As the 10 year anniversary of the invasion of Iraq sails past, I suppose it was inevitable that, as they riffle through their now-dog-eared deck of Operation Forgotten Bombast Warpimp cards, some members of that tiny fraction of the media that is not actively trying to unremember the Iraq War would flip over the Michael Kelly joker. This is because Mr. Kelly was both a very influential member of our fourth estate and because 10 years ago Mr. Kelly became the first member of the American media to die in Iraq: to drown in a ditch in a war he so energetically championed.
Like Christopher Hitchens and Andrew Sullivan, Michael Kelly brought every erg of his considerable influence and talent down hard on the necks of anyone who questioned the wisdom of George W. Bush, the unalloyed nobility of his motives or the righteousness of cause. Unlike Messers Hitchens and Sullivan, Mr. Kelly did not live long enough to see everything he believed turn to ash and all of the Leftist, Stalinist traitors he had curb-stomped so giddily turn out to have been right all along.
And yet far from falling to dust and blowing away, 10 years after the dogs of war he helped turn loose turned on him, Mr. Kelly's legacy as an exuberant motormouth promoter of George W. Bush's crusade against the Musslemen (as well as his earlier Beltway bona fides as a Clinton-hater of the first water and a cheapjack basher of all things Al Gore and) are being revisited on kind of a grand scale (grand, for the political internet), first by Gawker and then reprinted by Talking Points Memo:
The thoughtful and gifted Mr. Ta-Nehisi Coates then devoted some attention to Mr. Kelly's time on this Earth:
... Kelly's columns are not just pro-war, they are ferociously pro-Bush, and gleefully contemptuous of liberals who thought otherwise.That glee turned Kelly into a thin writer who spurned nuance in favor of hyperbole....A few weeks ago, my colleague Jim Fallows argued that "People in the media who were for the war have, with rare and admirable exceptions, avoided looking back."Reading through Kelly's file, you begin to understand why. Michael Kelly wasn't an outlier. He was one of the most important journalists of his generation. He was a National Magazine Award winner and the one-time editor of The Atlantic, The New Republic (he helped birth Stephen Glass) and The National Journal. Kelly was at the center of media power, and he was beloved by many around him....
Mr. Coates' remarks were themselves commented upon by Mr. James Fallows:
...In light of what Ta-Nehisi has written, I think I should say something more.As many people have noted (including Tom Scocca, and a large number of TNC's commenters), there is a sharp divide in assessments of Kelly's legacy, depending on whether people knew him personally or not. For most people who knew or worked with Michael Kelly, the personal fondness and memories outweigh the disagreements on politics or other matters.This was true also for me. I disagreed with Michael Kelly on most political topics that came up in the decade before his death. He was all in favor of impeaching Bill Clinton: "He must be impeached not merely because he is a pig and a cad and a selfish brute ... He must be impeached because we are a nation of laws, not liars." I thought that impeachment was a travesty. He viewed the Whitewater and Paula Jones cases as genuine scandals. I thought the greater scandal lay in the prosecutorial excesses of Kenneth Starr. And of course there was Iraq, which he saw as a huge moral necessity for the United States and I saw as a huge mistake.Still I felt loyal to Michael Kelly as our editor, and truly grieved his death, because of the care and devotion he put into being the leader of our staff. I think that many of Michael's passions were essentially tribal -- he would fearlessly defend people he liked or felt were "his" people, and mercilessly attack people he didn't -- and he earned a similar kind of loyalty and affection in return. I might as well be fully honest about this: When he and I were working at different publications, I was one of the people Michael would sometimes go out of his way to criticize. Once we were on the same team, he couldn't have been more gracious or considerate. I didn't expect to become a friend and supporter of his, but that is what happened.
For people who live essentially private lives, this would be the end of the assessment: How did they treat family, friends, strangers they met? But as Ta-Nehisi Coates points out, we judge public figures by their effects on people they don't know personally. Many members of the reading public benefited from the humor, insight, and honesty of Michael Kelly's best reportorial achievements -- including his excellent book about the 1991 Gulf War, Martyrs' Day. But many were harmed by his greatest failing as a public figure, which was his tendency to ridicule, bully, and personally savage those with whom he disagreed. Ta-Nehisi gives some examples, and Robert Vare, in his compilation of Michael's writings, gives more. Here is one I bitterly complained about to Michael when it happened...
