- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 8, 2003

It was a businesslike notice from Karisue Wyson, sales manager for The Washington Post syndicate. And it had to be the saddest piece of mail to cross my desk this year. All it said was:

“This will confirm that the final date of billing for the Michael Kelly column is 4/6/03. Thank you for subscribing to the column.”

It felt like a stab wound. Michael Kelly had just been awarded the Eric Breindel Award for excellence in journalism — posthumously. No one deserved it more. He was a strikingly insightful writer and accomplished editor. When word came that he had been killed in Iraq, editors and readers like us, who knew him only through the printed word, grieved.

But that was only what we in the present had lost. We will never know what the American future might have been with him still in it — what ideas and beliefs and convictions he might have championed. Or how many other writers he might have found, edited and inspired.

But Michael Kelly did not live to see the fall of Baghdad. He was killed doing what he had to do. He could not have stayed safe and remained himself.

Why I should burden Gentle Reader with all this, I’m not sure. Except I just had to tell somebody. Because we have lost more than just what was, but what might have been.

It’s as if George Orwell had been struck down after he had written only newspaper columns or even a book or two, maybe “Homage to Catalonia” and “Animal Farm,” but before “1984” brought him to the whole world’s attention.

Without “1984,” publishers might never have thought to collect Orwell’s earlier columns, essays and book reviews — and realized they had before them the finest journalism of the 20th century.

In the days and weeks since Michael Kelly’s death, he keeps coming to mind with story after story. What, you have to wonder, might he have said about this or that development, this war or that political line.

I thought of Michael Kelly when I read a comment of Bill Clinton’s at one of those terribly serious confabs on foreign policy in New York about a month ago. Addressing Marvin Kalb, the former newscaster, the former president fell into one of his I’m-so-misunderstood moods:

“I had one guy, one only in your business, who … had a very prominent role in one of the networks, call me in the week after September 11 and he said, ‘Nobody else is gonna call you but I will.’ He said, ‘You warned us about this for years and years and years, and we never covered it because we felt secure, and we felt we preferred to cover all the stuff that beat you up and diverted the American people from this. But,’ he said, ‘I just went back and pulled a list of what you said and did and when you did it,’ and, he said, ‘I just want you to know, no one else will say this to you but I’m going to do it.’ I was shocked and grateful.”

Shocked and grateful. Sometimes all the self-pity gets mighty thick. Now our former president — and former commander-in-chief — has been reduced to reciting anonymous praise of himself. Pathetic.

More and more, Mr. Clinton comes to resemble a Harold Stassen who was elected. He is forever running for office, or at least for historical justification. He not only seems bent on swaying posterity, but talking until it arrives.

I wondered what Michael Kelly would have had to say about Mr. Clinton’s generous assessment of how he had warned the country and prepared us for the kind of threat that exploded on September 11.

Then I realized that Michael Kelly had said it all in his epilogue to the second edition of “Martyr’s Day,” his history of the first Persian Gulf war — a book some have compared to Orwell’s “Homage to Catalonia.”

In the closing pages of that book, he had noted that “the two Clinton administrations … in foreign-policy terms, were characterized by a policy structured nearly entirely around sporadic crisis-management. Somalia came and went, and so did Rwanda, Haiti, Bosnia and Kosovo, and all of these were just ‘crises,’ to be contained by ‘operations.’ In part, this mindset reflected the inadequacies of a president who, until very late in his term, was astonishingly uninterested in anything to do with matters apart from domestic politics, even of the most urgent degree.”

In larger part, the sleepwalking Clinton administration was just a reflection of the emptiness of the 1990s, with its assumption that history was over and all that remained was the tidying up. The country had simply fallen back into its traditional, perilous forgetfulness — which seems to precede every December 7 and September 11.

It is the rare Michael Kelly who wakes us up, who gives us some intimation of the kind of world we are actually living in, who breaks through the cliches of polispeak and journalism, and makes the written word real. I have this feeling in the pit of my stomach that we are going to miss him even more in the future.

Paul Greenberg is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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