True to his Words

The Atlantic Monthly | April 2004

A year ago this month Michael Kelly, a former editor in chief of The Atlantic, died in Iraq while on assignment for the magazine. A collection of Kelly's writings, Things Worth Fighting For, will be published in April by the Penguin Press. The editor of that volume remembers his colleague and friend as a writer and as a man
by Robert Vare


At the time of his tragic death, at forty-six, Michael Kelly had already packed several lifetimes' worth of accomplishments and triumphs into a relatively short career. His membership in the Fourth Estate spanned two decades, but it was only during the last thirteen years of his life that he truly came into his own as a journalist, producing a body of work that is remarkable for its variety, incisiveness, wit, literary grace, and enduring value.

In the course of those thirteen years Mike somehow managed to cover three wars and two presidential campaigns; to write laceratingly honest, state-of-the-art profiles of seminal political figures of our time; to produce—as a prolific reporter for the Washington bureau of The New York Times, as the sole staff writer of The New York Times Magazine, and as the author of the "Letter From Washington" for The New Yorker—a string of landmark campaign reports, White House chronicles, and cover stories that raised the level of political writing to literature; to turn out a wide-ranging, at times slashing, syndicated weekly column, first for The New Republic and then for The Washington Post; and to be, successively, the editor of three magazines: first The New Republic, then National Journal, and, most recently, The Atlantic Monthly. All in thirteen years: an extraordinary period of fecundity and journalistic adventurousness.

Mike's beat stretched from Capitol Hill to the concrete-and-sheet-metal headquarters of the Militia of Montana, from the battlefields of Iraq to the beaches of Cape May. To review his entire body of work is to be struck most strongly by the sheer breadth of his reporting and writing, his expansive palette of subjects and styles. He had not only a wide range of abiding interests and passions—politics, foreign affairs, war reporting, how we Americans live now, the adventures of his two young sons—but also a full panoply of literary gifts: for physical description and scene-setting; for the satirical insight, the precise image, and the transformative detail.

In retrospect, the magazine-profile form seems to have sparked the making of Mike as a writer. After a brief tour of duty as a booker at ABC's Good Morning America, he started out as a newspaperman at the Cincinnati Post and the Baltimore Sun, covering a bright young reporter's fair share of worthy stories—the Midwest farm crisis, the Iran-contra hearings, Michael Dukakis's 1988 presidential campaign. But after seven years of daily deadlines and newswriting formulas Mike was ready to work on a broader canvas and to liberate his rapidly developing voice. In 1990, as a freelance writer for GQ magazine, he burst onto the national stage with profiles of two political mandarins, each of whom had been much written about over the years but never, it is safe to say, with such bold brushstrokes and unsparing intimacy.
"Up close, the face is a shock," begins Mike's word picture of Senator Ted Kennedy's descent into alcohol, gluttony, and philandering ("Ted Kennedy on the Rocks").

The skin has gone from red roses to gin blossoms ... The Chiclet teeth are the color of old piano keys ... There is a great desire to remember him as we remember his brothers. The Dorian Grays of Hyannis Port, John and Robert, have perpetual youth and beauty and style, and their faces are mirrors of all that is better and classier and richer than us. Ted is the reality, the fifty-seven-year-old living picture of a man who has feasted on too much for too long with too little restraint, the visible proof that nothing exceeds like excess.

Mike was equally sharp-edged in his assessment of the Reverend Jesse Jackson, who, in "The Midlife Crisis of Jesse Jackson," emerges as an unexpectedly forlorn figure, consigned by his voracious need for the camera and the reporter's notebook to the distant margins of real political power. "Jesse Louis Jackson is forty-nine years old and suffering from a midlife crisis," Mike wrote.

It is not the usual sort, not a tremor of waning libido or of looming mortality. It is a crisis of relevance. Relevance is the base of all that Jackson has. His extraordinary career rests on the strength of his great talent for seizing the moment, for being in the right place at the right time and shouting the right thing. This skill has made him America's foremost political celebrity ... And yet, all of a sudden, there is an awkward feeling in the air. A scent of So What. A strong whiff of Who Cares.

In both these political icons, with their outsize abilities, ambitions, and flaws, Mike early on found one of his true subjects, a grand theme he would return to again and again for the remainder of his writing life: the complicated relationship between talent and character. In the feet of clay of Ted Kennedy and Jesse Jackson, he began to find his own literary footing.

