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Remembering Michael Kelly
Michael Kelly had an uncharitable term for the column you are about to read: "The Nice Column." Nice columns—about ancient enmities overcome and people pulling together for the greater good and models of estimable human conduct and other Helen Keller-type themes—are the ones nice people complain about not finding often enough in the papers. They don't find them because journalists as a class, and columnists in particular, aren't very nice. Or at least they affect not to be nice, even if, sometimes, they do nice things. Often in secret. Or by accident.
Anyway, Kelly had no patience for the nice column. To him, a column wasn't some vial of holy water to sprinkle on the sinners and the saved alike. It wasn't a spy plane flying at a high and safe altitude, snapping pictures that make everything below seem small, patterned and sociological. It certainly wasn't a Henry James novel on the installment plan, written in prose so fine no idea could violate it.
Instead, Kelly treated a column as a sword, the obvious and most worthy purpose of which was to stab, slice, decapitate and—once he really got going—utterly disembowel the objects of his contempt.
Which objects? The pompous, the dishonest, the phony, the self-satisfied, the morally safe and smug, the debauched, the downright evil. To speak more precisely: Al Gore, Bill Clinton, Frank Sinatra, Mr. Gore again, the news media in general, Ted Kennedy, Yasser Arafat. And, of course, Hollywood, which pretty much exemplified all the above-mentioned qualities.
Kelly didn't just deride these people and institutions. Before he could skewer them, he had to capture them. Writing about Oscar night, he catches Jack Nicholson "leering and sprawling paunchily in his ringside chair like an especially dissolute pasha waiting for his next lap dance." From an early profile of Bill Clinton: "When he spoke, perception was not only reality. It was a reality that changed, quicksilver quick, from eye to eye and ear to ear." Of one of Mr. Gore's debate performances against George W. Bush: "It was much like the most infuriating of all husbandly marital-argument tactics. You know the one—where you play the part of the patient but pained party in the obvious right, too much a gentleman to say that your wife is spewing pure rubbish, but communicating utter contempt through creative breathing."
Reading Kelly, I used to wonder: Did his power of observation explain his moral judgments, or was it the other way around? Usually (though few of us columnists will admit it), we make our judgments and then find our evidence. I don't think this was true of Kelly: He was like a man born with a preternatural sense of smell. He couldn't help smelling it. And he could smell it from a mile away.
Take his view of Frank Sinatra. Everyone loved Old Blue Eyes and mourned him when he died in 1998. Everyone except Michael Kelly.
Kelly hated Frank because Frank had invented Cool, and Cool had replaced Smart. What was Smart? It was Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca: "He possesses an outward cynicism, but at his core he is a square. . . . 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. . . . When there is a war, he goes to it. . . . He may be world weary, but he is not ironic."
Cool was something else. "Cool said the old values were for suckers. . . . Cool didn't go to war; Saps went to war, and anyway, cool had no beliefs he was willing to die for. Cool never, ever, got in a fight it might lose; cool had friends who could take care of that sort of thing."
It never, ever would have occurred to me to make the distinction until I read Kelly's column. And then I understood Sinatra. And then I understood Kelly, too.
Kelly, who was killed 10 years ago as an embedded journalist just outside of Baghdad, was Smart. When the war came, he, too, went to it. Few columnists in America had argued as passionately, and none as cogently, for the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.
"To march against the war is not to give peace a chance," he wrote six weeks before his death. "It is to give tyranny a chance." In another column, filed from Kuwait, he recalled George Orwell's line about tyranny being "a jackboot forever stomping on the human face."
"I understand why some dislike the idea, and fear the ramifications of, America as a liberator. But I do not understand why they do not see that anything is better than life with your face under the boot." In all the arguments about the war, both before and after Kelly's death, I have never seen this basic moral point convincingly refuted by anyone.
After Kelly died, a selection of his magazine articles and newspaper columns was collected in a single volume titled "Things Worth Fighting For." The book closes with emails Kelly wrote to his editors, his parents, his wife and his young sons.
I imagine those boys must be teenagers now. They should know their father is not at all forgotten, and very much missed.