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Everlasting Kelly

The collected writings of Michael Kelly -- someone who mattered.

By 8.5.04

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Things Worth Fighting For: Collected Writings
by Michael Kelly
(The Penguin Press, 426 pages, $26.95)

"One day in 1998," Michael Kelly wrote in November 2002, "I was invited to have an off-the-record chat with an important staff person on the Clinton Administration's National Security Council... The whole experience was terrific fun, although I could never shake the feeling that it was all a mistake -- that I was supposed to be someone else entirely, someone who mattered, Tom Friedman or Bob Woodward probably." The column adjoined to these words is reprinted with dozens of others in Things Worth Fighting For, a new and solemnly accoutered collection of Kelly's journalism from the Penguin Press. Kelly, "embedded" with the 3rd Infantry Division in Iraq, was killed in a Humvee rollover on April 3 of last year.

The bit about being "someone who mattered" is, I think, one of the most personally revealing statements to be found in Kelly's body of work. It reads like humility: I, Mike Kelly, am not in any wise comparable to the Friedmans and Woodwards, the titans of the scribal world. Look closer -- look for the cocky Irish dynamo who chewed right through the nucleus of American journalism in about a decade. He's not bowing to his betters in that sentence: He's astonished at the effrontery of this... this Clinton hack who thinks, Christ on a bike, that he can spin Mike Kelly!

As if, like Bob Woodward, Kelly would happily accept precious, half-digested morsels of insider dope, whizzing across town to trade them for more of their like. As if, like Thomas Friedman, he would happily apply a layer of marzipan to some ambitious turd's geopolitical layer cake and present it to the world as Received Wisdom. Mike Kelly! Imagine Mike Kelly as "someone who mattered!"

He was, and knew he was, someone who mattered to the consumers of newspapers and magazines -- not someone who mattered only to their creators. His reporting on the first Gulf War made his reputation. Indeed, our mental picture of that war -- particularly of the atrocities committed by the occupiers of Kuwait, and of the carnage on the "Highway of Death" from Kuwait to Basra -- was defined by him.

Later came Kelly's unprecedented serial transformations, as editor, of the New Republic and the Atlantic Monthly. He made the former a general-interest magazine again, in the full meaning of the term, and until he laid hands on the latter it wasn't the sort of thing you'd buy except by accident. It took him about four years, all told, to perform this. I was bewildered when Peggy Noonan wrote in a eulogy to Kelly that "He was going to be one of the great editors of his time..." Going to be? Cripes, lady -- what more did you want?

In fact, at the time of his death he had already ascended to the well-deserved Valhalla of the "editor-at-large." That is generally a place no man leaves willingly to return to the world. But Kelly was just too young to settle into a puffy naugahyde armchair and dictate dozy columns to an assistant once or twice a week. Feeling, quite rightly, an almost proprietary interest in the outcome of America's struggle with Saddam, he went back to Iraq -- where the road ended.

His writing is, hence, only half of his achievement, and maybe not even half. For better or worse, it's the half that will have to perpetuate his reputation, if that is to happen. (Kelly didn't stay in any one place long enough to become synonymous with it, William Shawn-fashion.) The subjects dealt with between the pages of Things Worth Fighting For are necessarily ephemeral, but will the prose last? Setting aside the natural impulse to deify the man, I can do no better than to answer "maybe." It may not linger, qua writing. Kelly's bon mots are très bon indeed, but not the sort that get you into Bartlett's. A week after I read it, I'm still chuckling over his line about a couple that had to divorce owing to "irreconcilable similarities." But it's not a self-sufficient epigram, and you could wait ten years even to steal it and work it into a conversation.

YET KELLY'S REPORTAGE IS indisputably terrific: as a selector of devastating anecdotes there was none better. Whenever something chances to make human beings interested in Bosnia or Kuwait, people will find it useful to consult this book. His potted 1994 history-cum-diagnosis of the Gaza Strip, "Arafat Bombs on Opening Night," is particularly fine -- almost reminiscent of Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, Rebecca West's prophetic and compelling account of the Balkan Peninsula in 1937. (This may not be a coincidence, since the piece was serialized in the Atlantic in 1941.)

And readers could do worse than to consult Things Worth Fighting For as a general meditation, accidentally compiled over a working life, on the nature and meaning of warfare. Here, reporting aspires to the level of Stoic philosophy. When confronted with the stench and surrealism of mass death on the Basra road, Kelly did not shut down his inquiring mind in favor of engaging an outraged tongue. He sought to reflect, and learn. The hard training prepared him better than most to react to September 11, and he reacted better than most.

You've heard plenty about his gifts as a storyteller already. It is the significance of his work as a newspaper columnist that has been minimized somewhat by his colleagues since his death. Speaking as a neophyte in that field, I must say I consider Things Worth Fighting For to have been a graduate education; someone ought to have sent it to me a year ago. Kelly's fate, perhaps decided by his birth in Washington, D.C., was to be a man of hell-in-a-handcart propensities who worked in overwhelmingly liberal environments. All and sundry took him to their hearts -- it seems that, given the sort of fellow he was, to do otherwise was impossible -- and dismissed his conservative ferocity as an idiosyncrasy.

In short, they wrapped him in the Blue State flag before they buried him. In the posthumous anthology, he rises again in all his Clinton-hating, hipster-crippling, Baby Boomer-excoriating glory. Michael Kelly, to the life.

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About the Author

Colby Cosh is a columnist for the National Post of Canada.