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

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.

The best way to start reading Warren Buffett is to gather up ten or twenty years' worth of his annual letters to Berkshire Hathaway shareholders (these "Chairman's letters" make up the bulk of the company's annual reports, and copies are available on the Internet), which may be the only documents of their type whose prose is worth poring over even for those who have no stake in the appended balance sheets. Buffett's choice of such a dreary medium as the primary showcase for his thoughts has always sent a message in itself. While the Trumps and Iacoccas of the world prefer to present themselves in garish books with jackets featuring large color photos of their own faces, Buffett, the legendary midwestern cheapskate with a knack for discovering hidden value in cookware clubs (The Pampered Chef) and encyclopedia publishers (World Book), has reclaimed a form of junk mail for his collected works.

Buffett's penny-pinching persona doesn't allow for lavish photos or graphics; the reports are all text, and they're printed in black-and-white. They customarily open with a few sentences on the corporation's financial performance, which is almost always dazzling. Any other CEO would trumpet such numbers with eye-catching graphs, but Buffett tends, if anything, to play them down. Year after year, and especially in his best years, he warns the shareholders that Berkshire's results are not likely to be repeated. When they are repeated, which happens more often than not, he expresses no surprise, just gratitude, and then slips back into his chronic pessimism. In 1992, for example, after citing an increase in Berkshire's per-share book value of more than 20 percent, Buffett made a gloomy general market prediction that couldn't have been more wrong: "The return over the next decade from an investment in the S&P index will be far less than that of the past decade." He went on to remark that his firm's own rate of growth, which continued to be superb, had a perverse dark side: "The drag exerted by Berkshire's expanding capital base will substantially reduce our historical advantage relative to the index."

Such are the boring parts of the reports, composed in the dusty language of the business page. They do exhibit a certain buttoned-down wit, though. Like a multibillionaire Jack Benny, the thrifty Buffett just can't stop worrying. He can't stop finding the bad news in the good. Because we know how well he's done and how well he'll do, his nervousness is amusing and disarming. And by avoiding emotion in his expression at moments when others in his position would be euphoric, he also caricatures his well-known suspicion of moody reactions to short-term market swings. When things look up, he doesn't celebrate, and when things look down, he's not surprised—that's the pose, at least. The truth, we suspect, is that such a cautious outlook is a luxury of the financially untouchable, and that Buffett fully understands this. For himself he feels no anxiety at all—he only pretends to, out of compassion for us, the vulnerable public. The hidden message is a subtle one: I, who don't have to, am keeping my guard up as a way of reminding all of you that you can't afford to let yours down.

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Walter Kirn is the author of Up in the Air.

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