In 1997, the journalist Michael Kelly wrote a column for the Washington Post entitled “The Fear of Death.” In it, he described his experience covering the first Gulf War, when he saw up-close the aftermath of the slaughter known as the Highway of Death. “I had never seen the results of war,” Kelly recalled, “and the results horrified me out of my wits. In this, I was of course typical of my generation of reporters. The result is, in matters military, a press corps that is forever suffering a collective case of the vapors. At the least exposure to the most unremarkable facts of military life — soldiers can be brutes and pigs, generals can be stupid, bullets can be fatal — we are forever shocked, forever reaching for the sal volatile.”
For many readers, Kelly’s extraordinary reporting of the first Gulf War, for The New Republic and in his book Martyr’s Day, revealed those unremarkable facts of military life in ways that could not be forgotten. And he was doing the same thing in this Gulf War, reporting from a position with the U.S. Army’s 3rd Infantry Division, when word came, Friday morning, that another one of those unremarkable facts of military life — the accidents that inevitably take place when so many men and weapons are assembled — had taken his life. Kelly was 46 years old.
Kelly certainly didn’t have to go to Iraq. He had made his name in the first war and had gone on to the top of the journalistic ziggurat: the New York Times, The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly. In his last job, he had transformed The Atlantic, always a fine magazine, into an extraordinary one, with a remarkable range of reporting and analysis. It turned out he was as magnificent an editor as he was a writer.
But what was perhaps most remarkable about Kelly was his courage. And it was not only of the most obvious sort. Yes, he had the courage to go to war, but a lot of reporters have gone to war — there are, after all, 600 journalists in the military’s “embedding” program. Kelly also possessed a different kind of courage, one that is rarer, which might seem strange, because it doesn’t involve risking one’s life: He had the courage to speak his mind even when it might cost him his job and the approval of his less independent-minded colleagues. Some writers would do anything rather than say something that would risk the disapproval of the right people. Kelly wasn’t one of them.
He was fired as editor of The New Republic because he relentlessly criticized the corruption of the Clinton/Gore administration. And in February 1998, at the height of the Lewinsky scandal, he wrote, for the Washington Post, the best column to come out of those years. “I believe the president,” Kelly began:
I have always believed him. I believed him when he said he had never been drafted in the Vietnam War and I believed him when he said he had forgotten to mention that he had been drafted in the Vietnam War. I believed him when he said he hadn’t had sex with Gennifer Flowers and I believe him now, when he reportedly says he did.
I believe the president did not rent out the Lincoln Bedroom, did not sell access to himself and the vice president to hundreds of well-heeled special pleaders and did not supervise the largest, most systematic money-laundering operation in campaign finance history, collecting more than $ 3 million in illegal and improper donations. I believe that Charlie Trie and James Riady were motivated by nothing but patriotism for their adopted country….
I believe Paula Jones is a cheap tramp who was asking for it. I believe Kathleen Willey is a cheap tramp who was asking for it. I believe Monica Lewinsky is a cheap tramp who was asking for it.
I believe Lewinsky was fantasizing in her 20 hours of taped conversation in which she reportedly detailed her sexual relationship with the president and begged Linda Tripp to join her in lying about the relationship. I believe that any gifts, correspondence, telephone calls and the 37 post-employment White House visits that may have passed between Lewinsky and the president are evidence only of a platonic relationship; such innocent intimate friendships are quite common between middle-aged married men and young single women, and also between presidents of the United States and White House interns.
In 774 words, Kelly simply destroyed the hopes of all those who had wanted to believe Bill Clinton. It was not the kind of thing that would make a writer popular at The New Yorker or the New York Times magazine. But Kelly wrote it, and kept writing.
In recent years, Kelly had enormous success. His work at The Atlantic Monthly resulted in stacks of National Magazine Awards, and it seemed he might remain in the editor’s chair to achieve even greater things. But he moved on, becoming editor-at-large as he worked on a book about the American steel industry.
Who knows what would have been next? A man as talented as Michael Kelly, with a good 30 years of productive life still ahead of him, was bound to do some magnificent work. That won’t happen now. But what wonderful work he did.
— Byron York contributed to The Atlantic Monthly under Kelly’s editorship.