April 4, 2003

Michael Kelly R.I.P.

With very few exceptions, every Wednesday for the past five years has meant an opportunity to devour the latest Michael Kelly column, which I have done with great relish. So I was stunned and saddened to hear today that he was killed in a vehicle accident in Iraq yesterday, along with two U.S. soldiers. From all accounts, he died doing what he loved; that is, reporting. An accomplished editor and author, he could have opted for safer duty, but he wanted to be in Iraq.

Since I didn't know him, save through his column, my sadness has a selfish feel. I won't be able to read him anymore. His death is no more or less tragic, of course, than those of the two as yet unnamed American boys that died with him, or any of the other combat deaths on both sides of this war. The "loss" I feel is a sense of the loss of his gifts of candor, courage, wit and independence to the world of American journalism, and of the clarity that he brought to readers on a wide variety of subjects through his prose.

Several of his colleagues have already offered up eulogies of sorts, as in the "mini-tributes" penned today by several NRO staffers found here, and here, and here.

In a longer piece on Opinionjournal.com, Peggy Noonan has posted her thoughts on Kelly's passing, and Jonah Goldberg remarks that:

if he wasn't the journalist I admired most in Washington, he had to be close. Virtually, overnight he made The Atlantic and The New Republic amazing, must-read magazines. In college, I read his war reportage from the first Gulf War religiously.

Howard Kurtz' obit says Kelly was a conservative and I suppose that's right. But I never really saw him as one. Rather, I always perceived him as an old style blue collar Democrat whose B.S. detector pushed him to the right on specific issues. Whatever, his columns were tough as nails, but he always explained where he was coming from.......But Kelly was also an intellectually gifted man with a profound sense of decency, or at least that's the impression I always got from his work.... He was one of the really good guys, he believed in the rightness of what America is doing and in the goodness of America in general and he wasn't afraid to say so. His passing is a terrible, terrible loss.

Howard Kurtz writes the obit for the Washington Post, and Andrew Sullivan talks about his friend from days at TNR.

Michael Kelly first came to my attention in 1998 when he became conspicuous as one of few established Democrat journalists with a willingness to recognize, and to chronicle for America what was becoming obvious to most Americans at the time, while still being denied or ignored by the media and the other liberal "faithful". That is, that Bill Clinton was a serial liar, an abuser of power, and presided over an administration that was utterly corrupt, and corrupting of others.

Kelly's willingness to say so, with no holds barred and with consistent eloquence, made him a hero to conservatives like me who were appalled at the Clintons' mendacity and gall, but were roundly accused of "partisanship" at best, or of being "Clinton-Haters", at worst.

I have archived favorite Kelly columns for all of those five years, and it is from that library, and also from the WaPo and JWR web archives that I assembled the small selection of Kelly's work which follows.

Kelly's classic piece, "I Believe" demonstrated the logical contortions one had to manage in order to believe the Clintons' White House line during the second term. Its worth reading in its entirety.

In his Washington Post column of 9/16/98, Kelly makes the case for impeachment:

On Sept. 11, as he awaited the release of a report that would, quite credibly, accuse him of perjury, abuse of office and obstructing justice, President Clinton, under cover of an apology, served notice that he was instructing his lawyers to "mount a vigorous defense, using all available appropriate arguments."

It is now clear what the president considers "appropriate": more lying. The euphemism is that the president's lawyers are engaging in "hairsplitting." No, they are engaging in lying, in perpetuating and elaborating Clinton's past lies, the lies he insists he regrets. In its depravity, in its cynicism, in its sneering disdain for the law and for truth, it is an astonishing thing to witness.
That Clinton, through his mouthpieces, continues to lie proves, finally, that he must be impeached. He must be impeached not merely because he is a pig and a cad and a selfish brute. He must be impeached not merely because he sexually exploited and then discarded an employee under his supervision, nor because he used government resources and personnel to facilitate and cover up his sorry little affair. He must be impeached not merely because he abused the office entrusted to him by the people.

He must be impeached because he shows an utter and absolute contempt for the truth and for the law he has twice sworn to uphold. He must be impeached because, in a judicial proceeding, he knowingly lied under oath with intent to deceive, because he was given a chance to correct that lie in a second judicial proceeding and he lied again, because he persists in lying even still. He must be impeached because, in his pathology, he does great and heartless violence to other people and to the nation, and because he has made it clear that he is perfectly prepared to do more violence. He must be impeached because to not impeach him is to declare that this is what we accept in a president. He must be impeached because we are a nation of laws, not liars.

After Clinton's televised "admission" of the Lewinsky affair, Kelly couldn't quite find an "apology":(8/19/98 Washington Post)

Bill Clinton went on television Monday night and admitted that he had "misled people," and had given "a false impression" in his seven months of public denial of a sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky. Because, you see, he did, actually, "have a relationship with Miss Lewinsky that was not appropriate." And, actually, this was not a good thing to have done: "In fact, it was wrong." And Clinton was "solely and completely responsible" for it.

