Public Policy World Shocked by Death of John Berthoud

Published December 1, 2007

On September 27 the public policy community lost one of its most brilliant and capable leaders when 45-year-old John Berthoud passed away unexpectedly due to natural causes.

As president of both the 362,000-member National Taxpayers Union (NTU) and National Taxpayers Union Foundation (NTUF) during the past 10 years, Berthoud earned the respect of countless people who looked to him as a strong leader, compassionate friend, and fierce fighter for freedom.

Scholarly Accomplishments

One of Berthoud’s hallmarks was his wit, often wandering into self-effacement. For that reason few are aware of his many achievements. Long before he came to NTU, Berthoud received his Master of Arts degree in international affairs from Columbia University and went on to receive a doctoral degree in political economy from Yale University.

At Yale he picked up the formal academic instruction that helped him speak as a powerful voice for budget process reforms and constitutional limits on the growth of government. He carried that voice back into the classroom as an adjunct professor at George Washington University in Washington, DC. His students have gone on to shine in Congressional offices, think tanks, and state government agencies.

Some Budget & Tax News readers may know Berthoud from his stint in the early 1990s as legislative director for tax and fiscal policy for the American Legislative Exchange Council. While there he provided advice and encouragement to state lawmakers across the country seeking lower taxes and more responsible government budgets.

A Love of Research

One of Berthoud’s true loves was research–the more number-crunching involved, the better. While serving as vice president of the Alexis de Tocqueville Institution, he produced groundbreaking studies that brought issues such as tax reform and the undue influence of teacher unions to the public square in the United States.

His first post with NTU was as vice president for research at the NTU Foundation. His talents proved invaluable in exposing the statist undercurrents of the original Clinton health care scheme in 1993-1994, by ingeniously quantifying the prevalence of restrictive words and terms in the plan.

He also helped to develop the impeccable standards for NTUF’s then-emerging BillTally and VoteTally legislative cost-accounting databases, which put a taxpayer’s price tag on every major piece of spending legislation introduced in Congress or voted on in the House or Senate.

When Berthoud became president of NTU and NTUF, he was already well-grounded in the organizations’ institutional culture, needing no “adjustment period” to become effective at his job.

Protector of Internet’s Growth

The nation was lucky for this fact, as Berthoud put NTU and NTUF front and center in the debate over whether to tax (and thereby stifle the development of) Internet access and e-commerce. It is no exaggeration to say that without Berthoud’s foresight in committing to this battle, the Information Age might have been a much less powerful benefit for our economy and our daily lives.

Fewer people still may know that Berthoud was instrumental in spreading the movement for limited government across the globe, through his leadership in the World Taxpayers Associations. This body, currently consisting of more than 50 organizations, is flourishing thanks in no small part to Berthoud’s travels abroad, where he served as a “goodwill ambassador” to budding citizen activists.

International Influence

His colleagues overseas would certainly agree with that assessment, as tributes to Berthoud have poured in from all corners of the world. Jeremiah Kiwoi of Taxpayers Uganda called him a “kind and compassionate friend who shared his vision and willingness to strengthen the taxpayers’ movement on Africa.”

Michael Jaeger of the Taxpayers Association of Europe said he and his coworkers “will never forget him, because he was and will be also in the future part of our taxpayers’ movement.”

Closer to home, expressions of condolence and remembrance within just the first 24 hours of Berthoud’s death numbered into the hundreds. These included wishes from Rep. Jeff Flake (R-AZ), The Wall Street Journal‘s John Fund, Robert Stacy McCain of The Washington Times, Rep. Scott Garrett (R-NJ), and virtually every national citizen group leader in the fiscal policy realm.

Perhaps the most poignant accounts of Berthoud’s life were given not only by his close friends but by his fellow NTU and NTUF staffers, who posted comments on the organizations’ blog, “Government Bytes!”

Sharing Credit

NTUF Director of Congressional Analysis Jeff Dircksen, a 10-year veteran, noted, “John didn’t seem to care that much about the recognition. He cared about the work. If you wrote an op-ed or an issue brief, he wanted your name on it, not his. He was always willing to share the glory.”

A newer member of the staff, NTU Government Affairs Manager Andrew Moylan, said, “John is the man who gave me ‘my shot.’ I was but a young guy with a loud mouth working at NTU’s front desk when a government affairs position opened up. John took a chance on me and gave me a promotion. He trusted me enough to hand the reins over and never succumbed to the temptation to micromanage.”

Renaissance Man

Berthoud’s colleagues found him in peace at his home outside of Washington, DC, perhaps a very small comfort to this sudden and shocking turn of events. All of the organization’s staff, like the entire taxpayer-advocacy community, are doing the best they can to cope with this irreplaceable loss.

Berthoud was a true twenty-first century Renaissance Man. He was a teacher, a mentor, a respected intellectual, and a lover of life. That’s what makes his passing all the more tragic.

Though we mourn the loss of a man and celebrate his amazing life filled with love, study, travel, and leadership, his cause and hope for a brighter future live on. We will press on with purpose and be thankful for his contributions to our own journeys.