150 Years Of The Atlantic December 2006

American Icons

This is the eleventh in a series of archival excerpts in honor of the magazine's 150th anniversary. This installment is introduced by Mark Bowden, an Atlantic national correspondent.
American Everyman
November 2004
By Walter Kirn

Two years ago, the novelist and critic Walter Kirn considered Warren Buffett as American symbol.

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 … has become the least interesting thing about him. It’s Buffett the symbol that matters now, Buffett the folk hero …

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 …

Warren Buffett, as much as anyone else alive right now, belongs to this indispensable tradition …

Biographers and magazine writers love to detail Buffett’s austerity—his middle-class house, his bare-bones corporate headquarters, his decision to stay put in Omaha—but they make a mistake when they accuse him of modesty. In a man worth tens of billions of dollars, self-deprecation is a boast.

Vol. 294, No. 4, pp. 104–112

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