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In high gear
Editor Michael Kelly has put the Atlantic on the fast track
By Don Aucoin, Globe Staff, 7/25/2002
WAMPSCOTT -- The curly-haired man at the wheel of the baby-blue 1966 Mustang convertible cut stragglers no slack as he led a caravan of cars through the haphazard streets of this seaside town. Pulling into a parking lot in a swirl of dust, Michael Kelly bounded out of the Mustang and hoisted his arms in a touchdown gesture as half a dozen party guests trickled into the lot, having somehow managed to
keep up with him. "I feel like Lewis & Clark!" Kelly exclaimed with a self-mocking grin. "I've never pulled off an act of leadership like that before."
Maybe not, but the hurtling style is familiar to those who have tracked Kelly's ascent. It was just a little over two years ago that Kelly became editor of The Atlantic Monthly, the 144-year-old Boston-based literary magazine to which the adjective "venerable" clung like an elbow patch on a tweed jacket. Kelly promptly recruited dozens of new
writers, gave them acres of space, and instilled a sense of immediacy and impact in the once-sedate Atlantic. On the morning of Sept. 11, one of the new contributors, P.J. O'Rourke, got a call in Washington from Kelly. " `Get your butt out on the street and start reporting.' -- that was the sum total of his instructions," recalls O'Rourke. " `Go.' "
With Kelly's foot on the accelerator, The Atlantic can lay plausible claim to being the magazine of the
moment. It won three National Magazine Awards in May, a harvest of honors matched only by The New Yorker. The current double issue -- called "probably the best issue of any magazine published in America this year" by The Washington Post -- contains the first installment of the longest work of journalism The Atlantic has ever published: William Langewiesche's 70,000-word series on recovery efforts at the World Trade Center. Though it's still losing money, The Atlantic's circulation has climbed from 463,000 to 598,000.
Along the way, the 45-year-old Kelly has largely dispelled fears -- inside and outside the magazine -- that he would transform The Atlantic into a vehicle for the right-leaning (though not doctrinaire) political views expressed in his syndicated column. The Atlantic's pages bristle each month with lively writing from a transideological roster of regulars such as Christopher Hitchens, a longtime contributor to The Nation, and David Brooks, a senior editor at The Weekly Standard, and from such authors as Mark Bowden, who wrote "Black Hawk Down." In the North End office where he is at work on part three of his series, Langewiesche, sporting suitably workmanlike dungarees and a denim shirt, describes Kelly as an "intellectual enthusiast" whose approach to editing is: "Green light, green light, green light."
That's a credo any writer can get behind, but then Kelly has always been popular with his writers. It was a publisher with whom he famously crossed swords: Martin Peretz, who fired Kelly as editor of The New Republic after just nine months in 1997. At the time, Peretz said Kelly was "an obsessive right-winger," and contended that "Michael Kelly wouldn't recognize a big idea if it hit him in the face." Kelly maintains he was fired because of his forceful criticism of then-President Clinton and then-Vice President Al Gore, a former student and longtime friend of Peretz's. (Peretz did not return a call from the Globe.)
Whatever the cause of the falling-out, Kelly cannot be accused of scanting big ideas at The Atlantic. Not when he has published Bowden's 20,000-word May cover story on the "inner world" of Saddam Hussein, James Fallows's piece last September on "The Great College Hustle" of early admissions programs, stories on the cultural/ geographic schism in America revealed in the 2000 election, on human cloning research, on the surge in new religions.
"We've put ourselves back in the game," says Kelly.
'A talent magnet'
The hushed halls of The Atlantic are full of reminders that Michael Kelly did not invent its tradition of excellence.
Award plaques line one wall beneath the red-brick ceiling of the magazine's offices, located five flights up from the noise of Big Dig construction on Washington Street. (The Atlantic moved there in 1996, after 100-plus years at various addresses in the Back Bay.) Walk farther along the scuffed hardwood floors and you'll encounter framed copies of some of the magazine's most famous cover stories, such as William Greider's "The Education of David Stockman" from December 1981 and Robert A. Caro's "The Years of Lyndon Johnson" from October 1982. In the magazine's early years, Thoreau and Emerson wrote for it; William Dean Howells was its editor. Staffers speak affectionately of Kelly's predecessor, William Whitworth, and are quick to recall the quality work done during his 19-year tenure.
But The Atlantic had also acquired an undeniable whiff of academicism, of stuffiness. "It had begun to feel as if it was aimed at graduate students," remarks O'Rourke. Big-name authors and splashy book excerpts had grown harder to land in the final, cash-lean years of Mortimer Zuckerman's ownership. That changed because of the quiet, gray-haired man with a travel bag slung over his shoulder who is standing in a hallway of the magazine's North End offices.
It is David G. Bradley, the 49-year-old entrepreneuer who bought The Atlantic for $17 million in late 1999, then put Kelly in charge of it the following year. Then, crucially, Bradley opened up the money spigot so his editor could afford such big-name authors as Bowden and Hitchens, so he could outbid The New Yorker for a previously unpublished short story by Mark Twain, so he could enlarge the average number of editorial pages per issue from 60 to more than 80. "Mike and David together have taken some big reportorial risks, many of which have worked out brilliantly," says Fallows. Bowden was not a regular reader of the pre-Kelly Atlantic, but he now views it as a "platform to really do my best work, and to be paid handsomely for it."
