It Couldn’t Have Been Anyone Else

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

When Bill Bradford died, he took about half the memory of the libertarian movement with him.

Bill probably knew more people of influence among libertarians than anyone else has ever known, and he knew more about them. I could always excuse the laziness of my own inquiries by thinking, “No problem; I’ll just ask Bill.” Now that option is closed. He’s not around to tell me what I want to know about other people – but I can say some things about him.

I first met Bill in a windowless room with cement-block walls, in the basement of Seidman Hall, the student center at what was then called Grand Valley State College (now Grand Valley State University), 15 miles west of Grand Rapids, Mich. The institution consisted of a square mile of snow-swept prairie, a parking lot, four academic buildings, and Seidman Hall, which was about the size of a really large bungalow.

The encounter occurred just before Christmas break, in my freshman year. I had decided to attend Grand Valley because I was a shy kid who couldn’t face the University of Michigan, and because Grand Valley was a new, “experimental” school, with course requirements that (paradoxically) emphasized classical literature and philosophy. Bill was attending Grand Valley because it was convenient to go there. He wasn’t impressed by institutional arrangements; he wanted a place where he could think about fundamental problems of history and philosophy. What I wanted was a place where I could meet other young aesthetes like ·myself.

Young aesthetes, and politicos. I was a fervent leftist and pacifist, much preoccupied with “the peace movement.” In this connection I wrote a letter opposing conscription and sent it to the editor of Grand Valley’s student newspaper. (For the benefit of people who were not alive at that time, conscription was the government’s policy of kidnapping young men and shipping them to the jungles of Southeast Asia to kill other young men, whose governments were following a similar policy.) My piece of propaganda immediately appeared in print. Just as immediately, I received a letter from the assistant editor, a guy named Bradford, tell- ing me that he liked what I’d written and would also like to meet me. Would I be interested in doing any more writing?

Wouldn’t you bet. I took the earliest opportunity of visiting the assistant editor in his office on the lower floor of Seidman Hall. I remember a room with vending machines and a bunch of cheap steel furniture, and a line of doors and windows opening onto two or three little rooms, each appropriated to some vital bureaucratic function, such as the student council or the student paper. Here, if anywhere, the intellectual and political class of Grand Valley State College was to be seen, munching food and swilling coffee. On that day, however, there was only one person visible: a chunky

Bill never did believe in God, yet in later years he often spoke irritably about atheists who don’t understand religion but behave as if they themselves were commissioned by God to destroy it.


young man wearing thick glasses and a sweatshirt with the sleeves cut off. He was pacing rapidly from one of the offices to one of the tables, carrying stacks of files and photos, which he was inspecting and sorting as he walked.

“Hi,” I said. “I’m Stephen Cox.” “Oh, hi,” he said, barely glancing in my direction, as if I were an old friend whom he’d been expecting to drop in at that very moment; “I’m Bill Bradford.” He shook hands, then focused his gaze at some point midway between my face and the piece of paper he’d just been peering at. “Want to work for the Valley View?”

During the next year or so I did a lot of work for the Valley View. The editor was a nice, intelligent, placid young woman who was rarely seen in Seidman Hall; Bill did all the work, buzzing about the campus with his camera and his note pad, taking pictures and doing interviews, then turn- ing up at odd hours of the night to pastedown the copy and send it to the printer. Lurking, around the office, typing articles and reviews on the VV’s cranky typewriter, chatting with the wanderers who drifted past the door, becoming assistant editor when Bill was promoted to’ editor, learning what it meant to meet a deadline and what it meant to twist a sentence a few hundred ways until it might conceivably make some sense to somebody else, but mainly talking and arguing with Bill- it was the kind of education that I never intended to get, and it was 90% of the education that I did get at Grand Valley State College.