The Persian Gulf War, in 1991, represented another—perhaps even more crucial—turning point in Mike's evolution as a writer. As the prospect of war grew more certain, he managed to cadge assignments from several publications, most notably The New Republic, one of whose editors issued a challenge: "We'll use your stuff if you can be in Baghdad when the bombs drop." Mike hightailed it to the Middle East, borrowing $8,000 to cover travel costs, and after securing an ordinary tourist visa from the Iraqi embassy in Jordan, arrived in Baghdad two weeks before the war started. At that point he was one of only a few Western journalists in the Iraqi capital. For those in the media, the Gulf War was altogether a different experience from the Iraq War of 2003. In the earlier conflict the Pentagon had sought to stifle firsthand reporting, barring all but a small number of pool reporters from access to the action. While most of his colleagues covered Operation Desert Storm from the safe remove of press briefing rooms in Saudi Arabia, Mike defied the Pentagon ban and went off on his own. "Doing a unilateral," the press corps called it.

Out of this act of journalistic independence came transcendence. Criss-crossing Iraq, Kuwait, and several other countries in rented and borrowed cars (once even hitching a ride on an Egyptian tank), Mike filed one electrifying dispatch after another: "Before the Storm," in which he documented the hollow bravado of Iraqis awaiting the start of war in cafés, at the theater, and at the racetrack; "The Other Hell," a searing portrayal of the deplorable refugee camp in Iran where hordes of Kurds had been forced to flee after their abandonment by the Bush Administration; and "Kiss of Victory," with its utterly bizarre, seriocomic scene, worthy of the movie M*A*S*H, in which ten Iraqi soldiers, retreating across the Kuwaiti desert, insisted on surrendering as prisoners of war to Mike and another reporter.

On the eve of the Gulf War many journalists were predicting a protracted campaign (another Vietnam!), but Mike was one of the few to understand the quantum leaps in warfare technology that the U.S. military had achieved during the previous decade. In a dispatch depicting the staggering firepower unleashed over Baghdad in the first hours of the campaign ("Blitzed"), he saw "scenes of incandescent hysteria and beauty, the tracer shells tracking lovely curves, and S's and parabolas of orange-red light against the backdrop of a blacked-out city skyline."

And yet as spot on as Mike was in writing about cruise missiles and military strategy, the signal achievement of his front-line reports lay in their capacity to evoke what the renowned war correspondent Martha Gellhorn called "the face of war"—the human suffering and destruction in all its horrifying detail. Nothing exemplifies this more hauntingly than the following passage from "Highway to Hell," Mike's Guernica-like evocation of a two-lane road running from Kuwait to Iraq that American bombers had turned into an open graveyard for fleeing Iraqi soldiers (and that he was one of the first journalists to discover).

Even in a mass attack, there is individuality. Quite a few of the dead had never made it out of their machines. Those were the worst, because they were both exploded and incinerated. One man had tried to escape to Iraq in a Kawasaki front-end loader. His remaining half body lay hanging upside down and out of his exposed seat, the left side and bottom blown away to tatters, with the charred leg fully fifteen feet away. Nine men in a slat-sided supply truck were killed and flash-burned so swiftly that they remained, naked, skinned, and black wrecks, in the vulnerable positions of the moment of first impact. One body lay face down with his rear high in the air, as if he had been trying to burrow through the truckbed. His legs ended in fluttery charcoaled remnants at midthigh. He had a young, pretty face, slightly cherubic, with a pointed little chin; you could still see that even though it was mummified. Another man had been butterflied by the bomb; the cavity of his body was cut wide open and his intestines and such were still coiled in their proper places, but cooked to ebony.

The emotional impact of this passage comes not just from the careful selection of photographic images but from their organization and pacing. Mike slows down the tempo, his eye lingering over each victim, and that makes the death tableau even more heartbreaking. The quiet restraint of his language also intensifies the feeling of moral urgency. When Mike's Gulf War dispatches won a National Magazine Award for reporting, the following year, the judges saluted him for getting "the war story that colleagues missed." The citation for the Overseas Press Club Award, which he also won that year, called his work "understated and beautifully crafted—a profound meditation on the depths of human cruelty." Out of these Gulf War dispatches, revised and expanded, would come a much heralded gem of a book: Martyrs' Day: Chronicle of a Small War (1993). All this was a feat made even more impressive by the fact that Mike had never before written anything remotely like these dispatches, with their full sensory reports of the sights and sounds and smells of war. "I don't know what it was, but my reporting faculties had never been engaged like that," Mike told me years later. "I was just seeing everything—even the tiniest thing—large and in Technicolor. I think it was partly the fear, partly the sheer excitement of being there and bearing witness, and partly my growing anger at what Saddam Hussein had done."