Kelly remains in the hunt for high-impact bylines. Bradley likes to say of Kelly that "he's a talent magnet." He believes his editor is uniquely equipped to make The Atlantic "the most intelligent piece of intellectual real estate in the country." The two enjoy each other's company; they will go to a diner near Bradley's Washington office and kick ideas around for four hours straight. The self-effacing Bradley jokes that Kelly agreed to come work for him, first at the National Journal and then at The Atlantic, because he quickly figured out that "I would cave on everything."
"He's got great linear logic, but he's also fiercely emotional," says Bradley. "So you're either with him or not with him. He's got a lot of passion. He's pretty comfortable telling me I'm wrong."
Their disagreements, when they have them, tend to center on the magazine's design. Bradley favors a "neoclassical" look; Kelly likes more visual pop. One thing they don't argue about is money. The Atlantic reportedly lost money under Zuckerman and it is losing more under Bradley -- more than $5 million a year, he says. Circulation is up -- newstand sales have leapt nearly 60 percent -- and ad revenues have remained strong, but the pursuit of quality has been costly, what with the 25 new employees, the pricier writers, the added pages. Bradley says a significant price hike will probably be necessary down the road.
So the pressure is on Kelly to sustain the current momentum, to make The Atlantic so compelling that it at least breaks even. That, while pursuing his broader goal of consistently publishing "vaultingly ambitious" pieces that make the case for long-form, nonfiction narrative in an era of the shrinking attention span. A tall order, but this is not a guy afflicted with self-doubt. "We're going to make a magazine that is so good the audience will be willing to pay the freight," he says.
Politics and journalism are in Kelly's blood. He grew up on Capitol Hill, the bookworm son of Thomas Kelly, a reporter for the now-defunct Washington Daily News, and Marguerite Kelly, author of a syndicated column called "Family Almanac."
It might surprise Bill Clinton to learn that his future scourge grew up in a liberal Democratic home. Kelly learned how to advance and defend ideas from listening as his parents debated the Vietnam War with dinner guests, some of whom were politicians. One of the reasons Kelly later developed such contempt for Clinton, he says, is that he found Clinton's mendacity so at odds with the essential honesty of most politicians, for whom their word -- delivered in the Senate cloakroom, for instance -- is their bond.
Today, Kelly belongs to neither the Democratic nor Republican party. He acknowledges that he feels "conservative impulses" on many issues, but says, "I dislike categories, because I find movement thinking or orthodoxy on both sides so obviously corrupting and hostile to honest inquiry."
Kelly uses vivid language when he speaks and writes, but in person, the words are delivered equably, even quietly. (One of his antagonists, Eric Alterman, a columnist for the left-leaning magazine The Nation, says there is "a Jekyll and Hyde quality between the columnist and the editor.") Kelly sometimes props his feet -- shoes but no socks -- on his desk while he talks. A somewhat owlish figure in wire-rimmed glasses and rumpled khakis, he gives long, detailed answers to questions. Atlantic staffers say he is a skilled mimic with a ready wit. The Mustang that is parked on North Washington Street with its top down may attest to Kelly's rambunctious side, but he also favors the peaceful pursuits of cooking and gardening. For the Fourth of July party cohosted at his rambling white Victorian by him and his wife, Madelyn, a former CNN producer, Kelly prepared 80 pounds of salmon and an equal amount of brisket. After submitting to more than three hours of questions for this story, he announced that he had to head home because he was cooking dinner for Madelyn and their two sons, Tom, 6, and Jack, 3.
Kelly had a good time at the University of New Hampshire -- maybe too good a time, he now admits. A self-confessed "carouser" as an undergraduate, he now wishes he'd cracked the books a little harder. "I'm conscious of the holes in my knowledge," he says. After college, Kelly followed in his father's foosteps with reporting stints at The Cincinnati Post and The Baltimore Sun. "I had always wanted to be a newspaper reporter, because I admired him most in the world," he says. "Still do."
He didn't find his writing voice until he began freelancing for magazines, and from the beginning, it was "a pretty sharp-edged voice," he says. He showcased his gift for lacerating prose with a 1990 profile of Senator Edward M. Kennedy for GQ magazine that described Kennedy's "gin blossoms," "bloated, mottled cheeks," and teeth "the color of old piano keys." His reputation as a reporter grew when he covered the Persian Gulf War as a stringer for the Globe and as a writer for The New Republic and GQ. Immediately after the war, Kelly traveled on foot from Iran into the Kurdish-held territory of northern Iraq. He wrote a book about the Gulf War, "Martyrs' Day: Chronicle of a Small War," and he was off and running on the fast track.
Over the next decade, he worked as a staff reporter for The New York Times (covering the 1992 presidential campaign) and for the Times magazine, and served as Washington editor of The New Yorker and editor of The New Republic before forging the partnership with Bradley that brought him to the National Journal and The Atlantic.
"I've had one good break after another," he says. "A long series of lucky breaks and good jobs and stories and a life I like living."
