The details are still sketchy, but Atlantic editor-at-large, columnist and controversialist Michael Kelly —“embedded” with the Army’s 3rd Infantry Division in Iraq — died in a Humvee accident on Thursday. Speaking for the president, Ari Fleischer expressed “sorrow and condolences” to Kelly’s parents, wife and two sons.
The glowing remembrances have begun to roll in. According to David Brooks, Kelly was “everything a newspaperman should be.” Peggy Noonan labeled his death “a sin against the order of the world” and suggested that he be buried in Arlington National Cemetery, among the nation’s fallen heroes.
It’s a mark of Kelly’s strong imprint on the field of journalism that even those who didn’t agree with him feel compelled to speak very well of the dead. At his old magazine, from which he was unceremoniously fired for ridiculing the corruption of Bill Clinton and Al Gore — and won’t they ever have a hard time living that one down — several staffers praised their former colleague.
Interesting, though: To a man, the New Republic contributors praised Michael Kelly the fair-minded editor and all around nice guy, while distancing themselves from the “Mencken-esque” character on display in his regular column for their magazine and the Washington Post. John Judis remarked on the “continuing contrast between the violence” — violence! — “with which he would sometimes state his political opinions and his private gentleness and sensitivity.” Gregg Easterbrook wrote even more pointedly: “The person in Mike’s columns was not one you would want to invite into your home.”
Well, maybe not to Easterbrook’s home. At my own family gatherings, which must have a higher tolerance for eccentrics and people with strong opinions, I suspect he’d have fit right in.
Several of the reports of his death have followed the AP’s lead in describing Kelly as a “hard-hitting conservative columnist.” That’s not a dishonest description. His criticism of the corruption of Bill Clinton and Al Gore turned, after September 11, into a broader polemic against “the left” in general. (“Old, old, old. Also, tired, tired, tired.”) He became a supporter of George W. Bush, albeit one who would speak his mind if he thought Bush was wrong, as in the case of the president’s initial uncertainty on the Enron scandal.
Labeling Kelly a conservative isn’t so much wrong as indicative of the limits of political labels. He was a practicing Catholic who believed in a transcendent moral order. He loathed the arrogance and corruption that tend to accompany power, as well as the elitism of some of his fellow journalists. The most powerful line in his famous 1998 “I believe” column, which laid out all the contortions Bill Clinton’s defenders had to embrace in order to believe the president’s side of the story, was “I believe Paula Jones is a cheap tramp who was asking for it. I believe Kathleen Willey is a cheap tramp who was asking for it. I believe Monica Lewinsky is a cheap tramp who was asking for it.” The column was almost a juridical parable, inviting readers either to pass judgment on Bill Clinton or themselves.
What’s more, Kelly wasn’t much of an ideologue. His stated positions sprang from his own deeply felt principles and his own experience. In Iraq, for instance, he arrived before the first Gulf war as a stringer for the New Republic and the Boston Globe and was there when the bombs started falling. He also sneaked back into the country in the middle of the war.
There, he found a population of decent people battered by repeated wars and controlled by a monomaniac and his dutiful enforcers. In Martyr’s Day, his book-length chronicle of the experience, Kelly wrote of “The spies that matter, the sleek young louts of the Mukhabarat, [who] have the power to torture and kill, and act like it. They wear sunglasses and black vinyl jackets and pleated Italian trousers, and swagger about Baghdad like Toonland gunsels.”
He also found Iraqis, from beggars to diplomats, to be much more pro-American than expected. Even their tirades about the war had a “theatricality” about them, as if they were saying such things for the benefit of the loyalty police, or just to pass the time of day. After a unanimous vote for war by the puppet Iraqi Parliament, one of the legislators, “a big man with a particularly large and bushy moustache,” asked where he was from. Turned out his inquisitor had been educated in the U.S. and Kelly’s sisters had gone to the same schools as his new friend. The conversation ended with the legislator inviting Kelly to come and visit him after the war was over, and Kelly accepting.
Michael Kelly wasn’t always right. In his support of the War on Terrorism, I think he was too quick to discount the real — as opposed to the hysterically exaggerated — effects of said war on domestic civil liberties. But he was brave, principled, kind, honest and, ultimately, more right than most. I hope that his two sons come to realize that when people call their father a great man, they aren’t just saying it for the boys’ benefit.
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