The Boardroom November 2004

American Everyman

Warren Buffett's billions—and the oft told tale of how he made them—have become the least interesting thing about him. It's Buffett the symbol that matters now

With its roster of grinning well-known faces letting Buffett upstage them at every turn (Tiger Woods made a cameo appearance too, pretending to coach Buffett on his creaky golf swing), the movie revealed at least as much about the so-called Oracle of Omaha as did his refusal to bow to the tornado warning. Buffett is a conscious, sophisticated performer, the inventor and caretaker of a rare persona that has no equivalent in American business. Not since Samuel Goldwyn, perhaps, has a tycoon functioned in the culture as both a first-class entertainer and the embodiment of his industry. Buffett's Will Rogers folksiness and Mark Twain wit ("Never ask the barber if you need a haircut"; "Price is what you give; value is what you get"; "Predicting rain doesn't count; building arks does") aren't merely colorful secondary traits but stylized expressions of his very being. They represent more than that, in fact. Buffett's attitudes and mannerisms now stand for American capitalism itself—or at least for its more positive aspects. He is what's good about the free market, in human form—akin to what Joe DiMaggio was to baseball. Bill Gates may be richer, and Donald Trump (the anti-Buffett) flashier, but compared with Buffett they're mere character actors. The role of the straight-shooting leading man, trusted by all, belongs to Buffett alone.

He understands this. Others know it too—particularly ambitious politicians in search of instant economic credentials and an air of humane financial probity. Not long after last year's annual meeting, when more than 10,000 dazzled shareholders shot to their feet as Buffett finally took the microphone, and then hung on his every word for hours afterward, the financier was recruited by Arnold Schwarzenegger to advise his gubernatorial campaign on budget issues. It takes a leading man to know one, and although their relationship foundered over the question of property taxes (Buffett suggested that California raise them), Buffett's decision to even be seen with Schwarzenegger solemnized the muscle man's candidacy. This year John Kerry is looking for the same magic: he teamed up with Buffett early on, and will surely be dropping his name until Election Day.

All of which is to say that the popular business media have for some time now been missing the big story when it comes to the country's second richest man. Buffett's fortune—and the oft told tale of how he made it and continues to add to it—has become the least interesting thing about him. It's Buffett the symbol that matters now, Buffett the folk hero, Buffett the communicator. As a successful investor, he merely moved markets; but as the charismatic, reassuring, quotable prototype of the honest capitalist (a sort of J. P. Morgan with a moral sense), he's capable of influencing elections, galvanizing rock-concert-size crowds, and in general defining how we Americans feel about the system that underlies our wealth.

That Sunday afternoon in Omaha the system was sorely in need of a defender. The violent storm cells approaching from the west, whose dangers Buffett chose to ignore, were nothing compared with the financial cyclones whose winds could still be felt across the country. The Enron and WorldCom scandals, the nasdaq crash, the post-9/11 recession, and the run-up to the Iraq War had shaken the faith of millions. Buffett, Coke in hand, seemed sobered too. He spoke at length against the lax accounting standards that had enabled so much corporate fraud. He mocked the pseudo-scientists of Wall Street who had led so many investors to believe that a market bubble can grow to infinite size. He made a persuasive statistical case, backed by his experience in the insurance world, for a future terrorist attack employing weapons of mass destruction. As usual, he spoke vividly and succinctly, cutting through complexities to the commonsense core of every issue and neither lightening harsh realities nor unduly darkening them. Buffett seemed ever mindful of the role he'd been cultivating for decades: the voice of playful, tempered reason. His most memorable line of the day was not his wittiest, but it typified his understated style, and resonated with authority—an authority derived partly from his investment record, but also from what deserves now to be viewed as his cultural, artistic record.

In response to a question about the prospects of a country beset by war and scandal, Buffett eyed his nearsighted sideman and said simply, as civil-defense sirens sounded in the background and reporters readied their pens and notebooks, "We think America will do pretty well over time."

Pure Omaha poetry.

There is a line of self-made, iconoclastic, pragmatic, larger-than-life American Everymen that begins in the popular mind with Benjamin Franklin, and runs through Mark Twain, Will Rogers, and Harry Truman, but also shows up in such far-flung characters as Walt Whitman, Henry Ford, and Ernest Hemingway. They are the fresh-air paragons of democratic self-invention—the anti-phonies who tell it like it is and, with their grassroots words and ways, rebuke the pretentious sophistication of Europeanized elites. Even when they hold liberal political views, they sometimes come off as reactionary cornballs, because of the way they extend our native mythology of salty, slightly cranky individualism.

Warren Buffett, as much as anyone else alive right now, belongs to this indispensable tradition of truth-telling Americans so square and forthright that they end up seeming subversive. His "true" identity—the stuff about him that can be discovered by interviewing his family and associates or digging through his garbage—doesn't really matter, finally, compared with the reputation he has created, and which the public has chosen to embrace, even idolize. This outward self is a literary artifact. It's a book, not a life. It cries out to be read.

Presented by

Walter Kirn is a novelist and critic who lives in Livingston, Montana.

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