Bill’s attitudes were wholly individual. There was never any doubt that they were formed independently, on the basis of his own reading and reflection. My own attitudes, by contrast, were almost wholly predictable. Reared in a small rural community where I was always the smartest kid in school, eager to escape from an environment in which any show of eccentricity was duly punished, I automatically became an opponent of middle-American culture and an advocate of everything admired at that moment by The New Republic and The Village Voice. I found it difficult to get through the books they were always discussing – stuff by Erich Fromm and Susan Sontag and Jean-Paul Sartre. They were far too boring. Nevertheless, I felt certain that anyone who wasn’t hip to such things must be an irremediable philistine. The “anyone,” I am sorry to say, included Bill Bradford, no matter how much I liked him in other ways. I’m sure he sensed my silly bias, but he didn’t let it matter; he just ignored it. Smart man.

Speaking of provincial attitudes, I was probably the last person in the world to have been converted to leftist ideas by Shaw’s “Fabian Essays in Socialism” (1889). Knowing nothing about economics, little about politics, and precious little about history, I was an easy prey to the dullest and most conventional dogmas of the 20th century: political democracy is good, economic democracy is better; big business is inherently cruel and monopolistic; wealth must be redistributed; only modern liberals are kind and cultured; etc. etc. etc.

Because I was opposed to war, however, I was also opposed to all impositions of force on individuals – a position that dearly could not be squared with any of my socialist “ideals.” I’ve put “ideals” in quotes because no one can be an idealist who refuses to explore the counterarguments to his alleged ideals. I was interested only in the counterarguments to other people’s ideals. As a consequence, I was a very bad arguer; but I soon discovered that most other people were even worse. This was happiness, until I encountered Bill. He got me to confront facts and arguments that I had never dreamed existed.

He didn’t do it in a determined, aggressive way – although I do remember some loud and heavy joking about certain ideas he didn’t like. I remember his exclaiming, “You don’t believe in God, do you?”, to some hapless young woman sitting at one of those tables in that concrete basement. Remembering this is strange. Bill never did believe in God, yet in later years he often spoke irritably about atheists who don’t understand religion but behave as if they themselves were commissioned by God to destroy it. Certainly he himself never schemed to “convert” anybody to anything, including libertarianism. He liked people and was happy to share ideas that he thought were true. If people were shocked, that was their problem, but he made no attempt to shock them, much less to worm his way into their sympathies. He was one of the most ingenuous people I have ever met.

In arguments with me – and we had many, many arguments – he smiled, he laughed, he asked a few questions, he mentioned a lot of facts, and he assumed that, given enough

The cops accosted Bill in the parking lot and demanded that he open the trunk. It was absolutely full of silver. They arrested Bill for a crime they could not name, and hauled him away.


time, I would get over being “a crazy liberal.” Somehow, by the end of each of our long, rambling, idle conversations, enough ideas, anecdotes, statistics, and historical references had tumbled out of him to fill several college classes.

He mentioned, as friends who needed no introduction, various famous but, to me, obscure or unknown people: Ayn Rand, Ludwig von Mises, Murray Rothbard, many others. The only one of those authors I read at Grand Valley was Ayn Rand, and then only her novel “Atlas Shrugged” and a few of her essays. It took me about four years. to get around to reading the other people whom Bill brought up. But “Atlas” interested me very much, despite that awful speech in Part III. Bill’s ideas, and the vast, rich history of America that he knew so well- these things interested me still more. By 1968, I was talking like a libertarian; by 1971, I’m sure that I was thinking like one.

I’m getting ahead of my story. Bill and I had a lot of fun on the Valley View. We intervened in student elections (I even won one of them); published a column called “The Vulture Speaks!”, headed by an image of a grinning, gore- dripping raptor; and got in trouble with the administration by writing a parodic news story called “Pesthole of Pacifist Pinkos,” depicting Grand Valley, at which agitation of any kind was practically unknown, as a hotbed of student revolt.

