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Personal Best

Michael Kelly died last week covering the war in Iraq. And, in many of the obituaries written since, you can detect a hint of anxiety, a fear that people who knew him only from his columns first in this space as TRB, then in The Washington Post would remember him differently from how he really was. That's understandable. In his columns, Mike could be combative, aggressive, unyielding. In life, he was gentle, warm, playful. And so, people who loved him have emphasized the distinction between the way he viewed politics and the way he lived his life.

But Mike's politics also grew out of his life. I remember the day, years ago, when he told me why he loathed Bill Clinton. Evidently, a cadre of older ladies had answered the White House phones since time immemorial. When Clinton took office, Mike told me, he quietly fired them and installed twenty-something former campaign aides in their place.

Why did that offend Mike so deeply? First, because he was a traditionalist, even an anachronist. He drove a 30-year-old car; he consumed literature and history rather than news; his editing often made long articles longer. When he first learned how to check his e-mail several years after most other Americans had been regularly checking theirs he noted with amusement that a great many people had been trying to reach him.

Mike's traditionalism made him a conservative, but not of the contemporary Washington variety. Many of today's "conservatives" are in love with theory, with efficiency, with remaking the world according to the abstractions in their minds. Mike was a conservative in the older, cultural sense. He wanted to preserve the unwritten rules, built up imperceptibly over time, that define morality in most people's lives. He revered the old-fashioned Capitol Hill neighborhood in which he grew up, and he believed that such communities developed organic standards of conduct far more subtle and dignified than outsiders understood, standards that needed to be protected from the sledgehammer of ideology and law. In Mike's view, the primary threat to those standards came from self-righteous liberalism with its intrusive mandates about smoking, gender relations, and shoveling the snow from your sidewalk. But conservatives could threaten them as well. Some on the contemporary right might have fired those old ladies at the White House in the name of efficiency; others might have done so for the greater good of the conservative movement. Mike would have loathed that, too.

One of the reasons Mike revered these norms and traditions was that he noticed them. He had an amazing eye for concrete things, and he refused to paper over them with distancing generalizations. In a particularly memorable dispatch from the first Gulf war, he introduced one Captain Douglas Morrison, "the voice of the new American army, ... a crisp, assured mix of casual toughness, techno-idolatrous jargon, and nonsensical euphemisms—the voice of delivery systems and collateral damage and kicking ass." And then he described what U.S. cluster bombs had done to the Iraqi troops fleeing Kuwait: "One man had tried to escape to Iraq in a Kawasaki front-end loader. His remaining half- body lay hanging upside down and out of his exposed seat, the left side and bottom blown away to tatters, with the charred leg fully fifteen feet away."

Mike supported that war, but, unlike Captain Morrison, he didn't sanitize it. He looked the viciousness of U.S. warfare in the eye. And he compared it with the far greater viciousness he had seen in Kuwait in 1991, where he had watched a grown man "crying, in short, harsh, shuddering sobs" as he recounted being tortured by Saddam Hussein's men. This February, Mike wrote, "Tyranny truly is a horror: an immense, endlessly bloody, endlessly painful, endlessly varied, endless crime against not humanity in the abstract but a lot of humans in the flesh. ... I do not understand why they [doves] do not see that anything is better than life with your face under the boot." They do not see because they refuse to look tyranny in the eye. Mike did. He had witnessed war and witnessed unjust peace. He chose between the two without illusions, and it was this honesty as a reporter that gave his opinions their moral power.

There was a second reason Mike cared so much about the firing of those old ladies. He judged politicians as human beings. His politics were less ideological than characterological. He believed that some people acted with honor, and others did not. And the people who acted without honor in their private lives would act without honor in their public lives, especially toward the weak. For him, that's why Clinton's personal conduct mattered because, if Clinton betrayed those ladies, he would betray Rwanda as well. And, I suspect, it's why he respected George W. Bush-because he believed that Bush's private decency would shape his presidency. Maybe Mike viewed things that way because he wrote political profiles before he began writing columns. He saw history not as the result of grand, impersonal currents but of individual will. "Only three people really matter as to the outcome," he wrote about the Iraq war. "The Iraqi dictator, the American president and the British prime minister. The first Gulf War occurred because all three were resolute. ... The whole thing was deeply personal, a matter of what was bred in the bones of these three."

It made sense that Mike saw politics as a function of personal honor because it was personal honor that defined him. When he told me the story about Clinton and the White House telephone ladies, he had just taken over as editor of The New Republic. He was also a new boss, and I was also an inherited employee. He wasn't only telling me about Bill Clinton; he was telling me about himself.

In Mike's view, the reason to have power was to protect, and lift up, other people. He was the least narcissistic famous person I ever met; he disdained self-promotion, but he basked in the success of the people he nurtured. He was courteous and tender to those who worked for him but fierce on their behalf. He seemed to relish battling outsiders who threatened the people in his care. Perhaps that is another reason he liked Bush. Like the president, Mike was a loyalist. He fought harder on your behalf than you fought for yourself.

These were Mike's moral rules, unwritten but defined through lived experience. And, if you witnessed them up close, it wasn't hard to see why Mike believed in a powerful America deploying its might on behalf of the powerless, the people he saw under tyranny's boot in Saddam-controlled Kuwait.

Mike once told me a story about his eldest son, Tom. Tom, he said, was a gentle boy who hated to fight. But he was strong, and, when he saw someone getting picked on, he invariably jumped into the fray. Of course he did, I remember thinking. He's Mike Kelly's son.