I first met Michael Kelly in the fall of 1991, a few months after he had returned from the Middle East. As an editor then at The New York Times Magazine, I'd been a faithful reader of the New Republic dispatches and the GQ profiles, and had been recruiting him with more than a little ardor. We met for lunch at a hotel restaurant a couple of blocks from the Times building, and right off the bat there were two surprises. For one thing, given the courageousness of his war reporting and the gusto with which he'd dismantled a series of political eminences, I was expecting a much larger man (even with his thick mop of curly brown hair, Mike was all of five-six). For another, given the fire in his writing voice, I was taken aback by how soft-spoken he was in person. Although the words tumbled easily out of his mouth in complete sentences, even complete paragraphs, the volume was that of a man speaking in church. For all his heroics and journalistic success, there was not an ounce of swagger or self-importance about him as he spoke of his work and his life.

Journalism was in his blood, he said. His mother, Marguerite Kelly, had for many years written a column on parenting for The Washington Post, called "Family Almanac"; his father, Tom Kelly, was a longtime reporter for The Washington Daily News (now defunct) and had written a book on The Washington Post. Mike's round, puckish face (which to me instantly registered Cagney, but with spectacles) lit up when he talked about his parents and growing up with three sisters in a rambling Victorian house a few blocks from the Capitol. The house was a hubbub of activity, he said, with his sisters' friends dropping by, and neighbors coming and going, and, after sunset, newspaper people and other writers gathering in the family parlor for marathon sessions of food, drink, and talk. "It was good talk," Mike said. "It was about politics and politicians and stories and writing. I pretty much always knew I wanted to be a reporter."

His mother, who was from New Orleans and reflected it in her approach to life, had an internal clock that was untethered to conventional conceptions of time. "If you're invited to my mother's house for dinner at, say, eight P.M., odds are you won't sit down to eat till after eleven o'clock," Mike told me. "But you don't care, because you're having too much fun." A decade later, in one of his Washington Post columns celebrating family life, called "Growing Up With Mr. Fixit," he paid equal tribute to his father's eccentricities.

My father, Tom Kelly, is seventy-eight, and he has four grown children, and they have had their ups and downs. And over all the years, for every up, my father has been there to say how splendid (and how deserved) was this particular up; and for every down, he has been there to say how splendid (though not at all deserved) was this particular down.

An insane love, a failed grade, a lost job—there is nothing that befalls one of his children in which my father is not able to find "a marvelous experience."

At lunch Mike admitted that despite many years of Jesuit schooling, he wasn't much of a student. Unlike most of his journalistic peers, who could boast of brand-name colleges on their résumés, he had attended a state school, the University of New Hampshire. "I don't remember much about it because of all the drinking and partying I was doing there," he told me. "I edited the campus newspaper and may have written a piece now and then."

As a reporter for the Baltimore Sun, Mike had gained a measure of notoriety for his pranks—squiring in successive years Fawn Hall, of Iran-contra fame, and Donna Rice, the woman who'd brought down Gary Hart's presidential campaign, to the ultra-clubby White House Correspondents' Dinner. I asked him what it was like to have had on his arm two of the more infamous femmes fatales of the 1980s. "The best part was seeing the stricken faces of the wheezy old denizens of the press corps," he said. The glint in his eye suggested that these stunts had not, by any means, depleted his reserves of mischief. (Years later he came to regret his inadvertent but apparently key role in turning the correspondents' dinner into an unabashed celeb fest.)

We talked about ideas for the Times Magazine (he was a fount of them), but he was not going to be able to take on an assignment anytime soon. He was still at work on Martyrs' Day, and he was about to be married to Madelyn Greenberg, a producer for CNN (and later for CBS News), whom he had met during the Dukakis campaign. He was thrilled about the upcoming marriage to "Max," as he affectionately called her.

