LLR Books

Michael Kelly's Immortal Words

By Joel Achenbach
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 3, 2004; Page C01

The other day Madelyn Kelly was going through papers in her kitchen when she came across a Post-it note with a smudged notation, written in blue marker, that said: "Death of the 3rd God (Marx/Freud/Darwin)."
It was a mysterious Michael memo. A bulletin from an energetic mind.
Michael Kelly had a habit of jotting things down on little slips of paper, including story ideas. He also had a propensity to lose things (ATM cards, credit cards, mysterious jotted memos). Madelyn Kelly, whom everyone calls Max, left these scraps of her husband's thoughts scattered around the house in odd places. That way she could continue to stumble upon them -- could still suddenly hear his voice.
He was killed a year ago today while covering the invasion of Iraq. He had maneuvered into one of the forward units of the 3rd Infantry Division as it was bearing down on Baghdad. His vehicle came under fire and crashed into a canal. The first American journalist to die covering the war, Kelly left behind a grief-stricken family and millions of words. Max Kelly spent months going through his writings for an anthology, just published, titled "Things Worth Fighting For."
"The book was enormously helpful," she says by phone from her home near Boston, where she lives with her sons Tom and Jack. "I know all too many widows these days, and I feel I had something that none of them did, which was the ability to surround myself daily, for the eight months after he died, with his voice."
Michael Kelly possessed one of the most distinctive and controversial journalistic voices of his generation. He could turn a delicate phrase with the best of them, and was a master of the run-on sentence, but most of all could throw a verbal punch right in the kisser of whatever lying politician or media wimp had the bad fortune to get in his sights.
When searching through her husband's archive, Max Kelly came across one of his syndicated columns for The Washington Post, from 1998. She was struck by a passage describing the qualities of the iconic male of the 1930s and 1940s:
"He possesses an outward cynicism, but this is understood to be merely clothing; at his core, he is a square. He fights a lot, generally on the side of the underdog. He is willing to die for his beliefs, and his beliefs are, although he takes pains to hide it, old-fashioned. He believes in truth, justice, the American way, and love. He is on the side of the law, except when the law is crooked. He is not taken in by jingoism but he is himself a patriot; when there is a war, he goes to it."
That was Mike, she realized. And this became the first piece in the book.
"This book is for my kids," she says. "What a blessing that they have his thoughts on so many things, including them, and on what it means to be a father, and what it means to be a man, and what it means to be a citizen and a journalist and a man of integrity."
Anyone wondering how Kelly could be so prodigious a writer needs merely glance at any of the feature articles, columns, essays and war dispatches in the book. He had the special gift of knowing exactly what he believed. He didn't suffer from doubt. There is no hand-wringing in his prose, nor in his politics. He championed the recent invasion of Iraq and implored the nation not to go wobbly in the war on terror. And then he went to the front lines, an embedded reporter, thrilled to be in the field and not stuck at an editor's desk.
"During the war, he was as charged up as I remember him being in years," Max Kelly says. "He was back there where he belonged. Not back being in Iraq -- back reporting and writing."
Kelly's writing voice was a tool capable of eviscerating hypocrites, phonies, dummies, weak-kneed liberals, sensitive New Age guys, Saddam Hussein, Jesse Jackson, Teddy Kennedy, Al Gore, Warren Beatty, the Clintons and their flunkies, political chameleons, and so on. His attacks on Gore and the Clinton administration got him fired as editor of the New Republic; his columns about President Bill Clinton's difficult relationship with the truth earned Kelly the label of a conservative zealot.
In one column included in the new book, Kelly writes of Clinton: "This man will never stop lying. To borrow a hyperbolic description of another of the century's historic prevaricators, every word he utters is a lie, including 'and' and 'the.' He will lie till the last dog dies."
His stridency as a columnist made him something of a social outcast. Some old friends gradually stopped talking to him.
"There was a time in Washington when he was sort of a pariah -- that had its toll," his widow says.