Making a difference
When the planes hit the World Trade Center, Kelly's first impulse was to tear up the nearly completed issue of The Atlantic and fill it with stories about the attack. In other words, he reacted like the newspaperman he was for the first half of his career.
But managing editor Cullen Murphy urged that they aim instead for "one big thing that really stands alone." He suggested dispatching Langewiesche, a former pilot with a gift for unraveling technical complexities, to ground zero to write a long narrative about recovery efforts. Langewiesche gained unique access to the site because of his reputation and that of the magazine (it helped that the official in charge of the site was a 20-year subscriber to The Atlantic). Langewiesche remained there for nine months, during which time the magazine paid his salary and expenses and Kelly did not once express concerns about money, the writer says. Langewiesche emerged with the raw material of a remarkable three-part series titled "American Ground: Unbuilding the World Trade Center." It is, Kelly says, "a 50-year piece" that will rank with John Hersey's "Hiroshima."
Time will tell. But it is a much-talked-about series, in part because it isn't the sort of thing The Atlantic might have been expected to pursue so aggressively. Langewiesche says that when Kelly sent him down to New York, the editor's attitude was: " `Let's kick ass. We are not taking a back seat to any other publication." Murphy, who was managing editor under Whitworth, says Kelly has increased by "a massive amount" the original reporting in The Atlantic, "making the magazine more aggressive in terms of events in the modern world."
Kelly counts among his own heroes such writers as George Orwell, Joseph Mitchell, and A.J. Lieb ling, and he is determined, with his own stable of writers, to "put the magazine in the middle of social issues that matter, to make a difference."
He is a man of argument and ideas, but he is also attentive to packaging, and presided over a redesign of the magazine. "His attitude is: Look, these aren't homework assignments. We need readers," says art director Mary Parsons. Kelly created a front-of-the-book section of close-to-the-news essays on politics and foreign policy called "The Agenda." For that, he hired writers such as O'Rourke, Jonathan Rauch, Margaret Talbot, and Brooks. It is a lineup that, in his view, is "pretty obviously funnier, feistier, more controversial, more sharp-elbowed, very much less academic than you have seen in the past."
Whatever else Kelly's Atlantic will be, it will not be academic. " `Arguing the world' is a phrase we use around here a lot," says Kelly.
Kelly's penchant for arguing the world is most palpable in his weekly political column. In that forum, Kelly turns a Mencken-like blowtorch on those he deems guilty of nincompoopery, dishonesty, or both. He raked Clinton over the coals so often that his firing from The New Republic was "greeted with glee at the White House," according to a Washington Post story at the time.
Alterman, of The Nation, concedes that Kelly is "beloved by his writers," but contends that in the column, "the public persona he puts up is of a junkyard political attack dog who demonstrates nothing but contempt for those with whom he disagrees. He goes absolutely bananas when anybody challenges him, especially someone to his left."
Kelly calls that "unfair and inaccurate."' At both TNR and the National Journal, he routinely published columns he disagreed with, and he says he would never meddle with a story on political grounds. "I don't know the politics of most of the people on this [Atlantic] staff, and it doesn't remotely matter to me," he says. As for the column, he offers no apologies for his tone or his point of view. "I am frequently sharp and sometimes brutal," he says, adding drily, "I don't think that is entirely new to opinion writing."
No, it isn't. But within The Atlantic, with its long tradition of genteel liberalism, Kelly's string of anti-Clinton columns generated "enormous apprehension" before he came aboard, according to literary editor Benjamin Schwarz. "A lot of people thought `Omigod, he's going to change this into a raving Republican version of Vanity Fair,' " says Schwarz.
What they encountered instead, Schwarz says, was a man who was "incredibly soft-spoken and respectful" of his new colleagues. That went down well at a place where, historically, no one ever raised his voice. One of Kelly's first acts as editor was to rehire Fallows, a longtime Atlantic stalwart who had left the magazine to be editor of U.S. News & World Report; he also forged a close working relationship with Murphy, who was managing editor under Whitworth and is widely viewed as the heart and soul of The Atlantic. "What he sensed immediately was what had to be preserved from the magazine and what had to be changed," says Schwarz. "He hasn't made the magazine into a reflection of himself and his personality. It's partly that; he's incredibly well-read, he loves good writing. But he also knew the magazine had a tradition and a cultural significance that was separate from his identity. He's been able to work within that tradition."
His combative streak remains alive and well in the columns. When a Globe reporter asked for his reaction to critics who find his columns vituperative, Kelly's responses were thoughtful, almost placid. Within a couple of days, though, he wrote a column that began: "The other day a fellow suggested that some people find this column as not nice -- given to ad hominem insults and uncharitable impulses and that sort of thing. Well, it stung, of course, and after brooding on it, I have decided to mend my ways, at least once a year. Here, then, the first annual Mike's Nice Column." He then proferred sardonic apologies to Clinton, Kenneth Lay, and others he had recently skewered.
But there are 364 other days in the year, so Clinton, Lay, and the rest of us should probably stay on our toes.
Don Aucoin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This story ran on page D1 of the Boston Globe on 7/25/2002.