Certainly true. You see, the president really sort of did give a false impression when, on Jan. 26, he wagged a scolding finger and said: "I want to say one thing to the American people. I want you to listen to me. I'm going to say this again: I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky." He really kind of did mislead people when he lied under oath, lied on camera, lied in private, lied in public, lied to the nation, lied to his wife, lied to his friends, lied to his Cabinet, lied to his staff, lied to his party, lied to the world, and sent out his staff and surrogates to lie on his lying behalf.

And, now that he mentions it, I guess our Bill really did do something a little bit wrong in exploiting a silly and star-struck young female employee as a sexual service station. And he maybe shouldn't have encouraged his girlfriend to join him in perjury. And he maybe also shouldn't have obliged Vernon Jordan and Bill Richardson and Betty Currie and Bruce Lindsey and the rest of the gang to help him hide his bit of Oval Office fun.

And it probably wasn't the perfectly moral thing, knowing that he was lying through his teeth, for the president to countenance a long and vicious campaign by his henchmen to savage those who were telling the truth. And it wasn't 100 percent appropriate to force all those innocent people to suffer through grand jury inquisition, and to trash the presidency, and to make fools out of Al Gore and Madeleine Albright and Paul Begala and James Carville and Mike McCurry and Ann Lewis and everyone else who insisted for seven months that the perjurer-in-chief was telling the truth. And, oh yes, groping Kathleen Willey when she came to the Oval Office to ask for a job was probably not a good thing to do. Maybe it wasn't right to lie about that also, and to sic the smear team on Kathy. Ditto Paula, ditto Gennifer. Sorry about all that.

No, not really. Our Bill has never really apologized for anything in his life, and he didn't now. He never used the words "I'm sorry," and he acknowledged "regret" only glancingly and euphemistically. Indeed, as he made quite clear, he wasn't sorry, except, as all adolescents are, for getting caught. His passing imitation of an apology lasted for all of one sentence. By contrast, he devoted nearly nine full paragraphs to offering excuses for his actions, to once again attacking Ken Starr and to urging that the mess he had created be put aside -- without, of course, any punishment for himself. The poor boy, he let us know, has suffered enough. This speech wasn't a mea culpa. It was an everybody-else culpa. It was an insult. It was pathetic....And it was a lie. Even in confessing his lying, Clinton lied.... 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.

When the Dems trotted out their lame Lewinsky-as-stalker "alternative scenario", Kelly's sarcasm and wit was in full flower:

The poor man. The poor victim. My God, how he must have suffered. Stalked through the halls of his own home, and nowhere to turn for protection. Nothing standing between him and a 21-year-old stalker armed with -- well never mind what she was armed with. Nothing except for his wife, his chief of staff, his deputy chief of staff, his secretary, his personal assistant, his special assistants, his National Security Council, his Marine guard, three dozen or so Secret Service agents and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. What's a president to do with a stalker but give her gifts, find her a lawyer and advance her career?

As to the Clinton legacy, Kelly does cite some of the positive achievements of the administration, but then wonders..

But do these accomplishments match in size the immense negative accomplishment of Clinton and his years, the destruction wrought by his terrible greed? In Clinton's nearly pathologically self-adoring view, the only stain on his record was that occasioned by the Lewinsky scandal, and that was really the fault of his enemies: He was a great president who made one little private mistake, was wrongly persecuted and impeached, but persevered -- making him not a disgrace but a hero, a savior of the Constitution.

But first, this is not what happened. What happened is that the president of the United States abused his office, abused the trust of the people, abused a young and vulnerable female employee, was threatened with exposure of this through the court-ordered questions routine in any sexual harassment case -- questions allowable under a law that the president himself had supported and that was enforced by his government. He then used his powers to orchestrate a campaign of perjury and obstruction of justice to hide his guilt. In other words, the president purposely subverted the law he was sworn to uphold and the law that, under his rule, governs the rest of us. To get away with this, he and his minions waged a war that damaged many lives and that profoundly corrupted the Democratic Party and liberalism in general. To preserve in power a man obviously guilty of illegal acts, Democrats and liberals supported the abuse of power, the abuse of women, the abuse of the law, the abuse of the truth, the abuse of the public trust.

And second, impeachment was not, to put it mildly, the only stain. A far greater and more consequential corruption was occasioned by the remarkable depths to which Clinton sank in his money-grubbing. Clinton was our first really openly rentable president, heading what the former Justice Department chief investigator Charles La Bella termed a "loose enterprise" conspiracy that blatantly sold access to the president and to high policy-making officials, with the clear chance to influence U.S. policy.

