Murray Weidenbaum, Wash. U economist, adviser to five presidents

Murray Weidenbaum

BY ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

 Murray Weidenbaum, longtime professor of economics at Washington University and former chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, died Thursday, March 20, at Barnes-Jewish Hospital. Hospitalized three weeks ago, he died after several surgeries and an infection. He was 87 and a longtime resident of Clayton.

Professor Weidenbaum’s association with Washington University spanned more than 50 years, dating back to his acceptance of a teaching post in 1964. His expertise in economics and fiscal policy was tapped by five presidents over the course of his long career. He worked for President Harry Truman in the old Executive Office Building and later served as assistant secretary of the treasury under President Richard Nixon, where he worked with colleagues to develop revenue sharing between the federal and state governments. He served as chairman of the influential Council of Economic Advisers under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.

A moderate conservative, Professor Weidenbaum worked equally well with fellow economists and elected officials from across the political spectrum. He had a warm and engaging personality mixed with intellectual brilliance and a sense of humor, which endeared him to generations of students at Washington University.  He co-taught a popular class with an old friend, Sen. Thomas F. Eagleton, which students enjoyed as an example of the possibility for people of different political and economic views to get along as friends and colleagues.

One of Professor Weidenbaum’s grateful students is Scott Cohn, a shoe executive from Chesterfield (and son of this article’s author), who took the Weidenbaum-Eagleton course. 

“Murray Weidenbaum, along with Senator Eagleton, led the most interesting class offered at Washington U. while I was there,” Scott Cohn said. “Both men brought differing but sensitive points of view on economic issues. Their ability to respectfully disagree while making convincing arguments left many understanding both sides, with much to discuss with our friends after class.  Professor Weidenbaum had such a deep understanding of the issues and substantiated his beliefs with both conviction and humor.”

Professor Weidenbaum was regarded as a centrist who saw value in both supply-side economics as well as monetarist policies.  His experience in working for pragmatic solutions to complex problems in both Republican and Democratic administrations gave him the perspective to work across the spectrum among his fellow economists and across the aisle politically.

Murray Lew Weidenbaum was born Feb. 10, 1927, in the Bronx and was brought up in Brooklyn, N.Y., son of David and Rose Warshaw Weidenbaum.  His father drove a taxi and owned a neighborhood market.  He often recalled that he was brought up in a blue-collar, pro-union household where liberalism was the prevailing sentiment. His later move to the center-right of the political spectrum did not alienate his many friends on the center-left of American politics and fiscal policy.

After graduating Erasmus Hall High School in Brooklyn, he received his undergraduate degree from City University of New York, where he was elected class president on a campaign platform of “Wine, Women and Weidenbaum,” an early indication of his dry sense of humor. He later earned a master’s degree from Columbia University and a doctorate in economics at Princeton.  He served in the U.S. Army during World War II, stationed stateside.

In New York, he worked for a state agency that investigated labor union practices. Faced with what he regarded as strong-arm practices by the Teamsters and other unions, he became an advocate of a free market and free trade.

Professor Weidenbaum then joined the faculty of Stanford University, where he became a consultant to NASA. Before accepting his first teaching post at Washington University in 1964, he served as staff director to President Lyndon Johnson’s Council of Economic Advisers.  After his various stints in major positions in Washington, he returned to Washington University in 1975.  He worked with former Chancellor William Danforth to found what became the Weidenbaum Center and helped arrange partnerships between Washington University and educational institutions in the State of Israel. He was a recipient of the prestigious Albert Einstein Award from the St. Louis chapter of the American Technion Society.` 

Professor Weidenbaum was a strong supporter of the State of Israel, a deeply committed Jew and an active member of Congregation Shaare Emeth.  

Rabbi Emeritus Jeffrey B. Stiffman of Shaare Emeth said in his eulogy:

“He was a proud Jew.  When I asked him to give a speech or sermon at temple, he seemed genuinely pleased.  Before leaving for Washington for the highest economic position in our nation, he gave a Friday night speech-sermon tying in Pirke Avot, the Ethics of the Fathers, from the Mishna, with economic subjects. And I’ll miss saying ‘L’shana Tova’ to Murray and Phyllis in their regular seats on the rabbi’s side every year.

“He didn’t wear his faith on his sleeve – he lived it. He was not dogmatic, tied in to ideology. He held to his core set of conservative beliefs but spoke out when he disagreed with some conservatives and liberals who went too far to the right or the left, according to his beliefs. … We need more like  him among our leaders, who value ethics and honesty above lock-step ideology. He was an exemplar because he was constantly learning, teaching, writing and creating.”

Stiffman offered his eulogy at a private memorial service for Professor Weidenbaum’s family. Washington University plans a memorial service at a later date.

Survivors include Professor Weidenbaum’s wife of 60 years, Phyllis Green Weidenbaum; a son, James Weidenbaum (Kathleen) of Portland, Ore.; two daughters, Susan Juster-Goldstein (Richard) of Delray Beach, Fla., and Laurie Stark (Victor) of Olivette; a sister, Marilyn Cohen (Stanley) of Silver Springs, Md.; and six grandchildren.

Memorial contributions may be made to the St. Louis Zoo.