Michael Kelly was born in Washington, D.C., in 1957, and grew up on Capitol Hill, one of four siblings. His father, Tom, was for many years a political reporter, White House reporter, and columnist with The Washington Daily News, and later worked for Vista and as a freelance writer of books and magazine articles. His mother, Marguerite, was involved in local Democratic politics, and later became the author of books and a syndicated column on raising children.
After graduating with a degree in history in 1979 from the University of New Hampshire, Kelly worked for several years as a researcher, booker, and associate producer for ABC’s Good Morning America. From 1983 until 1986, he was a reporter and feature writer for The Cincinnati Post, covering crime, local and state politics, and special projects. His work for the Post won numerous Associated Press and UPI awards.
Kelly was hired by The Baltimore Sun in 1986, and worked for three years in that newspaper’s Washington bureau, covering the Iran-Contra affair and national politics. During the 1988 presidential election, he covered the campaigns of Jesse Jackson and Michael Dukakis. In 1989, Kelly quit the Sun to become a freelance writer and moved to Chicago. He wrote for The Boston Globe, GQ, and Esquire, among other publications. Kelly also covered the Gulf War as a freelance reporter, writing for the Globe, GQ, and The New Republic. His frontline dispatches for The New Republic won a National Magazine Award and an Overseas Press Club award. He expanded his war coverage into a book, Martyr’s Day: Chronicle of a Small War, which was published by Random House in 1992 and won the PEN-Martha Albrand award and a New York Times Notable Books listing.
In the spring of 1992, Kelly went to work at The New York Times as a political reporter. He first briefly covered the campaign of Ross Perot, then that of Bill Clinton. He worked briefly as a White House correspondent, and then moved to the Times Magazine, where he worked for a year writing cover stories on Bill and Hillary Clinton, David Gergen, and life in the Gaza Strip under Yasir Arafat’s new regime.
Kelly left the Times to accept a job as the Washington editor of The New Yorker, where he wrote the magazine’s regular Letter From Washington, covered the Bosnian conflict as a foreign correspondent through the summer of 1995, and filed campaign-trail dispatches on the 1996 presidential race. He left The New Yorker in the fall of 1996 to become editor of The New Republic, and to write the TRB column for that magazine. He was fired from The New Republic in the fall of 1997 after a philosophical disagreement with the owner.
In November of that year, Kelly joined National Journal as a weekly columnist, and also signed up to write a different weekly column for The Washington Post Writers’ Group. His Post column was carried in twenty-four newspapers around the country, as well as in the Post itself. In July 1998, following the departure of National Journal editor Steve Smith to US News and World Report, Kelly accepted the position of editor of National Journal.
In February 2000 he became the editor of The Atlantic Monthly and moved to Swampscott, Massachusetts, with his family. In 2002 he became editor at large of The Atlantic.
Michael Kelly died on April 3, 2003, while on assignment in Iraq, the first American reporter killed during the conflict. He is survived by his wife, Madelyn, and two children, Tamzin and Jack.
After his death, a collection of Kelly’s articles and columns were published in the book Things Worth Fighting For.
Mike Kelly was the fifth intern I brought down from the journalism and communications departments of my alma mater, the University of New Hampshire. Each student was impressive in their own right, chosen from some big stack of seniors about to be released into the marketplace. They each arrived early and polished, having discarded their standard-issue New England work boots for lace-up shoes. Mike was two days late, disheveled, with ripped sneakers, and on crutches. Our building was full of stairs. He hobbled. At ABC News, we generally ran everywhere and often. The school adviser suggested I give him a chance.
He was hired as my intern but nanoseconds later all the bookers and producers were taking their cues from this uproariously funny, Colomboesque character who had “news” running through his veins. It didn’t take long before Good Morning America had the foresight to steal him away; and soon after that, when I went to work at Nightline, he went on to beat me at every story on which we competed. More infuriating was his apology for having done so. I wanted to hate him except that I loved him. Loved him. And no one could make us laugh—that right-from-the-belly, crazy, stomach-crunching laugh—more than Mike Kelly. When he left TV for his “true love,” newspapers, Ted Koppel told us to say good-bye—this kid was going somewhere big and fast.
— Susan Mercandetti
In the mid-1980s, I landed at The Cincinnati Post, a dying afternoon daily. Mike Kelly was already there. He wasn’t famous yet. He was just Mike, writing the kind of stories that would soon get him to The Baltimore Sun. Until then, he served as a veteran reporter, showing me the ropes. He told me Cincinnati was so boring he called it “the city that always sleeps.” He described the invisible machine on the city desk called the Dullitron, which ripped all the life from your copy. From there, he said, editors sent the story to the Inaccurizer on the copy desk, to make sure it was both dull and wrong before getting into the paper.
