Even in the heat of a presidential campaign, with teeth bared and fists flying (usually metaphorically, sometimes literally), there are moments that make the battle recede into the background.
Such was the case Sunday afternoon for New Hampshire primary back-runner Newt Gingrich, who showed up for a Latino-oriented town hall meeting at Manchester’s Don Quijote (a restaurant whose name evokes, yes, impossible dreams and tilting at windmills), and shared his grief over a lost friend.
Conservative editorialist and television pundit Tony Blankley, Gingrich’s longtime press secretary when he was House Republican whip and then speaker, died Saturday of stomach cancer at 63.
The British-born Blankley—a former child actor who, in his first film credit, portrayed Humphrey Bogart’s young son in the 1956 boxing melodrama The Harder They Fall—was a popular figure among Washington reporters, known for his sharp wit and bon vivant ways. He liked brandy and cigars in his Capitol office, marveled admiringly at how the queen’s London Times was ironed by the royal butler before it was sent to her to read, and although he had lived in the United States for more than five decades, retained his English accent.
“An English accent is a good thing to have in America—it excuses a great many sins,” he’d explain.
With increasing frequency during Gingrich’s tumultuous speakership, Blankley had to employ that accent—and much else besides—in often vain, but sometimes successful, attempts to clean up his boss’s messes.
It was not a job for the faint of heart.
Sunday, as presidential candidate Gingrich faced the expanding media gaggle after his town meeting—during which he was heckled from afar by drum-banging, bullhorn-screeching Occupy Wall Streeters in the parking lot—he paused from smacking Mitt Romney to remember his old comrade-in-arms.
“Tony was a dear friend, a great colleague,” Gingrich said, his eyes shining with tears. “He was a great writer and had a terrific career after Congress. His father had been the accountant for Winston Churchill, had come to Hollywood to do finance for the movies, and Tony grew up with this passionate commitment … to freedom, a deep sense of affection for Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher…. He was a very special person and we all in our alumni group have felt something in our hearts because 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. And we will all miss him deeply.”
And then, because there’s a campaign on, Gingrich turned his attention to Romney, to whom he has apparently given a nickname: “Baloney”—the insult that got the biggest bounce out of Sunday morning’s NBC debate.
“Tony was a dear friend, a great colleague,” Gingrich said, his eyes shining with tears.
A reporter had asked Gingrich whether he thought “the bloom was off the Romney rose.”
“Bloom? Bloom?” Gingrich replied. “I thought this morning we were into baloney. Can a rose have a baloney? Is there a bloom on baloney? I don’t know.”
Tony Blankley would no doubt have enjoyed his old friend’s answer.