Then, in the middle of my sophomore year, I dropped out of school, bored with the little college I’d decided to attend. When I returned, a couple of years later, it was to the University of Michigan; after that, I went to UCLA for graduate school. Bill did better; he graduated from Grand Valley with a degree in philosophy and started a successful business. I remember the used house trailers that he and Kathy inhabited while they were getting started; I remember the telegram Bill sent me when he made his first “big” amount of money: “Who says a degree in philosophy isn’t worth anything?”

And I remember the time Bill got arrested. This was when he was still in college. The government had started replacing silver coins with copper-nickel clad coins, and of course, no matter what the government decreed, the former were worth more than the latter. Bill had the idea of going to banks and asking for rolls of coins, then going home, sorting out the silver ones, and selling them for more than their face value. He went all over western Michigan, gathering coins. He paid his little sister to sort them. Well, one day Bill was leaving a bank in some two-bit town when a teller got suspicious. Why did that guy want all those quarters, anyway? So the teller called the cops, who showed up right away – the way they never do when an actual crime is being committed – accosted Bill in the parking lot, observed that the rear end of his car was sloping steeply toward the pavement, and demanded that he open the trunk. It was absolutely full of silver. The cops, who had no understanding of the nature and effects of bimetallism, arrested Bill for a crime they could not name, and hauled him away. It was a classic collision between the future publisher of Liberty and the environment from which he came.

Bill was an excellent businessman, but he was always far too bohemian to fit anybody’s idea of what a businessman should be like. I can’t remember his ever wearing a tie. He liked jeans and flannel shirts. He grew a beard and kept it. His coin store in Lansing had a big public room with display cases and so forth, and a backroom containing Bill’s remarkably messy desk. When Kathy or the people who worked for them had trouble with a. tradesman or a customer in the public room, they’d go back to Bill’s office and ask him to “come out and yell” at the offender, which he did. Then he’d return to his lair, hang his head, and talk about the act he’d just put on. He hated to yell at anybody.

He also hated to fire anybody. He’d put up with almost anything rather than do that. He’d talk about “the problem” for months, ask his friends for advice, outline alternative courses of action, then usually decide just to keep the status quo. Personal confrontations were embarrassing to him, unworthy of the people who engaged in them. He had as strong a personality as anyone I’ve known, and his staying power was literally incredible. He could argue for hours; he could work for days at a time with practically no sleep. But he was wholly without the instinct for attack. I think that he was fundamentally a rather shy person, intent on his own thoughts, and brought out of them only by the intensity of his interest in his projects and his friends.

Nevertheless, Bill was anything but a mysterious personality. If you w~r~ around him at alL you’d find out right away what kind of human being he was. But there were contradictions that often amused and sometimes baffled me. He was so afraid of heights that when we were out hiking and we needed to use a log- even a short, fat log- to cross a stream, he’d get down on all fours and crawl across it. Yet he was always eager (a hundred times more eager than I was) to take on difficult terrain. Many times I’ve heard, “Come on, Steve, it’s just a short climb,” echoing down at me from a figure hoisting himself up through thick clumps of thorns to the top of a ridiculously steep, muddy hill. When he went to a libertarian conference at a ranch in Montana, he was induced to ride a horse only when they offered him an animal named Cupcake (or something like that), with a disposition to match; but he loved riding motorcycles, and when he did, he went really fast and stayed on the road far beyond the point where people usually collapse from exhaustion.

A few years before his death, he was crossing a bridge with a steel grid roadway, and the surface was wet. He lost the bike and skidded across the bridge on his face. He was so badly injured that if you didn’t know who he was, you wouldn’t recognize him. When he called to let me know, I took the occasion to advise him to be more careful. “What were you thinking,” I asked, talking like a parent, “when you were lying there beside that bridge?” “I was thinking,” he replied, “about how I’d like to ride the bike more often.”