Many of Mike's ideas about writing, he told me, had come down to him from his father: the emphasis on legwork and physical description, the importance of pacing in establishing mood and keeping readers engaged, the overarching need to see subjects afresh. Tom Kelly had a reverence for the atmosphere of the old-fashioned newsroom and for the classic turn-of-the-century newspaper sketch. He had introduced his son to some of the pioneers of the newspaper narrative—Stephen Crane, Jack London, Richard Harding Davis—and also to many other writers who, over several generations, had artfully married the meticulous accumulation of fact with the storytelling techniques of fiction. Whenever Mike talked about his literary heroes, the two names that tended to come up first were George Orwell and A. J. Liebling. He admired both writers for their exacting sense of detail, their clarity of expression, and their ability to build scenes and take in events as they were actually happening.

One passage in particular, from Liebling's famous The Earl of Louisiana, had left an indelible mark on Mike. For that story Liebling had gone down to Louisiana in midsummer of 1959 to cover the re-election campaign of Governor Earl Long, the younger brother of the former governor Huey Long, and a figure of equally exaggerated appetites and idiosyncrasies. Early in the book Liebling set a scene at a campaign stop on a night so hot that it felt like "a heavy blanket pressed down on the lawn." Although spectators and other politicians on the platform were nearly fainting from the heat, Earl Long—who always insisted that despite all evidence to the contrary, Louisiana had only the best of climates—refused to doff his jacket and tie as he delivered a characteristically tub-thumping speech. The only concession he made to the elements was to interrupt his oration from time to time and, as Liebling wrote, "wipe the sweat from his face with a handkerchief soaked in Coca-Cola."

"I have never forgotten that moment," Mike told me at lunch, pantomiming the gesture with a glass of water that was on our table. "That single image told you almost everything you needed to know about that event, about Louisiana politics, and about Earl Long."

Michael Kelly's own Coca-Cola moments infuse his writing. He found, for example, in Bill Clinton's ever morphing smile a perfect symbol for the unsettling pliability of a President and his policies ("A Man Who Wants to Be Liked, and Is"). In the devastation of postwar Kuwait he spotted the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers reinstalling gold bathroom fixtures in the looted palace of a Kuwaiti prince while people in the street went without food, water, and medicine ("Rolls-Royce Revolutionaries"). And he was able to capture a Keystone Kops scene—one that comically exemplified the shaky rule of Yasir Arafat—when the Palestinian leader's security detail tried to emulate the American Secret Service ("Arafat Bombs on Opening Night").

As the motorcade moved slowly away, several of Arafat's senior bodyguards—middle-aged men of considerable heft—leaped upon the rear trunk of his Mercedes, holding on to the car with one hand while they brandished Kalashnikovs with the other ... But Arafat's car lacked hand grips ... and as the Mercedes gathered speed it hit a small bump, sending fat men flying through the air, their bulky forms describing jumbled parabolas of arms and legs and Kalashnikovs, to land with thuds and oaths on the road.

Mike "had enviable eyes," Leon Wieseltier, The New Republic's literary editor, has said. "He observed more in a glance than other reporters did in a week."

Voice was also a distinctive Kelly gift. His prose can be softly lyrical, as in his columns chronicling family life, or it can be fiery, hectoring, even Old Testament wrathful, especially in regard to the conduct of Bill Clinton. It can be gently ironic, as in an imaginary letter from Bush père to Bush fils over the selection of Dick Cheney as Vice President ("But What About Dad?"), or blisteringly caustic—turning "a Mencken-like blowtorch" (in the phrase of one Boston Globe reporter) on Washington insiders, knee-jerk liberals, the pseudo-hip, the pierced and tattooed, and 1960s time-warp refugees. He could summon pure passion about the problems of black America ("A National Calamity") or, when the mood struck, conjure a pitch-perfect parody that laid waste to the self-important (former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich and his book Locked in the Cabinet, in "The Reich Stuff") and the fake (Al Gore's dubious claims of an agrarian boyhood, in "Farmer Al"). Mike's voice was a musical instrument that he played in many different keys.

Corrosive wit was perhaps the most conspicuous Kelly trademark—writing punctuated by memorable lines and withering turns of phrase.

