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THE SUNDAY PROFILE

The Speaker's Speaker

He's acted in Hollywood and been a state deputy attorney general. Today, Tony Blankley has a new role, as Newt Gingrich's press secretary. One thing's for sure--he didn't get there by being shy.

June 23, 1996|GREGG ZOROYA | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

WASHINGTON — There's mirth in Tony Blankley's baritone as he settles into his roost near the House speaker's office. Winston Churchill scowls from a poster that reads, "Deserve Victory," Dionysian maidens rumba on the walls, and barbarous Newt-isms are regularly shorn of thorns.

"Yesterday was great," the former child actor says, grinning.

Blankley, 48, had turned in an encore performance of his best role ever--that of press secretary / press darling for House Speaker Newt Gingrich and as a man who can refine the image of a revolutionary while bending a little of the spotlight toward himself.

"You have a person who can both interpret me and be a figure in his own right," says Gingrich of Blankley, adding that he is nothing short of "the best known non-presidential press secretary in modern times."

Case in point: When the Whitewater convictions emerged from Little Rock, Ark., 16 hours before, Gingrich wasn't in Washington, nor was he even remotely a part of the story. Still, his stout press aide, whose famous whisper of an English accent somehow survived a childhood in Los Angeles' Hancock Park, rose to the scent of blood in the water.

First were phone calls to the major newspapers and wire services, offering an opposition quote-of-the-day: "At 5 p.m. today the cover-up began to unravel. . . ."

The New York Times and USA Today picked it up for their front pages. That evening, it would be repeated on ABC's "Nightline" by Ted Koppel, and Blankley would be on CNN's "Larry King Live," barely able to contain himself while comparing the defense of Clinton with the ill-fated defense of Nixon during Watergate. He gleefully added that when the verdicts were announced, "this town lit up."

Even more recently, when news broke that FBI background files on hundreds of former Republican White House officials--ex-Reaganite Blankley included--had been pulled and reviewed by a Clinton staffer two years ago, the press secretary was back on front pages and airwaves, incredulous at this breach of privacy.

"In the last two weeks we've had this wonderful relationship where he is making the news and I'm focusing on passing the budget," Gingrich says.

Perhaps more important than what was said by Blankley, a Loyola Marymount Law School graduate and former California deputy attorney general, was the fact that the media wanted so badly to listen.

It may have begun with the authoritative way Blankley distills the Gingrichian view he has lived with for better than six years.

"I think the strategy is to use Tony as a political weapon who also understands campaigns and the nuances of what needs to be said," says Ed Rollins, longtime Republican strategist who recommended that Gingrich hire Blankley in 1990.

It helps that Blankley has an instinct for the jugular and a knack for appetizing 10-second sound bites--"poor-man's poetry," he calls it. When the stream of ethics complaints against Gingrich began to blur early last year, Blankley dismissed them with the phrase "malicious imbecility" and the media gobbled it up.

The speaker calls Blankley a strategic advisor and confidant, someone who plays his own image as adeptly as he plays his boss': "He's a little bit like Deion Sanders. You have somebody who can play both offense and defense, and it's a nice asset to have on the team."

Add to this how minions are drawn irresistibly to a viceroy of the Gingrich rebellion, who so deliciously embodies the popular backlash against political correctness.

It could hardly go unnoticed when Blankley's silver Lexus, photographed with the Capitol in the background, was included in a car magazine layout on prominent Washingtonians who buy foreign. He told the Washington Post that veal for the famous osso buco he prepares with such abandon simply must have a "film of fat around the edge." He smokes a pack of cigarettes a day, chronically high blood pressure be damned. His wardrobe includes a velvet smoking jacket. Blankley plays violin at the chili and tequila blowouts he hosts with fellow libertarian Dana Rohrabacher, GOP representative from Huntington Beach.

Some traditionalists, even in his own party, take a dim view, murmuring things about self-promotion and cult following.

"He has broken the mold [of press secretaries] by becoming a media personality outside the shadow of his boss. And that is just so far away from anything that I've ever been brought up on," says one longtime Republican congressional aide who requested anonymity.

*

For Blankley, relishing a Winston in his office, there is always the joy of elaborate explanation.

"You know in Edwardian England, I'd be perceived as very uninteresting," says Blankley, whose period as a subject of the queen ended when he was 1 and his parents moved from England to Los Angeles. "But if you live in a town of empty suits, then any slight deviation from the norm is noticed. So I was English, I was an actor. . . . There was just enough different about me so that when the spotlight fell on Newt, a little bit came on me."

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