Bill could easily have stayed in the midwest, enjoying his prosperity. That didn’t happen. In 1980 he and Kathy began the big adventure of transplanting themselves to a place that no one in Michigan had ever heard of, Port Townsend, Washington. PT is in many ways the end of the world, but Bill enjoyed being close to oceans and forests and “some really serious mountains.” He also enjoyed PT’s quirky his- tory and its egalitarian social atmosphere. The place is get- ting gentrified now, but 20 years ago it was a down-at-the-heels blue-collar town. Bill read, hiked, coached some of the local kids in soccer, and thought about starting a libertarian journal.

He’d been talking to me about it for many years. In his mind, and I agreed, the magazine shouldn’t intend to convert people to libertarianism (there already were magazines devoted to doing that), and it couldn’t be the kind of thing that held to a party line. When he was at Grand Valley, Bill worked as a business representative for the Nathaniel Branden Institute, playing tapes of lectures on Ayn Rand’s

He lacked even a vestigial organ of spite or vindictiveness, and he was the rare midwesterner who was without our famous “mean streak.”


philosophy for people who paid money to listen. Despite his admiration for many of Rand’s ideas, he was appalled by the dishonesty that some of her followers had to practice to make themselves believe that all the ideas were completely true. His journal would have to be a place where libertarians could express their differences of opinion.

It should also be a place where they could discuss matters that had nothing to do with politics or economics but were simply the kind of things that free people might be interested in. One time Bill and I went to a conference that was supposed to be about “the culture of liberty.” There were some lugubrious paintings hung up in one corner of the meeting room. “I guess that’s the I culture,'” he laughed, his face crinkling and his eyelids snapping shut behind his thick glasses, the way they did when he was really amused (which happened about two hundred times a day). “That’s all we’ve seen of it this weekend.”

His plans for the journal sounded good – but there was no prospect of success, except for what Bill’s energy and commitment and his enormously wide acquaintance among libertarians could bring to the venture. Knowing his character, however, I couldn’t doubt that the thing would happen, or that it would be successful. He was a born editor and publisher. Everything else in his life – his reading, his friendships, his joy in observing the world and communicating his joy to others – had its fulfillment in the written word.

The first issue of Liberty is dated August 1987. The magazine emerged in that awkward period of the world when typewriters were obsolete but email wasn’t yet available.

Manuscripts and editorial correspondence went back and forth by U.S. mail, with revisions indicated in the old- fashioned way: in pencil. How we ever did it, I don’t know. Bill and I spent a lot of time editing over the phone. Later, he sent me one of those tiny fax machines that use rolled up paper (I still have it), and we passed articles and annotations back and forth on that.

When new technology came, I was somewhat resistant to it; Bill never was. He bought the first video camera I ever saw in private hands, and I well remember what happened, one afternoon, when I was visiting Bill and Kathy and complaining about my primitive VCR, back home. “Here,” he said, walking over to a big cardboard box that had just arrived at his house. “Have one of these.” There were ten VCRs in the box. He’d gotten a bargain on them; and besides, “You can’t have too many VCRs, can you?”

The technology on which Bill actually relied, however, was the intricate system of wires and gauges in his own personality. There was enough energy coursing through him to light a city the size of Indianapolis. The energy could be directed into a hundred separate· channels (Bill was the world’s greatest multitasker), or it could be intensely focused

What really got to him, though, what upset him in a visceral way, was (first) war and (second) all those acts of aggression and injustice that governments visit on helpless citizens, even in daily, routine ways.


on one big challenge or inspiration. Wherever it went, there was always plenty to go around. Everybody associated with Liberty knows what it was like to get a phone call from Bill.

“Steve! This is Bill!” As if it could have been anybody else.

“Just a short question. You know that article we got about the situation in Madagascar.”

“Madagascar? Can’t remember any article about … ”

“Well, the author thinks that Madagascar is a special example of some general principle. Aristotelian, you know. Well, can’t remember anything Aristotle ever said that has even the faintest connection with this guy’s thesis. Do you?”

