There are few figures closer to the president-elect than Tony Blinken, for years a loyal counselor and friend who is expected to play a key role in shaping the incoming administration’s dealings with the rest of the world, perhaps as Joe Biden’s national security adviser.
Blinken, 58, has long been part of the Democrats’ inner sanctum, holding a series of senior positions under former presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.
His standing in the foreign policy and security establishment was exemplified in a photograph from the White House “situation room” that showed Blinken watching — behind Obama, Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton and the country’s top military brass — live updates on a screen from the secret operation that led to the killing of Osama bin Laden in 2011.
Blinken is known for his intellectual wattage and reputation for hard work but also for an unassuming nature and lightness of touch — unusual in a city renowned for big egos. As Sandy Berger, Clinton’s former national security adviser, once put it: “He has a way of telling people hard things in soft ways.”
But what most sets him apart from the Washington power elite is his remarkable life story: Blinken grew up in France and speaks French like a native. “He straddles the Atlantic,” said a friend. “It will help to restore ties with allies across the pond.”
The incoming administration is expected to pull back from Donald Trump’s “America first” doctrine to re-embrace multilateralism, rekindling relations with traditional partners and bringing America back into the global fold to help combat climate change, the pandemic and other global threats.
In relation to the latter, Blinken has suggested he would be in favor of reviving the Iran nuclear deal that he helped to forge under Obama. He has warned that Trump’s decision to withdraw from it “with nothing to replace it” risked putting Israel “first in the line of fire if Iran were to actually develop a weapon”.
What most sets him apart from the Washington power elite is his remarkable life story: Blinken grew up in France and speaks French like a native. “He straddles the Atlantic,” said a friend. “It will help to restore ties with allies across the pond.”
Israel may have lost an ally with the departure from office of Donald Trump but it will find another firm friend in Blinken, who was born to Jewish parents in New York in 1962.
His father, Donald, was a banker and patron of the arts who counted Rothko among his friends and was one of the founders of EM Warburg Pincus & Company, the investment bank. His mother, Judith, an acclaimed art expert, was the manager of the Merce Cunningham dance company.
After his parents divorced in 1970, Blinken moved to Paris, aged nine, with his mother and her new husband, Samuel Pisar, a Polish-born Holocaust survivor. A world-renowned lawyer and confidant of French presidents, Pisar came to exercise a strong influence over the young Blinken with his tales of wartime suffering and horror.
When meeting someone, Pisar was in the habit of rolling up his sleeve to exhibit the prisoner number tattooed on his arm at Auschwitz. At a recent campaign event with Florida Democrats, Blinken told the story of how Pisar, who died in 2015, aged 86, survived a “death march” out of a concentration camp, hiding in a forest for days. One day he heard “a deep rumbling sound” — an American tank, Blinken recounted. Pisar rushed toward it. “He got down on his knees and said the only three words that he knew in English: ‘God bless America’.”
A Black American soldier “lifted him into the tank, into freedom, into America,” Blinken recalled. “That’s the story that I grew up with — about what our country is and what it represents, and what it means when the United States is engaged and leading.”
As Sandy Berger, Clinton’s former national security adviser, once put it: “He has a way of telling people hard things in soft ways.”
As a child, Blinken often found himself in the company of the famous friends of his parents. They lived in a palatial Parisian apartment on the Avenue Foch, where their neighbors were pianist Arthur Rubinstein and Prince Rainier and Princess Grace of Monaco.
The artist Christo, who hired Pisar as his lawyer to help swathe the Pont Neuf bridge in fabric, remembered Blinken being a “very exquisite, demanding and curious” young man.
As a teenager he played in a Parisian jazz band to raise money for school projects and once sneaked out of the flat to attend a Rolling Stones concert. By all accounts a precocious teenager, he happily debated politics with statesmen and celebrities who dropped round for drinks – among his stepfather’s famous clients were actresses Catherine Deneuve and Jane Fonda. Pisar had negotiated Richard Burton’s first divorce.
After passing his French baccalaureate, Blinken went to Harvard, where he edited the daily student newspaper. According to The Washington Post, he wore his hair long, played the guitar and cherished a John Lennon autograph his mother got for him after spending hours reading poetry with the former Beatle.
Blinken’s father, Donald, had by then become an extremely wealthy Democratic donor. Clinton appointed him as ambassador to Hungary. Blinken’s uncle, Alan, became ambassador to Belgium.
Blinken went to work in the White House, becoming Clinton’s chief foreign policy speechwriter. He was still interested in cultural pursuits, however: in 1995 he helped to produce The Addiction, a vampire film set in New York and starring Christopher Walken.
Romance blossomed in the White House when he met Evan Ryan, who was working for Hillary Clinton as her scheduler. At their wedding a few years later, Blinken said he wanted to thank the “40-odd million people who voted for Bill Clinton because without them I would never have met Evan”.
In 2002 he was appointed staff director for the US Senate foreign relations committee. It was the start of an enduring relationship with Biden, who launched a bid for the presidency in 2008 with Blinken as one of his key advisers. That attempt to win power failed – but Blinken’s fortunes rose again when Obama made Biden his deputy. Blinken became the vice president’s chief security adviser until Obama poached him as his deputy national security adviser. He was also made a deputy secretary of state.
Biden has called Blinken a “superstar”, adding, he “could do any job, any job”. That prediction, no doubt, will now be put to the test.