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wSunday, September 05, 2004

DUMB LUCK OR LOTT VERSUS COSH, ROUND TWO: I feel particularly awful right now (cold coming on) so I'll skip the wit and make with the set-up. The latest issue of Doublethink has an article by your humble scribe about a collection of essays by the late Michael Kelly. And it happens that Colby Cosh has reviewed this book for The American Spectator (full disclosure: I assigned it to him). We'll excerpt mine first, then Colby's. Without further ado:

"The Age of Clinton," as the third section of Things Worth Fighting For is titled, proved a fertile period for Kelly. As a staff writer for the New York Times Magazine, he helped bring in the new administration with a series of unsparing profiles. He dissected Hillary Clinton's "politics of meaning" (a phrase she lifted from Tikkun's very annoying Michael Lerner); he raised red flags about Bill Clinton's tortured relationship with candor, logic, and the English language; and he cast icy glances at some of the initial movers and scoundrels of the Clinton administration. His portrait of the faux-earnest operator David Gergen doesn't quite rise to the level of Andrew Ferguson's description of this same serial leaker as a "goggle-eyed melon head"--but it's close.

The second Clinton administration saw change in the White House lineup and also a reshuffling in the world of opinion journalism. Looking to fill the editor slot vacated by Andrew Sullivan, owner Martin Peretz hired Kelly away from the New Yorker (where he had landed after Tina Brown went on one of her talent-buying sprees) and installed him at the helm in November 1996. As the Washington Times reported it, Peretz was asked at the announcement party if this new hire would be a stark ideological contrast to such previous editors as Hendrik Hertzberg and Michael Kinsley. Peretz reportedly let a "Cheshire-cat like grin play over his face," saying, "I think Michael Kelly is an honest reporter."

It was a brief but glorious ten-month run, much of which is on display in Things Worth Fighting For. The positions Kelly took in his weekly column--against liberal scolds, Bill and Hill, the Washington Male, the abortion industry, race baiters, trial lawyers, dirty hippies--were not trail-breaking in their content. Much of this would have fit nicely into, say, the American Spectator. But the force of Kelly's writing, coming as it did from this very unexpected pulpit, reverberated.

Here, coming out of the gates, was what the new editor of the oldest journal of mainstream liberal opinion had to say, Marc Antony-style, about the president: "It is time to speak well of Bill Clinton. He is of course a shocking liar. He will say absolutely anything at all ... He is breathtakingly cynical. This is a man who committed himself to a policy of making abortion ‘safe, legal, and rare,' and then vetoed a ban on the near-infanticide called partial-birth abortion--and then accused critics of his action of immorality. A man who signed the Defense of Marriage Act while denouncing it as gay-bashing, then ran campaign commercials on Christian radio bragging that he signed it. A man who signed the Republican bill ending welfare as a federal entitlement, and then asked Democrats to vote him back into office on the grounds that only he could fix the wrong he had done. He is an opportunist of such proportions that the only thing that exceeds his reach is his grasp."

Now Cosh:

"One day in 1998," Michael Kelly wrote in November 2002, "I was invited to have an off-the-record chat with an important staff person on the Clinton Administration's National Security Council... The whole experience was terrific fun, although I could never shake the feeling that it was all a mistake -- that I was supposed to be someone else entirely, someone who mattered, Tom Friedman or Bob Woodward probably." The column adjoined to these words is reprinted with dozens of others in Things Worth Fighting For, a new and solemnly accoutered collection of Kelly's journalism from the Penguin Press. Kelly, "embedded" with the 3rd Infantry Division in Iraq, was killed in a Humvee rollover on April 3 of last year.

The bit about being "someone who mattered" is, I think, one of the most personally revealing statements to be found in Kelly's body of work. It reads like humility: I, Mike Kelly, am not in any wise comparable to the Friedmans and Woodwards, the titans of the scribal world. Look closer -- look for the cocky Irish dynamo who chewed right through the nucleus of American journalism in about a decade. He's not bowing to his betters in that sentence: He's astonished at the effrontery of this... this Clinton hack who thinks, Christ on a bike, that he can spin Mike Kelly!

As if, like Bob Woodward, Kelly would happily accept precious, half-digested morsels of insider dope, whizzing across town to trade them for more of their like. As if, like Thomas Friedman, he would happily apply a layer of marzipan to some ambitious turd's geopolitical layer cake and present it to the world as Received Wisdom. Mike Kelly! Imagine Mike Kelly as "someone who mattered!"

Whaddy'all think?

posted by Jeremy at 8:49 PM