On the pardons, Kelly thinks Bill outdid even himself:

To the end, Clinton and his wife displayed a breathtaking contempt for the ethics of power. They abused authority and privilege in ways grand and petty, and simply did not care what anyone thought about it. In his last hours, Clinton committed what may have been his worst abuse ever, which is saying something. This, of course, was his conscious subversion of the presidential pardon system to hand out executive clemencies to Democratic donors and Democratic allies, fellow Whitewater stonewallers, even to his brother.

For me, Kelly also brought some insight into the roots and reasons for the pacifist impulse in two articles, "Pacifist Claptrap", and "Phony Pacifists", which were published shortly after 9/11, but as he says in the first piece, the movement, and its appeal "is worth taking seriously, and in advance of need". More:

It is worth it, first of all, because the idea of peace is inherently attractive; and the more war there is, the more attractive the idea becomes. Second, it is worth it because the reactionary left-liberal crowd in America and in Europe has already staked out its ground here: What happened to America is America's fault, the fruits of foolish arrogance and greedy imperialism, racism, colonialism, etc., etc. From this rises an argument that the resulting war is also an exercise in arrogance and imperialism, etc., and not deserving of support. This argument will be made with greater fearlessness as the first memories of the 7,000 murdered recede. Third, it is worth it because the American foreign policy establishment has all the heart for war of a titmouse, and not one of your braver titmice. The first faint, let-us-be-reasonable bleats can even now be heard: Yes, we must do something, but is an escalation of aggression really the right thing? Mightn't it just make matters ever so much worse?

Pacifists see themselves as obviously on the side of a higher morality, and there is a surface appeal to this notion, even for those who dismiss pacifism as hopelessly naive. The pacifists' argument is rooted entirely in this appeal: Two wrongs don't make a right; violence only begets more violence.

There can be truth in the pacifists' claim to the moral high ground, notably in the case of a war that is waged for manifestly evil purposes. So, for instance, a German citizen who declined to fight for the Nazi cause could be seen (although not likely by his family and friends) as occupying the moral position. But in the situation where one's nation has been attacked -- a situation such as we are now in -- pacifism is, inescapably and profoundly, immoral. Indeed, in the case of this specific situation, pacifism is on the side of the murderers, and it is on the side of letting them murder again.

In the second piece, Kelly sets about to rattle the cage of any pacifist who missed the first column:

Let me see if I may cause further upset. Two propositions: The first is that much of what is passing for pacifism in this instance is not pacifism at all but only the latest tedious manifestation of a well-known pre-existing condition: the largely reactionary, largely incoherent, largely silly muddle of anti-American, anti-corporatist, anti-globalist sentiments that passes for the politics of the left these days. The second is that, again in this instance, the antiwar sentiment (to employ a term that encompasses both genuine pacifism and an opposition to war rooted in America-hatred) is intellectually dishonest, elitist and hypocritical.

He then challenges the pacifists to answer tough questions about the world, the way they say they want it to be. That is, a world in which the U.S. doesn't defend itself:

Do the pacifists wish to live in a United States that has been defeated by Osama bin Laden or Saddam Hussein? Do they wish to live in a United States that has been defeated by any foreign force? Do they wish to live under an occupying power? Do they wish to live under, say, the laws of the Taliban or the Ba'ath Party of Iraq?

These questions, you may say, rest on an absurd premise: Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein cannot ever hope to defeat and occupy the United States. Yes, but that is true only because the United States maintains and employs an armed force sufficient to defeat those who would defeat it. If the United States did as the pacifists wish -- if it eschewed war even when attacked -- it would, at some point, be conquered by a foreign regime. What stops this from happening is that the government and generally the people of the United States do not heed the wishes of the pacifists.

The anti-warriors must know that their position is a luxury made affordable only by the sure bet that no one in authority will ever accede to their position. The marchers and shouters and flag-burners in Washington pretended to the argument that war should not be waged. What they really mean is that war should not be waged by them. It should be waged by other mothers' sons and daughters.

How many pacifists would be willing to accept the logical outcome of their creed of nonviolence even in face of attack -- life as a conquered people? Not many, I would think. How many want the (mostly lower-class) men and women of the United States armed forces to continue to fight so that they may enjoy the luxury of preaching against fighting? Nearly all, I would think.

Liars. Frauds. Hypocrites. Strong letters, no doubt, to follow.

Another Kelly classic, and one that tells us something about the private man.

Michael Kelly was 46. He leaves a wife, Madelyn, and two sons, Tom and Jack, six and three respectively. His last column from Iraq, published yesterday, can be found here.

What a talent, what a loss. As Michael Ledeen said earlier today of his passing,

"Dammit!"

UPDATE: The tributes and remembrances keep rolling in. This one in the Washington Post by Ken Ringle is especially good.

UPDATE: Two more good Kelly tributes are now available. One from Maureen Dowd, and another by David Brooks of the Weekly Standard

Posted by dan at April 4, 2003 4:06 PM