Politics & Policy

Skiing with WFB and Milton Friedman

William F. Buckley Jr. at the Alta Lodge (Kent Miles)
Memories of 18 years of camaraderie

It started in 1978. Milton Friedman had retired from teaching at the University of Chicago, and he and Rose moved to San Francisco, where I live. Milton had learned to ski in his 30s in California. I had skied my whole life, and we started talking about skiing together. Bill did all of his skiing in Switzerland by then, but it seemed obvious that something wonderful could happen if he joined us in California.

We agreed to meet for a long weekend at a small California ski resort in which my father and Walt Disney were early investors. I remember very little about that first year at Sugar Bowl except that I was deathly ill and nearly had to cancel. I do remember that Bill brought a case of wine, which we consumed entirely. (It became an interesting measure of something how this prodigious quantity declined over the years.)

#ad#It was magical. We talked and laughed and skied our hearts out. Even though I was deathly ill, we had the time of our lives, and we resolved to move the venue to Alta, Utah, and make it an annual event.

Each of the next 17 years, we stayed in the Alta Lodge and skied on the second weekend of January in the center of powder-snow country. A couple of times when one of us got sick, somebody else would fill in. But it was special, just the three of us, and we resisted the temptation to expand the group.

In 1994, Milton began to suffer leg pains that forced him to give up skiing. The following January, Bill’s great friend Van Galbraith joined us, and Milton came and shared meals. But the magic was gone. Our grand adventure was over.

Our Alta Rituals

Every year I felt the extraordinary privilege it was, sharing these intimate experiences with these two giants of conservatism. Looking back, I wish I had taken better notes on the conversations we had, the personal insights, the humor. Since Milton represented the libertarian side of conservatism (what I call the freedom Right), and Bill combined the freedom and order Right, this was an 18-year conversation on global events, but also on the tensions between the two great themes in modern conservative thought. Our conversations helped clarify answers to what Irving Kristol once said was the greatest unsolved intellectual challenge: to integrate libertarian and traditionalist thought.

While they shared worldviews in important and obvious respects, the differences between Milton and Bill were in some ways more interesting. These conversations greatly influenced my own peculiar “transpartisan” ideology.

Before sharing pieces of these conversations, I want to describe the rituals and traditions that came to define our time together. The most important of them had to do with eating. Milton was naturally gregarious and was pleased to talk to perfect strangers at any time of the day. Bill was not. (I was more with Bill on this.) This difference became apparent in our very first meal at the American-plan Alta Lodge, which at the time (it seemed) had some kind of ideological commitment to random mealtime seating of hotel guests. At our first meal, the maître d’ seated us at a table for six, with the three of us facing three total strangers. Since we had just arrived and were eager to talk among ourselves, Bill, who was sitting between us, choreographed a three-way conversation by swiveling his head from one side to the other, to Milton and to me — as if the others at the table were not there. After two courses of this, the large woman sitting across from us leaned forward and said, in a loud voice: “I’m Lucy Goldfarb.”

#page#It was a six-way conversation after that. But it was the last time we sat with anyone else. At lunches the hotel agreed to make an exception to its preferred communal dining format, and we ate at our own table. From Day Two for 17 years we ate all our dinners at The Mine Shaft, a steakhouse across the road.

Seymour Martin Lipset, Milton’s Hoover Institution colleague, put a special spin on Milton’s gregariousness. At a party given, I think, by Tom Sowell, a group of people were standing in an arc talking, when a garrulous woman walked up and started to take over the conversation. She quickly depopulated the arc — all except Milton, who remained in place, arguing with her. Marty shared his theory that the heads of “schools” of thought were often evangelists who could not resist the temptation to make converts. Thus there were stories about hapless students who made the mistake of stumbling into Talcott Parsons’s office and found themselves on the receiving end of a two-hour lecture on Parsonian Functionalism.

#ad#Over all those years at Alta, we operated on a precise timetable. We met at 8:30 for a leisurely breakfast. Out skiing at 10. Back to the lodge for lunch, a rest after lunch, then back out for an hour or more until close at 4. We would sometimes meet again in the hot tubs looking out at High Rustler, and after that we would retire to our rooms for a serious rest to recuperate from the high elevation (the lodge at Alta is at 8,600 feet). At 6:30 we would gather in Bill’s oversized room with its panoramic view of the mountain, have a drink, and then head on up the hill to our steakhouse. Milton then would typically turn in, while Bill and I would go for a walk — then stay up and listen to music.

Milton and I were there just for fun. Bill was constantly working when we were not together. He wrote the NR fund-appeal letter every year that weekend in Alta, and every year we saw it first and were given comment privileges.

Nonetheless, Bill, I think, had more fun than anyone in the world. One constant source of fun for him was having every latest space-age gadget. One year it was the kind of night goggles used by the military. Then there was the watch that was wired into Greenwich Mean Time — accurate to a tiny fraction of a second. How proud he was of that watch!

He took incredible delight in these technological marvels. One evening, just before dinner, he called me to demonstrate the magnificence of his watch. The phone rang in my room, and I answered it. “Do you know what time it is?” he asked. “I do, in fact,” I responded. “It is exactly 6:14 and 23 seconds.” Silence at the other end. “How did you know?” he asked, crestfallen and in disbelief. “I guessed,” was my response. We both laughed.

