Death tells jokes that aren’t very funny and excuses nobody from its mirth. Yesterday, April 3, it japed at Michael Kelly, devoted husband, adoring father—and one hellacious journalist—in the Iraqi desert. Kelly and an officer from the 3rd Infantry Division of the U.S. Army perished when their Humvee crashed while evading Iraqi fire, according to a news report.
Kelly had covered the first Gulf War with the fierce independence that defined his life. In that war, the Pentagon barred all but a few pool reporters from the battlefield, and Kelly, who persuaded the Boston Globe and NewRepublicto let him cover the war as a stringer, put his life on the line by free-lancing his way onto the front.
“He simply walked away from the whole apparatus of information management there and hitched a ride on an Egyptian tank,” says Hendrik Hertzberg, then editor of the NewRepublic. This was the dangerous war, the battle against an unknown but potent foe in an unfamiliar land. Kelly traversed Iraq, filing extraordinary dispatches that he eventually reworked into his 1993 book, Martyr’s Day: Chronicle of a Small War. It’s death’s joke that Kelly meet his end in the “safe” war where armor-clad soldiers shield embedded reporters like Kelly with the ferocity of she-bears. Kelly was reporting for the Washington Post, where he was a columnist,and the Atlantic Monthly, which he edited until last fall.
Kelly grew up in Washington, D.C., and was educated by the Jesuits at Gonzaga College High School near Capitol Hill. On the day of the second Nixon inaugural in 1973, when Kelly was a sophomore, he and Lisa McCormack and Nancy Hackett, two chums from the adjoining Catholic girls school, cruised down Pennsylvania Avenue before the inaugural parade, snipping the metal “no parking” signs from poles with wire cutters. After a brief run-in with a cop in which they surrendered a stack of signs, the trio returned to school and sold the signs they’d hidden under the front seat to nuns, priests, and lay teachers for $1 each.
McCormack still displays the no-parking sign in her home office. Kelly changed the nature of his troublemaking—or at least started thinking about changing it—after a stern talking-to from a Gonzaga priest.
“Michael had gotten caught drinking a beer in the Gonzaga parking lot just before he went to detention for getting caught smoking a cigar. The priest said, ‘You can either be a fantastic con-artist or shape up and do something serious,’ ” says McCormack.
Kelly’s journalistic gift announced itself at the University of New Hampshire, where he worked on the student newspaper, the New Hampshire. USA Today reporter Dennis Cauchon recalls how Kelly, who only seemed to party and report at UNH, exhibited precocious reportorial skills in covering the state Legislature for the paper. “He had an ability to pick up a story and define it,” Cauchon says, “with a verve that college kids don’t ordinarily get.” Kelly had a swagger and confidence and “was a little Fonz-like in his leather jacket.” Kelly wasn’t fake cool, says Cauchon, but the real thing.
“He was miscreant in a good way,” says another fellow student-journalist, Gary Langer, now at ABC. “As a 20-year-old, he really did have it all. His most appealing factor in those days he had a probing mind that accepted nothing at face value. Obviously the qualities that are paramount in being a good journalist. His success as a storyteller and weaver of tales made him an absolute natural in this business.”
“And he was a helluva good dancer,” Langer concludes.
Kelly graduated from UNH in 1979 and knocked about in the journalistic trade, working for ABC, the Cincinnati Post, and the Baltimore Sun, following the path of his father, a longtime Washington journalist he admired greatly.
Hertzberg, who took a chance on sending Kelly to Iraq for the first Gulf War for the New Republic, recalls that Kelly’s clips showed that he could write structured stories with vigorous language. But they didn’t prepare him for the Kelly dispatches. “He was just incandescent,” Hertzberg says. “War was the perfect subject for him. He was so full of emotion and yes, anger, too. And war was the subject that gave that its fullest scope.”
Kelly’s most memorable piece from the war described the Iraqi corpses and burned-out vehicles from the now-famous “Highway of Death.”
“He was amazing at seeing,” says Hertzberg. “He cranked up the color and the contrast, and, Pow! So you as the reader saw it with some of the vividness that he saw it.”
The Gulf War pieces led to a regular slot at GQ, where he dissected Sen. Edward Kennedy in one memorable piece and Chicago Mayor Richard Daley in another. After a stint at the New York Times, he joined Tina Brown’s New Yorker in 1994, where he wrote the magazine’s “Letter From Washington.”
