Ta-Nehisi Coates and Michael Kelly

The complexities of assessing people in their public and private roles

I have been in transit or otherwise offline since early yesterday, and so I am seeing only now the item that Ta-Nehisi Coates posted about the Atlantic's Michael Kelly, who was killed ten years ago this week while serving as an embedded reporter during the invasion of Iraq.

On the tenth anniversary of Michael Kelly's death I wrote that it had been a tragedy and a loss, which of course it was, most of all for his family. The many thousands of other deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan these past ten years have also been losses and tragedies, but we naturally feel most strongly about the ones that come closest to us. The item I wrote was in observance of a loss that directly affected our magazine, and initially thought I should leave it at that. In light of what Ta-Nehisi has written, I think I should say something more.

As many people have noted (including Tom Scocca, and a large number of TNC's commenters), there is a sharp divide in assessments of Kelly's legacy, depending on whether people knew him personally or not. For most people who knew or worked with Michael Kelly, the personal fondness and memories outweigh the disagreements on politics or other matters.

This was true also for me. I disagreed with Michael Kelly on most political topics that came up in the decade before his death. He was all in favor of impeaching Bill Clinton: "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." I thought that impeachment was a travesty. He viewed the Whitewater and Paula Jones cases as genuine scandals. I thought the greater scandal lay in the prosecutorial excesses of Kenneth Starr. And of course there was Iraq, which he saw as a huge moral necessity for the United States and I saw as a huge mistake. 

Still I felt loyal to Michael Kelly as our editor, and truly grieved his death, because of the care and devotion he put into being the leader of our staff. I think that many of Michael's passions were essentially tribal -- he would fearlessly defend people he liked or felt were "his" people, and mercilessly attack people he didn't -- and he earned a similar kind of loyalty and affection in return. I might as well be fully honest about this: When he and I were working at different publications, I was one of the people Michael would sometimes go out of his way to criticize. Once we were on the same team, he couldn't have been more gracious or considerate. I didn't expect to become a friend and supporter of his, but that is what happened.
For people who live essentially private lives, this would be the end of the assessment: How did they treat family, friends, strangers they met? But as Ta-Nehisi Coates points out, we judge public figures by their effects on people they don't know personally. Many members of the reading public benefited from the humor, insight, and honesty of Michael Kelly's best reportorial achievements -- including his excellent book about the 1991 Gulf War, Martyrs' Day. But many were harmed by his greatest failing as a public figure, which was his tendency to ridicule, bully, and personally savage those with whom he disagreed. Ta-Nehisi gives some examples, and Robert Vare, in his compilation of Michael's writings, gives more. Here is one I bitterly complained about to Michael when it happened:

In September, 2002, Al Gore gave a speech arguing against the impending invasion of Iraq. I considered it brave and sensible at the time, and I think it only looks better in retrospect. This was Michael Kelly's response in his Washington Post column:
>>[The speech] distinguished Gore, now and forever, as someone who cannot be considered a responsible aspirant to power. Politics are allowed in politics, but there are limits, and there is a pale, and Gore has now shown himself to be ignorant of those limits, and he has now placed himself beyond that pale.

Gore's speech was one no decent politician could have delivered. It was dishonest, cheap, low. It was hollow. It was bereft of policy, of solutions, of constructive ideas, very nearly of facts -- bereft of anything other than taunts and jibes and embarrassingly obvious lies. It was breathtakingly hypocritical, a naked political assault delivered in tones of moral condescension from a man pretending to be superior to mere politics. It was wretched. It was vile. It was contemptible. But I understate.<<
Michael's judgment was not merely wrong. It was "dishonest, cheap, low." And it had impact. It is hard now to convey the drumbeat of arguments for the war and also of ridicule and impatience for anyone who lacked war fever. That is what you see in Michael's contemptuous dismissal of Gore. The buildup to the war was probably Christopher Hitchens's worst moment, too, when he was dead-set on the moral rightness of the invasion and intent on demolishing people who disagreed. The two of them, Michael and Christopher, were not the only ones striking this tone, but they were very influential.

Now, the complication. At just the time Michael was writing those words about Al Gore, he was supporting and trying to improve my cover story, in his own magazine, arguing that we would regret the consequences of invasion for many years to come. None of us is simple. I genuinely mourn Michael Kelly's death. But Ta-Nehisi Coates is right to clarify the part of his record that was damaging. And I actually do believe, as opposed to just saying it for closing-the-loop rhetorical purposes, that Michael Kelly would have respected and supported the forthrightness of his doing so within the Atlantic's own (electronic) pages.