We spent one sweltering summer in the city’s impoverished Over-the-Rhine neighborhood, writing one of those never-ending 14-part newspaper series. It meant many afternoons digging through the city’s housing code files, but the transgressions of slumlords weren’t the only things that caught Mike’s eye. He described in colorful detail the soon-to-retire housing code officer napping at his desk as we worked, awaking occasionally to wave around a copy of a long-neglected complaint and declare in astonishment that it was still hanging around, years later. We had plenty of evidence of slumlord wrongdoings to fill an entire story and we mostly did, but Mike made sure to get that guy in the lede.
— Mary Kane
When Michael was a young single guy working in Cincinnati—he referred to the Midwest as a region “where gravy is considered a beverage”—he went through a long romantic dry spell. Finally, he snagged a date with a gorgeous young blonde and took her out to a fancy restaurant. Michael was an oenophile so he showed off by ordering a good burgundy. That’s when his date revealed that she thought burgundy was named that because of its color. “I stayed very, very quiet,” Michael recalled, “trying to figure out if I should tell her or if that would ruin my chances.” Long pause. “I didn’t tell her.”
— Maureen Dowd
Mike was a general assignment reporter at The Cincinnati Post in the mid-80s cutting his teeth on print journalism after a brief detour into network morning television when we first met at the airport. I had flown in from Maryland to interview for a job at the paper and the editors must not have realized Mike’s rusted-out Celica was on the verge of disintegration. He advised me to keep my feet up as I watched Interstate 75 speed past through the jagged softball-sized hole in the front passenger floor. He then gave me a 30-minute lecture about my future employer’s myriad weaknesses, the lazy, if eccentric, newsroom cast, and what a dreadful place button-down Cincinnati was for a young single man. I was immediately charmed. He had a way of engaging those around him whether they were sources or colleagues. He had that twinkle in his eye, that quick wit. The power to win over strangers was one of his most effective journalistic tools. When we were both recruited to work at The Baltimore Sun in 1986, he was sent to Towson and stayed long enough for a cup of coffee. He talked his way into the paper’s investigation into the death of University of Maryland basketball star Len Bias. Then the Iran-contra case. It was not long after that he was covering presidential politics and the first Gulf War.
Of course, Mike was the real deal, not some poseur with a patter. He always worked harder than anyone else in the newsroom, as a fact-gatherer and writer making that extra phone call or rewrite long after everyone else was gone for the day. He took on bigger challenges, landed dream jobs, won acclaim for his work. But he was always just Mike. He was the guy who stripped wallpaper from his house in Chevy Chase, loved to play on the beach at Cape May Point with his young sons, and once stood on the top floor of a Queen City parking garage at midnight with a six-pack and a few friends wondering how a 28-year-old guy could ever escape the misery of southwestern Ohio. He did escape—but not in his Toyota, by the way. His mechanic finally decided it was unsafe at any speed and junked it despite his customer’s protests. Mike couldn’t seduce quite everyone.
— Peter Jensen
In 1988, Michael was covering the campaign for The Baltimore Sun and showed up on the Jesse Jackson campaign, and hoping for an interview with the candidate. To his surprise, Rev. Jackson welcomed him warmly, inviting him to sit up front with him, and regaled him with behind-the-scene tidbits. After a couple of days of this unprecedented access, which made the other reporting stiffs on the beat a little green, Michael was boarding the plane one day when the Reverend hailed him once again—this time by name. “Mr. Dionne!” he said. “How are you today?” (As in, E.J. Dionne, who at the time was quite The New York Times swell. Both men were of modest stature and wore glasses, but that’s where the resemblance ended.) Faced with the dilemma before him, Michael did what any conflicted reporter would do. He replied: “I’m fine, Reverend. And you?”
— Gwen Ifill
Once, when Jesse Jackson was a presidential candidate, Michael had to go to Jackson’s hotel suite to interview him for a profile. Jackson was still asleep. An aide ushered a surprised Michael into the darkened bedroom. Michael had some sensitive questions to ask. He wanted to grill Jackson about conflicting stories about when Jesse got Martin Luther King Jr.’s blood on his shirt after the assassination. So Michael did not want to scream his questions from across the room. He tried talking to Jackson from the end of the bed, but the sleepy candidate was mumbling his answers into his pillow. Michael had to draw closer and closer to the bed so he could hear, finally perching on the end of the bed to take notes. But he still could not catch everything Jackson was saying. “So I lay down right next to him, with my head on the pillow next to his head on the pillow,” Michael recalled. “And that’s how we did the interview.” Michael would do anything to get a story.
