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April 6, 2003

Michael Kelly, R.I.P.

On Friday, journalism lost one of its most noble soldiers when Michael Kelly was killed in a Humvee accident in Iraq. I have little to say about Kelly's heroic life that hasn't already been covered by Peggy Noonan, Andrew Sullivan, Maureen Dowd, this guy from The National Review, and several writers for The New Republic. But I'm always willing to produce hagiography about a complicated man if I think it might further my career or advance my political agenda. So here goes:

A great dark cloud has obscured the sun. Torrents of rain fall around the battlements of my heart. Life is but a walking shadow, a poor player who struts and frets his hour upon the stage. For a great American media figure has died, and our hearts, our souls, our memories are forever shattered, like glass. In times of war, individual tragedy has a way of making the grand things small, and the very grand things even smaller. Why, Lord, why? Why?

In 1997, when Michael Kelly was the editor of The New Republic, I gave him a call. Joyce, the magazine's receptionist, answered.

"Hey, Joyce," I said. "It's Neal Pollack!"

"Who?" she said.

"Don't you remember me? I worked there as a reporter-researcher for about 10 weeks in 1991!"

"No," she said.

"Anyway, is Mike in? I've got a story idea!"

"He's meeting with Tom DeLay right now. Can I take a message?"

I inisisted that she patch me through. A few seconds later, Kelly was on the line. Through the pay phone at the YMCA where I was staying until my luck improved, I could hear the generosity in his voice.

"I have a story idea," I said.

"I don't know who you are," he said. "But go ahead anyway."

"Um," I said. "You should send me to Guatemala. There's some interesting stuff going on down there."

"I know. I'm fascinated by the peace accord that they signed last year."

"Wait," I said. "There was a peace accord?"

Shame filled my marrow as I slammed the receiver into the wall. That night, in my room, I cried and cursed the parents who'd raised such an idiot. Three months later, I got up the courage to call him again.

"Sorry we got disconnected last time," he said. "How've you been?"

"Eh," I said. "I've felt better."

"So what can I do for you?"

"I want to write a piece about how Bill Clinton is an asshole."

"I wrote three brilliantly-reported columns on that very theme last month," he said.

"Well, he is," I said.

"Agreed. Any other ideas?"

"No!" I shouted. "NOOOOOOOOOO!"

I hung up the phone again, went to my room, opened the window, climbed onto the ledge, and fell nearly two stories. It was muddy outside and I got dirty. Why wouldn't Michael Kelly run my stuff?

The last time I talked to him was in October 2001. I called him at The Atlantic.

"Hey!" I said. "Why not send me down to Ground Zero? I bet it would be really interesting to have a three-part story about the reclamation efforts!"

"Someone's already on that," he said. "Sorry."

"But I'm a spoken-word artist who supports George W. Bush!"

"Really," he said. "I'm very sorry."

I began sobbing without control or shame.

"Why does everybody hate me?" I said.

"I don't hate you," he said. "In fact, I'd like to invite you over for dinner on Friday night. I'm a wonderful cook, and a wonderful dancer, too."

"But I'm not good enough to dine with the likes of you!"

"Sure you are," he said. "I'll let you sit on the chaise lounge that Maureen Dowd bought me for my wedding..."

In the end, despite his warm heart and giving spirit, I turned Michael Kelly down. How stupid of me! I'm such a loser, loser, loser! God, I hate myself!

Part of me will always miss him.

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