Reporting from Washington— Tony Blankley, who gained notoriety as press secretary for Newt Gingrich during the Republican takeover of Congress in the 1990s and later as a conservative commentator on radio and television, has died. He was 63.
The British-born Blankley, who was a child actor while growing up in Los Angeles, died Saturday at Sibley Memorial Hospital in Washington, said his wife, Lynda Davis. He had stomach cancer.
With his British accent, eclectic tastes and sharp tongue, Blankley turned his stint with Gingrich from 1990 to 1997 into a career as a commentator. In a 1996 profile, The Times dubbed him “The Speaker’s Speaker,” and Gingrich at the time called him “the best known non-presidential press secretary in modern times.”
Blankley was editorial page editor of the conservative Washington Times from 2002-07, and was a regular commentator on television and radio, including frequent stints on “The McLaughlin Group” and KCRW-FM’s “Left, Right and Center.”
He most recently was a visiting senior fellow in national security communications at the Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based think tank, and an executive vice president of global public affairs for the Edelman public relations firm.
Gingrich spoke about Blankley during a campaign appearance Sunday in Manchester, N.H., where the former House speaker is running for the Republican presidential nomination.
He called Blankley “a very, very dear friend,” and described him as a key figure in the 1994 congressional campaign that led to Republicans taking control of the House of Representatives for the first time in decades.
“He was a great writer, and had a terrific career after Congress,” Gingrich said. “His father had been the accountant for Winston Churchill and had come to Hollywood to do finance for the movies, and Tony grew up with this deep passionate commitment that I think he got from his dad, for freedom, a deep sense of affection for Prime Minister Churchill and then later Prime Minister [Margaret] Thatcher.”
Blankley was born in London in 1948. His father, Jack, was an accountant for Price Waterhouse and years earlier, while at another firm, had done work for Churchill.
The family moved to Los Angeles when Blankley was 1 year old, and his father worked as a financial executive in the movie industry.
After his father had him audition for a bread commercial, Blankley launched a career as a child actor. He took singing and dancing lessons, and his accent helped him land roles playing a British boy or a prep school student. He appeared in TV shows such as “Lassie” and “Highway Patrol,” and had a role in the 1956 Humphrey Bogart film, “The Harder They Fall.”
His acting career ended in his teens. He graduated from UCLA, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in political science, and Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. After passing the bar exam, he worked 10 years in the state attorney general’s office.
His political views were shaped by the writing of Ayn Rand and conservatives Barry Goldwater and William F. Buckley. Blankley volunteered for Ronald Reagan’s campaigns, first for governor of California and then for president.
After a two-year stint as a legislative director for Rep. Bobbi Fiedler (R-Northridge), Blankley went to work for the Reagan administration. He was deputy director for the Office of Planning and Evaluation and then a senior policy analyst at the White House. He also did some speech writing for Reagan.
But Blankley made a name for himself as press secretary for Gingrich, starting in 1990. Over the next few years, Gingrich, a Georgia congressman, rose to national prominence and led the Republicans to the majority in the House in 1995.
When Gingrich became speaker that year, Blankley gained some of the spotlight. He carried Gingrich’s case to the media during the next two tumultuous years, which included a government shutdown and constant parrying with President Clinton.
Blankley, who lived in Great Falls, Va., is survived by his wife; three children; mother, Trixie Blankley; and sister, Maggie Blankley.