“Thesis? Can’t remember … ”

“Here’s what I think. But first – you know, don’t you, that up until the late 19th century Madagascar was, to all intents and purposes, one of the remotest locations on the face of the earth? I mean, the interior of Madagascar didn’t even have roads until the French started occupying the place in 1885. And they had a terrible time doing it. As you know … ”

“No, I … That’s interesting. I had no … ”

“By the way, have you seen this new book about the War of the Pacific?”

“You mean what they call the Guano War?”

“Well, guano was·always important. But that’s just the start of it. According to this book . . . ”

An hour later, when Bill announced, “Well, neither here nor there. Thanks a million! Talk to you later,” you may not have given any cogent advice about the Madagascar thesis, or who could review the guano book, but you certainly knew a lot more about world history than you’d known before. You couldn’t have fun like that with anybody else.

I had thousands of these late-night.conversations with Bill about every aspect of “the magazine,” “the journal,” “the zine.” They wandered a lot, that’s for sure, but very brilliantly, whenever Bill was speaking. I remember a three-hour talk, starting about 11 p.m., about the place on earth from which you can see the longest distance. I can’t remember what mountain it is, next to what ocean. I do know that there’s a formula for calculating the distance from which you

One of the principal reasons why he became skeptical about the Objectivist movement was its benightedness about homosexuality, which was then considered “unnatural” in Objectivist circles.


can see something such-and-such meters tall from such-and-such meters of elevation. Bill had forgotten the formula, and those were the days before the Internet, so we couldn’t just go on the Web and look it up; therefore, he proceeded to deduce the formula. In fact, he deduced it in two versions – first his own, then his rediscovery of the “real” one. While doing so, he conducted a seminar on the best vantage points on the globe, their exact geographical location, the flora and fauna that surround them, the history and forms of government of adjoining countries, etc. etc. It was the kind of thing that ought to go on in a college, and never does.

I’d like to say that working with Bill was all sweetness and light – and basically it was. Any magazine editor can do a lot of damage to people he doesn’t like, if he wants to and he’s the least bit clever about doing it. Bill was wholly immune to that temptation. He lacked even a vestigial organ

Bridging the gap – I first met Bill Bradford close to 20 years ago at one of John Baden’s Liberty Fund conferences held at a Montana dude ranch. Before the conference began, I found Bill sitting at a table with another libertarian he had just met.

Bill was saying· that his magazine did a regular poll of libertarians that showed there had been a shift from people who considered themselves libertarian primarily for ideological reasons to those who were libertarian primarily for pragmatic reasons. The former were influenced by writers such as Ayn Rand and considered freedom an end in itself. The latter were influenced by observing government failure in action and considered freedom a means to an end.

I am not sure how much of this I understood at the time. But the other person at the table was an Ayn Rand libertarian, while I” who have never read Rand or even Hayek, was at the other extreme. To me, the other person was very strange (and he probably felt the same about me) and I recall thinking that there was an unbridgeable gap between us.

But there was a bridge, and his name was Bill Bradford. As I became familiar with Liberty magazine over the next few years; I realized that Liberty was the conscience of the spite or vindictiveness, and he was the rare midwesterner who was without our famous “mean streak.” His incoming correspondence, like that of all other editors, but especially editors of journals that are politically inclined, was often filled with gross abuse, most of it from “friends.” Very little of it made him lose his temper; none of it made him want to plot or scheme for revenge.

I think, indeed, that Bill was incapable of plotting. His whole life was devoted to writing, conversing, publishing; for him, a good story was what you reported, not what you cooked up. Bill had a very retentive memory, and he knew tons of anecdotes about people in the libertarian movement – many of them heroic, many of them hilariously ridiculous. If he had wanted to, he could have created saints and clowns by the hundreds. He didn’t. I often saw him studiously repressing his feelings when he thought their expression might needlessly hurt someone, even someone he disliked. But I never saw him plot to use or withhold information, for some ulterior motive.

