Fascinating to the End

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I last saw Bill Bradford on Dec. 7, 2005, the night before he died. I had not seen him since May, when he had come to Seattle for treatment of a cancer he thought was not terminal. By late July I could tell from his description over the telephone that it probably was. I didn’t say so and neither did he, though he talked about the future of the magazine if he didn’t make it. We talked several times more on the phone, but I did not take the half-day needed to go over to his place in Port Townsend. It was never urgent. Then suddenly, it was.

The Bill I visited on December 7 was pale and skinny, and had aged 30 years in so many weeks. He had had the aid and comfort of his wife Kathy, and of the Virginia Mason Clinic in Seattle, but the cancer had got him. He was slumped in an easy chair, his neck no longer willing to hold up his head. He spoke only occasionally, as if he were at the bottom of a mineshaft. I sat next to him and talked. By and by I asked if he was following me.

“Yes,” he whispered. “Keep talking . .. Fascinating.”

He had used that word on the phone a month before. Fascinating. Bill had lost the energy to do much more than listen, but the world still fascinated him. It could even annoy him; at one point someone was talking about the sluggish service

in the local restaurants, and Bill broke in with that ominous whisper: “Port Townsend . .. Get used to it.”

Pretty soon I emptied out, Bill’s sister Barbara took over, and Ross Overbeek and I went for some Thai food. We returned with boxes of padang beef and chicken krapao, and all present tucked into the victuals except Bill. I began thinking of the man – not the ghost across from me but that other Bill, the one I remembered.

In February 2003 I had gone to see him, crossing Puget Sound by ferry, and Hood Canal, which is not a canal, by a pon-toon bridge. I arrived at Port Townsend, the home of Bill and Kathy and Liberty.

Bill and Kathy had been born in the Midwest. They had moved to the Evergreen State in the ’80s, partly because it was one of the handful of states without an income tax. They had stayed away from the urban agglomeration of Seattle and had chosen Port Townsend, an antique town on the northeast corner of the Olympic Peninsula. It had a pulp mill, a ferry to Whidbey Island, and shops for the tourists. It is the sort of town that holds writers’ workshops and votes Democrat.

In the late 19th century Port Townsend had been an actual port for sailing ships to stop at customs. The town promoters had envisioned an important city, but they had put it on the wrong side of Puget Sound for rail connections to the East, and in the Crash of 1893 its exciting future had gone extinct. In the 1990s Bill and Kathy bought a red brick office building that been held by Jefferson County 70 years for nonpayment of taxes.

The building’s main door was unmarked. Up a wooden stairway was a second unmarked door, behind which was Liberty. Bill was not community-minded and did not want to be bothered by boosters. He did not like the local government. He told me of a run-in with the Port Townsend Historical Commission, which had authority over his officially historic build- ing. He wanted to build a shed on the roof, and the officious commissioners did not want him to build a shed on the roof. Well, God rest his soul, Bill did not like public servants.

That night I had stayed up with him until 1 a.m., talking – about the bureaucrats, libertarian foundations, Republicans, Libertarians, fundraising letters, the gold standard, national banknotes, the newspaper business, editing, various Liberty editors, and so on. Then I went off to sleep and Bill went to work, editing copy until 6 a.m. At night, nobody called him on the telephone. Bill loved good talk – ideas, arguments, political gossip – and he had to seclude himself in order to get his work done.

Sunday morning I was in Liberty’S offices alone. They were an archaic arrangement of space, with an open stairwell between the second floor and the third, where there were odd small rooms. In one of the large rooms was a library, where I poked around among the high shelves of unfashionable books. Bill had bought books from the estate of Isabel Paterson, and hundreds of other volumes. He had everything from Mencken and Mises to Faustino Ballve – titles I knew by reputation and ones I had not seen in 20 years.

I could have spent the whole morning prowling among Bill’s books, but the sunlight slanting through the high, wood- edged windows told me it was time to do some work. The previous evening I had wrestled some magazine copy to the point of dismemberment. One libertarian author was respond- ing to another libertarian author, and not well. Several times I stopped and wondered if Bill had really meant it when he’d told me to do whatever it needed to make it read well. I decided he did, and mumbled my apologies to the writer’s ghost.

Bill tromped up the steps around noon. He was not interested in working. He wanted to show me his land, so we fled the antique stores and world-savers of Port Townsend and went toward the logger country at the edge of the Olympic Mountains.

Bill turned onto a dirt road off U.s. 101, through a locked gate, past a shuttered campground and some hermits’ cabins posted No Trespassing. I’m a city guy, and I envisioned some survivalist popping up with a shotgun and demanding to know who the hell we were. Bill didn’t worry about it. From the crest of a hill we looked down on a wild river that tumbled out of the Olympic National Park, and a roiling expanse of trees. “That’s my property over there,” he said. All green.

