A splendid collection of newspaper and magazine pieces by the late Kelly (Martyr’s Day, 1993), the first “embedded journalist” to die in the latest Iraq war.
Kelly, 46 at the time of his death in April 2003, was no stranger to action; famously, he scampered off to Iraq as a freelance writer in the first Gulf War after a New Republic editor issued a challenge, “We’ll use your stuff if you can be in Baghdad when the bombs drop.” His reports from the Desert Storm front are jarring and unglamorous: in one of them, he remarks, “The days of delusion are dead in Baghdad. The city has fatally discovered the obvious: a contest between a third world semipower fighting World War II and a first world superpower fighting World War III is no contest at all.” Everyone in the city knew this, it appears, but Saddam Hussein and his closest aides, who, Kelly adds, went on speechifying about how the Allies’ “defeat will be certain” until the bitter end. And that end was bitter indeed; one of Kelly’s reports describes a Kuwaiti man moving carefully from body to body in a field full of dead Iraqis, spitting in the face of each, then “heading up the road to spit on the next of the waiting dead.” Kelly’s reports on the walking wounded and the strangely undead are just as good, such as his celebrated (and in some circles infamous) portrait of Sen. Edward Kennedy (“The skin has gone from red roses to gin blossoms. . . . The Chiclet teeth are the color of old piano keys”), his profile of political fixer David Gergen, and his wonderful account of Bob Dole’s last stand, when, battling Bill Clinton for the presidency in 1996, he “waged what one senior campaign official called ‘a renegade campaign,’ running as much against his own operation as against Clinton.”
Against these highlights, some of Kelly’s curmudgeonly, conservative cultural pieces pale. But the highlights are brilliant indeed, showing that American journalism lost much with Kelly’s passing.