Michael Kelly, RIP

The death of Michael Kelly is a sin against the order of the world. He was a young man on his way to becoming a great man. He was going to be one of the great editors of his time, and at the age of 46 he was already one of its great journalists. And one’s first thought about him, after saying the obvious—that he wrote like a dream, that he was a great reporter with great eyes, that he was a keen judge of what is news and what should be news—is this. He was an independent man. He had an indignant independence that was beauty to behold. He knew what he thought and why, and he announced it in his columns and essays with wit and anger.

Virtually from the beginning of his career it was clear—he made it clear—that he would not accept the enforced Official Version of Reality that various luminaries and establishments attempted to force on him and others who report the news for a living. Was the vast American media establishment inclined to think one way? Then he would think another. Not necessarily the opposite—he was not a contrarian. He’d just think what he actually thought. And write it. He wouldn’t let anyone tell him how to think. One would hope that would be a given in the world of big-league reporting, but newspapers and networks are full of journalists who let others tell them what to think.

I knew him as most people did, through what he wrote. I’d met him and admired him easily, but the Michael I read I loved. And so today, without a particular right to, I feel heartbroken. When the news broke, Mencken biographer Terry Teachout expressed with concision what I felt and had not been able to articulate: “This is horrible, horrible news—[Michael] had evolved into a great force for journalistic good, not just as regards this war but in general, and his death will leave a black hole in the sky.”

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“I was in complete shock. I just sobbed.” That’s how a close friend of Kelly’s described getting the news, by phone. She didn’t want me to use her name. She is a former worker in the network-news vineyards and a close friend of Kelly’s who’d known him for 15 years, and she wanted to make sure he’d be spoken of in a way that was true. I asked her for her sense of Kelly’s special place in journalism, and her answer conflated the personal with the professional. Understandable. All that he was as a professional came from who he was as a person, as an intellect and a personality and a soul.

She said, “He was brave. And he was a warrior. He would take on anything if he believed it was right.”

You mean he was willing to pay a price for where he stood? I asked.

“Yes. He refused to be part of the conventional wisdom. He was never part of the pack.” She paused. “That’s what drove people crazy, that they couldn’t classify him. But he was willing not to be liked.”

Good thing, as a life of honesty is a life of controversy, and Kelly seemed constitutionally an honest man.

He showed that in many ways. Certainly in his columns on the coming war, and in his support for invasion. Certainly too in his work during the Clinton era, when he was a reporter for the New York Times and then the young editor of The New Republic. At the Times he was the author of the first and still definitive Hillary Clinton take-down, the brilliant “Saint Hillary,” a Sunday magazine cover story. Do you remember it, with Mrs. Clinton posed all in white, ethereal and serene? Her people must have been sure it would be a Timesian puff. It was instead a hard-eyed look of the intersection of vanity and liberalism. No one denied it was brilliantly reported and written with sly spirit, but it was controversial in high end journalistic circles because it did not exactly reflect the reporting of a liberal mind at work.

Kelly went to The New Republic, where he was no doubt hired for his independence and brilliance and then rather obviously canned for his independence and brilliance, in that case for showing disgust with Bill Clinton and Al Gore. He landed at National Journal and got a weekly column at the Washington Post.

He summed up his final judgment on Bill Clinton in a column a few years later, when he responded to another journalist’s assertion that Bill Clinton was “unique.” Yes, said Kelly. “What comes across as the most important source of Clinton’s uniqueness as president is the nearly unbelievable degree of his essential unfitness to be president — his profound immaturity, his pathological selfishness, his cynicism, above all his relentless corruption.”

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One had the sense, watching Kelly, that while he was often under fire from various establishments it never occurred to him to react with bitterness or weakness, or to hang around resenting power. Instead he became Power. He took over the venerable Atlantic Monthly and turned a magazine that was must reading during the American Civil War into must reading in the age of Bush 43. His favorite part of the editor’s job? Finding, helping, encouraging talent, his friend told me. He didn’t like being an editor, really; he liked being a reporter. A muddy-boots writer.

And he was happy to be in the field with the U.S. Army in Operation Iraqi Freedom. He had phoned his family from the field just two days ago, and they knew he was happy.

You could see it in his work. You could see it in the specificity and particularity of his writing in the early days—that would be a month ago—in Kuwait. His March 5 column dealt with the debate on whether American reporters should become what he became: a journalist embedded with the military. Maj. Max Blumenfeld explained the system to Kelly:

    In the first Gulf War, in which Blumenfeld served as a public affairs officer, the U.S. military, in collaboration with the major American media companies, built a system that was designed to sharply limit direct observational reporting to a relative few journalists, overwhelmingly drawn from the ranks of big media. The permitted few were to file “pool” reports and pictures that would be made available to all media through a military clearing process. Unsurprisingly, the arrangement turned out to please no one. The coverage was spotty and shallow, with the majority of American reporters covering the war from hotels and briefing rooms; one reporter’s inevitably subjective view of an event that only he had covered was of little use to colleagues trying to craft an “objective” account several hundred miles away. Much was lost to history. And, of course, reporters who wanted to report the war for themselves simply went off on their own.

    The experiment—”the huge experiment,” as Blumenfeld says—this time represents an admirable attempt to do much better. And it would seem that it must be better: A system that allows eyewitness reporting across the spectrum of conflict, no matter how constrained, has to produce a picture of war, and of the military that goes to war, more true and complete than a system that seeks to deny eyewitness reporting. . . .

    The Department of Defense ground rules for embedding speak of the imperative “to tell the factual story, good or bad.” For the sake of that great goal, I hope the Pentagon thinks more about loosening things up a bit. But also, I hope so for the sake of the military’s media front line, public affairs officers like Blumenfeld. As any White House press secretary can tell them, there is no hell quite so annoying as the hell of an infantilized media pack.

That, in a piece he tossed off on the way to a war, was, to me, the authentic sound of Michael Kelly. Informed by concern for the claims of history, and for the claims of the truth. Fair minded in reporting the debate. Appealing for greater access for the writers who chose to wear muddy boots. Curious about how it would all turn out. And brave enough to be there.

What an excellent man. What good he brought to his profession.

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I think that when excellence enters the world—when an individual brings his excellence into the world—it is like a deep love being born between two people for the first time. It goes into the world and adds to the sum total of good in it. It inspires, and is moving in a way that cannot always be explained or understood. It adds to.

That’s what Michael Kelly’s career did: It added to.

His remains will come home now soon enough, and I hope what comes home is met with an honor guard, for he has earned it, and a flag, for he loved his country, and a snapped salute, for that is one way to show respect. And maybe it would be good if this son of Washington—born there, educated there, drawn to its great industry, politics and the reporting of it—were to find his final rest nearby, among those who fought with distinction for America. Michael Kelly went at great peril to be with U.S. troops, and he fell among US troops, while trying to tell the story of U.S. troops. So perhaps his final rest should be with U.S. troops, in Arlington, where we put so many heroes.