I probably should have told this story before, back when the retired president of a top American bank told it to me at a picnic on his ranch. It struck me at the time as true, if only because its psychological details were so specific, eccentric, and unflattering. The reason I didn’t tell it then was that the former bank executive was powerful and I feared I might land him in trouble in some way, which might get me in trouble in some way. (It’s exactly this class-based fear which drives the story.) Only when I learned the man had died did I feel free to pass on what he told me. I’ve done a bit of research on his story, which confirmed certain elements and cast doubt on others. That is why I present it not as news or journalism but as an urban legend, a folk tale. An exceedingly high-level folk tale whose theme is cowardice.
Omaha, Nebraska. September 11th, 2001. CEOs and celebrities from across the land have gathered early in the morning for an annual charity golf tournament hosted by Warren Buffett, the famed investor and, at this time, the world’s second richest person. (The richest of all is his close friend, Bill Gates.) My source is among the guests out on the course, there to network and hobnob with the gentry. He’s an assertive, blunt, straightforward fellow, but today he’s feeling shy. He’s hiding something. He’s hiding his cell phone, which is in his golf bag. He’s doing this because Buffett has a rule forbidding cell phones on the links, and his guests know better than to defy him. They may need his great pools of capital someday. Some of them may even need them soon. Their problem is that they also head major companies, so golfing without their phones handy is risky. Something important might come up.
As the players assemble, something important comes up. An airliner strikes a New York City skyscraper. The tower catches fire and implodes. This happens again. A third plane strikes the Pentagon. A fourth plane, thought to be heading toward the White House after being hijacked by terrorists, crashes in a Pennsylvania field.
Sometime in the midst of this upheaval – at the beginning, I presume – the hidden phones start to vibrate across the golf course. The CEOs and their caddies decline to answer them, reluctant to be the first guest to give offense. But the buzzing persists, becoming a concern, and soon most every phone is buzzing at once. The titans start to sneak away, out of sight of their prickly overlord, and one by one they receive the grim reports. The few who’ve obeyed Buffett’s rule and have no phones get the news, via whispers, from their fellows. Horror spreads across the green. But it is secret horror, not open horror; horror frozen inside submissiveness. Struggling to conceal their true emotions, the magnates carry on as best they can, waiting for “The Oracle of Omaha” to hear the apocalyptic word himself. This takes a bit, according to my source. Not long, but long enough. Meaning forever.
“That’s crazy,” I said to the banker at the picnic. “How did it feel?”
“How did what feel?”
“All of it. Everything. Being there,” I said.
“It felt like the world had turned to total bullshit.”
One reason I found the banker’s story credible was that I had a story of my own about Warren Buffett, disaster, and social fear. I told it to him after he told me his. I’m not sure he listened; he wasn’t a strong listener. His chef was roasting a pig over hot coals and most of his attention was on the meat.
Omaha, Nebraska. May, 2004. I’m on assignment for The Atlantic magazine, standing in a hotel conference room as Buffett and his partner, Charlie Munger, sit at a folding table on a stage in front of a crowd of reporters and investors. Buffett is discussing The War on Terror and its implications for his companies. His manner is folksy yet sardonic, that of a long-term thinker who views the short term as a blip in the flow of probabilities. He asserts that another attack as large or larger as the one on the Twin Towers is inevitable, most likely before the decade ends. He calls such calamities “MegaCats” (short for Mega-Catastrophes) and explains their relationship to reinsurance, the business of insuring other insurers against potentially devastating losses. To shield these vulnerable firms from total ruin, Buffett’s own insurance firm, GenRe, sells them policies that cover MegaCats, events which happen so infrequently that the premiums for GenRe’s policies tend to spend years, even decades, in his accounts before being disbursed as claims. This massive cash reserve or “float” amounts to a zero-interest loan that Buffet draws on to buy more companies.
He’s still explaining this revenue machine when a plainclothes guard, perhaps a body guard, mounts the stage and whispers in his right ear. Buffett sips at a Coke and knits his eyebrows—grey bushy flyaway eyebrows that take some knitting -- then sends the guard away and shares the news with us: Tornadoes have been spotted in western Omaha and appear to be headed in our direction. He advises us that the hotel is urging guests to shelter in a safe room located in the center of the building, but he also informs us that he’ll be sitting tight and continuing his presentation. Those of us who choose to stay, he says, may ask him questions later.
It’s just about then that the alarms go off. Lights flash. Horns sound. Voices bark from speakers. I glance around at my colleagues. A few in back creep sheepishly toward the exits and disappear, but most remain in place, completely cowed. Buffett waits out the alarms, then chatters on, joking with Munger, his sideman, about MegaCats, a word he seems to relish saying. And such is his luck, or perhaps his influence, that the approaching twisters don’t interrupt him. They veer off course and touch down somewhere else.
