We Miss Mike Kelly: The Good Hard to Find, Even Harder to Lose

I’m still bitter about Michael Kelly’s death. This is something I realized when I went to an event in his memory on March 17, nearly a year after he was killed in a Humvee while covering the war in Iraq. I didn’t expect to get as upset as did. I hardly knew Mike Kelly; we shared an editor, Robert Vare, and our paths had crossed while writing for him. In addition, I’d written a couple of pieces for Mike (and Vare) when Mike was editing The Atlantic .

But I think I know from those few encounters why he meant so much to the people who really did know him well. There are some people who strike you immediately by a kind of natural goodness that goes beyond good nature. Like obscenity in the Supreme Court opinion, natural goodness is something that’s hard to define, but you know it when you see it. You know it by contrast with its absence, in yourself and others.

I don’t mean goody-goody goodness; I don’t mean New Age goodness, which tends to suggest that you should never get angry at things like injustice or hypocrisy, because it might disturb your inner peace and serenity, which, of course, is the absolute Highest Good. Instead, I’m talking about the kind of goodness that acknowledges that there are Things Worth Fighting For , which is the title of the just-published collection of Mike Kelly’s work that Robert Vare has compiled.

Mike’s kind of goodness encompassed a cheerful, unselfish and principled dedication to the word, the voice, the story, the craft, the role of writing-the thing itself, rather than the suits and trappings of prominence-that seemed to make everybody in his presence feel a little bit better about themselves, about being writers. Like it was worth laboring over making a sentence, rather than laboring over making a social connection for one’s career.

So that’s one reason I’m bitter at the cruel and capricious fate that singled him out for death on the outskirts of Baghdad a year ago. Yes, I know everybody dies, including many who don’t deserve to, but if you ask me, Mike Kelly really didn’t deserve to-not so suddenly and so soon, anyway. Actually, “capricious fate” is a euphemism; I’m bitter about something bigger. Recently, I was witness to a fascinating public conversation between Tony Kushner and Harold Bloom sponsored by the Classic Stage Company and moderated by the C.S.C.’s new artistic director, Brian Kulick, whose Shakespearean productions I’ve admired in the past. It was supposed to be a discussion about the relationship between religion and theater, and it was, but it turned into a fascinating psychodrama in which Mr. Bloom relentlessly pressed a reluctant Mr. Kushner to concede that there was a spiritual dimension, a spiritual argument going on in his work. A “charge” (Mr. Bloom admired Mr. Kushner’s work precisely for this reason) that the playwright wittily evaded, mainly on Brechtian grounds.

“But what is Angels without angels ?” exclaimed Mr. Bloom. He cited two passages, one from A Dybbuk and one from Angels in America , in which he said that Mr. Kushner was giving voice to the ancient Jewish quarrel with God, the demand that He explain why He permits the persistence of evil and cruelty and the perverse fate of the good among us.

It’s the quarrel over theodicy. A rabbi once told me that, according to some sage or another, this was one implication of the Abraham and Isaac story: that Abraham should have questioned the sacrifice of his son that God was demanding. Or, as that other son of Abraham, Bob Dylan (son of Abraham Zimmerman), put it: “God said to Abraham, ‘Kill me a son’ / Abe says, ‘Man, you must be puttin’ me on .”

I’m down with that quarrel, and the death of Michael Kelly is one more count in the indictment. Another way of expressing this can be found in a line from Pat Moynihan that Maureen Dowd quoted in the beautiful column she wrote about Mike Kelly after he died. They had a blow-up of that column on an easel at the Mike Kelly event at Michael’s restaurant, and I think that reading it was what triggered my renewed bitterness. It went something like this: “I don’t think there’s any point in being Irish if you don’t know that the world is going to break your heart eventually.” Killer line. (I think “the world” is a euphemism for God.) It’s the kind of thing that has always made me secretly subscribe to the theory that the Irish are the Ten Lost Tribes.

Anyway, what brought me to the Mike Kelly event was reading the remarkably perceptive piece about his work that Robert Vare has written in the April Atlantic . It’s an adaptation of his introduction to Things Worth Fighting For . And it reminded me of how many things Mike Kelly did so superbly well as a writer.

I remember when I first read Martyrs’ Day , his account of the 1991 Gulf War, that it was one of those books that I almost resented because it was so good. But don’t take my word: The great critic Robert Hughes called it “the best piece of war writing in a generation; not since Vietnam and Michael Herr’s Dispatches has anyone conveyed the pity and terror of war … so well … he is a writer, with a precise eye and a voice that is by turns elegiac, supple, and bleakly funny … “

Mr. Vare mentioned this event, which was a kind of memorial commemoration, launch party for the posthumous collection and benefit for Mike’s two children. It was sponsored by an informal alliance of guys named Kelly (including Keith Kelly of the Post and Jim Kelly of Time ), and I saw a lot of people I liked there, but the evening only made me feel the loss again, and more deeply. Especially after I bought a copy of the new book, took it home and read a lot of Kelly pieces I hadn’t read before.

For one thing, it reminded me how funny he could be. In an early magazine column, he talked about the relentless sensitive-man epiphanies in the now-discontinued “About Men” column in The Times :

“I sometimes imagine the ultimate ‘About Men’ column …. It opens in a hospital room on an evening in April, the cruelest month. In a bed, limply, lies a man who has collapsed on a busy street, struck by a fairly major epiphany.

