DESPITE HIS reputation as a neoconservative, even a right-winger, Kelly never stopped thinking of himself as a liberal — or, at least, a certain kind of liberal. In 1999, I interviewed Kelly as part of a symposium on America in the post-impeachment era. I was surprised that he expressed as much anger as the most ardent liberal might toward the punitive welfare-reform bill that Bill Clinton had signed. He even went so far as to blast the then-president as a conservative in Democratic clothing (see " What, Me Worry? " , News and Features, April 30, 1999).
" Apart from interest-group policies, which are largely race and cultural policies, this is a conservative president, " Kelly said. " He’s a law-and-order president, he is an anti-welfare president, he is in significant ways more conservative than Ronald Reagan dared to be. " He added: " In the black sections of a city like Boston, you’ve got entire neighborhoods where there are no men left because they’re all in jail. This is a national catastrophe of immense proportions — a great moral, liberal cause. It’s stunning the degree to which you simply never hear the administration talk about that. Nothing. Dead silence. Meanwhile, the vice-president is assuring us that he’s going to do something to ensure parking spaces for sport-utility vehicles in every suburb. " And for good measure, he defined Clintonism thusly: " It isn’t actually liberalism. It is an incredibly cheap, shallow, profoundly cynical, deeply valueless emptiness. "
But Kelly’s views were too complicated, and too conflicted, to lead him to call for a revival of the sort of liberalism that might actually make a difference in the African-American community. Indeed, in 2000 he openly rooted for George W. Bush, writing in the Post, " The country can afford a 40-watt president. It cannot afford to allow the Clinton-Gores, corroded to the core, to further define corrosion down. "
The last time I spoke to Kelly was in October 2001, just as the war in Afghanistan was getting under way. I was working on a piece on how the media should respond to the censorious rules the military was attempting to impose. Kelly’s answer could serve as his epitaph: " If you want to cover the war, and you want to do field stuff, you’re best off going your own way and hoping you get lucky, " he said, recalling his 1991 exploits. " What makes reporters uncomfortable is that it’s such a gamble " — that is, there might be no story — " but there’s no other way to do it " (see " Don't Quote Me, " News and Features, October 5, 2001). Ironically, in this second Iraq war, Kelly played by the Pentagon’s rules because it seemed like that was the surest way to see action. He was right.
In recent weeks, first in Kuwait and then in dispatches as an Army embed, Kelly seemed to have rediscovered his voice. In his Post column, he expressed surprise at how hard the Iraqis were fighting back — or even that they were fighting back. It was a miscalculation that may have cost him his life, although I have no doubt that he would have signed on even if he could have fully anticipated the danger. Much has been written about the two young boys, ages six and three, whom he has left behind, but this is what he lived for. He was a brave and curious man, and those qualities cost him his life in the sands of Iraq.
Twelve years ago, Kelly found himself surrounded as he attempted to drive in Kuwait City, which had just been liberated. " A father lifted his little girl up so that she could see the Americans, " he wrote in Martyrs’ Day. " She was wearing her Sunday-best dress. She said, ‘I love you.’ It was a great sweetness, and I am sure I will never experience anything like it again. "
Despite all the death and destruction of the current war, despite the fears that it will lead to various unpleasant (and worse) consequences, a similar moment of pure joy dawned in Baghdad on Wednesday.
It’s a shame Michael Kelly wasn’t there to experience it for himself.
Dan Kennedy can be reached at dkennedy[a]phx.com