And Mr. Fallows' ruminations were themselves re-masticated (not the perfect word, but it just wouldn't exit my head any other way) by Mr. Coates:
...Yesterday I wrote about Michael Kelly. I started off by saying "I didn't know Michael Kelly." I actually don't know a lot of people, and I generally like it that way. One of the perils of this job is you begin to "know people" and this compromises your willingness to strongly and loudly disagree with them. The compromise isn't total, and one of the things I know that we've tried to do here (especially Conor, Jim, Jeff and myself) is fight publicly. Maybe we don't always do it as much as we should. But it is a value we hold.I don't want to speak for anyone else, but the danger of becoming a "Serious Person" lingers in the back of mind. And so I keep my distance from certain scenes. But sometimes knowing someone actually allow you to say something deeper, and more insightful, something you coud not know without proximity.In that spirit, I would encourage you to read Jim Fallows' response to my piece (and some other pieces) on Michael Kelly...
All of which is all well and good -- Messers Fallows and Coates are certainly fine writers who work on the side of the angels -- but insufficient by a damn sight.
Insufficient because it is far too safe and far too easy to load commemoratory losses and furies and antipathies onto the late Michael Kelly -- a man whose memory certainly deserves all the opprobrium it is getting, but who, by virtue of being simultaneously dead and dead-wrong, is a nice, safe pinata. Something harmless and inert which died, was flash-frozen in the purity of his rage and bile and can now absorb every blow without complain and will never, ever hit back.
But in 2003, when Mr. Kelly was very much alive and able to yoke his rage and bile to the engine of America's corporate media, like Hitchens and Sullivan and so many other, he chose to be a bully. He chose to rain hellfire on those who were weaker than he was and whose opinions he considered to be contemptible. He chose to used his considerable clout to punch down. And while it is right and proper to pin such people into the pages of history as the thugs they were, I would strongly argue that if the keepers and makers of our history really want to focus in on April 2003, that it would be right and proper and of much more urgent value for we the living in 2013 for them to take a good, hard look around at what else was going on.
For example, at the other end of the ideological spectrum from Steve Gilliard was waging a lonely battle against the roaring media tide which Kelly and Hitchens and Sullivan and so many other were riding.
In our darkest hours, instead of punching down, Gilly punched up, always.
Here is what that looked like, typos and all:
Saturday | April 12, 2003
Morally bankrupt leadership
As I listen to yet another excuse from Donald Rumsfeld, I realize that Bush and his advisors will go to any length, bear any burden to avoid responsibility for their actions.What astounds me, as Iraqis die in looted hospitals, a tragedy we created, is the way Rumsfeld and the PNAC cabal ran to embrace victory even as the mobs were looting the streets of most Iraqi cities. They sought to portray a crowd of 100 as a massive outpouring of liberation as a US tank pulled down a statue of Saddam. More people are gathered around a fountain in Washington Square Park on a warm spring day when class is in session at NYU.The way the Bushies have tried to play off the chaos resulting from their actions is astounding. Not surprising, but astounding all the same. Because it is undermining their moral standing, not only in the wider world, but in Iraq. They are losing the middle class, what there is of it, as field commanders embrace militia leaders and expect people to work for free.It is a morally bankrupt leadership which plunges another nation into chaos with no plan for its reconstitution. Bush and his aides were all about the fun part, the war planning, but as CSIS analyst and ABC consultant Anthony Cordesman said in December, 2002, the peace starts at the same time the war does. You have to plan for the peace or we will fail.Victory in this, the most political of wars, is not about the surrender of an army. It is about establishing a just political order. Maybe they can accomplish it. But the chances look grimmer by the day.