I also never saw him become angry because somebody disagreed with him. I disagreed with him frequently, some- times for good reasons, sometimes for reasons that I now believe were sadly deficient; and we disagreed about things that were important to us both. But he expressed anger only once. Some problem had arisen about an article for “Liberty.” I don’t remember what it was, but I stated my view in a stubborn and snotty way. I faxed it in; then I waited for Bill to phone me as usual. He didn’t, so finally I deigned to call him.

“What did you think about my fax?” I said. “Not much” (grimly laconic).
“You disagree?”
(Long silence.) “I didn’t like what you said.” “Really? Why not?”

“Jesus, Steve, didn’t you think about your tone?”

No, I didn’t; but from then on I did, and not just with Bill but with other people too. And whatever success I’ve had in controlling my tone I credit mainly to that confrontation.

I have to admit that although I dislike hatred in the abstract, I find it easy to hate certain public figures. FDR. Jesse Jackson. The Clintons. I think it probable that Bill never hated anybody, although he was sorely tempted by President Bush and his friends. In his view, they were modern liberals of an especially pernicious kind: big spenders and military adventurists, both. But when I denounced FDR, Bill argued that under the circumstances, he’d· done pretty well at not destroying the country; other politicians would have done far worse. Following his idol H.L. Mencken, he regarded virtually all “statesmen,” including FDR, as little more than unusually clever mountebanks, but he could appreciate their good points, if they had any. Even Bill Clinton got credit for his free-trade policies, and for refusing to be as flagrant a dope as his Democratic supporters pressured him to be. Bill was disgusted by the legal pursuit of General Pinochet and of the former rulers of Eastern European countries. “They’re old men,” he said. “Leave them alone.” Using the law to punish political crimes, crimes that occurred many years before, seemed grotesque to him.

What really got to him, though, what upset him in a visceral way, was (first) war and (second) all those acts of aggression and injustice that governments visit on helpless citizens, even in daily, routine ways. The viciousness of petty officials depressed him, whether he saw it close up or at a distance. Waco, Ruby Ridge, the depredations of the war on drugs, even the petty violence of cities’ attempts to make sure that the businesses they don’t like are unable to operate within their bounds . . . Bill’s indignation flared at those things, and at every such assault on the dignity of the individual.

Unlike some libertarians, he was also indignant about injustices that do not happen to be perpetrated by government. He was the first male I ever knew who was disturbed by the prejudicial or condescending way in which men treated women. He read Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique” and praised her highly for insisting on the social and psychological equality of women. Before feminism became fashionable with virtually everyone, he appreciated the ways in which women’s intellectual contributions had traditionally been slighted. The founding influence that women exerted on the libertarian movement always interested and delighted him.

In addition, he was the first straight man I ever knew who was concerned with the rights and dignity of gay people. Slurs and demeaning jokes against homosexuals particularly disgusted him. They were one of his principal reasons for despising certain segments of the conservative media, which he found physically repellent on that ground. One of the principal reasons why he became skeptical about the Objectivist movement, as he explained to me at length in 1969, was its benightedness about homosexuality, which was then considered “unnatural” in Objectivist circles. He was happy when Objectivists started to abandon that view; it was an important event for him.

I was never aware that Bill treated women or gay people a bit differently from the way he treated heterosexual men. He didn’t know how to condescend to anyone, and he would dissent as forcefully from a woman’s argument, or a homo- sexual’s, as he would from a straight male’s, when he saw some fault in it; but he was disturbed when anyone was ignored or rejected because of sexual identity, race, religion, or anything other than intellectual qualities.

