Fourth of July blues
American politics is just a bit duller without the biting wit of Michael Kelley. Here is a sampling of his most acerbic and hilarious takes on Democrats.
We are billowing immensities of avoirdupois; great, soft bins of finest quality lard, a nation of wide loads wallowing down the highway of life...We do not walk, we shake, jiggle, roll. We are Moby-Dick, the great white whale; we are Dumbo; we are countless refutations of the claim that no man is an island”.
Michael Kelly, “Girth of A Nation.”
2010 was a year I spent obsessed with elections. My pen travelled from the loony Brits to the lazy Bengalis, though it was the crazy Americans who commandeered my most sustained attention. As I wrote then, elections are carnivals, and they had the best show on the road.
It proved a sleepy midterm election, and even the hilarious Tea Party movement could rouse but a minimal rabble. After the hoopla of 2008, voters wanted a break. Through most of the coverage, thus, my chief entertainment was a game: What would Michael Kelly have said? Michael Kelly, you see, was why I began investigating elections. Things Worth Fighting For, his book of political reportage, makes them sound as funny as they are fascinating. “Chicago is to politics what Paris is to love” he wrote in a profile of Richard Daley Jr (who shared David Axelrod’s expertise with Obama, and made way for another top aide, Rahm Emanuel, in 2010. )
Richard Daley Jr is the boy who was born to inherit Chicago. Learning at his father’s knee, crawling in his father’s shadow, he was slated for his father’s job from the moment he opened his eyes - never mind that he seemed to have as much natural grace for politics as a pig has for modern dance… [Chicago politicians] pioneered such classic tactics as voting the dead and employing bands of rogue repeat-voting vagrants (Hobo-Floto-Voto, this ploy was called)… The mayor and his fellows huff along; like Lewis Carroll’s oysters, some of them are out of breath and all of them are fat.
Michael Kelly is, in my imagination, the symptomatic American. He bears all the flaws and the brilliance of that strange race.The lovely thing about my relationship with him, truth be told, is that we’re ideologically poles apart. There is not a political, civil, or social issue we agree upon. I’m fairly certain our literary tastes would've been as divergent. The only thing we share is a sense of humour, for which he had a rare gift. Days before his death during the second Iraq war, he wrote home to his wife and sons:
Registered with the army yesterday- signed various forms acknowledging that combat was inherently life-threatening, that I understood nobody in this man’s army was obliged to protect me in any way, that if I bought the farm it was my own damned fault, and (this last part is key) I waived all rights to sue. Ok doke. You would not believe how polite the army is this these days. Registering was like checking into a four star hotel: Micheal! How good to see you! Now, you come over here and have a seat.. No, no, let US bring the forms to YOU! And so on.
Kelly’s wry jokes were usually targeted at Democrats. Consider his opinion about David Gergen, Clinton’s PR guru: “To be Gergenised is to be spun by the velveteen hum of this soothing man’s smoothing voice into a state of such vertigo that the sense of what is real disappears into a blur.” Hilary Clinton is dismissed as “pure symbol”, and his bitterest essay was about Bill himself, in which Kelly declares: “He will lie till the last dog dies”. For a longer morsel of more amiable malice, consider his views about Jesse Jackson, the first black man to run for President. He had, Kelly tell us, a “unified field theory about race and class politics”:
There are atleast three obvious Jesses, all of them oversized and contradictory. One is a self-anointed king/god who sees himself in terms both imperial and messianic, as a historically great leader engaged in a lifelong vision This is the Jesse that compares himself to Jesus, Moses and Martin Luther King Jr, and who routinely speaks in the royal we. This is also the Jesse who has become a powerful national voice of moral authority, a minister who has inspired generations of black youths with his stirring message of self-reliance and hope and who has become America’s most important voice on behalf of, as he says, “the dispossessed, the disenfranchised, and the dislocated”. The second Jesse is the Huey Long of the television age, a demagogic and cynical manipulator of the press and the public who owes allegiance to no one and stoops to anything to advance himself. The third, and best hidden, is a quasi-revolutionary, an angry boy who has grown into an angry man in an unending conflict with a nation he sees as immoral and unjust.
Kelly’s pointed portraits of liberal stalwarts — among them the late Ted Kennedy, ‘the Kennedy Untrammelled’— make him ideal reading in a debate where the wit is too often stacked in the other direction. Republicans, for all their obvious genius, have little knack for language. Michael Kelly— almost Republican, erstwhile Democrat— was the closest thing they had to a sympathetic critic. Looking around the world, with three wars, a recession, and a flailing democracy, all one can ask is: What would Michael Kelly have said this Independence Day?
Who can deny that unbridled nationalism has been at the root of much of the destruction of the last century? As we celebrate our tryst with destiny, let's listen to Rabindranath Tagore, Independent India’s earliest cultural ambassador.