I still remember the call. My White House colleague Dan Bartlett called me on a Friday morning five years ago today to inform me that Michael Kelly, whom I had come to know over the years and who was embedded with the 3rd Infantry Division in Iraq, had died. I reacted with disbelief. I muttered a few forgotten words to Dan. Then I hung up. And then I began to weep.
There were a lot of tears shed by a lot of people that day, and many days after.
Mike was one of the finest journalists of his era: a war correspondent, author of the award winning book Martyrs’ Day, a presidential campaign reporter, the editor of three magazines, and one of the finest columnists we have ever seen. He could write — oh my goodness could he write — on seemingly everything: war, popular culture, politics, life in America, things preposterous and absurd, and especially life with Tom and Jack, his beloved boys. He was a person of rare and remarkable gifts — but more importantly than that, he was a believer in great causes.
Mike was, by every account, generous, loyal, and life-affirming — a man of passion, wit, and integrity. He understood what mattered most in life and he gave himself fully to those things. He deeply loved his country and he deeply loved his family. (To this day I have a file labeled: “Michael Kelly: Columns (family)”). He inspired fierce loyalty in those who worked under him — and sometimes caused heartburn in those who worked above him. He had contempt for people who were liars, cynics, self-important, who believed in nothing and who found nothing in life worth fighting for — perhaps because Michael was wholly the opposite. Pity the poor person who earned Kelly’s scorn, placing himself squarely in his line of fire.
In a beautiful tribute to her son, Marguerite Kelly wrote this:
Michael wrote what he did because he was a moralist more than anything else. He had to tell the truth as he saw it, no matter what anyone said. Mike wasn’t just my conscience; he was everyone’s conscience.
I didn’t know Michael Kelly really well — but I knew him well enough. We exchanged notes on politics, on journalism, on books, on ideas. We didn’t agree on everything, but it really didn’t matter. I admired the heck out of him. He was honest and he had guts. And thankfully, he was not a white-lights person.
I miss him to this day.