— Maureen Dowd
In 1988, Mike was covering the Dukakis campaign for The Baltimore Sun and in an act of almost unimaginable recklessness, he agreed to go on C-SPAN at 7 a.m., from a studio wherever we were, to talk about politics and the November election results. And in one more act of recklessness, we went out to a very late post-campaign celebration dinner the evening before, where there was much wine, before rolling into bed. Admirably, Mike made it to the studio on time the next morning. But he was not, as he later acknowledged, at the top of his game. There he sat on C-SPAN live, taking questions, when Steve Scully, who was C-SPAN’s very sharp political editor, turned to draw on his political expertise. “So Mike,” Steve said, as Mike squinted his eyes. “What do you make of the election of Evan Bayh in Indiana?” Mike, as you can imagine, hadn’t jumped from bed to study the morning newspapers before going on the show, and had not watched much television the night before. “Well Steve,” Mike answered authoritatively. “Frankly I don’t put that much significance into the election of Evan Bayh at all. No. Not at all.” Steve peered across the desk at Mike. “So, Mike,” Steve said. “You do not put any significance into Indiana electing its first Democrat as governor since 1968?” Long pause. “Ooooooh,” Kelly responded. “You mean THAT Evan Bayh.”
— Adam Nagourney
On March 27th of this year I was booked onto NPR in Connecticut to discuss something like The Role of Editors in Today’s Digital World. Nothing to it, right? Just work 16 hours a day in five media categories, tweet about it in your sleep, and arise and repeat. Imagine how good an indefatigable fellow like Mike Kelly would have been at it! So I dialed into the show and the producer put me on hold, in anticipation of my interview. As often happens in those circumstances, the “hold” music was the show itself, at full roar with the guest who preceded me—Victor Navasky. When I was a young pup journalist, Victor was, of course, the full-throated leader of the left, a movement that was destined to control political discourse for the foreseeable future, right? So I listened with interest as he told the story of a poor scribe—I’d missed the name—who was asked by a magazine—he didn’t mention which one—to cover a swinger scene that was resurgent at the time the article was assigned. So the writer went out and reported the article faithfully—swinger clubs, sex hotels, vibrator parties—and turned in a vivid, seamy tale of desperation and depravity. But it seems there was a problem with the piece as written. Then Navasky quoted the editor directly, telling the writer that he had captured the scene and practitioners with uncanny accuracy, correctly limning the swingers in question as a seedy, embarrassing bunch, lost in their own libidos. But the editor was recalled to have said: “At my magazine, we have a word for that kind of man.” “What’s that?” asked the writer. “Our readers.”
The host and Victor guffawed, and by now I had caught on to the joke: The writer was Mike Kelly, and the editor was…me, about five years into my career as a soft-core pornographer and editor of fine writing by Mike, at Playboy. I like to think of this as a prank played by Mike, on me, from the great beyond. The timing, and coincidence, are in fact extraordinary. And it’s a beautiful tale of a writer’s revenge for a piece so accurate that it was completely inappropriate for the audience he was attempting to fire it off at. If I’d tried to sneak that one by Hef it might have been the last piece I ever edited for Playboy. Perhaps I should have tried. On the other hand, it would have deprived me of another chance to interact with Mike, across the many years I’ve been missing him—as a writer, as a friend. But in this instance I say: “You win, Mike. Thanks for the great piece I didn’t publish.” It was an extraordinary coincidence to have the story told on me, as Mike must have told it to Navasky, but then, so many of the stories he told were ones to relish, howl over, and pass along carefully.
— Peter Moore
When Michael, who by the way had one of the worst senses of direction I’ve ever encountered in anyone, much less such an accomplished foreign correspondent, first asked me to travel overland with him into Kuwait as the ground war began in early ’91, we had two gas masks between us, but no chemical suit to protect against the stuff that was supposed to penetrate your skin. So the plan, if it came to that, was to roll up the windows nice and tight on our SUV and hope for the best. A day or so later, as we’re bouncing across the desert, wondering if we’ve yet crossed the border and watching the horizon for soldiers, it began to rain. When we tried to roll up the windows, the one on the passenger side wouldn’t budge. Michael and I, who as road warriors functioned sort of like an old married couple from an episode of “I Love Lucy,” then had a conversation something like this. “Hey, the window’s stuck.” “It won’t come up at all?” “Not an inch. It’s way down in the door.” “Well, there goes our great fucking defense against chemical weapons.” Then we laughed, which is pretty much all you can do unless you want to drive yourself nuts with small worries. And that’s what I remember best about Michael from those days. However grim or bizarre things got, he never lost his ability to appreciate the absurdities of life and fate, especially with regard to the terrible follies of war.
