One of a Kind

Monday, October 30, 2006

It isn’t right to rail against fortune when death comes to a friend or a hero—in this case, both—at the high age of 94. Still, we are free to choose, and there was grief when word came to us of the death of Milton Friedman. We were on board a large ship, where a week of seminars at sea was being guided by a dozen celebrants of conservative doctrine. One was to have been Milton himself, but when the boat pulled away from San Diego, bound for Mexico, Milton was paying his terminal visit to a hospital in San Francisco.

What struck the band of brothers who came together to devise an impromptu tribute to our missing seminarist was in fact exactly that—grief—never mind that he had lived 94 years. Although Professor Friedman engaged himself to the end, in tandem with his brilliant wife, Rose, in academic and philosophical work, it was not the discontinuation of this that caused the pang aboard the SS Oosterdam. If the word had come that Milton would never again write an academic paper or a book or column, we’d have tightened our belts and perhaps reminded ourselves of the million words that are there in print, and will always be there, to reread and to ponder. But what we felt was not so much the discontinuation of that great wellspring of liberal and penetrating thought. It was grief for the loss of a person.

It is inevitably so that the end of life of a central intellectual or political or indeed theatrical figure can be felt personally only by a comparative few because only a few have known any historical figure. The legion of friends and admirers at a remove—those who felt for him admiration, devotion, even love—is something different, in a way clinical. The public achievements of Milton Friedman are of course academic and political. But there was also the impact of his person on individual students and friends and coadjutors, and on Thursday, November 16, we felt a wholly personal loss.

The next day we put together an afternoon seminar at the hands of confederates on board. John O’Sullivan, the British-American editor, author, and lecturer, spoke of the international impact Milton had had during five decades, from the 1960s until the end. Robert Conquest, the scholar of Russia, poet, and, along with Milton, fellow at the Hoover Institution, remarked on the cultural impact of the great economist. Richard Lowry, the young editor of National Review, and his colleague Ramesh Ponnuru, spoke of his influence on undergraduates. Arnold Beichman, also a fellow at the Hoover Institution, an author, and public intellectual—and non-agenarian—had known the deceased as long as anyone present and did not attempt to hide his tears. Jay Nordlinger, music critic and managing editor of National Review, presided, weaving together, for the benefit of the four hundred guests, the highlights of the life so mourned.

Milton’s public achievements are of course academic and political. But there was also the impact of his person on individual students and friends and coadjutors, and on Thursday, November 16, we felt a wholly personal loss.

This author and friend had been struck down by an overnight illness. Had I spoken, I’d have stressed Milton’s capacity for friendship and fine company. We met, along with another friend, every year for nineteen years for a long weekend of skiing and conviviality, interrupted, finally, by illness. “I do not believe in miracles,” he wrote me in 1995, “and that is what I believe it would take to enable me to be on skis in six months’ time.” A year later: “Those many years we spent three days together at Alta are among my happiest memories.” And a year later, “When I undertook the operation, I did it very much in the hope that it would enable me to go skiing in January, but I am afraid the recovery isn’t going to be fast enough for me to do so. I have already told Lawry [Chickering] about it. I cannot tell you how much I regret having to do this. With all my love, Milton.” And after I published a piece about our skiing life: “You captured beautifully our joint satisfaction with our sessions at Alta. The fluency and sensitivity of your writing always astound me. Your generosity of spirit is remarkable and I am most grateful for having been a major beneficiary.”

That is how true friends can address each other, and it was the impact of an end to the man who generated such sentiments that struck me so hard on learning of the death of this Nobel Prize winner, the dominant economic and libertarian voice of the twentieth century, my sometime skiing buddy.