite the transactional nature of it all, true friendships do develop, and I considered myself blessed that that was our case. He said he felt the same. I told him I’d visit him again when he got home, but in the back of my mind I feared that it might never happen. Those fears were realized Sunday morning in a call to Lynda.
I will miss him very much.