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Tony Blankley, former editorial page editor of The Times, dies at 63

- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 8, 2012

Tony Blankley, a noted conservative commentator, Ronald Reagan speechwriter and former editorial page editor of The Washington Times, died late Saturday, leaving a legacy of significant analysis that bridged politics and culture with finesse, optimism and a sense of history.

He was 63 and had been battling stomach cancer.

At the time of his death, Mr. Blankley was an executive vice president of the Edelman public relations firm in Washington, a visiting senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation think tank, a syndicated newspaper columnist and an on-air political commentator for CNN, NBC and NPR.

He was also a regular weekly guest on "The McLaughlin Group."

From 1990 to 1997, he served as press secretary and general adviser to House Speaker Newt Gingrich, ultimately earning a reputation among political friends and foes as one of Washington's most genial, quick-witted and effective operatives.

Mr. Gingrich, campaigning in New Hampshire on Sunday for the Republican presidential nomination, called his former press secretary a "very dear friend" and a key part of the team behind the 1994 Contract With America.

"His father had been the accountant for Winston Churchill. Tony grew up with this deep passionate commitment, that I think he got from his dad, for freedom," Mr. Gingrich said. "Tony was a very special person. He was more than a great professional. He was a great human being. He was a caring and loving person. He was a tremendous amount of fun, remarkably erudite and educated."

Born in London, Mr. Blankley became a naturalized American citizen after his parents moved to California after World War II. As a child, he acted in such television shows as "Lassie," "Highway Patrol" and "Make Room for Daddy," and appeared in movies with such stars as Humphrey Bogart and Rod Steiger.

He met Ronald Reagan at a 1950s-era USO performance and later volunteered to work on all of Reagan's campaigns for governor and president.

A Loyola Marymount University law school graduate, Mr. Blankley later served six years in the Reagan administration in a variety of positions, including speechwriter and senior policy analyst. He also spent 10 years as a prosecutor with the California attorney general's office.

Mr. Blankley joined the staff of John F. Kennedy Jr.'s George magazine as a contributing editor before taking over The Times' editorial section in 2002.

Douglas D.M. Joo, chairman of The Washington Times, cited the conservative icon's contributions to the newspaper:

"Tony Blankley was an important voice in America's conservative landscape. He understood deeply conservative values and their importance to America. His insight on the global geopolitical environment was balanced and principled. We will miss the benefit of his clarity. I worked closely with him. ... He was a true gentleman, and a family man. I deeply appreciated his respect for our founder's vision and his support for the editorial mission of this newspaper."

Wesley Pruden, editor-in-chief of The Washington Times until he retired three years ago, said his former colleague was an "editor's dream."

"He had an instinctive understanding of politics and the experience, from the Reagan White House and as press secretary and senior adviser to Newt Gingrich as speaker of the House, to prove it," Mr. Pruden said. "Tony was an immigrant — he arrived as a child from England just after World War II — and he understood America with a deep and abiding love and gratitude for its history, its culture and its exceptional and unique place in the world. His stewardship of the editorial page, his column and his books testified eloquently to that.

"His editorial pages cast light on the issues of the day with warmth, wit and humor as well as insight and intuition, and were, above all else, relevant and influential to the continuing national debate. He continued to write a column, perceptive and knowledgeable as ever, all through his long struggle with stomach cancer, and his readers never knew he was struggling with a killer within. He lived 'family values' as a kind and loving husband and devoted father of three. He was a good and decent man. His friends will miss him, a lot."

As word spread Sunday of Mr. Blankley's death, conservative and liberal voices alike noted his passing with regret.

On Twitter, Faith and Freedom Coalition founder Ralph Reed called him "a good man, a dear friend, and patriot."

Democratic strategist and former Clinton White House adviser Joe Trippi said: "Amidst the partisanship ... Tony Blankley was a joy to discuss, debate and disagree without being disagreeable."

Former George W. Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer said: "When I think of the joy and excitement of 1994 and 1995 on the Hill, I'll think of Tony. He was at the heart of it all."

Brett M. Decker, editorial page editor of The Washington Times, who was recruited to the newspaper by Mr. Blankley in 2003 from the Wall Street Journal, said his former boss had friends in all political circles.

"What a lot of people don't know about Tony Blankley is that he saw America as so much bigger than party or ideology. He was a committed conservative and diehard Republican but his heart stretched across the aisle and all over town. When he was Speaker Gingrich's right-hand man, Tony developed a friendship with President Clinton's spokesman Mike McCurry, even while Newt was spearheading impeachment," Mr. Decker said.

"Tony hired me even though I had worked for Tom DeLay, who was at the center of taking down Newt. He simply did not take politics personally and didn't hold grudges," he said. "Tony was always open to bringing new people and new influences into his life and didn't construct artificial partisan barriers to hinder that." 

Conservative commentator Pat Buchanan told The Washington Times, "Tony was ... a friend to conservatism with the heart of a patriot and a sense of history and culture, a man who deeply loved this country and his British roots. He always did his best to defend America from strategic threats, whether in the battle against communism or the perceived threats from radical Islam.

"We always traded stories that were clever and humorous. Tony was such a fine, fine writer, and a man who truly appreciated Ronald Reagan," Mr. Buchanan said. "He was unique because of his roots, and a life story that found him acting in Hollywood, and ultimately, getting caught up in conservative politics to great effect."

Syndicated columnist Cal Thomas called his longtime friend, "the consummate English man, a gentleman from the old school — a sharp dresser, a man of great deportment, kind manner, culture, knowledge and orating skill. He was the kind of writer who made me want to read what he said because I was always interested in what he said. There are not too many writers who compel a reader to respond to their work like I did with Tony. Journalism will miss him. And I will miss him."

American Values President Gary Bauer remembered working with Mr. Blankley as a policy adviser in the Reagan administration: "I was proud to be on the same team with him at the Department of Education during the Reagan years. He was a fearless conservative intellectual who loved America, and he devoted his life to defending family, faith and freedom. He will be missed."

Thomas P. McDevitt, president of The Times, said the newspaper's readers will miss Mr. Blankley.

"His columns were the first-read and always insightful. Tony's love for America was amplified by his profound understanding of America's founding principles, history and his rare ability to communicate with courage, wit and wisdom. His love for America was only surpassed by his exemplary commitment as a husband and father."

Jennifer Harper contributed to this report.

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