The Magazine

Michael Kelly, 1957-2003

From the April 14, 2003 issue: Farewell to a great newspaperman.

Apr 14, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 30 • By DAVID BROOKS
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MICHAEL KELLY was born into a newspaper family. His father Tom was a reporter on the Washington Daily News. His mother Marguerite writes the wonderful "Family Almanac" column for the Washington Post.

Sometime over the past few decades reporters became journalists, but Michael never really made the leap. He shunned TV. He was not a natural at symposia and panel discussions. He remained, until his death in a Humvee accident in Iraq Friday, a newspaperman.

In other words, he lived low but read high. He wanted and needed to be out where the action was. As a young reporter at the Cincinnati Post he exposed abuses of power in the statehouse and on the state supreme court, in prize-winning series. His unmatched coverage of Desert Storm for the New Republic ended up in his book, "Martyrs' Day," by common agreement the most beautiful and gripping account of that war. He approached each story not as a sociologist, looking down and analyzing the people he was covering, but as a curious man among his fellows. Going back to Iraq and getting embedded with the 3rd Infantry Division in this conflict was risky, but it is impossible to imagine the war without Mike there. He wouldn't have been Mike if he hadn't gone.

A few days before his death, he told the New York Times that it was important that the experiences of the regular soldiers, rather than just the tactics and decisions of the generals, be recorded for posterity. In his final dispatches, he described the bizarre through-the-looking-glass world of young Americans who found themselves fighting against an unprincipled foe--forced to kill onrushing Iraqi soldiers, even while knowing that many of those Iraqis didn't really want to fight. They were merely trying to safeguard their families, who were being held hostage by Baath party thugs.

In phone calls back to colleagues in the States, Michael said that he was surprised by the ferocity of the fighting and that he planned on writing a book about his experiences. It would have been a masterpiece.

As anybody who read his Washington Post column knows, Michael could be a deft humorist, but he also had the sensibility of a tenacious Irish crusader. If anyone offended his moral sensibility, as Bill Clinton did, Mike went after him with uncompromising gusto. He wasn't one to back down from a necessary fight.

If you worked under Mike, you were golden. He treated his writers with gregarious good humor and love. But if you worked over Mike, you had to watch out. When he was editor of the New Republic, he got into a feud with the magazine's owner, Marty Peretz, which ended with his firing. It was a confrontation of two strong men, each confidently holding his ground.

The best newspapermen, of the sort Mike was, are not just dogged reporters and tireless crusaders. They have a hidden literary side. Mike certainly did. He was a mischievous and rambunctious boy, but he also loved to read. As a teenager, he devoured P.G. Wodehouse and Max Beerbohm. He made the most of abundant opportunities to party at the University of New Hampshire. But all the while, he was acquiring a large store of cheap secondhand books, and reading them.

His high-toned literary side came to the fore when he was asked by David Bradley to become editor of the Atlantic Monthly. People who didn't understand Michael were worried that this streetwise, cut and thrust columnist would degrade the venerable magazine. Nothing of the sort. Michael revived the magazine and took it to new heights, making it subtle and literary but also feisty and energetic. Circulation soared. National Magazine Awards rolled in. Brilliant essays by Mark Bowden, William Langewiesche, Christopher Hitchens, and P.J. O'Rourke studded its pages.

Mike never wrote for THE WEEKLY STANDARD, but he knew many of us well and a few intimately. And while he was editor of the New Republic, he did pitch against us during our annual softball game. He wasn't exactly the best pitcher in the world. His style could be best described as energetic and amusing. But, as he did not fail to remind us later, his team won that day.

When we think back on his remarkable life, we think first of endearing moments like that game. We think of his capacity for personal organization, which was non-existent. He had a great talent for losing credit cards. When he left the staff of the New York Times he found he had tens of thousands of dollars of expense account receipts he had never turned in.

We think, sadly and prayerfully, of his wife, Max, and their two young boys, and of his parents and his siblings, who are at the heart of a warm and glowing community on Capitol Hill. And we think finally of his enormous contributions to his profession and to his country, as someone who sought out the truth, who fought for just causes, and who never backed down. He was everything a newspaperman should be, and everything the rest of us should aspire to.

David Brooks, a senior editor at The Weekly Standard, writes a column for the Atlantic Monthly.