— Dan Fesperman
During the 1991 Gulf War, Mike mostly worked as a freelancer for impecunious outlets like The New Republic. He thus often lived off the land, bumming rooms, rides and Satphones from colleagues at news organizations with deep pockets. Those of us in his thrall happily obliged. Mike showed up in my hotel room in Kuwait City hours after U.S. and other troops had liberated the city from Iraqi forces. Mike soon liberated several bottles of Johnnie Walker, and then several more, and our room became party central for a press corps without a bar. My roommate, of course, officiated. Mike declared a target rich environment for reporters, and he was right. After the cease fire, U.S. soldiers who towed our car from a ditch told Mike of a six-lane highway blocked by hundreds of bombed vehicles, many filled with charred corpses of Iraqi soldiers. We were the first reporters to reach the so-called Highway of Death, and it produced searing images of that war. A day or so later, we found the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers restoring one of the emir’s palaces, complete with silk pillows and gold faucets, while most of the city still lacked water and electricity. Each day was another road trip, another adventure. I didn’t see Mike’s published work until weeks later. I was amazed—and humbled—to discover he had seen more, heard more, and understood more in every story we had covered. To this day, I’ve never had such fun being beaten.
— Bob Drogin
Whenever I find myself in disgrace with Fortune and Deadlines, I summon the words of Mike Kelly: “This story has the best of all possible qualities: Done-ness!” I think, too, of his over-the-top imitation of Johnny Apple, in the restaurant of the Capital Hotel in Little Rock. In the mists-of-too-good-to-check memory, Mike posed for a timorous wine-steward as the great New York Times scribbler-tippler himself, and said something like, “Be off with you, me lad, and look lively!” Mike brief, brave, belligerent life on this earth was done too soon. But his cussed Celtic spirit lives on, wherever courageous men and women strive to ask the most important questions—the ones without answers—and to tell the most important stories—the ones that never end. He will be always with us, even unto the close of the age.
— Todd S. Purdum
I once had the honor of sitting next to Hillary Clinton at a dinner and it would tickle Mike Kelly to know that she spent a good half of that dinner talking about a piece Mike had written about her in the Times Magazine. She was, I think it is fair to say, less than enchanted. Mike embodied honesty and a fullness of feeling; he was not a withdrawn or calculating man. But he was human. And I think it would also tickle Mike to recall not only his triumphs at The New Yorker, which were manifest, but also his most spectacular goof. I reprint the correction here, from August 14, 1995, in full. Correction: A mistake made by a transcription service mangled a quotation from William Bennett in Michael Kelly’s July 17 “Letter from Washington.” In criticizing the political views of Patrick Buchanan, Mr. Bennett said, “it’s a real us-and-them kind of thing,” not, as we reported, “it’s a real S & M kind of thing.” And yet, what really is the difference? It goes without saying that Mike’s family and friends and colleagues all miss him; so does journalism.
— David Remnick
Mike Kelly was on the phone: He was coming to Charlotte, and wanted to borrow my car. He had misplaced his driver’s license. Or let it expire. Whatever the reason, he couldn’t rent a car. So he needed mine for a day, to get around Charlotte and Asheville. It was 1996, and he had promised Tina Brown a New Yorker piece on the Jesse Helms-Harvey Gantt rematch in North Carolina — and on how the state’s newspapers were covering it. Mike and I had become friends in the early ’80s, when we both did time at the now defunct Cincinnati Post. He was a star reporter/writer even then, but he was also something else: Terrific company. Mike told the best jokes, found the best bars and restaurants, and, at one New Year’s Eve party, stole the show with his version of a Three Stooges-inspired song-and-dance called “The Curly Shuffle.” After The Post, I went to cover politics at The Charlotte Observer, and ran into Mike mostly at Democratic and Republican conventions. But now he was coming to Carolina. The headline of Mike’s visit? Age and his world travels had mellowed him a bit, but we still had a blast. OK, he did go on to rip my newspaper in The New Yorker for committing “civic journalism” in its Helms-Gantt coverage. But hey—he picked up the tab for our night out at a very expensive French restaurant (think lots of fine wine), we traded funny stories about old colleagues, editors, and politicians. And on his way out of town, Mike left me with one last laugh. “With admiration and friendship,” he wrote in my copy of his book, Martyrs’ Day, “from a fellow escapee of The Cincinnati Post.”
