When Walter Heller arrived in Washington in 1961 to be Chairman of John F. Kennedy's Council of Economic Advisers, he had a reputation in the business community as a fuzzy-headed liberal.

By the time he left Washington in 1964, having served a year as Lyndon Johnson's chief economic adviser after Kennedy's assassination, Heller had become the best known economist in the country -- and highly respected on all sides. With a rare gift for making complex economic issues understandable, Heller educated not only Kennedy and Johnson but a whole generation of Americans on those issues that Harry Truman once said "touch the pocketbook nerve."

Kennedy's choice of Heller proved to be a ten-strike: a tall, soft-spoken, gentle man with great wit and an ability to pick out just the right phrase, Heller was liberal, but not radical, with a keen sense of the art of the feasible.

He assembled what many consider still to be the best-ever three-person Economic Council, when he persuaded (with Kennedy's help) James Tobin of Yale and the late Kermit Gordon of Williams College to become members.

Heller, who died this week at the age of 71, continued until the very end to be a force in his profession and within the business community that once mistrusted him, making many public appearances, counseling Democratic politicians, and still teaching his economics course at the University of Minnesota.

It may have been Paul Samuelson, author of a famous economics textbook, who introduced postwar students to Keynesian economics, but Heller turned out to be the salesman who took the Keynesian vision of an active government role to manipulate the business cycle, and translated it into effective public policy.

In 1962, he surmounted the conventional wisdom of the times (including opposition within the Kennedy administration) by persuading JFK to go for a tax cut to stimulate economic growth. This was in the face of an existing budget deficit -- an exercise in supply-side economics that worked, as Reaganites like to point out.

And it was Heller who followed through after Kennedy's death to convince LBJ not only that the tax cut was essential (it passed in 1964) but that LBJ himself could go down in history by waging a "war against poverty."

Heller got the Economic Council job on the recommendation of fellow Minnesotans Hubert Humphrey and Orville Freeman after Samuelson turned it down. Heller, with a keen eye for talent, tapped a group of activist liberals in an effort to make good Kennedy's campaign promise to "get the country moving again."

In addition to Tobin and Gordon, other bright colleagues whom Heller introduced to Washington and who later became stars of the "New Economics" were Arthur M. Okun and Richard Cooper of Yale, Otto Eckstein of Harvard, Gardner Ackley of Michigan and Robert Solow of MIT.

Heller arrived in Washington determined to alter the Fed's tight-money policy, which he was convinced was keeping the economy in a strait-jacket. But as he said to a friend: "We have to approach this the way a porcupine approaches making love -- and that's carefully."

Kennedy carefully pursued Heller-assigned homework on the subtle relationships between fiscal policy, monetary policy and debt management.

By the end of 1962, his Keynesian education complete, Kennedy asked Congress to reduce taxes on personal and corporate income even though the government was running a deficit, and an upturn was in sight without a tax stimulus.

"{Thus} the president explicitly connected an even larger deficit with acceleration of economic growth, and a faster march toward his Administration's 4 percent unemployment 'interim' target," economist Robert Lekachman later wrote.

Heller was sensitive to criticism, and kept up a rapid-fire correspondence with editors and reporters "to set the record straight." A memory I cherish is being summoned by him late one night to his CEA office, where he angrily displayed a set of proofs of a 1964 book of mine which, overall, was highly laudatory (I thought) of his advisory roles for both presidents.

But I had said that Tobin generated most of the ideas, while Heller was the "skillful general who hammered out a program" and then sold it to Kennedy and the rest of the administration. Walter didn't like that one little bit. But soon we were both laughing over the wound to his pride, and he ended by paying his own tribute to Tobin, noting that "Jim's adherence to principle was undeviating, even when it wasn't expedient."

Heller never won the Nobel Prize for economics. Nevertheless, he may have done more to explain the meaning of economics to politicians and the public than any other economist in modern times. Perhaps more to the point, Heller made the institution of economic adviser for presidents not only respectable, but one of great importance