Michael Kelly, 46; First U.S. Journalist Killed While Covering the War in Iraq

Times Staff Writer

Michael Kelly, the editor at large for the Atlantic Monthly and a Washington Post columnist, died Friday while on assignment covering the Iraq war. He was the first American journalist to die in the conflict.

Although details remained sketchy, Kelly, 46, was reportedly killed when the Humvee in which he was riding fell into a canal. He had been traveling with the Army’s 3rd Infantry Division as it advanced on Baghdad.

Kelly, a thoughtful and intense journalist who loved to skewer his opponents -- who were usually on the left -- was remembered “as a gifted wordsmith, someone whose creativity and pure skill was obvious in every column,” according to Alan Shearer, director of the Washington Post Writers Group, which syndicated Kelly’s column.


As a host of colleagues expressed shock at Kelly’s passing, others praised his determination to cover the war despite personal risks. Kelly discussed the perils of wartime coverage in a March 17 ABC News special from Kuwait, noting that “my gut feeling is that there’s some degree of danger, but [I think] it would be a lot more dangerous to be wandering around Chechnya than doing this, or wandering around Sierra Leone.”

He added, “Here you’re surrounded by an Army, literally, who is going to try very hard to keep you out of danger.”

During a 24-year career, Kelly was an author and award-winning editor of several magazines, as well as a highly praised national and foreign correspondent. Although friends and co-workers described him as a kind and considerate man, he gained a public reputation for shining “a Mencken-like blowtorch on those he deems guilty of nincompoopery, dishonesty or both,” according to Boston Globe media writer Mark Jurkowitz.

In a recent Atlantic Monthly column, for example, Kelly ridiculed celebrities who have publicly opposed America’s military action against Iraq, at one point describing author Kurt Vonnegut Jr. as a man “who used to be the Conscience of Our Culture when Norman Mailer was hung over and Gore Vidal was in Ravello.”

Kelly, who grew up on Capitol Hill, was the son of two journalists. His father, Thomas, reported for the now-defunct Washington Daily News and his mother, Marguerite, was the author of “Family Almanac,” a syndicated column. In several interviews, he recalled his home as a liberal Democratic household where family members and friends debated the Vietnam War and Kelly learned the art of political argument.

After graduating from the University of New Hampshire, he took a job in 1979 as a researcher on ABC’s “Good Morning America,” leaving four years later as an associate producer. After a stint as a reporter at the Cincinnati Post, he became a Washington correspondent for the Baltimore Sun in 1986, covering the presidential campaigns of Jesse Jackson and Michael Dukakis as well as the Iran-Contra affair.


His career took a pivotal turn when he covered the 1991 Gulf War as a stringer for the Boston Globe and subsequently won a National Magazine Award and an Overseas Press Club award for articles about Baghdad and northern Iraq. He later wrote a book about his experiences, “Martyrs’ Day: Chronicle of a Small War.”

After that, Kelly’s star began to rise. He became a national correspondent for the New York Times and then a writer at the paper’s magazine, penning stories about Bill and Hillary Clinton as well as White House advisor David Gergen.

As his political beliefs evolved -- Kelly acknowledged that he had “conservative instincts,” but disavowed both parties -- he moved to the New Yorker magazine, writing the “Letter from Washington” column.

He was named editor of The New Republic in 1996 and was widely expected to bring a tough, neoconservative perspective to the publication. But Kelly surprised many -- including owner Martin Peretz -- with his consistently scathing coverage of the Clinton administration. Peretz, a friend of Vice President Al Gore, fired his editor in 1997 after only nine months on the job.

It was only a temporary setback. Kelly resumed his aggressive coverage of the Clintons as a columnist for the Washington Post. He was also named editor of the National Journal, a magazine that covers the federal government. That position marked the beginning of a strong professional relationship with David Bradley, who owned the weekly magazine. When Bradley acquired the Atlantic Monthly in 1999, he made Kelly the new editor of the venerable, Boston-based publication.

Over the next three years, Kelly helped boost the magazine’s editorial profile. He brought in a flock of new writers and made the Atlantic more contemporary, but his greatest achievement was to help publish “American Ground,” William Langewiesche’s epic, 70,000-word series about the cleanup of ground zero. The newly refurbished Atlantic won three National Magazine Awards last year, the same as the New Yorker.


Kelly stepped down as editor last September but stayed on as an editor at large and continued to write his column for the Post. Although he was working on a book about the U.S. steel industry, Kelly was eager to cover the conflict in Iraq. He chafed at the memory of journalists’ limited access to the 1991 Gulf War, lamenting what he described in a recent interview as “a lost sense of witness.”

His last Washington Post column ran Thursday and was titled “Across the Euphrates.”

In a column last year, Kelly wrote, “I’ve had one good break after another. A long series of lucky breaks and good jobs and stories and a life I like living.”

Kelly is survived by his wife Madelyn, and two sons, Tom, 6, and Jack, 3.