"When he went to do the Kennedy piece, he was told, 'You'll never be able to work in Washington again,' " says his mother, Marguerite Kelly, who has written the Family Almanac column for this newspaper for many years.
Her son voted for Clinton in 1992, she says, but "he was a disappointed Democrat, he really was, and he wasn't ashamed to say so. This was not his party."
He never backed down from a fight or softened his stance, she says.
"That to me is what showed his moral clarity. He still said what he thought."
He might have made some enemies and outraged some readers, but at his memorial service, more than a thousand people thronged the church.
Michael Kelly grew up on Capitol Hill. He started out in television, as a producer for "Good Morning America." He rose quickly. But then his father, Tom Kelly, a newspaper reporter, had a heart attack and underwent multiple bypass surgeries.
"Michael promised God that if I lived, he would get out of TV and be a print journalist," Tom Kelly says.
The son made good on his promise and got a job at the Cincinnati Enquirer. Soon he went to the Baltimore Sun, and then became a freelance writer to follow Max to Chicago. As a freelancer he made a splash with his New Republic dispatches from inside Baghdad during the start of the American bombing in 1991. Then came an astonishing, peripatetic rise to the top of the profession. He covered the 1992 presidential campaign for the New York Times, wrote long political profiles for the Times magazine (including the famous "Saint Hillary" piece), wrote the "Letter From Washington" for the New Yorker, had his stint as editor of the New Republic, started his syndicated column for The Washington Post Writers Group, became editor of the National Journal, then ascended to the editorship of the prestigious Atlantic Monthly. Eventually he left the top job there and became editor-at-large, while still writing his Post column and making plans for a book on the steel industry.
Then came the war.
When there is a war, he goes to it.
The war reporting anchors the book. He ended a column The Post headlined "Across the Euphrates" with a Hemingway-esque line: "By full dusk, the sporadic mortar fire had ceased, and everything was quiet except for an occasional bit of light arms fire in the farm fields beyond the bridgehead." This was clearly an ongoing story he was telling, to be continued, another dispatch coming soon. But he didn't get that chance. A day after the column was published, Kelly was killed.
The anthology includes e-mails Kelly sent from the battlefield to his friends and family, including to his two young sons. In one he describes a member of the press corps who asks a military briefer whether she will be able to pull her suitcase on wheels across the desert, the way she does in airports.
Here is Kelly on Bob Dole, in the final days of Dole's 1996 campaign:
"He abandoned any pretense of formal structure. He spoke in phrases and fragments that interrupted one another at his whim, like a call-waiting system gone awry, non sequitur giving way to non sequitur. Sometimes he seemed lost in his utterances, wandering through the boneyard of his mind, picking up an idea here, waving it for a moment, dropping it for another a few feet away."
Kelly on Hillary Rodham Clinton:
"Mrs. Clinton is searching for not merely programmatic answers but for The Answer. Something in the Meaning of It All line. . . . When it is suggested that she sounds as though she's trying to come up with a sort of unified-field theory of life, she says, excitedly, 'That's right, that's exactly right!' "
On media coverage of the anthrax attack:
"[I]t is no time for the American media to revert to the hysterical, silly, fear-mongering, self-centered, juvenile, and ninnyish form that has made them so widely mistrusted and so cordially detested."
On his always-optimistic, problem-fixing father:
"[W]hat a good father is supposed to do for the people he loves is fix whatever goes wrong with them. . . . In every life, there should be someone who believes that whatever goes wrong must be fixed, and if not fixed, must at least be made to go away. So, happily, it was for me. In the house where I was lucky enough to grow, the weather was always balmy, rain or shine. And life was always good, good or bad, and the children were always successes, succeed or fail. And the experiences were always marvelous."
Tom Kelly has read that Post column -- "Growing Up With Mr. Fix-It" -- at least a dozen times. It's his favorite in the book. And he's writing his own book about his son.
"He had a very full life," Tom Kelly says. "That's the tentative title of my book: 'The Short, Full Life of Michael Kelly.' "

© 2004 The Washington Post Company