MONDAY, APRIL 7, 2003
A VALENTINE TO THEIR COHORTS DYSFUNCTION: No one roots for premature death. And it may well be (as we have long heard) that the late Michael Kelly was a very nice personin his private dealings.
But in his public life, Kelly was not a nice personquite the contrary, in fact. In his public lifethe important life he conducted on the pages of the Washington Post, for exampleKelly was a relentless dissembler and the equivalent of a loud, angry drunk. He did deep damage to his countrys discourseand as such, he harmed the public interest. However he treated his colleagues in private, Kelly was endlessly venal in public. And the pundit corps long-standing refusal to notice that fact sheds light on that cohorts deep dysfunction.
What do we read about Kelly from fellow journalists? Consider a typical remembrance from the New Republics Jonathan Cohn. Cohn worked with Kelly at TNR for three months. He doesnt seem to have known Kelly personally:
COHN: Like many of my colleagues, I found much of Mikes writing politically disagreeable. And, like many of my colleagues, I found it impossible not to like him. He exuded a giddy, infectious enthusiasm about his craft, and he treated every one of his employees with an uncommon sense of decency. On any given night, you were as likely to find him kibitzing with his fact-checkers as you were to catch him schmoozing at the Palm. Indeed, even to use the word employee in the context of Mike Kelly seems to violate the atmosphere of informality and quiet equality he created in the office.Cohn devotes one sentence to Kellys significant public work, mildly saying that he found much of [Kellys] writing politically disagreeable. He then devotes the rest of his remembrance to the way Kelly behaved in privatematters which, to be perfectly frank, should be of little interest to TNR readers. Why in the world should people care if Kelly exuded a giddy enthusiasm about his craft? Why should Americans care about thatand ignore his disturbing public conduct? According to Cohn, Kelly leaves many wonderful legacies to his profession. Theres a word for that statement: Untrue.
Surely, no one wished Kelly personal ill. But on the other hand, no one is forced to write things that are false or misleading, and insider pundits have rushed to do so in the wake of Kellys unfortunate death. Also at TNR, for example, Jonathan Chait pens this piece of misdirection:
CHAIT: If you knew Michael Kelly only through his columns, you either loved him or hated him, probably depending upon your political persuasion.But that is a piece of pure cant. Surely, sensible people who knew Kelly through his columns disliked him for his assaults on simple decency and for the damage he did to the American public discourse. Pundits wont tell you the truth about thatand they dont have the decency to refrain from dissembling. But then, too timid to complain about his work when he lived, why would they bother to tell you the truth about Kellys legacy now that hes gone?
No one wished Michael Kelly ill. But while Kelly has died, the Jonathans live on. Tomorrow, well remind you of what they put up with when Kelly was alivewhile he was harming their nations public interest. As weve long told you, your pundits care about their own interests. Theyll put those interests ahead of yours every time. As weve long noted, Cohn and Chait are excellent policy writers. But Cohn and Chait are also rising careerists, and they knew they mustnt say a word as Kelly churned his unfortunate public work.
THE CHILDRENS HOUR: Its hard to believe how foolish our young scribes really are, but Hanna Rosins column in this mornings Post clearly takes their Kelly worship (her word!) to the next level. Since all insider pundits Must Always Say The Same Things, Rosin starts with the Standard Insight which has been stated in Every Other Column. There were really two Mikes, Rosin saysand in private, Kelly was really a doll. People who knew Mike Kelly only from his column must have assumed that he was choleric, a crank. But in private, things were different, Rosin says. [H]e acted like hed be honored to edit our stories, Rosin writes. There is a club of his former writers who sort of hero-worship him; I guess now we can admit it.
