Milton Friedman, R.I.P.

Posted: Nov 22, 2006 12:01 AM
Milton Friedman, R.I.P.

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 Friedman himself, but when the boat pulled away from San Diego, bound for Mexico, Friedman was in a hospital in San Francisco.

What struck the band of brothers who came together last Friday afternoon 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 S.S. Oosterdam. If the word had come that Friedman 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 can have known any historical figure. The legion of admirers at a remove -- those who felt for him, without ever having met him, admiration, devotion, even love -- is something different, more detached. But there was also the impact of his person on individual students and friends and coadjutors, and on Thursday, Nov. 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 Friedman had had during five decades, from the '60s until the end. Robert Conquest, the scholar of Russia, poet, and, along with Friedman, fellow at the Hoover Institution, remarked the cultural impact of the great economist. Richard Lowry, the young editor of National Review, and his colleague Ramesh Ponnuru spoke of Friedman's influence on undergraduates.

Arnold Beichman, also a fellow at the Hoover Institution, an author and public intellectual -- and nonagenarian -- 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 400 guests the highlights of the life so mourned.

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 19 years for a long weekend of skiing and conviviality, interrupted, finally, by illness.

"When I undertook the operation," he wrote me in 1994, "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."

A year later: "I do not believe in miracles, 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 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 expression of 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 20th century, my sometime skiing buddy.