While Bush was eagerly using wounded GI's as a photo op yesterday, Rumsfeld was whining about the media. The same media which misled people into thinking a statue was being pulled down by a mob when it was by a crowd of around 100 is now showing scenes of disorder not seen on most TV's since the collapse of the Mobutu government in what was then Zaire.What also amazes me is that people think the anti-war movement was trying to defend Saddam or didn't want the Iraqi people to be free. I think Tom Friedman summed it up: was Iraq like Switzerland or Yugoslavia. Well, it's turning out to be like the Congo, but he asked the right question: what was under Saddam's rule? The anti-war movement, from my perspective saw two things: one, the immense human suffering war would bring, and two: the consequences of the war.That was the problem. Not the actual war or Saddam, who could be disposed of easily enough, since he was hated by everyone. But what lay under his rule, why he ruled the way he did. Not three days after he's gone, civil war lies frighteningly close to the surface as Shia form militias and rob the Sunni rich and Arabs and Kurds square off in Mosul. They even looted the museums.As we seek to restore power, we will rehire the police which enforced Saddam's law. As we have armed militias around. If you were a Shia from Saddam City, would you let a Sunni cop push you around when you have a couple of AK's, a few cases of hand grenades and a spare RPG around. The first time you get into a beef, an RPG round is going into the door of the police station.The pandora's box of war seems to have opened and what we have under it is frightening.More importantly, even if we restore basic order, clearly, the guns and militias may be with us for a while. Once a man tastes the power of a gun, putting it down isn't easy. Hundreds of thousands Iraqi teenagers are learning a simple lesson: a gun equals power.Our leadership could have forseen that and then done things to prevent it. Instead, we mess around with Ahmed "Kerensky" Chalebi as other actors, some with various interests, plot to make things far more difficulf for us.Instead of admitting our rush to Baghdad created these conditions, Rumsfeld, between threats against Syria, denies what any sighted person can see on their TV. It is a morally bankrupt argument.
I hope they can make it work, and quickly. But if not...the consequences of the war could make Saddam's rule look like a golden era.Steve Gilliard
Mr. Gilliard was a helluva writer -- muscular, honest and prolific -- and he stood in the breach when we needed him there. He was as busy being right as Michael Kelly was busy being horribly gleefully wrong, but he had the bad taste to die poor and without Michael Kelly's resume, friends or professional contacts which is why he is now all but forgotten.
Elsewhere in that terrible year of 2003, an ambitious middle-aged op-ed writer in the employ or Bloody Bill Kristol was riding exactly the same hobbyhorse and beating it with exactly the same whip as Michael Kelly. Of course, unlike Michael Kelly, David Brooks never had any intention risking his tender flesh getting within a thousand miles of any actual fighting, but from safely behind the keyboard he was just as lethal.
As I wrote almost a year before Gawker and TPM and Mr. Coates and Mr. Kelly were moved to disinter the odious words of the late Michael Kelly:
...like so many Conservatives, Mr. Brooks' most giddy obsession during these critical years was speculating on the exact size and velocity of the Hell the Dirty Hippies were going to catch --and how warped and pathetic their vicious, mindless denial would be -- now that they had been proven wrong!-wrong!-wrong! Because (in case you weren't there or don't remember), during this period Conservatives like Mr. Brooks genuinely believed that the Conservative Millennium was at hand -- that in the Bush Presidency and the Iraq War they had at last found their Movement's Holy Grail: a final, irrefutable, public, slam-dunk vindication of their Grand Unifying Theory that Dirty Hippies really are awful people who really do hate America, are responsible for every bad thing that has every happened and deserving of every horrible thing that Conservatives like Mr. Brooks had ever said about them.
And once again, the nakedly opportunistic David Brooks grabbed that grail with both hands and gleefully beat the shit out of the Dirty Hippies with it.
After which I document in tedious detail article after article after article in which Mr. Brooks was indeed every bit as "...ferociously pro-Bush, and gleefully contemptuous of liberals who thought otherwise" as Michael Kelly.
But Mr. Brooks did not drowned in a ditch outside of Baghdad, did he?
With every bit as much blood on his hands as Michael Kelly, and every bit as many lies in his teeth, the very-much-alive David Brooks Instead traded up-up-up; leveraging his "Weekly Standard" hippie punching into a job-for-life at the New York Times, which he then, in turn, leveraged into permanent one-man, radio/TV/print/lecture circuit/book-contract media empire and a four-million dollar mansion in Cleveland Park.
Which is why, save for a few ragged old bloggers way out in the digital sticks, no one dares to lay a finger on Mr. Brooks. In fact, to my knowledge, only once was Mr. Brooks ever publicly challenged for committing exactly the same sins as Michael Kelly: it was done by an anonymous woman in the audience at Mr. Brooks' lecture on Niebuhr, at Hammerschmidt Chapel in Elmhurst three years ago.
Mr. Brooks responded to this gutsy woman's attempt to punch up by lying through his teeth and moving on.
Here is the video of him doing it.
Being dead and embarrassingly right and without powerful defenders has made Steve Gilliard a forgettable nuisance.
Being alive and wrong and extraordinarily well-connected has made David Brooks too powerful to touch.
But being dead and dead-wrong has made Michael Kelly just safe enough to pummel.
Which is something.
But not nearly enough.*
* Thanks for catching my error.