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Tony Blinken, courtly guitar aficionado with interventionist streak

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Nov 24, 2020 - 08:27 AM

WASHINGTON — Courteous and refined and with a side passion for rock guitar, Antony Blinken, named Monday to be US secretary of state, embodies the role of a diplomat both in image and mission coupled with a deep-rooted passion for human rights.

A longtime aide to President-elect Joe Biden, Blinken is a fluent French speaker and devoted believer in international cooperation who has vowed to work to repair US alliances badly frayed by Donald Trump’s in-your-face approach.

With an elegant mane of salt-and-pepper hair, the 58-year-old Blinken — who goes by “Tony” — could scarcely be more different than Trump’s secretary of state, the rough-edged, hard-charging Mike Pompeo.

“He’s about as mild-mannered, humble and unassuming as they come,” said Robert Malley, a childhood friend of Blinken who is now president of the International Crisis Group.

“I’ve yet to meet anybody who recounts an episode of Tony exploding or having a fit of anger,” Malley said.

But Blinken, a deputy secretary of state during Barack Obama’s presidency, may show different instincts than Biden even while remaining loyal to him.

The stepson of a Holocaust survivor, Blinken has advocated interventions on humanitarian grounds while Biden as vice president was cautious on the use of force.

“Superpowers don’t bluff,” Blinken was reported to have warned repeatedly in deliberations on Syria’s civil war, in which Obama issued warnings but ultimately decided for a limited role.

Speaking earlier this year about the “horrific” loss of life in Syria, Blinken said: “The last administration has to acknowledge that we failed — not for want of trying, but we failed.”

“It’s something that I will take with me for the rest of my days. It’s something that I feel very strongly,” he told CBS News.

Formative youth abroad 

Blinken’s passion about preventing atrocities can be traced to his stepfather, Polish-born Samuel Pisar, one of the youngest survivors of the Holocaust, whose family was murdered.

A prominent lawyer who worked for detente between the West and Soviet Union, Pisar moved the family to Paris where Blinken studied at the prestigious Ecole Jeannine Manuel.

Malley, his classmate, said that Blinken learned to navigate the US role in the world as a young American in Paris in the wake of the Vietnam War.

“Tony believed strongly in his values and identity as an American but was living in a foreign country and therefore forced to see the world through the eyes of that foreign country at a time when the US was not the most popular,” Malley said.

Blinken’s biological father is a prominent investment banker and his mother, Judith Pisar, for years headed the American Center in Paris, which brought together artists.

His youth in Paris also launched Blinken’s fledging musical career as he played jazz and discovered rock, quoting Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall” in his high school yearbook.

In Washington, Blinken has performed in a Beatles cover band and used free time in the pandemic to compose his own songs, his guitar sometimes visible during interviews taped from his home.

His musical alter ego, ABlinken, had a modest 57 monthly listeners as of Monday on Spotify where he has uploaded two songs, driven by slow-driving 1970s-inspired rock guitar and an uncharacteristically forceful tenor vocal delivery.

Belief in US mission 

Blinken attended Harvard University where he wrote for The Harvard Crimson  — a review of an album from Bob Dylan’s Christian phrase concluded that the rock legend “is no man’s lackey. He will always do and sing what he believes” — before a career in law and Democratic Party politics, serving on the staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee when Biden served.

In a 2017 talk, Blinken said that his views remain shaped by his stepfather who survived concentration camps including Auschwitz and Dachau before making a dash for his life, defying German gunfire, during a death march.

After two days hiding in the woods, the teenage Pisar heard the rumblings of a tank and, to his relief, saw not a German but an African-American soldier.

“He got down on his knees and said the only three words he knew in English, that his mother had taught him, ‘God bless America,'” Blinken recalled.

“The GI lifted him into the tank — into, figuratively speaking, the United States and into freedom.

“That’s the country I grew up with: The United States playing that extraordinary, unique, welcoming role.”

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