Bill made a lot of enemies (and kept them) with his investigative reports on the Libertarian Party – by the reports that were critical, at any rate. Nobody got upset about the miles of columns he devoted to publicizing the things that Libertarians did right. In certain cases, I thought that his critical coverage could have been even more critical. My personal exposure to the arrogance of some of the people he criticized had a very bad effect on me. I was startled and angered by the behavior of libertarian “suits” toward the “working class” of the party, which very much included Bill. I thought that he should target the unlibertarian style that Libertarian apparatchiks often develop, but he was more interested in the substantive issue of why the national party got such small results in exchange for its donors’ money. I guess he was right – but it didn’t help him with the people who considered it wrong for any libertarian to “attack” other libertarians.

Bill was a convinced “utilitarian,” believing that morality cannot be divorced from the pursuit of happiness. It was inconceivable to him that some moral principle could be jus-

Bill knew tons of anecdotes about people in the libertarian movement – many of them heroic, many of them hilariously ridiculous. If he had wanted to, he could have created saints and clowns by the hundreds.


tified despite its observed tendency to result in widespread unhappiness. He opposed the idea of “natural rights,” believing that rights are not inherent to human life but are supremely useful inventions of the human mind. But he – like Ludwig von Mises, another distinguished “utilitarian” – was much too smart to believe that because something made you feel good right now, you should do it. “Utility” for him (as for Mises) embraced the whole field of moral, spiritual, and aesthetic pleasures and benefits.

I understood that; but I was always interested in the warmth with which he denounced invasions of rights and applauded moral virtues, as if virtues and rights were in fact absolute and self-justifying. On several occasions I had reason to ask him why he insisted on printing something at which most of our readers would probably take offense. “It won’t do any good,” I said. “They won’t pay any attention; they’ll just get mad.” “Do you think,” he responded, “that it isn’t a good thing to tell the truth? I think it is, whether anything comes of it or not.” He gave the same answer to questions about why the libertarian cause should be supported, at times when it seemed highly unlikely to win.

Bill knew a lot of truths; he also knew a lot of facts. His degree was in philosophy, and he understood··the harder branches of that discipline, those closest to logic, very well. He had an encyclopedic knowledge of American history and politics, and an excellent taste in that field as well – the kind of taste that detected the deviousness and mental instability of such popular heroes as Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt, and admired the nobility of Washington and of the unfairly neglected Cleveland, both great heroes of his. He also knew people. As I’ve said, no one in the libertarian movement knew, or understood, its people as well as he did; and probably no one ever will.

After his death, I was interviewed by a newspaper reporter who wanted to know, among other things, whether Bill was “one of those people who want to live off the grid.” She evidently thought that all liber-

Bill often said that he wished .that libertarians had a “church,” a place to go and meet one another, not to debate .ideological questions but simply to enjoy one another’s company.


tarians must be like that. What a laugh! Bill loved to meet people; he loved to find out what they were like, what they made of life. He had no attraction to religion – “no religious faculty,” in Isabel Paterson’s phrase – but he often said that he wished that libertarians had a “church,” a place to go and meet one another, not to debate ideological questions but simply to enjoy one another’s company.

I’m not sure that this idea of a church bears any relation to the real function of churches, but that was his attitude. His friends ranged from bikers to college professors, from crusading atheists to Christian missionaries, from prominent scientists and distinguished jurists to the “ordinary” people who are the real life of the libertarian movement. Himself the least pretentious of men, he treated everybody with the same informal, enthusiastic interest. If people didn’t like him, he knew it; but he didn’t let it affect his ability to find out what they thought.

Knowing his character, you could guess Bill’s way of editing Liberty. He sought contributions from every kind of libertarian, and from many people who weren’t libertarians but had something to say, nonetheless. Since Bill was Liberty, he constantly traveled from one role to another: publisher, business manager, complaint answerer, investigative reporter, editorialist, seeker of other people’s expertise. He took full responsibility for everything that happened; yet he was remarkably – I sometimes thought, absurdly – concerned with other people’s ideas and approaches. It was not unusual for him to spend all day working on someone’s article, trying to preserve the author’s style but also to present the author, and his or her argument, in the best possible light, a light that perhaps had never dawned on the author in question; then he’d call me up, and ask me to comment on his edits – before returning to another round of worried meditations on paragraph 5, sentence 3.

