Why Warren Buffett is everywhere

obama_buffett.top.jpg By Andy Serwer, managing editor


FORTUNE -- Some day early next year, Warren Buffett -- and 14 others including former President George H.W. Bush, Maya Angelou, and Stan Musial -- will descend upon Washington to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom. (The date is uncertain right now, apparently contingent upon the schedule of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, another recipient.) This has become a familiar destination for Buffett, who has kept himself in the news lately doing interviews and speaking out on issues -- much more so than he has done previously. Just this Tuesday, Buffett, along with his billionaire buddies Bill and Melinda Gates, met with President Obama in the Oval Office to discuss their Giving Pledge initiative and the economy. What's interesting to consider is whether Buffett's new higher profile contributed to his being considered for the medal (not that this was necessarily a goal of his).

The Presidential Medal of Freedom is the nation's highest nonmilitary award, and the closest thing we have in this country to knighthood. Some might say it's fitting that Buffett will receive this honor, as he has occasionally been called "Sir Warren," a reference -- though sometimes sarcastic -- to his exalted reputation. Yet, leaving aside the catcallers, who would argue that Buffett isn't worthy of the honor? (Buffett's tireless promotion of the Dilly Bar is reason enough for me.)

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Seriously though, it is interesting to consider exactly why President Obama is awarding Buffett the PMOF. First are two unassailable points: Buffett is very accomplished, and he is, well, getting older. Both things count for something, and yet there are all sorts of old rich guys and gals who remain medal-less. So let's take a look at the list previous winners of Medals of Freedom from the fields of business and economics. There you will see some obvious names like Henry Ford, two Rockefellers, Tom Watson (of IBM, not the PGA) and Sam Walton -- along with John Kenneth Galbraith, one of only four individuals to win twice (1946 and 2000) and Dave Thomas (posthumously). Oh, and Alan Greenspan has one, too.

So what exactly are the criteria for getting a medal, anyway? Well, according to the medal rule book the award is "for especially meritorious contribution to (1) the security or national interests of the United States, or (2) world peace, or (3) cultural or other significant public or private endeavors." Recipients are selected by the President or recommended to him by something called the Distinguished Civilian Service Awards Board. Do politics play a role? Absolutely no, and absolutely yes. To wit no: Obama is giving one to Bush the elder. To wit yes: Bush the elder gave one to Ronald Reagan.

Still, one wonders, if there were a Republican in the White House now, would Buffett be so honored? Of course we have no way of knowing, but it is probably true that besides Buffett's business leadership and his Giving Pledge idea, politics helped when it came time for President Obama to pick. And it's not just that Buffett holds opinions that the President shares (think taxes, and estate taxes, in particular) but also that Buffett has been increasingly vocal and public about letting his opinions be known. Which is to say that a hypothetical multibillionaire philanthropist Democratic hedge fund manager -- who also happened to be highly secretive -- might be a less likely candidate for said medal.

What's driving Buffett's move into the public eye?

The question is, why has Warren gone so public? Some of it may have to do with the financial crisis and his feeling compelled to speak up as a way of helping. But there are other reasons as well. Buffett in fact addressed this point at Berkshire Hathaway's (BRKA, Fortune 500) annual meeting this year. New York Times reporter Andrew Ross Sorkin relayed a shareholder question to Buffett asking whether doing all this press was the best use of his time for shareholders. Buffett responded that first of all he played bridge 12 hours a week, and that is not the best use of his time for shareholders either. But, he continued, if you want a record of what was said, he would rather be on Charlie Rose where it is permanent and first person rather than in written form and filtered by a journalist. Buffett said he would rather that people be able to see him and read his body language when he is trying to communicate what he thinks. He thinks either his writings or TV appearances are likely to be the most accurate.

This is a change for Buffett, but (unlike so many of us) he is a man who is comfortable changing his mind. For instance, Buffett wasn't going to give his money away before he died, and then he changed his mind. He liked being on the Coke (KO, Fortune 500) board; then he changed his mind. And he used to avoid the public eye, and then he grew weary of reading stories and books about him that contained what he considered to be inaccuracies, so now he goes out and speaks for himself. It's also probably true that Buffett is more and more comfortable in his own skin -- dare I say, more secure now -- and enjoys the celebrity of being a public figure. Nothing wrong with that. And there's nothing wrong with a byproduct of this change being that it may have contributed to his receiving our nation's highest civilian honor.

End note

The insurance firm Geico, a subsidiary of Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway, is one of Buffett's most high-profile companies. That's because Geico's ubiquitous Gecko commercials are hard to miss. They're also kind of catchy, especially the amusing banter between said Gecko, his "CEO," and other characters ("Toledo! '03! It's too late, Stanley!") But how many of you realized Buffett was getting a two-for-one in a recent Geico ad? In this particular holiday spot, the CEO and said reptile are in a restaurant blathering about the holidays and insurance (ugh!) when a young guy sitting near them pops the question to his girlfriend and presents her with a diamond. "Hmmm ... Helzberg Diamonds," the CEO notes approvingly. Small wonder he does. Berkshire also owns Helzberg. Ca-ching! To top of page

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