Are you ready to throw up your hands in despair? Listen to Rosins embarrassing account of the way your public discourse really happens:
ROSIN: When [Kelly] was editor of the New Republic, any of us could wander into his office at any time with some foggy idea. Invariably wed emerge 45 minutes later itching to write a cover story and not really sure how it happened, because it seemed Mike had been telling jokes that whole time. Mike was impractical and improbably deaf to time. He always, always had 45 minutes to spare, so that years later I wondered how he ever put out a magazine or managed to get himself lunch.Great fun! We were always cracking jokes about foggy ideas! But of course, this may be why Kellys New Republic was, in fact, such a rank joke itselfa magazine where astounding misconduct was permitted to happen. For example, it was while Kelly and Rosin were cracking their jokes that Steven Glass was producing his long string of slanders. Heres the way Jack Shafer recalled this astonishing episode in his own Standard Remembrance at Slate:
SHAFER: The stain on his tenure, of course, came when the massive prevarications of Stephen Glass, one of the young journalists he helped develop, were methodically exposed by the next editor, Charles Lane, who was also shamed by Glass. The Glass incident shook Kelly because it transmogrified one of his great virtuesintense loyalty to his claninto a fault. Blind loyalty exposes your flank, leaving you vulnerable. The scandal humbled Kelly, but he didnt dwell on it.The sheer breadth of Glasss deceptions is stunning, Howard Kurtz wrote in the Post, his stories bursting with too-good-to-be-true anecdotes that were just that. (Luckily, Kelly didnt dwell on it, Shafer writes, helping us breathe a sigh of relief.) These massive prevarications happened, of course, while Rosin and Kelly were cracking their jokes, wondering which foggy ideas would go in their next issue. In her utterly vacuous recollection, Rosin wonders how [Kelly] ever put out a magazinewithout having the decency to tell her readers what kind of a mag he put out.
But then, in the eyes of these children-turned-American-journalists, writing for Kelly was all about fun. Rosin continues to marvel at the fact that they got the mag out every week:
ROSIN: Looking through those issues, New Republic writer Jon Chait remembers it as a sense that each one was this big adventure. You could be writing about war or the capital gains tax and they all seemed equally urgent. Famous procrastinators could turn out 5,000 perfectly decent words in an afternoon fueled by nothing more than a burrito and his adrenaline.Of course, these stories were also fueled by no apparent effort at fact-checking and by a stunning lack of basic decency. These points Rosin wisely leaves out.
Life under Mike was The Childrens Hour. Try to choke down this ugly picture of the way your public discourse is conducted:
ROSIN: [W]ith countless [people who didnt know Kelly], I found myself helping square what Mike himself called the two Mikes. Those [choleric] columns were him, for sure; when I worked for him at the New Republic Id seen him bang out plenty in half-hour fits of pique or passion. (One hilariously mean one about Robert Reich as Walter Mitty he practically dictated out loud, in the 10 minutes it took us to walk from the coffee shop back to the office.) But taken alone, they created an all-too-dark impression of him.It was hilarious when Kelly was so mean, Rosin saysand Kelly would bang out his fits of pique in ten minutes. Its no wonder, then, that Kellys work, just like Glasss, was routinely filled with gruesome, indecent factual errors and bizarre, misshapen attempts at logic. As late as March 2000, for example, Kelly still had no earthly idea what had actually happened at the Buddhist Templean episode on which he had been hilariously mean to Al Gore for several years (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/24/00). And to see the inanity that could result when Kelly devoted two weeks to an item, review his recent bizarre attempt to consider liberal bias for the Washington Post (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 12/19/02). It was truly bizarre that the Post put this pair of oddball columns into print. But as Rosin shows us the mind of the modern press corps, the publication of Kellys bizarre work becomes less hard to fathom.
The Childrens Hour pervades every part of Rosins unfortunate portrait. She describes a family visit with Kelly, who had been richly rewarded for the strange work hed produced in the previous decade. And what did Rosin love about Kelly? The fact that there were no rules:
ROSIN: One weekend my husband and I visited his place in Swampscott, Mass. He and Max had picked out the big sprawling house mostly for its wraparound porch overlooking the beach. You felt like you could do anything there and no one would mind: fall asleep on one of the sofa pillows knocked to the floor, play the piano. As parents, they were of the indulgent school: the bottom floor was entirely decorated with the toys of his two young boys, Tom and Jack.You felt like you could do anything and no one would mindwhich is exactly what Glass must have felt when he wrote for TNR, and which is precisely what Kelly must have felt when he produced his ludicrous work for the Post. Make no mistake: The modern press is of the indulgent schoolas long as you are hilariously mean against Standard Approved Targets, of course.
In todays column, Rosin describes a press which has swung wildly out of controlbut she doesnt seem to know it. Michael Kelly was nice to her, and, of course, he told lots of jokes on the job. For the zombified people who make up your press corps, nothing else much seems to matter.
THE NUGGET: Try to believe that she actually said it. There is a club of his former writers who sort of hero-worship him; I guess now we can admit it, Rosin said. Shafer expresses a similar point. Even before Kelly died, finding a writer who would speak ill of him was almost impossible, he writes. No one wished Michael Kelly ill. But it should come as a wake-up call to read this remarkable statement by Rosin. Kelly may have been a nice man in private, but he was an inexcusable journalist. The fact that D.C.s young journalists thought him a hero should at last open everyones eyes.