— Tim Funk
On Mike’s first day as editor of The New Republic, I walked into his office wearing jeans and a t-shirt, which was how I’d dressed since coming to TNR. But since I didn’t know him, and was now his managing editor, I figured that things might change. He was older than most of the staff, and an established journalistic figure, and if I remember correctly, he was wearing a jacket. So after we chatted for a while I asked him if he had any expectations about how he wanted me to dress. In dead earnest, he said, “I’d like you to wear a frock.” I knew then that the Kelly era was going to be fun.
— Peter Beinart
When Mike was editor of National Journal, one of my favorite parts of the week was when we would kick around ideas for the magazine’s cover. The magazine had a reputation for being a bit stodgy, but Mike soon remedied that. To depict a story on President Clinton’s state visit to China, Mike had an illustrator draw Clinton in a tuxedo and Jiang Zemin in a prom dress, sitting side by side at a soda fountain, smitten with each other and sipping from straws in the same drink. An article on the prospects of a woman president spurred a cover illustration of a female chief executive in the Oval Office with her feet up on her desk. The illustrator had put a sign on the desk reading “The Buck Stops Here.” Mike had him redraw the sign so that “Buck” had a line through it and “Doe” was scrawled in its place. But my favorite was the cover he commissioned before the start of the Clinton impeachment hearings in the House. It was done in the style of a movie poster and featured a drawing of the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee in a black robe with a gavel. “The Inquiry,” it read, “starring Henry Hyde as the Solomonic Solon! …. A Clinton-Gingrich Production. Screenplay by Kenneth Starr. Based on a Story by Monica Lewinsky.” A few weeks later, William Safire wrote about Mike’s “Solomonic Solon” turn-of-phrase in his “On Language” column. A poster-size copy of the cover still hangs above my desk.
— Charles Green
While covering the White House in the late 1990s, I was writing a cover story for National Journal on “the politics of personal destruction.” It was a phrase popularized by the Clintons, but also a tactic employed by them, a paradox I was exploring in my piece. Michael, who was NJ’s editor by then, had made the same point his Washington Post column—with all the subtlety of a shillelagh-wielding combatant. “The vast wreckage about us,” he wrote in a much-discussed column, “is one man’s work.” Mike was talking, of course, about Bill Clinton. This was, shall we say, an oversimplification, which some of the sources I was interviewing pointed out to me. This made me think I should mention that Kelly column in my piece, and gently debunk it, as a way of illustrating how historic myopia exacerbated the problem. Charlie Green, my immediate editor, asked me if we really needed to impeach the credibility of our own editor-in-chief, but I dug in my heels a little bit on it—and thereby found myself, seated alongside Charlie, in Mike’s office. I quickly realized that my debunking had perhaps been too tactful. “I don’t understand why I’m in this piece,” Mike said to us. “Is Carl agreeing with me, or disagreeing with me?” Assured that I was disagreeing with him, and why, Michael said cheerfully, “Oh, I see. Then let’s make the point more strongly.” Charlie and I had worked a long time together by then, for many editors—none of whom would have reacted like that. Hiding a smile under his mustache, Charlie got up and went back to work. Michael motioned me to stay for a moment. He asked me several questions about the origins of modern incivility in official Washington, and we talked about it awhile. “Good,” he said. “Thank you.” He was thanking me, I decided later, for telling him something he didn’t know—for telling him the truth— because when it came to journalism nothing mattered to him more.
— Carl M. Cannon
It was a moment in the National Journal newsroom that is indelibly etched in my mind. President Clinton was facing impeachment, and Mike, late in the week, conferred with John Sullivan, and they decided to put out a quick turnaround special issue. I think it may have been the first time we had done something like that. It required all hands on deck, working late through the weekend. Mike was in his element, loving every minute of this dramatic episode about which he had written ferociously (did he ever do anything other than ferociously) as he skewered Clinton in one column after another in The Washington Post. Mike assigned me the story on why impeachment was wrong-headed. I consulted with him, labored over it and produced what I thought was a pretty good argument that sex in the Oval Office was not an impeachable offense. I filed the story with Mike—and he proceeded to do something that no other editor has ever done for me. He transformed my pretty good argument into a really superb article. It still had my byline on it, but Mike had juiced the top of it and made it sing. Of course, Mike didn’t believe a word of the argument—which made it all the more remarkable. I got lots of compliments on the story. I confess that I did not disabuse the folks who praised the article of the notion that it was my work. But, really, it was Mike’s. I later told him that I was getting all those kudos for his wizardry. He just laughed.
