March 30, 2005
He told us soBy Matthew May
Though it hardly seems like it, it was not long ago that the best part of every Wednesday — rain or shine, good day or bad — was waiting impatiently for the computer to fire up and browse to the Washington Post or TownHall.com to read the weekly column by the late Michael Kelly. Lucianne Goldberg aptly called it 'your Michael Kelly fix.'
Kelly's Wednesday pieces after September 11, 2001 became even more urgent reading, and if a person needed to sound witty, intelligent, and prescient during those perilous days that person would do well to quote from Kelly — at length.
It has been two years since Kelly's death, a death that came in Iraq during the service of his profession and his country. His was not what historians or dramatists would call a glorious death; it did not come in the middle of an important battle or hand—to—hand combat with Saddam's goons who managed to survive American bombing. He died on April 3, 2003 in a Humvee accident while embedded with the United States Army, the kind of accident that happens in war. Still, the news had the effect of a baseball bat square to the stomach.
Kelly's dispatches from the region were as good and precise as his work from the Gulf War, and the book that would have come out of the victory and subsequent democratization in Iraq would have required a prominent place on any serious person's shelf. That Kelly, who had risen to the heights of the journalism world (he was editor of The Atlantic when he died), was in Iraq to begin with was proof that he was the definition of the word 'journalist.' He had, it seemed, an insatiable desire to see the war for himself and see it alongside the men and women who were fighting it on the ground, not those debating it on the airwaves and the op—ed page.
Kelly's success in — and simultaneous disdain for — the 'hallowed halls' of American opinion making sheets was a direct result of his upbringing and early career. His father was a Capitol Hill reporter — a reporter, not a reporter/commentator — and his mother a writer. Kelly was schooled not at Columbia but at the University of New Hampshire. He had stints at ABC in the newsroom and writing award—winning straight news for the Cincinnati Post before heading back east. He did not pretend to have all the answers, but he damn sure had all the questions. If you watched the screaming head shows with even casual interest, you would be unable to find Michael Kelly. He was too busy writing and editing and being a husband and a father.
Kelly's style was endearing not so much because — with the myriad of scandal and embarrassment that was the Clinton Administration — his columns and magazine pieces made us smile ruefully when thinking about the criminals in the White House (he called Hillary the Contesse de Greed). It was because Kelly was an equal opportunity critic, Republican or Democrat, left or right. Early in 2001, he took Vice President Cheney to task for a major fundraiser that seemed very Gore—like indeed. It is said that he once threatened to punch out Clinton cad Sidney Blumenthal.
Kelly was that rare person among those holding the levers of power in the mainstream print press these days — a truth teller unafraid of being disliked by Georgetown matrons, leftist pantywaists, or his bosses, yet tough enough and good enough to make them read anyway. He was memorably terminated from The New Republic in 1997 because his Gore—sycophant boss, Martin Peretz, could not bear reading the truth about his friend as written by Michael Kelly. Gore's behavior then and now proves who was right and who was wrong in that squabble.
Kelly's batch of columns after September 11 and before the start of the invasion of Iraq house the definitive catalog of right and wrong — who was on the correct side of history, and who sided with and gave aid and comfort to the enemy. Kelly wrote about what he saw and what was in front of all of us. He had great eyes.
As early as September 26, 2001, Kelly could see the phony and illogical stand being forwarded by those who call themselves marchers for 'peace' in the face of terrorism:
'An essentially identical logic obtains now. Organized terrorist groups have attacked America. These groups wish the Americans to not fight. The American pacifists wish the Americans to not fight. If the Americans do not fight, the terrorists will attack America again. And now we know such attacks can kill many thousands of Americans. The American pacifists, therefore, are on the side of future mass murders of Americans. They are objectively pro—terrorist.
'There is no way out of this reasoning. No honest person can pretend that the groups that attacked America will, if let alone, not attack again. Nor can any honest person say that this attack is not at least reasonably likely to kill thousands upon thousands of innocent people. To not fight in this instance is to let the attackers live to attack and murder again; to be a pacifist in this instance is to accept and, in practice, support this outcome.
'As President Bush said of nations: a war has been declared; you are either on one side or another. You are either for doing what is necessary to capture or kill those who control and fund and harbor the terrorists, or you are for not doing this. If you are for not doing this, you are for allowing the terrorists to continue their attacks on America. You are saying, in fact: I believe that it is better to allow more Americans——perhaps a great many more——to be murdered than to capture or kill the murderers.
'That is the pacifists' position, and it is evil.'
On the gangster Arafat in April 2002:
'Neither Israel nor America can any longer pretend that Arafat is anything but the overall director of the war against Israel. It is possible, of course, to make peace with him still. But only by defeating him, and the forces under his command, and negotiating from the point of their surrender. And surrender stems from victory in war.'
Remember someone named Daschle and his sad visage in 2004? From October 9, 2002:
'As a matter of practical politics, the national debate on war with Iraq ended, with quite the little whimper, on Sunday when Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, who increasingly appears like a man who needs a long rest in a quiet room with the shades drawn, announced that, on second thought, the president could have his darned old war resolution.'
This could go on and on. Kelly was without equal in the American press. Those of us who love to see the truth in print adored him. But so did those who without fail lined up on the other side of his arguments; Maureen Dowd wrote the foreword to a posthumous collection�of his columns, appropriately titled Things Worth Fighting For. If you remember anything that he ever wrote during a prolific career that was really�just getting rolling, remember the following dispatch from Kuwait City on March 12, 2003, the eve of war and the eve of a tectonic shift. Michael Kelly had only a few days to live:
'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.'
Lord, how we wish he had been there to see it with those magnificent eyes.