Changes in Buffettitudes – Warren Not Jimmy

With all this talk — and possibly some action — about taxing the rich, Warren Buffett’s claim to pay less tax than his secretary is a hot topic again. The Dish has been quoting various pundits, one of whom, James Surowiecki, plays up Buffett’s down to earth reputation:

Buffett’s disdain for the trappings of wealth can be exaggerated — “When I get rid of the plane, you’ll know I’m broke,” he told me — but it’s obviously a big part of his appeal to ordinary Americans. How can you not like a billionaire who still lives in a house that he bought in 1958?

But while Buffett is certainly popular with tax progressives, I have trouble with Buffett as just folks. I have two children and two stepchildren I met when they were children and two stepchildren who were already adults when I met them. I’m closer to some than others, but they’re all family to me — as are their kids, and their stepkids.

A few years ago we saw, Jamie Johnson, from the Johnson & Johnson family, and Nicole Buffett, one of Warren’s granddaughters, on some talk show, probably Oprah, talking about growing up in wealthy families. Jamie had just released his documentary Born Rich on HBO. Nicole related that Warren Buffett had provided for her education, but that she didn’t stand to inherit his fortune. He wanted them to make their own success. I didn’t find anything she said about Warren all that incendiary, but apparently each of them pissed off their wealthy relatives.

Jamie later released The One Percent, which included Nicole relating how Warren had cut off all contact with her — which is also discussed in a WSJ review of the second film:

“The One Percent,” which is running on Cinemax until April 1, has spawned its own mini scandal. After Warren Buffett’s adopted granddaughter, Nicole Buffett, spoke to Mr. Johnson on camera about her views on money, Mr. Buffett sent her a letter stating that she was not legally his granddaughter. …

In Jamie Johnson’s film “The One Percent,” Nicole Buffett talks about how lucky she is to be a Buffett. “I feel very fulfilled and happy in my life,” says Nicole, the adopted daughter of Peter Buffett, Warren Buffett’s son.

Warren Buffett, however, wasn’t pleased. Shortly after Nicole appeared on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” to talk about the film, Mr. Buffett sent her a letter saying that, while he was proud of Nicole and her achievements, “…I have not legally or emotionally adopted you as a grandchild, nor have the rest of my family adopted you as a niece or a cousin.”

Nicole is the biological daughter of Mary Buffett (with another man), who married Peter when Nicole was 4 years old. Peter and Mary divorced but Peter adopted Nicole when she was 18. Warren Buffett declined to comment.

Nicole says she spent almost every Christmas with Warren Buffett between the ages of 4 and 11 and often went to his home in Omaha for spring break. Susan Buffett, Warren’s first wife, who died in 2004, named Nicole in her will as one of her “adored grandchildren” and left her $100,000. She added that Nicole “shall have the same status and benefits … as if they were children of my son, Peter A. Buffett.”

A source close to the family says Nicole spent “very little time” with Warren Buffett over the years but that he paid for Nicole’s school and living expenses until she was 28. Nicole says that Mr. Buffett’s reaction may have reflected his philosophy about wealth. “Sharing my experience as a Buffett was stepping outside the box,” she says.

Perhaps the rich are different than you and me.

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