Post Columnist Dies in Wreck Near Baghdad

By Howard Kurtz
Saturday, April 5, 2003; 12:00 AM

Michael Kelly, the Atlantic Monthly's editor-at-large and a Washington Post columnist who abandoned the safety of editorial offices to cover the war in Iraq, was killed Thursday night in a Humvee accident with the Army's 3rd Infantry Division.

Kelly, 46, the first American journalist to die in the war, had also served as editor of the New Republic and National Journal and as Washington editor of the New Yorker.

But his decision to become embedded with U.S. forces marked a return to his reporting roots, since he covered the first Persian Gulf War as a freelance writer. While one Australian and two British journalists have been killed covering the 2 1/2-week-old war, Kelly's death is the first among the 600 correspondents participating in the Pentagon's embedding program.

"He didn't need to do this," said Martin Beiser, managing editor of GQ magazine, who edited Kelly during the first Gulf War. "He's just a born newsman. He wanted to be where the action was. The courage he showed in the last war put his career on a whole new trajectory and he didn't need to prove anything."

Cullen Murphy, the Atlantic's managing editor, said that "Mike had more than just a journalistic side. He did have a dog in this fight. He believed a proper effort was underway here and he wanted to chronicle it. He saw journalism not just as a craft or a game, but that he was accomplishing something."

In a March 17 appearance on ABC's "Nightline," Kelly, who dodged Iraqi gunfire during the 1991 war, spoke about the risks of this assignment:

"My own gut feeling is that there's some degree of danger, but if I was going to, sort of, rank danger in things that reporters do, . . . it would be . . . a lot more dangerous to be wandering around Chechnya than doing this, or wandering around Sierra Leone. I mean, here there is some element of danger, but you're surrounded by an army, literally, who is going to try very hard to keep you out of danger."

A Navy spokeswoman in Kuwait, without naming Kelly, said that a soldier and a reporter were killed near Baghdad when a Humvee went into a canal in an accident. President Bush expressed his condolences, and Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke told reporters, "Mike was just a phenomenal journalist."

Kelly is credited with revitalizing the respected but sometimes dull Atlantic. The Boston-based monthly won three National Magazine Awards last year and has carried many high-profile cover stories, including a three-part series on the cleanup of the World Trade Center site. He was hired by Washington businessman David Bradley, who bought the Atlantic in 1999. Kelly stepped down as editor last fall and planned to write a book about the history of the steel industry.

The Gonzaga High School graduate moved in recent years to a beach house in Swampscott, Mass., with his wife, Madelyn, and their sons, Tom, 6, and Jack, 3. In each editing job, Kelly inspired fierce devotion among those who worked with him.

"He was gentle, incredibly funny, a little disorganized, passionate and utterly non-egocentric," said New Republic Editor Peter Beinart. "What made him a great, great editor was that he could get more excited about your story than you were. You'd walk out of that room on fire."

Murphy recalled how Kelly won over the Atlantic's staff amid skepticism that an outsider with strong political views, initially commuting to the Boston office, might shatter the magazine's venerable traditions.

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