Friday, April 04, 2003

The death of Michael Kelly. The media world was inflamed with the rumor for a good part of the morning. Now the Washington Post's Howard Kurtz confirms it: Michael Kelly, the former editor of the Atlantic Monthly, the New Republic, and National Journal, has been killed in Iraq. He is the first American journalist to die in the war.

Kelly, who had been embedded with the Army's 3rd Infantry Division while writing his weekly column for the Post, led a turbulent and colorful career. He became something of a legend in the first Gulf War, when he was a freelancer filing dispatches for the New Republic. At one point, he and another reporter commandeered a jeep and drove out into the desert, where a group of Iraqi soldiers attempted to surrender to them.

He later wrote long pieces for the New York Times Magazine, lampooning Hillary Rodham Clinton's dalliance with New Age spirituality and -- in a landmark article in mid 1994 -- wrote about Bill Clinton's reputation as a liar, an article that helped to define the flailing president just before the disastrous (for Democrats) 1994 election. From there Kelly moved to the New Yorker (where he once reportedly threatened to punch out then-fellow staffer Sidney Blumenthal), and, in 1997, returned to the New Republic, this time as the editor. [Note: Since I first posted this item, it has been brought to my attention that my memory may be faulty. Kelly ordered Blumenthal to stay away from the New Yorker's Washington office, but it's not clear whether he actually threatened him with bodily harm.]

But even though TNR had for years straddled the ideological ground between its liberal past and neoconservative leanings on welfare, race, and foreign policy, Kelly's vitriolic attacks on Clinton and, increasingly, Al Gore -- thundered forth each week in the "TRB" column -- eventually got him fired by editor-in-chief and chairman Marty Peretz, a personal friend of Gore's.

Peretz always insisted it was Kelly's anti-liberalism, not his anti-Gore-ism, that got him fired. Shortly after the incident, Peretz told me: "I'm not your quintessential liberal. But I've always had what I would call a lover's quarrel with liberalism. I made the terrible mistake of hiring an editor who brings rancor and enmity to the liberal idea."

Kelly landed on his feet quickly, being hired to edit National Journal and writing a column for the Post. And when Journal owner David Bradley purchased the venerable Atlantic Monthly, in 1999, he named Kelly to be the editor. "I have, I hope, a great appreciation and respect for what the magazine is," Kelly told me shortly after his appointment. "I believe that when an editor comes in to a magazine that existed before his arrival, the first sacred job is to respect that which is there. So what I am not contemplating is anything that would do violence to the deep-rooted identity of this magazine."

Kelly was true to his word. Although he took the comment pages of the traditionally liberal magazine in something of a rightward direction, adding writers such as David Brooks, Christopher Caldwell, and P.J. O'Rourke, he also persuaded Bradley to sink a ton of money into a vibrant new design, many extra pages, and deep (and expensive) reporting.

The Atlantic won three National Magazine Awards in 2002. Last year, it was the talk of the magazine world for its lengthy three-part series by William Langewiesche on the demolition of the World Trade Center after 9/11, which was turned into an admired if controversial book.

Kelly, a lifelong Washington resident (though he went to college at UNH and served a brief internship at the now-defunct Beverly Times -- made briefer, he once joked over coffee in the North End, because he was struggling with the concept that one is supposed to show up to work every day), enjoyed his time in Boston. He bought a big old place by the ocean in Swampscott, where he and his family staged an elaborate party every Fourth of July. He was also an iconoclastic presence in the traditionally stuffy offices of the Atlantic; at magazine events, he often held forth in an open-necked shirt, a beer in hand, the very opposite of tweedy.

Last year, Kelly stepped aside as the Atlantic's editor to become an editor-at-large, freeing him up to spend more time on his column and for assignments such as the one that cost him his life. He was a brave and curious man, and he paid for those qualities in the sands of Iraq.

Kelly's Post column established his reputation as something of a neocon, even a right-winger. He wrote with great vigor -- some might call it ranting -- and he regularly brought comfort to conservatives and inspired apoplexy in liberals. Yet Kelly's political views were quite a bit more complicated than that.

In 1999 I interviewed Kelly as part of a symposium on America in the post-impeachment era. Interestingly, Kelly expressed as much anger toward the punitive welfare-reform law that Clinton had signed as the most ardent liberal. Kelly derided Clinton as a conservative in Democratic clothing, telling me:

Apart from interest-group policies, which are largely race and cultural policies, this is a conservative president. He's a law-and-order president, he is an anti-welfare president, he is in significant ways more conservative than Ronald Reagan dared to be. Or at least more willing to sign on to conservative programs. That's one thing they can do in domestic politics. The other thing they can do is the little stuff. You know, the endless sort of nitpicking, Gore-ian ideas. We should have, what is it, a 211 number so everybody who's stuck in traffic can have a number to call

In the black sections of a city like Boston, you've got entire neighborhoods where there are no men left because they're all in jail. This is a national catastrophe of immense proportions -- a great moral, liberal cause. It's stunning the degree to which you simply never hear the administration talk about that. Nothing. Dead silence. Meanwhile, the vice president is assuring us that he's going to do something to ensure parking spaces for sport-utility vehicles in every suburb.

That's where I think they're incredibly competent -- on pure politics and identifying push-button, polled issues that appeal to the group that they understand as their core constituency. That group is not the traditional Democratic constituency. That group is highly affluent, highly educated white suburbanites, and they really do care about getting stuck in traffic jams more than they care about the 40 percent unemployment rate in Roxbury.

Clinton and his people developed a new theory of Democratic politics that makes it possible for a Democrat to be elected and re-elected to the White House and clearly makes it possible for the Democrats to win the long-term battle for majority-party status. But at what cost? It isn't actually liberalism. It is an incredibly cheap, shallow, profoundly cynical, deeply valueless emptiness. So I give him full credit for restoring the Democratic Party and Democratic liberalism, if he wants to call it that, to viability -- to use the phrase he made famous himself. But it's a pretty horrifying victory. I'm not denying the sheer political skill here, but to put it in context, all you have to think of is two words: Dick Morris. That's what it is. It works.

But it was in October 2001, just as the war in Afghanistan was getting under way, that Kelly told me something that, sadly, could serve as his epitaph.

"If you want to cover the war, and you want to do field stuff, you're best off going your own way and hoping you get lucky," Kelly said. "What makes reporters uncomfortable is that it's such a gamble" -- that is, there might be no story -- "but there's no other way to do it."

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