Mike Kelly: A man of conviction

He criticized the Clintons and supported Bush's foreign policy -- and yet the first U.S. reporter to die in the Iraq war was more a liberal than many others who claim to the label.

Published April 4, 2003 10:19PM (EST)

My first encounter with Mike Kelly was via a fax machine. He'd set out to cover the first Gulf War for the New Republic, where I was then deputy editor, and I was waiting in Washington for his first installment. It was a bit of a gamble. Mike had sent in some clips to Rick Hertzberg, then the editor, and asked to write dispatches for TNR as well as the Boston Globe. Rick asked me what I thought. I loved Mike's early legendary GQ piece, eviscerating every inch of Teddy Kennedy, but thought it would doom Mike's chances of writing for TNR. But Rick saw the prose and made an inspired call. And as the first piece came over the fax, and I read it as each page came through, I felt the kind of thrill you live for in journalism. I knew I'd barely have to touch a sentence, and that each paragraph was vivid, clear, true. If you haven't read Mike's book on the first war, "Martyr's Day," buy it now. What it showed was a ferocious analytic ability to see through to the core of the issue -- this was a just war, worth fighting -- with an elegiac eye for physical detail. He could still do it, as his last dispatch from Iraq showed:

"Near the crest of the bridge across the Euphrates that Task Force 3-69 Armor of the 1st Brigade of the 3rd Infantry Division seized yesterday afternoon was a body that lay twisted from its fall. He had been an old man -- poor, not a regular soldier -- judging from his clothes. He was lying on his back, not far from one of several burning skeletons of the small trucks that Saddam Hussein's willing and unwilling irregulars employed. The tanks and Bradleys and Humvees and bulldozers and rocket launchers, and all the rest of the massive stuff that makes up the U.S. Army on the march, rumbled past him, pushing on."

Notice that he noticed things. And wrote about them clearly. His reportorial skill was that simple but that good. Some descriptions still stick in my head; he once called a small spring of water "gin-clear." I never forgot it. His range swept from war reporting to this beautiful little piece about walking with his then 4-year-old son through some Mid-Atlantic woods. Mike simply wrote what he heard from the little bruiser perched on his shoulders:

"Carry me. Please, carry me. Please, carry me. I really need you to carry me. My legs are very tired. Just a little bit, okay? No, not that way. Shoulders, carry on shoulders. Okay, I'll hold your hair, and I'll pull it this way when you should go this way and that way when you should go that way. Right?

"It's very muddy. Why is it muddy? What makes mud? It's very slippery, right? Why is mud slippery? When sand gets wet it's not slippery, right? Why isn't sand slippery? If it rains some more, there will be more mud, right? Will there be a tornado? If there is a tornado, we will go in the basement, right? Because in a tornado, you go in the basement, right? Why aren't there tornadoes here? There are some tornadoes here, right? One or two, probably. If there is a tornado while we are walking, we'll go home and go in the basement, right?

"Can I walk in the mud? This mud is making my boots muddy. It's good that we're wearing boots, right? All men wear boots, right? Some ladies wear boots too, right?"

The thought that toddlers Tom and Jack will have to live now without their diminutive but large-than-life father is almost too much to bear.

Mike's range extended throughout his writing. For a long time, I admired his reporting more than his columns, but eventually, I came to admire his columns just as much. It wasn't just that I agreed with him, say, 95 percent of the time. I revered his take-no-prisoners style, his refusal to be cowed by the left-liberal consensus that pervades elite media, and what amounted to his simmering contempt for much of what now passes for the left. He saw through them -- sometimes brutally, sometimes hilariously. One of his signal achievements was to see the corruption and mendacity of President Clinton and to pursue it with dogged and unrelenting fervor. No, he wasn't a "neoconservative." He was an old-fashioned Irish-Catholic Democrat, the kind of man who looks at a slimeball like Terry McAuliffe or a shameless careerist like Hillary Rodham Clinton and sees them for what they are. Should I refrain in an obituary from pointing out that Mike had all the right enemies and persistently did them harm? Nope. It was what made him Mike. And when those convictions came up against favoritism or office politics or career self-interest, Mike went with his convictions. He was fired from the New Republic for his refusal to play defense for Al Gore -- not a bad reason to be fired from anywhere. And his TRB columns stand the test of time.

But as well as being a scrappy fighter, Mike was also a gentleman, a kind soul, a devoted father and a great raconteur. He was a simply amazing cook, conjuring up meals that would do a three-star restaurant proud, and was at ease among all types of people. He harbored a certain chippy suspicion of Ivy League types and yet he lived among them. The New Yorker, the Washington Post, the New Republic, the Atlantic: These are not grass-roots publications. And yet his irascible writing never led him to social isolation. To hear him tell stories about the shenanigans at the New Yorker and the New York Times was to listen to a man who both admired the citadels of American journalism, but saw right through the cant and self-importance of many of them. He kept a sense of the ridiculous as well as a sense of right and wrong. That's hard to do on the mountain peaks of American journalism. But Mike kept his feet and his head close to the ground.

Intellectually, he had fierce convictions but was happy to edit and publish those he disagreed with. In this, he was far more a liberal than many others who lay claim to the mantle. Physically, he was a fireplug, small, solid, unmovable -- an Irish terrier with a great bark. Personally, he was sometimes infuriatingly hard to get ahold of, overcommitted, overworked and sometimes ornery. My own attempts to work for him (and a while back, him for me) always collapsed in mutual prickliness. But there were never any hard feelings. Many other writers, however, revered his concern for their prose and support for their careers. Psychologically, his strength was that he knew where he was from: a strange brew of Irish-Catholic solidness and an impeccable journalistic pedigree. He was also lucky to marry someone as accomplished and as funny and as brilliant as he was. I never met his young sons, but they should know their dad was a hero. His death was in action; his career was dedicated to the same principle of being in the arena and seeing it for what it is. Without him, we will see less clearly; and fight with one less soldier. But he was a good soldier and a beautiful writer and the battle goes on. I wish he were around to celebrate our victory over Saddam. But in a small way, he helped make it happen.

"It stopped. The rain stopped. Why does it rain and then it stops? Now, it's even more slippery, right? It's very hot now, isn't it? I don't want to go back anymore. Let's go this way. I said, go this way, horsey. Why does it hurt when I pull your hair? Okay, I'll only pull it a little bit, okay? This hill is very hard to go down, right? Don't fall. Why did you fall? Where are your glasses? Why are they broken? Why did you step on them? You should not have stepped on them, right? It's okay. Probably we can get some glue and fix them, right? You have a hole in your pants, did you notice that? Probably you made a hole in your pants when you fell down, right? You should not have fallen down, right?"

No, he should not have fallen down. But he was living when he died, writing until he was silent. And his words and example will live on.

By Andrew Sullivan

Salon columnist Andrew Sullivan's commentary appears daily on his own andrewsullivan.com Web site.

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