Some Thoughts on Michael Kelly

Glee turned Kelly, in the days leading up to the war, into a thin writer who spurned nuance in favor of hyperbole.

I didn't really know Michael Kelly. We had one friend in common, and as the years have gone by I've come to be fairly close with people who respected and loved him. Kelly died ten years ago while covering Iraq. In reading about him, it's clear that what many respected about Kelly was his willingness to put himself in great danger in order to answer the great questions. He does not come off as the sort of guy to opine on TV comforted by the safety of reports from Brookings.

But nor does he come off as the sort of guy who subject to the calm and rational consideration of dissent.

Over at Gawker, Tom Scocca published a very hard—and very fair—assessment of Kelly's role in the Iraq War. I hadn't read much of the work Scocca referenced, so I did myself a favor and looked up some of Kelly's columns in the days leading up to Iraq. What you find in these columns is the pit of all that, to this day, angers those who were against the war from the start. Kelly's columns are not just pro-war, they are ferociously pro-Bush, and gleefully contemptuous of liberals who thought otherwise.

It's the glee that burns. There's a kind of writer who gets his kicks writing bad reviews of music and books. You see that same spirit in Kelly's mocking of Paul Krugman, Kurt Vonnegut, and Janeane Garofalo, or in his attacks on the French by evoking the ghost of Pétain.

That glee turned Kelly  into a thin writer who spurned nuance in favor of hyperbole. In the fall of 2002,  for instance, Kelly wrote that Bush …

… presides over an administration that is unusually intelligent—and also cunning—unusually experienced, unusually disciplined and unusually bold.

He continued:

Democrats will howl … that the president is not competent, that his administration is not to be trusted, that Republican presidents and Republican policies are radical and dangerous and frightening and bad …

I suppose they will continue to believe this, and continue to say it, in voices growing ever more shrill and ever more loud, yet, oddly, ever more distant and faint.

The president wasn't competent. Iraq and then Katrina proved that. And the voices did not grow more "distant and faint." They led to the election of Barack Obama. But again, it is not the simply the wrong-ness, it's the gleeful and casual dismissal. Here is Kelly writing after witnessing an antiwar march in early 2003:

The debate is over. The left has hardened itself around the core value of a furious, permanent, reactionary opposition to the devil-state America, which stands as the paramount evil of the world and the paramount threat to the world, and whose aims must be thwarted even at the cost of supporting fascists and tyrants …

After embedding with the military in Iraq, Kelly said of the war:

It is remarkable enough that the United States is setting out to undertake the invasion of a nation, the destruction of a regime and the liberation of a people. But to do this with only one real military ally, with much of the world against it, with a war plan that is still, by necessity, in flux days before the advent, with an invasion force that contains only one fully deployed heavy armored division—and to have, under these circumstances, the division's commander sleeping pretty good at night: Well, that is extraordinary.

A victory on these terms will change the power dynamics of the world. And there will be a victory on these terms.

A few weeks ago, my colleague Jim Fallows argued that "People in the media who were for the war have, with rare and admirable exceptions, avoided looking back."

Reading through Kelly's file, you begin to understand why. Michael Kelly wasn't an outlier. He was one of the most important journalists of his generation. He was a National Magazine Award winner and the one-time editor of The Atlantic, The New Republic (he helped birth Stephen Glass) and The National Journal. Kelly was at the center of media power, and he was beloved by many around him

It is often tough to reconcile what people do professionally with what they do personally. I don't mean to attack a man who was—by every account—a great father and husband, and a great friend. But great fathers and great husbands die with some regularity and do not merit remembrances in national publications. Michael Kelly is not publicly notable because of his personal fidelity but because of his professional work. Faced with a historic conflict, Kelly's professional work amounted to a gleeful embrace of what was wrong, and a gleeful assault on what was right.

That too must be remembered.