Ross Perot made his way onto the national stage, barking like a dog and occasionally biting off small pieces of himself. ["That's Entertainment"]

You would think that a man [Robert McNamara] who had given the world the Edsel, flexible response, and the war in Vietnam would stop to consider whether he was really cut out for executive work. ["A Plea for Diversity"]

As a people, we [Americans] have never been this fat. Probably no people has ever been this fat. We are billowing immensities of avoirdupois, great, soft bins of finest quality lard, a nation of wide loads wallowing down the highway of life. ["Girth of a Nation"]

Then there is the whole separate category of acerbity directed at William Jefferson Clinton: "Mr. Clinton tends to run to poundage—his slow and lumbering morning run seems an act of contrition rather than of grace" ("A Man Who Wants to Be Liked, and Is"); "Bill Clinton was perceptive enough to master politics, but not perceptive enough to see what politics was doing to him" ("The President's Past"). Or consider these lines from the classic "I Believe" column:

I believe the president. I have always believed him. I believed him when he said he had never been drafted in the Vietnam War and I believed him when he said he had forgotten to mention that he had been drafted in the Vietnam War ... I believe [Monica] Lewinsky was fantasizing in her twenty hours of taped conversation in which she reportedly detailed her sexual relationship with the president and begged Linda Tripp to join her in lying about the relationship. I believe that any gifts, correspondence, or telephone calls and the thirty-seven postemployment White House visits that may have passed between Lewinsky and the president are evidence only of a platonic relationship; such innocent intimate friendships are quite common between middle-aged married men and young single women, and also between presidents of the United States and White House interns.

Mike's Washington Post columns represent the part of his work that is most controversial. A number of readers, among them some of Mike's friends, found more than a few columns, especially the ones about American politics, to be too strident, too meanspirited, too conservative, and too obsessed with Bill Clinton. Mike always resisted being labeled politically—his politics were more complicated than that—and, unlike many of his columnist brethren, he never aimed in his reporting to service a predetermined point of view. And yet even he joked about "the good Michael" and "the bad Michael"—about the pitched battle between the author of the nuanced, empathic narratives and the fulminating prosecutor demanding Bill Clinton's impeachment over and over again: "He must be impeached not merely because he is a pig and a cad and a selfish brute ... He must be impeached because we are a nation of laws, not liars."

How, then, to reconcile the two Michaels? It is famously said that all politics is local; for Michael Kelly it might be suggested, with only slight exaggeration, that all politics is personal. Growing up in the shadow of the Capitol, studying senators and congressmen at close range over the years, he refused to accept the distinctions between public and private that have traditionally been drawn by the press. For him, how politicians behaved in their private lives was every bit as important as how they behaved in their public lives, if not more so. Thus the hallmark of a Michael Kelly political column, regardless of the issue on the table, is to affirm the essential inseparability of politicians and their ideas, of morality and ideology, of the content of character and the content of position papers. If some of these columns, particularly the anti-Clinton ones, seemed over the top when they first appeared, they now, on the whole, look surprisingly fair and reasonable—and they leave no doubt about their author's fundamental integrity and moral passion.

Mike "judged politicians as human beings," Peter Beinart, the editor of The New Republic, observed at a memorial service in Washington, D.C. "He believed that some acted with honor, and others did not. And the ones who acted without honor in their private lives would act without honor in their public lives, especially towards the weak. For him, that's why Clinton's personal conduct mattered: because if Clinton betrayed those closest to him, he would betray Rwanda as well. That made sense to Mike because he was the same person in his public and private lives."

After Mike died, while covering the Iraq War as an embedded reporter, a number of obituary writers saluted him for his "fearlessness." But although confident of his ability to stay out of harm's way, he was very much in mind of, and concerned about, the inherent dangers. The quality that Mike aspired to was not fearlessness but bravery—which, as he told his young sons, was doing the right thing in spite of your fears. In a 1997 column called "The Fear of Death"—which paid homage to a small band of Bosnian resistance fighters, and which now seems poignantly prophetic—Mike defined what was for him the quintessential test of character. "Accepting death [is] indispensable to defeating death," he wrote. "We [Americans] are a nation in which there are fewer and fewer people ... who accept what every twelve-year-old [in Bosnia] knows: That there are things worth dying for."

Six years later he elaborated on this theme in a radio interview he gave just before he died.

"One of the things I found out [in the Gulf War], which is quite interesting personally, is that people, at least men—I don't know about women—... go to great lengths in life to not find out the answer to the question, How brave am I? War presents you with specific opportunities to find out the answer to that question ... The question is asked for you and answered for you, in front of you and in front of other people. It's interesting, because you see it in all the people around you and you see it in yourself. And that's knowledge you have for the rest of your life."