Amillion stories could, of course, be told about Michael Kelly, the stunningly gifted Capitol Hill-born journalist killed Thursday night in Iraq at the age of 46. The best-known is the one in which he left for the first Persian Gulf War in 1991 as just another freelancer -- for the New Republic -- with no means of full-time employment and emerged six weeks later as the star correspondent of the war.
He seemed to be everywhere at the right time, and he relayed the strange reality of it all with terse but graceful prose well informed by irony.
Within five years he had not only authored a prize-winning book about the war ("Martyrs' Day") and covered the White House for the New York Times, he had won plaudits as a writer and Washington editor for the New Yorker, and served as a columnist and then as editor of the New Republic. Yet he was barely 38 years old.
In a professional universe too often peopled by shark-minded careerists with too many credentials and too little humanity, he was in many ways a kind of throwback to his father's generation of Irish-Catholic blue-collar newspapering. He delighted in journalism not for any illusion of status, but for the joy of language, the adventure of experiences and the chance to prod people into thinking.
In the next few years he would start a syndicated newspaper column for The Washington Post, become a senior writer at the National Journal, then its editor, and then serve as editor-at-large of the Atlantic Monthly, restoring the luster and timeliness of that venerable and thoughtful periodical.
Yet he did all that while remaining an unapologetically rumpled little guy, as genial as his articles and columns could be savage.
And as serious as he was about his craft, there was always as much mischief as ambition in his career track. It was always possible to view his achievements as those of a small boy improbably perched atop a tall roof shouting down, "Hey, Mom! How about THIS!"
He had grown up in a boisterous family on Capitol Hill, on the same block of Constitution Avenue where his father had been born. Between his father, Tom, a reporter for the old Washington Daily News, and his New Orleans-born mother, Marguerite, who has a Louisiana sense of grand occasion, the Kelly table was regularly peopled with writers and critics, noisily and happily debating politics, books and ideas.
Nurtured amid the tumult with his three sisters, Kelly would later recall, "even though much of it went over my head, I knew I wanted to be part of that world. I never thought of being anything else but a reporter."
He got perhaps his first journalistic assignment when he was 12. His parents, worried that their children were growing up with too rarefied a view of life, sent Michael and his sister Kate to Ireland one summer, to stay with a distant relative who lived in a small house and still made the sign of the cross before milking the cow lest a leprechaun sour the milk.
In the journal the two kept of the experience, Michael's reportorial eye is already evident. Documenting the crucifix on the wall of every room, he noted that "Christ is shorter in Ireland."
Kelly graduated not from an elite media-feeder in the Ivy League but from the University of New Hampshire, and not entirely with distinction. But during an early, hustling internship with "Good Morning America," he made the first journalistic contact with a released Iranian hostage in the early 1980s, and soon ABC was sending him to Central America as a producer.
He was making good money in television and it seemed his future there was assured. But he quit the business, he later recalled, after a reporter (he declined to say who) informed him airily one day that "in television news a hair dryer is every bit as important as a notebook and pencil."
He was content to take a massive pay cut to start at the bottom in newspapers as a cub reporter in Cincinnati. From there he moved to the Baltimore Sun, where Washington bureau deputy chief Robert Timberg remembers him arriving "like a joyous whirlwind . . . an incredible energy source" during the Iran-contra hearings in the mid-1980s.
In addition to writing some of the paper's best and most thoughtful investigative pieces on the scandal, Kelly won repeated headlines by showing up at the White House Correspondents' Dinner two years in a row with the year's top newsmaker. One year it was Oliver North's secretary, Fawn Hall (Kelly got to her by calling her mother). The following year it was Donna Rice, who had cost Gary Hart his 1988 presidential campaign by appearing in a cuddly snapshot with him aboard the good ship Monkey Business.
It was that inexhaustible well of creative play, as well as his intellect, that colleagues remembered yesterday, most of them caught painfully somewhere between laughter and tears. But there was also the disciplined magic of his prose. One pulled up this passage from one of his 1991 Gulf War dispatches filed for the New Republic:
"In the nighttime raids, the anti-aircraft fire would begin a few minutes before the bombers came, in scenes of incandescent hysteria and beauty, the tracer shells tracking lovely curves and S's and parabolas of orange-red light against the backdrop of a blacked-out city skyline."
Last September, when an old friend teased him about working too hard, Kelly confided he was planning to step down as editor of the Atlantic despite his success there. He was missing seeing his two sons grow up, he said (his best columns were always about his family), and even his friends were telling him he was starting to write like an old grouch.
David Bradley, the Atlantic's owner, said yesterday that Kelly decided two months ago to write a three-part series on the present war for the Atlantic, a series which would later be turned into a book. Something about the desert war wouldn't leave him alone.
"I spoke with him by phone from Iraq just yesterday and he sounded positively joyous -- not about the war, but about the work," Bradley said. "He was sleeping under the stars in a sleeping bag like a kid again and told me he had already filled 10 notebooks with his writing. Then he held the phone away from his ear and said, 'There. Can you hear the missiles?' "