Books April 2004

True to his Words

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
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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."

From Atlantic Unbound:

Flashbacks: "Remembering Martha Gellhorn" (March 11, 1998)
An Atlantic contributor for more than three decades, she was one of the century's most admired and courageous journalists.

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."

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Robert Vare is an Atlantic contributing editor and the editor of the book The American Idea: The Best of The Atlantic Monthly.

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