Personal Reflections on Milton Friedman

Published November 19, 2006

He opened the door. I said, “Dr. Friedman, I’m Bob Chitester.” He said, “Please call me Milton. We’ve been expecting you. Come in and meet Rose.”

That was January 14, 1977 in San Francisco, just weeks after Milton Friedman was awarded the Nobel Memorial Prize in economics. It was the beginning of what they came to call “the most exciting venture of our lives”: the production of the PBS TV series Free To Choose and the best selling book based on the series.

I had come to San Francisco with an introduction from Allen Wallis, a former classmate of Milton’s; then chancellor of the University of Rochester and chairman of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. He was to become Undersecretary of State for Economic Affairs under George Shultz. Allen had participated in a 1975 symposium I organized in Erie, Pennsylvania on the topic “Technology and Society,” over the course of which he came to know we shared similar views about economics, government, and human behavior.

It was our shared belief that PBS should telecast a response to John Kenneth Galbraith’s series, Age of Uncertainty, which led to the Friedman meeting.

That first evening with the Friedmans, we discussed many topics including economic freedom, hypocrisy, our families, public television, incentives, and individualism. I quoted from their book Capitalism and Freedom and read poetry. They listened and asked many questions. A little over a month later, Milton and Rose agreed to undertake the development of a TV series, which became Free To Choose.

Two aspects of the project were unconventional. Milton refused to write a script in advance of filming. Points to be made in each scene were agreed upon but his commentary was extemporaneous. Secondly, he and Rose wrote the book after filming was completed, using transcripts of the TV programs as a starting point.

Nearly 30 years later, I realize how much that first meeting reflected the essence of Milton Friedman. He was a famous Nobel Prize winning economist. I was a bearded, leather jacketed small town TV executive, yet he treated me as competent and honorable, as he did everyone he met, until you proved otherwise.

Over the intervening years I invited hundreds of people to join me for a “private dinner with Milton and Rose.” Most were, or soon became, great admirers of his quickness of mind and insatiable curiosity. They were charmed by his warmth and generosity, learned much about logic and careful thinking and departed wondering how anyone could dislike or disagree with this “truth seeker.”

To me Milton’s most admirable characteristic was his ability to disagree without being disagreeable; to have close friendships with people who aggressively challenged his ideas. His admonition was to never question the motive of an intellectual opponent–a lesson I struggle to embrace.

On January 29, 2007, PBS will telecast the 90-minute biography of Milton and Rose that I helped to create. I assured them The Power of Choice: The Life and Ideas of Milton Friedman would be an intellectual biography, but more than anything else, I wanted everyone to see the deep abiding humanity of this man.

Initially, Milton didn’t like the idea of a biography. He told me, “Bob, I’m not interested in committing time to a program that focuses on me; I want people to focus on ideas.” In giving us access to his personal and professional archives, in trusting our ability to use the story of his life to interest people in the pursuit of knowledge, he paid me the ultimate compliment.

On Sunday, November 12, 2006, I called to arrange for the three of us to have dinner together the following Tuesday. Milton had just returned from the hospital and Rose said, “He can’t go out, but we can order something in.” Milton thanked me again for some chocolates I had sent to him in the hospital, remarking that “we’re still enjoying them, they were delicious and what a variety.” I can still “feel” the twinkle in his eyes.

Tuesday when I called to discuss what food to bring in, Rose informed me Milton was again feeling ill and we’d have to postpone our get-together.

Early Thursday morning, November 16, 2006, Milton Friedman’s heart stopped. With his death, people striving to make their lives better lost a champion and freedom lost one of its most effective and valiant advocates, while I lost a teacher, mentor and friend of incomparable value.

I once told Milton it would take me a lifetime to repay his appreciation of the work we did together. I count on the memories of his faultless advice, fatherly concern, and that twinkle in his eyes to help me achieve that goal.

Bob Chitester is president and CEO of Free To Choose Media and, (formerly In The Classroom Media) operating divisions of the Palmer R. Chitester Fund, Inc., a 501(c)3 public foundation.