The evening with Milton and Rose Friedman, hosted Wednesday evening by the educational foundation named after them, was designed to celebrate "50 Years of an Idea" - namely school vouchers. And it was one of the most memorable banquets this town has seen in years.
I hadn't seen the Nobel laureate since the mid-1970s, when I was a young editor on the Asian Wall Street Journal and hosted a lunch for him with a group of local newspapermen in Hong Kong. A young Chinese reporter had pounced on him over the problem of sweatshops. What I remember about the lunch was the ease and grace - and the cheerfulness of argument - with which the Nobel laureate in economics spoke of how sweatshops had been a portal for his mother to enter American economic life.
Thirty years later, he and his wife, who met with a handful of newspapermen before the dinner, seemed as energetic and cheerful as he did then. The question I was eager to ask is one that concerns a number of skeptics of the voucher movement - namely the prospect that at least some money previously directed to the state for use in public schools would end up in the radical Islamist institutions, some of which operate in New York itself. Not all Islamist schools are a problem. But some teach things that are dangerous. So I put the question to both the husband and wife this way: "What about the madrasses?"
Mrs. Friedman was the first to speak.
"What are they doing now about the madrasses?" she asked.
She'd stopped me in eight words. The whole basis for the concern is that there are already religious schools in New York - not all Islamic schools, to be sure, but some - where religious hatred and hatred of America is taught. "Why do you have madrasses?" Mr. Friedman said. "Partly it's about the deficits of the government school system."
Mr. Friedman is generally encouraged by the changes in the ideological climate. Two generations ago, he said, socialism was thought of as state ownership and operation of the means of production. "Nobody today thinks that's the way it ought to be," he said. Today, he said, socialism has become the welfare state. It's better than the old definition, but today, "practice has moved in the opposite direction," with a larger share of the economy in the hands of the state than before.
The banquet room at the Mandarin Oriental was packed when the dinner's chairman, Charles Brunie, got up to start the festivities. First came a filmed greeting from the chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, Alan Greenspan. Then, after some food, Mr. Brunie introduced Henry Kissinger, challenging the former state secretary, himself a Nobel laureate, to comment on whether not only Metternich but also Adam Smith and free-market economics ought to be given some credit for the long stretch of relative peace between 1816 and 1913.
Mr. Kissinger dealt with this by reminding the audience that Treasury Secretary Simon had once remarked that Mr. Kissinger's knowledge of economics was one of the reasons to oppose universal suffrage. Then Mr. Kissinger delivered an extraordinary soliloquy that touched on war and peace, the importance of education, and the admiration and respect he has for the Friedmans.
Sun columnist William F. Buckley Jr. was spotted next to A.J. Schwartz, Mr. Friedman's co-author of the monetary history of the United States. Also in attendance were Minky Worden of Human Rights Watch; Kathy Wriston; Myron Magnet; Herb London; Betsy Mc-Caughey; Shelby White; Daniel Doron; Al Regnery; Robert Rosenkranz and his wife, Alexandra Munroe; Tom Smith; Tim Dalton; Patrick Byrne; and David Asman of Fox News with his wife, M.C.
Secretary of State Shultz, who delivered his greeting by videotape, told of how he was once asked who, among all the presidents and prime ministers and kings and war heroes he'd met over the years, had the most influence on contemporary life. He said his reply was Milton Friedman, and then he broke into a song about theory and fact: A fact without a theory was like a boat without a sail or a kite without a tail, "but there's one thing worse in the universe, a theory without a fact."
Then Mr. Brunie gave the microphone to John Stossel of ABC News, who invited Mr. and Mrs. Friedman and to some deep easy chairs on the stage to commence an hour's conversation on everything from school vouchers to their marriage. When Mr. Friedman was asked how they had managed to maintain such a wonderful marriage for 67 years, he said, "love and tolerance," to which Mrs. Friedman added that one without the other would be a catastrophe.
The thing that struck your correspondent most was the unbounded optimism of the Friedmans and their fidelity to the idea that the advance of liberty benefits all human beings, irrespective of class, race, or religion. As I left to get back to the paper, I found myself thinking that it would have been wonderful had Mayor Bloomberg, Chancellor Klein, and the president of the teachers union, Randi Weingarten, been at the event. The Knickerbocker invites them all out to dinner with the Friedmans the next time they're in San Francisco.