“He shows promise of a full recovery-until his father turns up. As the emotionally crippled older man stands by in mute despair, unable to verbalize his true feelings, the son suffers a second, more serious, epiphany.

“Incredibly, he rallies again. But at this critical moment his son from his first marriage, whom he has not seen in the decade since the child’s mother divorced him … arrives at his bedside. He looks at his son with misty eyes. Ditto, the son at him. ‘I love you, Dad,’ says the boy. ‘I lo-I, uh-I love … ‘ he begins, then stops, unable to say it. As he realizes that he is, in the end, the same man as his father -the final terminal epiphany racks his shuddering frame.”

Then there’s his hilarious parody of Robert Reich’s self-important memoir of his Cabinet service (“‘For God’s sake, man, get a grip on yourself!’ The secretary of labor’s voice cut like the crack of a whip through the cabinet room. Robert B. Reich stood towering over the Treasury Secretary, who lay curled in the fetal position … “). It’s a hilarious and mean send-up of all toadying office-holders who bite the hand they licked as soon as they leave office.

Indeed, distaste for the toady and toadyism is a thread that runs through his work. His classic piece on David Gergen as the ultimate Washington insider reflects it. So does the famous episode in which Mike was pushed out from the editorship of The New Republic back in 1997 (in the view of most, including him) because he would not tone down his criticism of the magazine’s pet pol, Al Gore: a pre-emptive contempt that has been vindicated by Mr. Gore’s pathetic campaign and his toadying to Howard Dean when, with his unerring bad judgment, Mr. Gore thought he could get a leg up by sucking up to the Deaniacs.

I was talking to some friends recently about the controversy among literati over confessional memoirs and the way so many of these allegedly bold confessions are ultimately self serving: Look how bad I was and how brave I am to admit it, that kind of thing. (I defended the David Denby memoir, however, because he had the courage to make himself look like a fool.) And we were trying to figure out what the one unspeakable, unconfessable sin left was, the one that wouldn’t in some way make the confessor look good, in some respect, either for his bold venture into degradation or his bold venture into confessing that degradation. And we settled on toadyism. You’ll never see Confessions of a Toady climbing the best-seller lists. (Although maybe The Apprentice will break the toady barrier.) You’ll probably never see it written, and yet we all know that they’re out there. Indeed, we could all name two or three ourselves,couldn’t we?

And it occurred to me that the one thing Mike Kelly represented was the Anti-Toady. And re-reading Martyrs’ Day , his chronicle of the first Gulf War, and his Washington Post columns on the run-up to the second, I began to realize that the thing he detested most about Saddam was that he had made toadyism his principle of rule, using fear, brutality and torture to turn his subjects into a nation of overt and (worse) internalized toadies. It wasn’t the toadies alone that Mike Kelly despised; it was the bullies who turned the weak into toadies. Someday, someone will do a study of toadyism, which will include both sides of the relationship, the toady and the toadee, you might say. Mike Kelly was an acute observer of both sides of that equation, and I think his lack of awe for the great nabobs of Washington came from his observation that they required toadies to buttress their vision of themselves, to reflect their overblown sense of grandeur.

And when you think about it, his horror of toadyism, voluntary or enforced-a horror that is really an affirmation of individual dignity-may be at the heart of Mike Kelly’s political vision. The vision that centers around “the boot.” On the back of the book jacket of Things Worth Fighting For is a quote from that Maureen Dowd column I mentioned, the one that concluded with the way “the world is going to break your heart eventually.” In it, she says that Mike believed that “war reporters were people ‘who did not want to get in harm’s way but merely close enough to record the fate of those who did.’ But,” she went on, “he put himself in harm’s way because he wanted to go back to Baghdad and see America kick out Saddam. ‘Tyranny truly is a horror [he wrote] …. It is, as Orwell wrote, a jackboot stomping on a human face’ …. Michael died for two things: Journalism and ridding the world of jackboots.” The ability to put a human face on the victims of tyranny, petty or deeply evil, was one of the many things that distinguished his work.

As was his ability to personify the oppressor as “the boot.” Here is what he wrote in a column called “Who Would Choose Tyranny?” written from Kuwait City, a place where the widowed and tortured still bear the scars of Saddam’s boot. It was published on Feb. 26, 2003, and I’ve quoted it once before in this column, but, as the song goes, it bears repeating:

“I understand why some dislike the idea, and fear the ramifications of, America as a liberator. But I do not understand why they do not see that anything is better than life with your face under the boot. And that any rescue of a people under the boot (be they Afghan, Kuwaiti, or Iraqi) is something to be desired. Even if the rescue is less than perfectly realized. Even if the rescuer is a great, overmuscled, bossy, selfish oaf. Or would you, for yourself, choose the boot?” The 300,000 people (so far) discovered in the mass graves in Iraq-many of whom are there because they refused to be toadies-testify to the truth of this. So does the remarkable essay about the victims of Saddam’s genocidal rule by David Gelernter (in the April 5 Weekly Standard ), the one called “The Holocaust Shrug,” about the triumphalism displayed by some over the absence of Weapons of Mass Destruction, and the shrug of indifference they give to the mass graves and the genocidal torturers who filled them.

Once again, hail and farewell, Mike Kelly, foe of the boot and the toadies who lick it.