By 2030, there surely will be a statue of him here in Omaha, perhaps one that straddles I-80, perhaps one so gargantuan that it includes a gift shop in its bronze brainpan in which plastic ukuleles and counterfeit Baby Berks are peddled. I imagine the colossus will raise a Dairy Queen waffle cone to the heavens. Give us your tired, your undervalued…
What I’m less sure of, though, is how long the world outside Omaha might keep the flame for Warren after he’s gone. I suffer a fawning story about him daily in the paper he owns, but I have a vague sense he is not deemed quite so omniscient in lands outside those for which he is the Oracle.
So I made a call to perhaps the leading expert in the country in such matters. And here’s the verdict: While Buffett will likely tower over his hometown for a century or two, away from home, he will likely fade into B-list celebrity in the history books.
“He’s a rare financial genius, he’s clearly a good man, but he’s not a nation-builder and he didn’t create something monumental and historic,” says historian and best-selling author Charles Morris. “And honestly, he’s not that outlandishly rich, in relative wealth, compared to the big American titans. He will be a minor figure in 100 years. There will be a statue in Omaha, but that might be it.”
“The big American titans” would be John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, Cornelius Vanderbilt, John Jacob Astor, and Jay Gould. Take Rockefeller. Adjusted for inflation, Rockefeller was worth $336 billion, more than five times more than Buffett. Rockefeller and his Standard Oil built the oil industry in America. He was integral in building the foundation of the American Century.
Carnegie, like Rockefeller, was worth more than $300 billion in today’s dollars and, also like Rockefeller, was a father of America’s ascent to global power as the leader of U.S. Steel.
The list of bigger-than-life rich guys bigger than Warren goes on, says Morris, author of 12 books, including The Tycoons, Money, Greed, and Risk, and The Sages: Warren Buffett, George Soros, Paul Volcker, and the Maelstrom of Markets. Besides money, “the big ones also have to have big stories attached to them, big personalities that are worth lots of ink.” Take Carnegie: “He was a monumentally dreadful man. So, sadly, he sticks in our mind more than Warren will.”
Two other facts play against Buffett’s immortality: He avoids putting his name on buildings and charities, Morris says. (Most of his money is heading off to the Gates Foundation, for one). “He doesn’t seem to buy into that concept of memorializing oneself.” And, an obscure but important issue: Business gurus and business school professors don’t like that “Buffett always proves their ideas to be gimmicks.
“Those folks will bury him with great gusto,” Morris says. “For the most part, he’s no darling of business schools. It’s weird, it’s pretty sad, but it’s true. To some degree, Buffett and his legacy won’t be passed on to the next generation because his ideas aren’t very sexy.”
This is just me talking here, but you could also argue Buffett is also just plain-ole-fashion literally not-sexy. Not ugly, really. Cuddly? The billions of dollars are probably sexy, sure. But, physically, he does not strike the grand pose of the grandly memorable. He just doesn’t have that certain something that your James Deans, Teddy Roosevelts, George Washingtons, or Richard Bransons have.
Because he is, by nearly all accounts, a nice guy, one hopes that such blunt assessments of likely sooner-rather-than-later mortality issues (he’s 84 in August) aren’t unsettling to the old fellow. No worries, though, Morris says. He’s quite sure Buffett doesn’t care one bit about how long his name lives on.
“All his actions suggest he seems quite fine with the idea of just heading off into the sunset like the rest of us,” Morris says. “To me at least, that’s actually quite refreshing.”