Bill hated it when something disrupted our schedule. Alta is subject to major avalanches, which sometimes force the authorities to close the canyon for blasting. When that happens, all hotel guests move to the ski room in the basement. (One year an avalanche apparently buried the entire north side of the hotel.) In 17 years they closed the road on us only once. Bill had arrived at the hotel before the road was closed, but Milton and I had to spend the first night in Salt Lake City. Bill was forlorn, alone, huddled in a ski room packed with strangers. We joined him the next morning. Among our diversions in Salt Lake City, we visited the house of Mormon leader Brigham Young. I am sure I am the only person who has ever toured Young’s house entertained by a lecture from a Nobel Laureate on why polygamy was efficient for Mormons in the early days.

#page#Each year we skied one of our days at Snowbird, ten minutes’ drive down the canyon. Our ritual there was to meet with Junior Bounous, head of the Snowbird Ski School, whom I knew from Sugar Bowl in the late Sixties. Junior was reputed to be the best powder-snow skier in the world, and he was also an outstanding teacher. Thanks to Junior, who called Milton “Milt” (over Milton’s objection, Bill once remarked that that was a little like calling Albert Einstein “Al”), Milton’s skiing steadily progressed into his 80s. With this progress, his enthusiasm for the skiing increased year after year. We would ski with Junior for a couple of hours, have lunch with him, then pack it in early and go back to Alta.

One year, Snowbird owner Dick Bass invited us to be his guests at Snowbird. He sent a car, which took us to a classroom, where he gave a 40-minute lecture on his development plans. As we were leaving, Milton noted, “There is no such thing as a free ski.”

#ad#One incident that very much departed from tradition happened one year when Milton was sick, and my brother took his place. Bill, Nick, and I were skiing in very bad conditions on West Rustler, a long, steep, and — that day — icy slope. The visibility was terrible. Bill was skiing ahead, and he caught an edge on his first turn. As he started to fall, it quickly became obvious that it was too icy for him to stop. In horror, my brother and I watched the icon of conservatism fall, like a rag doll, head-first, skis flying off him, and then slide about 1,500 feet. Alta locals call falls like his “slides-for-life” because people die when they hit trees, and he was headed toward a clump of trees. This was years before anyone wore helmets skiing. Mercifully, he stopped short of the trees.

It was the kind of fall that would lead many people to give up skiing. But although badly shaken — his foot shook so much that he could not put his boot back in his binding without help — he only said he was done for the day. I witnessed his bravery in the face of physical danger again some years later on a sail I took with him on the Long Island Sound, which I thought would cut short our lives. His son, Christopher, who was with us, later wrote that the experience caused him to give up sailing with his father.

Differences Among Us

Our conversations were an extraordinary narrative on 18 years of political history, covering every imaginable subject. One recurring theme was Bill’s fee structure for his lecture tours. Milton consistently argued that Bill was underpricing his services. The real difference between them, I suspect — which they never discussed — was how much time they wanted to spend on the lecture circuit: Milton wanted to do as little as possible.

Some of the most interesting conversations focused on the differences between Milton’s libertarian emphasis on individual freedom and Bill’s more explicit understanding that freedom depends on values of responsibility and order beyond the self. An example was their differences on the idea of national service, which Bill endorsed in his 1990 book Gratitude. Although Bill advocated voluntary service, Milton objected to the government’s sponsorship of it, which included subsidies for education.

I do not want to give the impression that Milton did not understand this crucial point about the importance of both freedom and order (responsibility), which returns to Irving Kristol’s argument about integrating libertarian and traditionalist thought. Milton often said he was convinced that the greatest threat to freedom in the world was the decline of both personal and social responsibility. But this primal insight never (to my knowledge) found its way into his writing, and I think that is a great pity.

#page#I am not sure if Marty Lipset’s observation about heads of schools’ wanting to make converts is true or not. I know that in all of these years skiing together — and also playing tennis — Milton never stopped teaching. One morning we went to the Alta Lodge ski shop to buy various trifles. I finished my shopping and impatiently waited for him at the door of the shop. “Got everything you need?” I asked. “Nope,” he responded. “But I’ve got everything I’m willing to pay for.”

Religion was one subject that we mostly avoided in our Alta conversations. Reason, for Milton, was king; and he simply could not understand how intelligent people (meaning us) could believe in God. His real views on the subject were much stronger. My wife and I were staying with the Friedmans at their Sea Ranch home north of San Francisco one year when Rose’s brother, Aaron Director, was also there. Although Aaron did not leave a great body of writing, his teaching legacy at the University of Chicago Law School was mythic. When I was in law school in New Haven, Robert Bork was teaching anti-trust law, and I remember where I was standing when he told me about Aaron’s life-changing influence on him when he was at Chicago.

#ad#Our first night at the Sea Ranch, after Milton relayed his experiences as a young boy committed to the Jewish faith, he started to rage against religion, arguing that it was one of the greatest causes of suffering in the world. I immediately recalled my conversation in Bork’s office when I watched Aaron, with his pipe between his teeth, ask Milton calmly: “Milton, I don’t understand how you can get so exercised about something you yourself say cannot be understood.” Milton immediately calmed down. It was obvious the conversation was over.

Joyous Memories

It is hard to exaggerate how wonderful and joyous these experiences were. People said it was the only time Milton was apart from Rose. When Milton passed away, Bill devoted the final third of his tribute to our years skiing together:

“When I undertook the operation,” [Milton] 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 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.”

This led to Bill’s final farewell to his friend: “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.”

— A. Lawrence Chickering is the founder and president of Educate Girls Globally. He was WFB’s assistant at NR at the end of the 1960s and also produced a newsletter for Firing Line.

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