Jude Wanniski, 69, Provocative Crusader for Supply-Side Economics

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The New York Sun

Jude Wanniski, who died Monday at 69, was a journalist and political economist whose enthusiastic advocacy helped transform supply-side economics into enacted policy from editorial page wonkery.

More than a self-proclaimed contrarian, Wanniski was a fax-blasting, publicity-seeking, one-man think tank who sought to get his favorite ideas into the public square, whether it was lower taxes and a return to the gold standard or, in later years, an overweening affection for the ministry of Louis Farrakhan.

Never victimized by self-doubt, Wanniski in 1978 produced his magnum opus, “The Way the World Works,” in which he used myriad historical examples to support his thesis that tax cuts cause economic growth. In it, he advanced the notion that the Great Depression was the result of the Smoot-Hawley tariff, rather than any failure of classical economics. The book, now it its fourth edition, was named one of the 100 most influential books of the century by National Review. “I came in right behind ‘The Joy of Cooking,'” he told The New York Sun with typical humor, in a 2003 interview.

Wanniski left his post as associate editor of the Wall Street Journal in 1978 after being discovered at a New Jersey train station distributing leaflets supporting a Republican senatorial candidate, an act considered an ethics violation. He founded an economics consultancy, Polyconomics, and began directly advising politicians on economic policy, first candidate Ronald Reagan and later presidential hopefuls Jack Kemp and Steve Forbes. Like Messrs. Kemp and Forbes, Wanniski regarded tax cuts as universal nostrum that would cure everything from poverty in the developing world to war.

“It is actually possible to imagine the Reagan Revolution leading to a century of worldwide peace and prosperity,” he wrote in 1984.

Wanniski was born in rural Pennsylvania, where his father had been an itinerate butcher. When Wanniski was still a toddler, the family moved to Brooklyn, where his father became a book binder.

After graduating from Brooklyn Technical High School in 1954, Wanniski enrolled at Brooklyn College and then transferred to the University of California at Los Angeles, where he majored in political science and then earned a master’s in journalism. After working as a reporter and columnist in Alaska and Las Vegas, Wanniski moved to Washington, D.C., in 1965 to work as a columnist for the National Observer, published by Dow Jones. Wanniski is said to have driven up to the offices in a silver Buick Riviera convertible wearing a gold lame sports coat and mirrored sunglasses, a Las Vegas showgirl on his arm.

In 1972, he was hired by the new editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal, Robert Bartley; supposedly, Bartley hired Wanniski only after being turned down by another up-and-coming conservative pundit, George F. Will.

Mr. Will later wrote of Wanniski, “I wish that I were as confident about something as he is of everything.” Wanniski converted Bartley, formerly more a traditional deficit-hating conservative, to the supply-side faith. Wanniski encountered the tax-cutting project thanks to Arthur Laffer. Legend has it that it was Wanniski who engineered the meeting between Mr. Laffer and the White House deputy chief of staff at the time, Dick Cheney, during which Mr. Laffer sketched his tax curves on a cocktail napkin.

After leaving the Journal, Wanniski began serving as an adviser to Reagan and to Mr. Kemp, then a congressman. His connection to Mr. Kemp became especially strong and long-lasting, and Wanniski’s influence was strongly felt on the Kemp-Roth tax cut bill, which first failed get through Congress before becoming the signal act of the “Reagan Revolution.” By then, Wanniski’s formal role as a Reagan adviser had come to an end, thanks to a somewhat boastful and indiscreet interview he gave to the Village Voice, published under the headline “The Battle for Reagan’s Mind.” He would remain a vocal cheerleader for tax cuts and a close ally of Mr. Kemp’s in his subsequent forays into national politics.

The editor of The New York Sun, Seth Lipsky, who joined the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal not long after Wanniski left it, called him “one of the most brilliant teachers of economics I’d ever encountered.” One evening early in the Reagan presidency, Mr. Lipsky recalled, a private dinner was held in a Midtown New York club for President Reagan’s new ambassador to the United Nations, Jeane Kirkpatrick. The conversation was nearing dessert, when all of a sudden Wanniski threw his head back and emitted a deafening scream, which brought the dinner to a stunned silence, at which point Wanniski leaned forward and said: “Taxes. I haven’t heard one mention of the word taxes.” Then he proceeded to deliver a brilliant disquisition on the importance of taxes in the policy debate over how to achieve progress in the Third World.

He often seemed to prefer the role of agent provocateur. Starting in 1987, he edited an annual “Media Guide” in which he rated pundits on a four-star scale; such conservative stalwarts as Mr. Will and Norman Podhoretz received but a single star, while the Times’s star liberal, Anthony Lewis, garnered three and a half and the acidulous Evans and Novack received a perfect four-star rating.

Irritated that candidate Bob Dole during the 1996 presidential election questioned the necessity for tax cuts, Wanniski more or less chartered the abortive Steve Forbes candidacy. Wan niski managed to publicly alienate the head of the Christian Coalition, Ralph Reed, and with him much of the Republican Party leadership. It was soon after the 1996 election that he seemed to go off the rails altogether by publicly embracing Mr. Farrakhan. “He is as close to a Cato libertarian as you can find,” Wanniski implausibly claimed. At the same time, Wanniski began issuing public broadsides against Israel that many interpreted as anti-Semitic.

The Wall Street Journal, where he had continued to contribute to the editorial page occasionally, went out of its way to disassociate itself from his positions on Israel and the Nation of Islam, while reaffirming its support of supply-side economics. In his memoirs, Bartley called Wanniski “the best journalist I have ever worked with, in terms of finding news.”

Wanniski later held a series of dinners with Lyndon LaRouche, whom he described to Business Week as “a gold standard guy.” Wanniski also compared a Serbian dictator, Slobodan Milosevic, to Abraham Lincoln, and defended Saddam Hussein while vigorously opposing the invasion of Iraq. Wanniski continued to run his economic consultancy from its Morristown, N.J., offices, and boasted of having many Wall Street clients, although he complained that some had fallen away as his politics veered unpredictably. He updated his Web site several times a week with personal commentaries on everything from international politics and trade policy to reviews of films as current as “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” He was still hard at work when he was felled by a heart attack Monday afternoon, in his office.

Jude Wanniski
Born June 17, 1936, in Pottsville, Pa.; died August 29, 2005, at Morristown Memorial Hospital in Morristown, N.J.; survived by his wife, Patricia, and children Matthew, Arnold, and Jennifer Harlan.

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