— Kirk Victor
I met Mike for the first time on the day he arrived to take over as editor of The Atlantic Monthly. I had known his work for years, of course: those unforgettable reports from the Gulf War; those sharp, rollicking portraits of the Clintons, Ted Kennedy, and many others. When he spoke to the Atlantic staff, he was empathetic, smart, and funny. It was not an easy situation. And then he invited me out to lunch. We went to a favorite staff restaurant, Mauricio’s, in the North End—it’s still there—and took a table in a corner. We talked for a couple of hours. My memories are likely distorted somewhat—it can’t really be the case (can it?) that the first half of the lunch consisted of Mike, in full mimic mode, channeling Tina Brown, the editor of The New Yorker when he had worked there. And then at some point the conversation turned more serious, and to talk about journalism in general and reporting in particular. Mike brought up the notion of the “airplane story”—a term I hadn’t heard before. It was something to be on guard against. The airplane story, Mike said, was the story you wrote in your head on the airplane while on your way to report that very story. It was hard to avoid the temptation to write the airplane story, he went on—it’s everyone’s natural tendency, and in many areas of life—but it’s a trap. Either it blinds you to other realities, or it’s simply wrong. What’s more, readers can usually tell that this is what you’ve done, even if they can’t quite put their reaction into words. “Don’t write the airplane story.” Those five words come to mind just about every day.
— Cullen Murphy
I had been away from The Atlantic for three years, and was very much at odds with its then-owner, when I got the news in 1999 that David Bradley had bought the magazine and was bringing in Michael Kelly as its new editor. All of us who had worked with, learned from, and revered Bill Whitworth in his time as editor since 1980 found it hard even to imagine what the Atlantic might look like under leadership different from his—and it was hard in particular to imagine people whose temperaments, leadership styles, and tones in their own writing were more different than Bill Whitworth and Mike Kelly. Even I was disoriented—“even,” in that I had no ongoing connection with the magazine at that point. I didn’t expect that I would again, given that Mike Kelly and I had already had a number of public disagreements. We had taken opposite sides—him in his New Republic and Washington Post incarnations, me at the Atlantic and U.S. News—on whether the Clinton impeachment effort made sense, and the same for the Clinton health care plan, and on what was wrong with the D.C. journalistic culture, and the pluses and minuses of Al Gore, and a lot of other things. Also, I was living in Berkeley at this point, and he was in Washington and about to move to Boston. But he called and said we should talk; this was part of his effort to absorb Atlantic culture from the Ralph Waldo Emerson era onward, of which I was an antique part. We had lunch in D.C., in which he managed to convey a variety of difficult messages in what seemed—at the time, and afterwards—an entirely jovial, wine-fueled (on his side) and beer-fueled (on mine) hours-long discussion of what was wrong with politics, and what was wrong with journalism, and how the combination of those two wrongs gave the Atlantic a historic chance. The difficult messages included: we do disagree; and the reality is that in journalism you always have a boss; and I am the boss now; but I want everyone to do better work than they have felt capable of before; and I’d like to see if you can do that work with me. I left feeling—as I have since then—tremendously grateful to him for including me in the community he was re-creating at The Atlantic, and aware of the pressure he relentlessly applied to make stories more detailed, more original, more honest, funnier, better than we might have been satisfied with.
— James Fallows
The first big story I did under Mike’s auspices was a piece in 2000 about Al Gore’s phenomenal (up to that point) success as a political debater, as a prelude to his showdown with George W. Bush. Almost every day Mike was on the phone asking what new tidbits I had found, which new sources I might call, what ways we could imagine to make the story as good as it could possibly be. When the story came out, three months before the election, the cover image was a portrait of Al Gore … as Dracula, with a drop of blood flowing (subtly) from an exposed canine tooth beneath his upturned snarling lip. The cover line was, “An Acquired Taste.” I got an outraged phone call from the Gore campaign team (and heard about it from Gore himself eight years later), and I called Mike to say, “Hey …. interesting cover image!” He just started laughing and said, “I know, I know. But isn’t it wonderful!” Actually it was, and I knew that he had charmed, inspired, scared, and enticed me into doing a story that was much better than it would otherwise have been.