I don’t think I ever heard Bill “tell a joke,” but his whimsical sense of humor made him more fun than any jokester I’ve ever met. One night, we were standing in his kitchen, chatting about the effects of finance on personal happiness, when he said, “I’m happy that I’ve finally got enough money to buy the things I’ve always wanted to buy.” “Like what?” I asked. “Oh, like this stuff,” he said, pulling open a drawer full of little plastic toys – average price, 79 cents. Most people, when they’re trying out a new keyboard, type something like, “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.” Bill typed, “Good news! The depression is over, and the banks are filling with money.” When Bill got his first VCR, while he was living in Okemos, one of the first movies he acquired was “42nd Street,” the greatest of musical comedies, and one of the greatest of films, but a film that no respectable intellectual would tolerate, at least in those days. He insisted that I watch it with him. Reluctantly, I watched, and was converted. I owe a lot to Bill for opening the big ballroom of beautiful, crazy, funny movies for me. “42nd Street,” “Footlight Parade,” the “Gold Diggers” of various years . . . “It’s the song I love the melody of.” Shortly before his death, Bill insisted that I watch “My Name Is Earl,” “the best show on TV.” It came pretty close to justifying that description, at least when it was watched in his company.

Bill’s sense of humor gave him a way of reducing a philosophical argument to its essentials, and making it impossible to forget. Listing the moral virtues that Ayn Rand believed she had deduced from her unique philosophy of individualism – “honesty,” “responsibility,” “productivity,” etc. – he asked, “When’s the last time you heard a list like that? Sunday school, maybe? I mean, there’s nothing wrong with those things, but what makes her think she’s original?” Bill loved animals (except the deer that infested his back yard, eating everything in sight, and doing it with complete impunity), but he especially loved cats. He appreciated their individuality; he was entertained by their haughty displays of independence. “Anarchism would work,” he said, “if there was a planet inhabited solely by cats.”

His discussions of American political history always extended a childlike welcome to the absurd. He took delight in the gentleman who once conducted a front-porch campaign for governor of Georgia, running on a platform of opposition to “puttin’ them hard plastic stickers on them squishy young tuhmaytuhs.” He loved the pair of spoofers who were taken seriously when they proclaimed the creation of the National Hamiltonian Party, campaigning under the slogan, “Your people, sir, are a great beast!” Our late-night editorial conferences were enlivened by Bill’s speculations about all the strange things we could print if we just wrote whatever we felt like writing.

At some convention that we attended we were invited to a reception in some important people’s suite. We weren’t looking forward to it. We suspected the hosts of being pretentious bores, and we were more interested in talking with

Then Bill looked at me and I looked at him, and a second later we started running down the corridor, escaping before the grown-ups could take us captive.

the friends who were already with us than in drinking some- body else’s expensive booze. Nevertheless, we considered it our duty to Liberty to go up to the 20th floor and be received in the splendor of the suite. We got off the elevator and trudged down the hallway, trailed by two or three of the people we’d rather be spending the evening with, like crimi- nals marching toward their execution. We got to the door and knocked. Then Bill looked at me and I looked at him, and a second later we all started running down the corridor, escaping before the grown-ups could take us captive. “That was a close one!” Bill said, as we turned the corner – ecstatic that some part of life, which is precious, had returned to our control.

When, in December, Bill encountered the final boring, pretentious host, his approaching death, he sent a last message to his fellow editors of Liberty. After discussing the arrangements he’d made for the journal’s continued publica- tion, he made his ultimate editorial suggestion: “How about ‘Bradford Dies, Libert” Reborn!’ as a headline?”

It’s a good headline, all right; but the first part still needs a bit of work. Bill Bradford could never really”die.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *