During the hollow hours after the death in Iraq of Michael Kelly, a Boston reporter got through to me and suggested that the key to Kelly’s editorial success at The Atlantic was his parallel role as a journalist. I asked the reporter to explain. He wondered if what distinguished Kelly’s leadership was his ability to understand other writers, and to intervene in detail and improve their copy. I thought, “Sure, why not?” But a deep understanding of writers (whatever that means) is not an important part of the work, and in my experience, Kelly’s line editing was meant to be taken lightly and could be rejected without comment. The reporter was well-intentioned, but he had seriously underestimated the man.
It’s true that Mike Kelly was empathetic-and as much toward cab drivers and carpenters as toward his fellow scribblers. He was genuinely humane. Given his reputation as a sword-wielding columnist, people often found this strange: He seemed so gentle in person for someone so hard-edged on the page. After first meeting him, many remarked on his unpretentiousness, and indeed on the unlikeliness of the entire package-this intrepid war correspondent, this he-man career man, this relentless politico. He was elfish, affable, open-faced, bespectacled, curly-haired, rumpled, distracted, often thoughtful and endearingly disorganized. When he didn’t show up for lunch dates or follow through on plans, you knew it meant nothing at all. His apologies afterward were sheepish and good-natured. He was just a very decent guy.
But those who decided that he was modest or shy got him wrong. He was not merely very capable, but utterly certain of it: In his inner world, he was not modest at all. As he gained experience, his life became an exercise in self-confidence, a loop in which his certainties begat successes, which begat further certainties. It’s no wonder then that he rejected the liberal culture of self-doubt, and that his politics turned right-wing-how could they have turned otherwise? He achieved financial success, but he never became a selfish man. Quite the opposite. Money obviously meant little to him, and his conservatism remained purely of the self-confident kind. All this came out in conversation with him, hours upon hours of it, during which he delivered his thoughts and opinions as if they were absolute truths, enjoying himself hugely, as inevitably his companions did, too. Whether people agreed with him or not, his confidence was infectious. It swept aside the cautions and fears that might have diminished the writers in his stable, or the staff of the magazine as a whole. To the question of “Dare we proceed?”, his answer was so often “Yes” that people learned not to ask. It’s true that Kelly’s “Yes” was usually tempered and shrewd, but his deep-seated courage was more important still. He was like a furnace on fire. His flame burned for his work, for his country, and most fiercely for his two young boys and his wife. He went to Iraq because he believed in the war, and knew he could cover it well. That does not make this end any easier for his friends to accept. It still seems impossible that our dear Mike Kelly has died. He has left an unfillable emptiness behind.
For those of us hanging about the Kuwait Hilton and the military briefings in the past weeks, and paying the occasional easy-does-it visit to the frontier zone or to the safer bits of southern Iraq, the name of Michael Kelly was a frequent and somewhat guilt-inducing reference. In the first place, we had all read or were engaged in re-reading Martyrs ‘ Day , his enviable account of the last Gulf War. In the second place, we knew that he was miles up the road ahead of us, at the sharp end with the Third Infantry Division. I don’t approve of “embedded” journalism myself, but nor was I pretending that I’d have had the discipline or fortitude to go that way. So, as we fiddled with gas masks during mostly false-alarm air-raid warnings in Kuwait City, one would say facetiously to another: “Mike must be within commuting distance of Baghdad by now.” There had already been enough reportorial casualties to make this a respectful understatement.
The longest time I ever spent with him was very different. He heard that I was going to a Farrakhan rally at the Howard University campus a few years back, and asked if he could keep me company. We ended up as the only white guys present during an especially lurid harangue from the late Khalid Muhammad. The atmosphere wasn’t all that menacing despite some efforts in that direction, and afterward we spent a good deal of time talking to the organizers and the members of the audience. The rest of the night, we sat up forever while he told me of growing up in D.C., of being by family origin a member of the opposite Irish-Catholic faction to Pat Buchanan, and of going with his mother to early civil-rights rallies. His curiosity and his humor, and his quick impatience with bullshit, were all of a piece. I often thought he was wrong, but I never knew him to be wrong for an ignoble or cowardly reason.
One tries to avoid sentimentality on occasions such as this, but Mike saw the essence of the conflict over Iraq very early on, and never relaxed his hold on the point. The advocates of regime-change have now lost a real champion and-this is where I dare to take the risk of sentimentality-the people of Iraq have lost a friend who would never have deserted them in the rugged times that they are passing through and that lie ahead. Everybody who cares about the survival of tough-minded journalism has lost an ally, too, even if (like the Iraqis) they may not have had the opportunity to know him.
Mike Kelly was one of the happiest smart people I’ve ever known-continually amused (as well as outraged) by the world, mischievous, conscious always of living exactly the life he wanted to lead, but never smug about it. If you knew him only though his column in The Washington Post , which was often bellicose, you might think he was an ill-humored sort. Those of us who worked with him, and remembered that experience as singular in our careers for its high-spiritedness and sheer fun, its sense of being with Mike on a madcap but meaningful ride, know better.
I met Mike when I was on maternity leave with my first baby, and he had just been chosen as the editor of The New Republic , where I then worked. When he called to propose that we meet for lunch, I was feeling particularly milky, sleepless and disheveled. The prospect of squeezing myself into acceptable business attire, heading downtown for the first time since the baby, and making intelligent conversation with the famous journalist who was my new boss, seemed hopelessly intimidating. Maybe Mike noticed my moment of hesitation; maybe he just intuited how I felt because he and his wife, Max, had a new baby, too. But the next thing I knew, he was proposing bringing lunch to my house in Bethesda, and the next day he was there, bearing pâté and a baguette and the ingredients for a lovely simple pasta, which he cooked for me while keeping up a riveting patter about all the things he wanted to do at the magazine. He never made a big deal about instituting a “family-friendly” policy at The New Republic, where the staff was young and childless; he just said that, if I preferred, I could work at home a couple of days a week when I came back.
Mike was deeply courteous, and he managed to make the various accommodations he offered on behalf of my family life feel like a natural extension of that courtesy-just something you did to make somebody’s life easier, without making a fuss about it or boasting about what a progressive employer you were. But part of it was that Mike delighted in his own children, in a way that made him generous toward and bemused about all children. He was the only male colleague I’ve ever had with whom I could exchange what-our-kids-did-last-night stories without feeling that it bored him, or pigeonholed me. He was a great and close, but unneurotic and noncompetitive, observer of his kids. There are so many ways in which the public Mike will be remembered and deeply missed-as an extraordinary war correspondent, a charismatic editor, a passionate columnist and a beautiful writer. I will remember him as my beau ideal of a working father.
I met Michael Kelly when I was an intern at The New Republic in 1996 and he was the magazine’s incoming editor. I wrote to him asking for a staff job. He responded by taking me to a nice lunch in downtown Washington. Our lunch confirmed everything you’ll hear about his kindness toward aspiring young writers whom other editors might impatiently brush off. At the time, I had a mere handful of short and rather insubstantial clips to my name, and came to lunch nervous and slightly intimidated. After 10 minutes, I felt completely at ease. Michael complimented my writing more than he needed to, showed a sincere curiosity about my interests and goals, and described his plans for the magazine with the enthusiasm of a man about to renovate his dream house. He never once condescended. I was still just a punk, but he treated me like a serious person.
But that lunch was less interesting than the second conversation we had. Michael had offered me a job as a TNR fact-checker, with a chance to write on the side. I had another offer, to write about politics for an alternative weekly in Boston, and decided I couldn’t turn down a full-time writing job. Not only did Michael understand my decision, he seemed to turn a bit wistful. He began to offer me advice with a fatherly air that suggested that he envied a young writer setting out down the open journalistic road. He painted a romantic, admiring picture of Boston as a place where politics can be seen on its most primal level. He gave me names and numbers to call. A great mentor himself, he urged me to find “wise men,” detached from the biases of daily political skirmishes, who could explain how the city really worked. (He recommended one man in particular, a Machiavellian political operative whom he described, with a hint of admiration, as “a real rat-fucker.”)
He was most passionate in urging me to devote myself completely to my work. Go to every last campaign event and city council meeting you can, he told me. If you have a girlfriend, drag her along. Work hard, he said. “You don’t have as much time as you think you do.”
Michael Kelly had so many things, but I will miss him most for what he lacked. He had brilliance, humor, stature, energy, generosity, taste, guts, vision. He lacked arrogance. He lacked the genetic code for smugness. He lacked the presumption, which so many vastly less gifted people carry around like change in their pockets, that something was true because he said it, or deep because he thought it. In a world full of people who never miss a slot through which to drop a name or a point of flattering self-reference, he lacked any particular urge to enlighten one that he had, oh, driven across a desert as it was being bombed in the Gulf War, or earned the fear and loathing of both Clintons. In short, he lacked that whole link between success and self-worship. This made him both a great guy and a great example.
It is generally vile, and particularly untrue to Mike Kelly, to overstate one’s relationship to the celebrated deceased. I was miles away from the center of his life; just one of many writers lucky enough to have appeared in his line of vision. But that’s just it. There are scores of us; underlings and aspirants of one sort or another who feel deadened by this death.
My memories of Mike are like my college diploma: very special to me, even though lots of people have them.
I remember the second I knew, before we even met, that I liked and trusted him completely, because he couldn’t even smooth-talk me. It was the very end of 2000, and he was calling me in New York to talk about a job.
“Have you ever thought of moving to Washington?”
“Well, you should; it’s really a very stimulating city, and just as vibrant in its way as New York and … oh, what the hell, you’ll hate it, it’s one big law firm-but you should come anyway.”
I remember that when I did come anyway, it was inauguration week, and all the hotels were triple-booked. He sent me to stay at the Victorian manse on Capitol Hill where he was brought up-and where I could clearly see, in the sharp, sweet, much-loved parents, the origins of the sharp, sweet, much-loved son. I remember the time that I wrote an Atlantic piece that was an absolute disaster, and he wrote a rejection note that was an absolute gift: straightforward, to be sure, but so full of kindness and encouragement that I still have it. I remember thinking, pretty much every time I spoke to him, that I had drawn the long end of the straw.
When I left my job, to head for the war that claimed him, Mike called me up. With typically amazing grace, he wished me luck and offered me everything: useful friends, credentials, advice, ideas, editorial support. Even then, I choked up at what he said last, although he said it lightly. He said he wanted to keep me “in the gang.”
What I wouldn’t give to keep him there, too.