September 5, 2004

Fightin’ Irish

By: Jeremy Lott

Things Worth Fighting For: The Collected Writings
by Michael Kelly
New York: The Penguin Press, 384 pages, $26.95

Reporters die in wars, but the news that Michael Kelly had drowned in a Humvee accident during the U.S. invasion of Iraq–the first such American journalistic casualty in that war–still came as a shock. His vehicle had swerved to avoid gunfire and crashed into a canal, where he was pinned under the water. Obituarists tried very hard to avoid relating the gruesome details and instead hailed his bravery, kindness to subordinates, love of family, and wit.

Those who sympathized with his politics (of late, mostly conservatives) praised Kelly’s writing to the heavens. Peaceniks and left-of-center types were not so effusive. A flame war broke out over at Indymedia, a leftist media clearinghouse and website, after a user calling himself “Humvee Driver” posted news of Kelly’s death under the sickening headline “WP Nazi columnist bites the Iraqi dust.” Friend, former colleague, and scold Gregg Easterbrook complained on an ad hoc forum on the New Republic’s website that the Kelly on display in his weekly columns for the Washington Post contrasted sharply with the generous editor and all-around nice guy that he had worked with. The Post’s Kelly “was not [someone] you would want to invite into your home,” he wrote.

Very few mourners commented on Kelly’s great Irish luck and the role it played in a career that included highly original and influential war reporting, an award-winning book, a syndicated column, and stints at half a dozen magazines. This is doubtless because of the macabre, far-from-lucky nature of his death. Reading Kelly’s posthumous collection of essays, Things Worth Fighting For: Collected Writings (co-edited by The Atlantic’s Robert Vare and widow Madelyn “Max” Kelly), it is simple enough to isolate most of the ingredients of his success (excellent prose, a sharp wit, etc.). But there’s also an X-factor. Kelly had a knack not just for being at the right place at the right moment, but for moving on fortuitously. This knack didn’t arise from any conscious calculation on Kelly’s part. He was, well, just lucky.

Many obituarists rightly noted that Kelly’s timing in the
first Gulf War was, literally, bang on. He was in Iraq when the bombs started to fall, then in Israel as that country hunkered down under the flimsy shield of U.S. Patriot missiles, then in Saudi Arabia as U.S. forces started rolling into Kuwait. Kelly refused to accept the restrictions the military foisted upon the press pool, and so he made his own way into Kuwait, tagging along with the Egyptian army instead. He awkwardly accepted the surrender of Iraqi troops. He saw firsthand the ravages of Saddam’s forces: the theft, the dead and disfigured bodies, the sheer human misery. It was an experience that would always color his approach to Iraq. Writing from Kuwait City on the eve of the second Gulf War, Kelly described the city he had entered. In addition to the 400 Kuwaiti civilians killed during Iraq’s seven-month occupation, “very many more had been brutalized in one way or another–ritualistically humiliated…robbed, beaten, raped, tortured. Some of the subjugation and rape and torture had been professional…. But more had been the work of enthusiastic amateurs–poor-boy soldiers let loose in a rich land suddenly realizing that if they wanted to make some well-fed banker watch his wife and daughters get raped, why, they could just go ahead and do it. There were shattered people everywhere: I watched one torture victim, a big, strong man, being interviewed in the place of his torture by a BBC television crew–weeping and weeping, but absolutely silently, as he told the story.”

On his first trip to the Gulf, Kelly stuck around in Kuwait long enough to do some muckraking. He uncovered the scandal of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers installing new furniture and fixtures in the Kuwaiti ruler’s third palace rather than seeing to the country’s postwar infrastructure woes. “All of this had to be fixed up properly–stolen marble balustrades and gold showerheads replaced, denuded walls resilked, the 2 million gallon reservoir linked up–before the emir, who sat out the war in the Saudi Arabian resort town of Taif, would come home,” he explained to the no-doubt outraged American readers of the New Republic. He also snuck back into Iraq and again gave death the slip as northern rebels smuggled him out of the country.

After Kelly’s return to the United States, he reworked his copious notes and various Boston Globe and New Republic dispatches into the book Martyr’s Day, usually said to be the best piece of writing to come out of that conflict. Then, rather than linger over the Middle East, Kelly turned his eye toward his hometown of Washington, D.C.

“The Age of Clinton,” as the third section of Things Worth Fighting For is titled, proved a fertile period for Kelly. As a staff writer for the New York Times Magazine, he helped bring in the new administration with a series of unsparing profiles. He dissected Hillary Clinton’s “politics of meaning” (a phrase she lifted from Tikkun’s very annoying Michael Lerner); he raised red flags about Bill Clinton’s tortured relationship with candor, logic, and the English language; and he cast icy glances at some of the initial movers and scoundrels of the Clinton administration. His portrait of the faux-earnest operator David Gergen doesn’t quite rise to the level of Andrew Ferguson’s description of this same serial leaker as a “goggle-eyed melon head”–but it’s close.

The second Clinton administration saw change in the White House lineup and also a reshuffling in the world of opinion journalism. Looking to fill the editor slot vacated by Andrew Sullivan, owner Martin Peretz hired Kelly away from the New Yorker (where he had landed after Tina Brown went on one of her talent-buying sprees) and installed him at the helm in November 1996. As the Washington Times reported it, Peretz was asked at the announcement party if this new hire would be a stark ideological contrast to such previous editors as Hendrik Hertzberg and Michael Kinsley. Peretz reportedly let a “Cheshire-cat like grin play over his face,” saying, “I think Michael Kelly is an honest reporter.”

It was a brief but glorious ten-month run, much of which is on display in Things Worth Fighting For. The positions Kelly took in his weekly column–against liberal scolds, Bill and Hill, the Washington Male, the abortion industry, race baiters, trial lawyers, dirty hippies–were not trail-breaking in their content. Much of this would have fit nicely into, say, the American Spectator. But the force of Kelly’s writing, coming as it did from this very unexpected pulpit, reverberated.

Here, coming out of the gates, was what the new editor of the oldest journal of mainstream liberal opinion had to say, Marc Antony-style, about the president: “It is time to speak well of Bill Clinton. He is of course a shocking liar. He will say absolutely anything at all … He is breathtakingly cynical. This is a man who committed himself to a policy of making abortion ‘safe, legal, and rare,’ and then vetoed a ban on the near-infanticide called partial-birth abortion–and then accused critics of his action of immorality. A man who signed the Defense of Marriage Act while denouncing it as gay-bashing, then ran campaign commercials on Christian radio bragging that he signed it. A man who signed the Republican bill ending welfare as a federal entitlement, and then asked Democrats to vote him back into office on the grounds that only he could fix the wrong he had done. He is an opportunist of such proportions that the only thing that exceeds his reach is his grasp.” The column (unfortunately absent from the new collection) ended by arguing that the logical result of an honest assessment of Clinton’s legacy thus far would be nausea.

And that was just Kelly clearing his throat. Over the next several months he experimented with new and painful methods of attacking Clinton and what he regarded as Clintonism. The best attempt was Kelly’s delayed, Harrison-Bergeronesque response to the president’s 1996 declaration that the era of big government had ended. Narrated by an old man in the mid-21st century, “Wonk New World” thrust hot pokers at today’s fashionable obsessions by extrapolating and exaggerating trends. The old man reclines in a hammock because chairs have been outlawed as ergonomically damaging and a drain on “Medicare, Part E.” Television “wholesomeness” broadcast standards have finished off anything worth watching. All forms of tobacco and even hollow pipes are verboten, so he has to suck on the silhouette of a pipe, made of “solid recycled farm-raised maple.”

Most observers’ sense of it was that Peretz could stand Kelly’s anti-Clintonism, just barely, but that his new editor’s manhandling of Peretz’s former student Al Gore exhausted his patience. (Peretz has hotly denied this, both before and after Kelly’s death.) One anti-Gore column began, “On the day that the morning papers carried the stories from Beijing that Vice President Gore had lifted a glass of champagne to Premier Li Peng, the butcher of Tiananmen, a mid-level member of the Clinton administration’s foreign policy team marveled at his bosses in the White House. “Is there any moral fiber left in these guys?’ he wondered.'”

Kelly’s firing looked like a fall from grace, but the defiant editor was lucky to be let go. During the tenure of the next editor, Charles Lane, it came out that New Republic reporter Stephen Glass–hired under Sullivan but promoted and defended by Kelly–was a liar and a fabulist. By showing him the door when he did, Peretz reinforced the image of Kelly as an honest, fearless voice, and lessened the notion that Kelly had been duped.

As a free agent, Kelly didn’t do half bad. The Washington Post picked up his column and syndicated it, giving him both a larger pulpit and a longer leash to say what was on his mind. He wrote a number of pieces, some of them rather bombastic, damning Clinton and Gore. Perhaps the most famous is a February 1998 column entitled “I Believe,” in which Kelly marched people methodically through the contortions they had to believe in order to excuse various Clinton scandals. Kelly mockingly wrote that he saw “nothing suspicious in the report that the president’s intimate, Vernon Jordan, arranged a $40,000-per-year job for [Monica] Lewinsky shortly after she signed but before she filed an affidavit saying she had not had sex with the president. Nor do I read anything into the fact that the ambassador to the United Nations, Bill Richardson, visited Lewinsky at the Watergate to offer her a job. I believe the instructions Lewinsky gave Tripp informing her on how to properly perjure herself in the Willey matter simply wrote themselves.” The piece was widely chatted up on talk radio, posted to newsgroups, and distributed via email lists, and was likely the first time that Kelly’s name was heard by millions of anti-Clintonites (who must have blanched later on when he advocated censure instead of impeachment–in another column that, unfortunately, didn’t find its way into this book).

And of course, in all the hubbub, Kelly came to the attention of mogul David Bradley, who purchased National Journal–a pricey, limited-circulation, D.C.-area magazine for governors, legislators, and lobbyists–and installed Kelly as editor. He then bought the Atlantic Monthly and moved Kelly to its helm. Revamping the Atlantic is probably what Kelly will be best known for. He took one of the nation’s oldest magazines–one that had been looking a bit long in the tooth–and revitalized it by bringing on a score of new writers and editors as regulars, among them Christopher Hitchens, Jonathan Rauch, and P.J. O’Rourke; by boosting subscriptions and revenues; and by taking a more active role in steering the publication. When 9/11 occurred, Kelly told the staff that their magazine would put the resources together to “own” the story, and, arguably, they succeeded. The magazine got into places at Ground Zero where nobody else could go. It took a hard look at some of the ethical problems with the war on terror, including the likely use of torture. It ran dis-patches from both the frontlines and the homefront, of which the most famous was William Langewiesche’s excellent three-part feature on the efforts to clean up the World Trade Center debris.

Kelly stepped down in late 2002 from his post as editor-in- chief and into a new editor-at-large slot, to make more room for his young family and to pursue a story that might strike some as Quixotic, a history of the American steel industry. Conversations I’ve had with Atlantic employees suggest the plan was to have the managing editor take care of most of the day-to-day details, while Kelly would continue to steer the overall direction of the magazine.

It would have been a peach of a setup, allowing Kelly to pursue his own interests and at the same time control one of the most influential magazines in the nation. However, as attention shifted from the tragedy of 9/11 to Afghanistan and then to Iraq, Kelly took a very active interest in the outcome. In the pages of the Atlantic and in his Post column, he went from taking swipes at peaceniks to agitating for war in Iraq. When the invasion of Iraq became likely, Kelly jumped at the chance to go back, this time as part of an “embed” program that his freelance exploits in the last war helped inspire.

It’s a bit of black Irish humor that Kelly survived Iraq the first time through with nothing but his wits and his luck, then had his luck run out under close military protection. I won’t begin to pick at a meaning here, but for those who are interested, Things Worth Fighting For is a good place to start. Here we have a decent, if incomplete, picture of Kelly on his way up, and right up to the end. It should be some consolation that he died doing what he loved.

Jeremy Lott is assistant website editor for the American Spectator.