— James Fallows
The first time that I met Michael Kelly was in the fall of 2000, in the lobby of one of the most elegant hotels in the world: The Lanesborough, in London. All marble, mahogany, and richly textured carpets and drapes. Quiet conversation among lords and ladies, and butlers gliding through the room. Amidst the finery stood Michael, rumpled and wrinkled and hair on end. He wore a sweater pushed up to the elbows—overstretched and full of pills—corduroys, and work boots. He looked so out of place in those surroundings, and out of sync with the corporate executive retreat that we were launching that afternoon. But that was Michael—himself in any setting, uncaring about
appearances and social mores, comfortable in his own skin. Across that afternoon, I saw Michael’s real gifts—the intelligence, humor, warmth, and charm. The core so unique and beautiful that the exterior was wholly inconsequential. (And his exterior in the following days much improved, thanks to the personal valet assigned to him, who had unpacked his bags and sent everything for cleaning and pressing—a story and outcome that tickled Michael to no end.) That scene was repeated at the Hotel Bel-Air, The Carlyle, and the villas of St. Barth. Across that time, I had another insight about Michael—he surely liked the finer things in life. Sometimes too much. After a particularly grand night of French food and wine on St. Barth, Michael sheepishly told me that he had done the unthinkable—missed the deadline for his weekly syndicated column. His editor was unforgiving, and Michael was kicking himself for not having a column or two tucked away for emergencies. “Goddamn George Will has two pieces on baseball sitting on his shelf right now.” Michael took pleasure and found humor in all that life offered. He is missed as a colleague and friend.
— Elizabeth Baker Keffer
Mike excelled at stating whatever he decided to be the obvious. If you were not careful, this could redirect the course of your life. It was right around the first inauguration of George W. Bush that it redirected the course of mine. Mike had offered me a job at National Journal, and I had made a day trip to D.C. to discuss the specifics. I was thinking, I might start within the next few months. He was thinking, I’d started already. Needless to say, his thinking prevailed. In retrospect, I shouldn’t have bothered mentioning the Amtrak home, to which he casually replied: “Oh, you should just stay down here.” But I still had everything in New York—my job, my apartment, my p.j.’s. “So what? Bush will be starting, you’ll be starting, it fits.” But what about my current boss . . . “He’ll understand.” Even conceding this—as I instantly did, because Mike said it in such a way that it seemed true—there was the unsettling combo of having nothing to say about the new administration, plus nowhere to sleep as it took power. “Oh, you can live with my parents.” Of course! Soon, I was knocking on the thick Victorian doors of his family’s home on Constitution Avenue. I had been taken in not just by Mike, but by the late, great Tom and his Marguerite—who both promptly set to advising me on the ways of our nation’s capital with a kind, sweet authority that already felt familiar.
— Tish Durkin
It’s pre-9/11, and publishing as always is pushing toward the short and dumb. Michael Kelly is new to The Atlantic. I am sitting with him in Boston, discussing doing a piece on the strange difficulty that the Army has in deploying peacekeepers around the world. The problem for us, I say, is that the subject would require months of reporting both in the U.S. and overseas. And it would require at least 10,000 words. Kelly looks at me pityingly. He says, “You take the time. I’ll spend the money. We’ll run the piece twice that long.” Then it’s the afternoon of 9/11, 2001, and Kelly’s on the phone. He keeps saying, “This is big! This is really big!” I say, “Take it easy, Mike.” He answers, “No, but this is REALLY big!” He’s a risk-taker—that much is already clear. But a few days later when I find a foothold inside the cleanup of the World Trade Center, even I am surprised by his willingness to plunge the magazine into such an open-ended and mundane unknown. Sure, emotions are high. But a six-month stay at an excavation site? I myself have doubts, but he insists. We stick it out. In the end, Mike publishes 70,000 words on the subject. Ten years after his death, my point is neither the length of that piece nor the subject. My point is Michael Kelly as an editor and a man.
— William Langewiesche
Among the many images of Mike that remain happily lodged in my consciousness, there is one that I particularly treasure. It was a half-hour or so before the first of what would become annual Fourth of July parties that Mike and Max would host at their wonderful, seaside home in Swampscott. Mike had asked me and Maureen to arrive a little early, and, as we pulled up to the house, there in front of us was one of the most hilarious sights I have ever encountered. Mike was leaning out the kitchen window and waving, but he was almost unrecognizable. His hair, face, and shirt were spectacularly
encrusted with cooking ingredients; his compact body was a riot of mustard, tomatoes, fish stock, and barbecue sauce. He looked like he hadn’t slept in a week. “I’ve been cooking for two straight days,” he told us cheerfully, motioning to the 75 pounds of salmon and 100 pounds of barbecue beef he had insisted on preparing all by himself. “I’m running a little behind.” It was a pure Michael Kelly moment: A couple of hundred party guests would be arriving in a matter of minutes, and there he was in all his disorganized, lovably chaotic glory—un-showered, unshaven, largely undressed, once again pushing right up to the edge of an imminent deadline. And yet Mike had this big, mischievous, unabashedly joyous grin on his face—the grin of a young boy who had gotten himself into yet another jam, the grin of a middle-aged man who loved to throw himself into things with his whole being. It was a grin that said, “Oh, yes, I realize I have made quite a mess of things for the moment, but I know deep down I can make it turn out well in the end.” And so he did. That night the party went off without a hitch. The food was delicious, and few of the guests had the barest inkling of how close
things had come to Independence Day calamity.