We had to get to it another way. Bill lurched his truck down a slope toward the river. Here we were on his property but could nowhere see the whole of it. A previous owner had built

There was always something provisional and experimental that made Bill’s radicalism down to earth. He tolerated my pragmatic streak.


a cabin, but nothing was left but a tangle of rusted steel and a derelict bathtub. Around it were rain-loving maples and the redwood-like western red cedar, not too thick because the soil was rocky, but thick enough to filter the sun. Toward the river were patches of boulders, and you could see where the river had run over its banks. Bill’s property looked lush from a distance, but close up it was rough, its only natural bounty being the salmonberry, edible but not tasty. The place would be gloomy when it rained, which would be often. It was secluded, though; you might see an eagle there, or a bear. It was just the sort of place where you could step off your front porch and pop off a few rounds, which you could not do in Port Townsend.

Bill told me Kathy was not sold on his idea of building and moving there. I could see why. Anyway, there was the maga- zine. In the woods, he would have freedom but be too far from Liberty.

I once had breakfast with a former employee of Bill’s who said Bill was a fine writer and editor but not disciplined with his time. “Bill bites off more than he can chew. It’s an old habit.” The magazine was often late, the web page was years out of date and a subscription mailing was long overdue. Bill was always busy, but not always busy on things of commercial importance. He was the boss – one could not imagine R.W. Bradford as an employee – but just as clearly he needed to be managed. I imagined Kathy did a fair share of it, but I could see that Bill was not altogether manageable. Well, he was a libertarian.

He was 55 years old that weekend I spent with him. He told me he had diabetes and said his doctor had told him to lose 20 pounds. He said he’d been good about his diet, and he knew a great place to have a burger and curly fries. We had them. We were both having a good time. Bill needed an excuse to get out of the office; he looked ragged, with more gray in his hair than I remembered from the last Editors Conference. He said he wondered how many years he would be able to keep going at the magazine, and that Kathy worried about his health. She was right about that, more than we knew.

Before he died, Bill told Kathy to scatter his ashes on their river property. She told me recently she had not done it because the state wants the land for a park. Bill would not want his ashes on government property.

I first dealt with Bill almost a third of a century ago, entirely over the phone, during the silver and gold boom of the 1970s. He was in Michigan then, in the coin business. In my journal of Jan. 16, 1974, I wrote: “I bought the bag of Canadian silver, at the equivalent of $3.34 an ounce, or $1,985 for $1,000 in coins.”

Bill shipped me a bag of 10,000 dimes. It was not so big, but remarkably heavy. I dumped it out on a Persian rug with a KA-whoosh, and started counting it. My hands turned gray with silver. I compared the small stacks of dimes I had counted with the uncounted heap and gave up, scooped my hoard back

Bill loved good talk – ideas, arguments, political gossip – and he had to seclude himself in order to get his work done.


in the bag, and buried it under the house. Four months later I dug it up and sold it back to Bill. In 1987, when I contacted him in Port Townsend about his new magazine, I told him I had been one of his coin customers. He had one question: “Did you make money?” I told him I had made $850. “Good,” he said.

Bill launched Liberty at a time when I was not much interested in libertarianism, and he managed to rekindle an affection for it. I have always liked to write arguments; for most of the 1980s I had written a business column for th~ Seattle Post- Intelligencer. But by the early 1990s I had a job for Asiaweek, a Hong Kong newsmagazine for which my writing was non- argumentative and my identity invisible. I chafed under that. I was forbidden to write freelance, so I wrote for Liberty under a pseudonym, R.K. Lamb, with the first article, about Hong Kong, appearing in March 1990. There followed another in 1992, and I have been in the magazine every year since – and, after 1993, under my real name.

Sometimes my friends would say, “Why are you writing for Liberty? You could do better.” Well, I liked Liberty. And the biggest reason was that I liked Bill. I liked his mind. He was more radical in his beliefs than I was, but was not a hedgehog about them. He once said, “You know, Liberty is a radical magazine,” and I thought, yes, I suppose it is, but there was always something provisional and experimental that made Bill’s radicalism down to earth. He tolerated my pragmatic streak. Once he even let me write an article defending fiat mone~ a stand he thought was terrible.

Bill was also a businessman. Most libertarians are pro-business but not worth a damn doing business. Bill had a mind for it. He was not interested enough to establish a big, efficient enterprise, but with Kathy’s help he did establish Liberty as a going concern, keep it alive for nearly 20 years and make arrangements to keep it going after he died. He didn’t float it on corporate donations, either. He was appalled at how much certain libertarian enterprises spent and was proud that he had accomplished so much with so little.

I left Bill that December 7, telling him that he was a fine man and an important influence on my life. He nodded and waved a hand. I drove back to Seattle in the dark.

Bill was an admirer and defender of Henry Mencken, a man who once said he judged people by whether they kept their commitments. Bill kept his commitments to me. He paid his way in the world, including the medical expenses of his terminal cancer, which he bore without insurance. He created the libertarian movement’s principal in each magazine, and kept it lively a bit eccentric, and out of the clutches of any faction. He once told me he had the only magazine that undertook to cover the Libertarian Party in every national campaign, and the only one to which the party had ever denied press credentials. He encouraged me to write things I would not have written otherwise and got them into print. He helped resurrect my interest in things libertarian, and spurred me to write pieces I am fairly proud of. He did not demonize his opponents. He had a vision of a world different from this one, but he found this one fascinating to the end. I liked Bill, and I miss him a lot.

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