Wall Street Journal columnist Bret Stephens remembered the great Michael Kelly in his op-ed piece yesterday:
Michael Kelly had an uncharitable term for the column you are about to read: “The Nice Column.” Nice columns—about ancient enmities overcome and people pulling together for the greater good and models of estimable human conduct and other Helen Keller-type themes—are the ones nice people complain about not finding often enough in the papers. They don’t find them because journalists as a class, and columnists in particular, aren’t very nice. Or at least they affect not to be nice, even if, sometimes, they do nice things. Often in secret. Or by accident.
Anyway, Kelly had no patience for the nice column. To him, a column wasn’t some vial of holy water to sprinkle on the sinners and the saved alike. It wasn’t a spy plane flying at a high and safe altitude, snapping pictures that make everything below seem small, patterned and sociological. It certainly wasn’t a Henry James novel on the installment plan, written in prose so fine no idea could violate it.
Instead, Kelly treated a column as a sword, the obvious and most worthy purpose of which was to stab, slice, decapitate and—once he really got going—utterly disembowel the objects of his contempt.
Take his view of Frank Sinatra. Everyone loved Old Blue Eyes and mourned him when he died in 1998. Everyone except Michael Kelly.
Kelly hated Frank because Frank had invented Cool, and Cool had replaced Smart. What was Smart? It was Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca: “He possesses an outward cynicism, but at his core he is a square. . . . He is willing to die for his beliefs, and his beliefs are, although he takes pains to hide it, old-fashioned. He believes in truth, justice, the American way, and love. . . . When there is a war, he goes to it. . . . He may be world weary, but he is not ironic.”
Cool was something else. “Cool said the old values were for suckers. . . . Cool didn’t go to war; Saps went to war, and anyway, cool had no beliefs he was willing to die for. Cool never, ever, got in a fight it might lose; cool had friends who could take care of that sort of thing.”
It never, ever would have occurred to me to make the distinction until I read Kelly’s column. And then I understood Sinatra. And then I understood Kelly, too.
Michael Kelly died – tragically – ten years ago today covering the war in Iraq. From Fox News:
American Journalist Michael Kelly Killed in Iraq
Well-known columnist and editor Michael Kelly was killed Thursday night while traveling with the Army’s 3rd Infantry Division in Iraq.
He was the first American journalist to die in the war.
Kelly is believed to have been traveling in a humvee when it suddenly veered off the road and fell off a cliff into the river below. The vehicle may have been fired upon by Iraqi military and possibly disabled before it fell.
“He was just an extraordinarily brilliant and capable guy,” Fox News Sunday anchor Tony Snow said Friday. “There aren’t many people who on a regular basis, when I’m reading their columns, I say ‘man, I wish I’d written that.’”
Calling him “one of the handful of editorial geniuses in our generation,” Snow described the tragedy as “an indescribable loss to the journalism profession.
At the time, Kelly was editor-at-large for the Atlantic Monthly and a columnist for the Washington Post.
Eleven years ago the hardworking staff (and the Missus) wound up attending one of Kelly’s legendary Fourth of July parties at his North Shore home.
We were nobody special, but Michael Kelly and his family were unfailingly gracious and welcoming to us.
His death was a great loss to journalism and to the Greater Boston community. Many thanks to Bret Stephens for remembering that.