— Robert Vare
During one of the Kelly family’s summers in Cape May – I think it was in 2002, which would have been their last – I thought I would do something in keeping with the panache and adventure of Mike’s own style. I’d been an active pilot for several years, I had a small airplane, and I flew from D.C. to the nice little airport in Cape May to talk journalism with Mike—and then to give him and the boys a ride. We talked about articles for awhile—I turned down the offer of a beer, knowing that we had the sightseeing ride ahead—and drove the family out to the airport. I showed the boys how to strap themselves into the back seat and arrange their headsets so they could follow the air-traffic control chatter, and I attempted to do the same with Mike in the front. We taxied down to the beginning of the runway, announced our intentions on the radio frequency—and took off, on a beautiful day along the Atlantic shore. About two minutes in, I noticed that two things were amiss. One is that Mike, unlike his little sons, hadn’t really managed to strap himself in—or else, in his enthusiasm, had wriggled his way out of the belt. The other is that somehow the door on his side of the plane had come ajar. It wasn’t really dangerous—the oncoming air flow would have made it hard to open the door, and the air that day was so smooth that the seat belts didn’t really matter. But I tried to feign the patented unflappable-pilot tone so familiar from the airlines and The Right Stuff—“let’s take a little look at that door now”—while not wanting to interfere with Mike’s joy in another adventure that he and the boys were sharing. The joy among the three of them—and Max, when we returned—is what I will not forget.
— James Fallows
The last time I saw Michael was at a public event The Atlantic held in New York. He always kept a sense of humor about the magazine’s storied history—in fact, made a point of infusing the magazine with it. During a break, a writer approached him and mentioned she had an idea for an article involving Lincoln; might the magazine be interested? By all means, pitch it, said Michael. “We at The Atlantic are second to none in our coverage of the Lincoln administration.”
— Jonathan Rauch
In the weeks leading up to the Iraq invasion of 2003, Mike Kelly could invariably be found in a corner of the 3rd Infantry Division’s Command Post, observing and scribbling furiously into his notepad. Whenever the division’s headquarters staff of lieutenant colonels and majors changed shifts, Mike would pepper them with questions. Who developed the battle plan? What were the going-in assumptions? How did the soldiers feel about the policy guiding this war, and would that affect the way they fought? So gentle was Kelly’s questioning, interspersed as it was with jokes and stories about family, that many 3rd ID staff officers only realized much later that Kelly was actually interviewing them. In the final days before the invasion everyone was homesick and on edge. At one point in that dreadful purgatory of waiting, Mike and Lt. Col. Peter Bayer, the 3rd ID Operations Officer, were having one of their heart-to-hearts. Bayer, a tall and ramrod-straight soldier with piercing eyes, confided to Kelly that he had a nightmare the night before that they had all been hit by chemical weapons, the entire division disappearing in his dream into a poison cloud. Michael Kelly recounted his own recent nightmare, one that had recurred throughout his entire career. “It’s always the same,” Mike said. “I wake up to find that somehow I missed the big story.”
— James Kitfield
At the end of March, in 2003, I was working on a story for The New York Times about embedded reporters and the Iraq war. I called Mike, who was rolling with the 3rd Infantry, along with Ted Koppel. It was hard to hear him because they were in the midst of a sandstorm. They were pinned down by the storm, and grit was being blasted into every available crack, which made for a rough day of reporting. Mike still took the call, helped me with the story, both in terms of providing rhetoric and—ever the editor—some thoughts about the story as well. He even handed off the phone to Koppel so he could give a quote. We chatted for a while about what made him leave the office of The Atlantic and put himself out in a desert where sand was working its way into many places on his person where it did not belong. Reflexively, at the end of the conversation, I said, “Thanks a bunch, Michael. I hope you guys have a nice day.” Michael pulled away from the phone and shouted to Koppel over the wind. “Carr says we should have a nice day!” Koppel walked over to the phone and he and Mike apparently rehearsed their response. Together, they shouted into the phone. “Fuck off!” It was the last time I spoke to Michael, but I’m pretty sure he meant it in a nice way.
— David Carr