Journalist Michael Kelly, 46, dies covering war in Iraq

Editor, writer worked for many prominent newspapers, magazines

War In Iraq

April 05, 2003|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Michael Kelly, an editor and columnist who built a national reputation as a leading observer of American politics and power, was killed while covering the war in Iraq - the first American correspondent to die in the conflict.

The 46-year-old journalist, an editor-at-large with The Atlantic Monthly and a syndicated columnist with The Washington Post, worked at many of the most prominent U.S. print publications at some point in his fast-moving career. A writer with a hard-hitting, analytical style and a puckish wit, he worked an early stint as a reporter at The Sun.

Mr. Kelly and a U.S. soldier were killed Thursday when their Humvee apparently came under fire from Iraqi troops and flipped into a canal outside the Baghdad airport, which the Army's 3rd Infantry Division had been fighting to secure.

Mr. Kelly, one of 600 journalists embedded with U.S. troops, is the fifth war correspondent killed since the conflict began; two journalists are missing.

Eager to return to reporting, Mr. Kelly recently left the cozy Boston offices of the Atlantic behind for Iraq - returning to the region where, in 1991, his coverage of the Persian Gulf war helped establish his national reputation as a magazine writer. On the last day of his life, he filed a column using a satellite phone about the capture of an enemy bridge. The dateline read: "East of the Euphrates River, Iraq."

"He just wanted to be where the story was," said Charles Green, editor of the National Journal, a Washington-based weekly magazine where Mr. Kelly served as chief editorial adviser. "He was very happy over there. I talked with him about a week ago, and he was just having a great time. He was really a reporter and writer at heart."

Mr. Kelly was married and had two sons. White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said that President Bush had sent condolences to the Kelly family.

At times through tears, fellow journalists yesterday described reading his work with a sense of wonder for his talent and his ability to capture indelible moments.

"He'd be there when the Army Corps of Engineers was reinstalling some gold faucets for a Kuwaiti prince - you'd just read it and think, `How did he do that?'" said Maureen Dowd, who worked with Mr. Kelly when he was a staff writer at The New York Times, covering the 1992 presidential campaign. "He seemed to always be in the right place at the right time, and to have this extraordinary story to tell. I always thought that he was very lucky, but then I realized it was just hard work."

Mr. Kelly had been editor of the National Journal and before that, editor of The New Republic. He also worked as a reporter for The New York Times and its Sunday magazine and a reporter and Washington editor at The New Yorker.

Mr. Kelly took bold steps for stories: During the gulf war, he paid his own way into the desert, working as a free-lancer for The Boston Globe, GQ , Esquire and Playboy. After the ground war began and it became all but impossible to enter northern Kuwait and southern Iraq, Mr. Kelly got a military-style haircut, donned fatigues and taped an inverted "V" on the side of his truck to symbolize the coalition forces so that he could make it past military checkpoints.

The ruse was convincing: 10 Iraqis surrendered to him, waving a white T-shirt at Mr. Kelly and fellow reporter Dan Fesperman, who was covering the war for The Sun.

"I remember when these guys had piled into the car and we were driving them back and all bouncing along, it looked like one of those Volkswagens in the circus," Mr. Fesperman said yesterday. "We kind of looked at each other and we both had this grin, like `Can you believe this?' I think we both realized it was one of those once-in-a-lifetime moments."

Mr. Kelly's dispatches from the gulf began running in The New Republic, a political magazine based in Washington, and garnered him a National Magazine Award for reporting and an Overseas Press award. Mr. Kelly's experiences in the gulf formed the basis for his 1993 book, Martyrs' Day, a widely acclaimed firsthand account of the conflict.

"I think he's pretty universally regarded as one of the greatest war correspondents of his time," said Peter Beinart, the editor of The New Republic.

Friends described Mr. Kelly as a careful war correspondent who only took calculated risks. But when he sat down to write, he could be as brazen as a commando.

He favored elegant turns of phrase - he once described the late Commerce Secretary Ron Brown as a "diamond in the smooth." But he could sting when he wanted to. A 1990 GQ piece about Sen. Edward M. Kennedy started with an intimate study of the Massachusetts Democrat's "burst capillaries," "mottled cheeks" and "Chiclet teeth."

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