“I just found him the most wonderfully counterintuitive, iconoclastic, funny guy,” Brown says. “Like Evelyn Waugh, he could find the telling detail in a story.”
Unlike most Washington journalists, Kelly wrote about federal politics with the nonchalance of a homeboy, which he was. Congressmen, senators, and presidents—especially President Clinton—didn’t impress him much. “He, like many journalists, saw in Mr. Clinton a generational equivalent, a poster boy for many of the shortcomings of his generation,” says David Carr of the New York Times, who worked for Kelly at the Atlantic. “He thought it right and proper to hold him to account.”
Kelly’s politics were small “d” democratic, with a generous jigger of Irish populism and a healthy swig of Irish tribalism. He wasn’t a complete stranger to the pomposity of Georgetown salons, but he avoided them if he could. At Important Parties, you’d find him hiding under the stairs with his wife, Max, and his pals. “A complete reverse snob,” says Hanna Rosin, a friend and former employee, now at the Washington Post.
When Kelly became editor of the New Republic in 1996, his instincts to champion the little guy and tweak the powerful manifested itself both in the magazine and in the office. After TNR owner Martin Peretz berated the copy desk in a memo for failing to make sure there were at least two commas in every sentence that used a comma, Kelly demanded that he apologize. And he repeatedly tore into Vice President Al Gore, Peretz’s best pal, with a bellicosity that defied logic—or at least the standards of polite journalism as it is practiced in Washington. Gore, a very different kind of D.C. homeboy, enraged Kelly. He found the veep phony, empty, and corrupt. After less than a year, Peretz fired him. Even before Kelly died, finding a writer who would speak ill of him was almost impossible. TNR’s John Judis, Kelly’s political opposite, writes today, “There was a continuing contrast between the violence with which he would sometimes state his political opinions and his private gentleness and sensitivity.”
Kelly improved the New Republic, reducing the thumb-sucking quotient and expanding its reportorial diet. But he didn’t go in with a wrecking ball. He conserved what was good about the magazine, charmed and seduced the staff, and inspired everybody to work smarter and harder. The stain on his tenure, of course, came when the massive prevarications of Stephen Glass, one of the young journalists he helped develop, were methodically exposed by the next editor, Charles Lane, who was also shamed by Glass. The Glass incident shook Kelly because it transmogrified one of his great virtues—intense loyalty to his clan—into a fault. Blind loyalty exposes your flank, leaving you vulnerable. The scandal humbled Kelly, but he didn’t dwell on it.
When multimillionaire David Bradley shopped the world of magazines for Kelly to edit and settled on National Journal and then the Atlantic, bomb-thrower Kelly once again worked against type to conserve the best these institutions had to offer. James Fallows, who he brought back to the Atlantic, says Kelly made a point of not imposing his ferocious political views on the work of writers.
“He’d stretch people into places they would not have otherwise gone,” says David Carr. “The minute 9/11 happened, he was talking about how the Atlantic magazine would be the one people would be talking about in five years.” Kelly’s prediction may well come true, given the Atlantic’s coverage of the World Trade Center salvage job by William Langewiesche, Mark Bowden’s feature on Saddam Hussein, and James Fallows’ portrait of Iraq as the 51st state.
Kelly’s gentlemanly personality hardly squares with the columnist persona he developed at the Post. Even if you sympathized with Kelly’s conservative political take, his jagged and brittle style, so different than his fluid reportorial one, rasped and scrapped. “It was hard to square the voice of the columns with the catholicity of the magazines that he edited,” says Hertzberg, who attributes the hostility of the columns to Kelly’s “outsized feelings.”
The old Kelly returned when he left the Atlantic helm and prepared himself for a return to the vivid scene of war. He needed the touchstone of reporting, and the closer he got to the action the further the columns removed themselves from their repetitive and unpersuasive pugnaciousness.
As the daddy to two young boys, why did he go back?
“He had more business being there than a lot of people because he was for the war and was passionate about it. He wanted to see the second act,” says Margaret Talbot, who worked for him at the New Republic and the Atlantic. “He needed to be a witness.”
“Michael was an adventurer,” adds New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, a close friend who has no problems understanding his return to Iraq. “Something that seminal to your career, you’d want to go back and see. How many times do you get to go back and see a war, and change the ending?”
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