Power, true power, is a wonder to behold. It is also, for the powerless, unnerving, chiefly because it calls for self-suppression in quantities equal to power’s immense self-confidence. I felt puny and weak in its presence that day in Omaha, cut off from my own reflexes and instincts. Survival, I learned then, is not our strongest drive, whatever the evolutionists may say. Our strongest drive is to please the people over us, especially those who have no one over them.
Which brings me to Bill Gates.
My Gates story, which isn’t mine alone but belongs to millions of us by now, begins last February in Las Vegas, when news of the Coronavirus hit. I was spending a week holed up in a hotel room, working on a book. My wife was alone in our downtown apartment, convinced that she’d caught the bug a few days earlier and worried that if she transmitted it to me I might re-infect her after she recovered. (Covid’s behavior was a puzzle back then.) I resolved to act prudently during our separation, but one night a friend came to town from California as part of the entourage of a world-class gambler whom the MGM casino chain was lavishing with costly gifts and perks. Through my friend, who obtained them through the gambler, I received front-row tickets, free of charge, to a Bruno Mars show in a packed stadium. No one was wearing masks yet, or distancing, and the crowd at the concert screamed droplets into the air that visibly floated and sparkled in the lights. I expected to fall ill instantly, but didn’t. This emboldened me to accept yet more largesse as a member of the gambler’s posse: a three-hour hot-oil Thai massage, a caviar brunch at a jammed restaurant, and a deluxe two-hour pedicure performed by a trio of technicians who attacked my calluses and hangnails with scissors and emery boards and metal picks. As the rest of the world hunkered down behind closed doors, I partied on, cavorting with the bigshots.
I emerged from this orgy suspecting that Covid-19 wasn’t as virulent as the experts claimed. Still, when the lockdowns and quarantines began, I played along, deferring to the authorities. (I assumed that my wife Amanda was immune by then.) I resisted wearing a mask when they were voluntary but yielded when officials made them mandatory. By this time, the global pandemic had a face – or rather the fight against it had a face. It wasn’t the face of Dr. Fauci, the bureaucrat, but that of Bill Gates, the conscience of the planet. Why he holds this position is unclear to me, but I suppose his fortune is involved. Perhaps it’s because he has more to lose than most do if civilization is wiped out by a plague. Or maybe it’s his guilt over the likelihood that he will survive, in style, if we all die. Most likely, he simply bought his office, bestowing so much money on public health groups that they honored him with a title: Prince-Physician, Exalted Lord-Hygienist of the Realm.
He certainly acted the part when Covid struck. No matter how harsh or disturbing his pronouncements about the pandemic’s severity, duration, mutability, social implications, and ominous relationship with climate change, his bemused little grin of scientific loftiness never left his pudding-colored face. Watching him discuss the evil virus, I started to sense he admired the pathogen as his noble foe, his worthy adversary. I found his demeanor a touch Napoleonic. His view of the battlefield from atop his steed didn’t comport with my view on the ground. In Livingston, Montana, our summer home, the restaurants and shops near our house were going broke, the alleys were filling up with homeless men, and neighborliness was giving way to surliness. If I passed someone too closely on the sidewalk, grimace lines appeared above their mask. If I handled an avocado in the supermarket, my fellow shoppers shrunk back as though attacked. The outbreak in our small county was limited, a matter of a few cases, six, then seven, the count going higher in spurts, then slipping back, but the dire onslaught never came.
I stopped tracking the news when I learned my father was dying. Eighty-two and afflicted with ALS, unable to stand, sit upright, or turn his torso, he’d retired to bed in his cabin outside of town. He had a couple of weeks left, maybe three, and insisted on not being taken to the hospital, fearing he’d be sequestered in his room due to increasingly stringent Covid protocols. (Amanda’s grandmother, may she rest in peace, had suffered this fate in an Illinois nursing home.) I promised my father a painless death in the company of friends and family, but keeping this promise meant bending and breaking rules. Friends who flew in to see him from other states ignored the quarantine orders and came right over. Hospice nurses delivering supplies sat down beside his bed and soothed him, though technically they should have stayed outside due to the recent arrival of a caregiver from Covid-riddled Florida. We watched a lot of TV in those last days of his, avoiding the news, which grew darker by the hour, but once or twice Bill Gates slipped past our ban to preach and warn and speechify. I zapped him with the remote. Where was he anyway? Nowhere that had much to do with here. Offshore on a yacht with a satellite connection? Orbiting earth inside a private spaceship?
After my vigil ended, back in town, I resumed obeying the rules, which had multiplied and tightened in my absence. People were cracking. Couples were breaking up. I spoke to a bartender who’d lost his job and I heard suicidal echoes behind his words. I spoke to a trembling parent whose school-age child, having failed to adapt to online learning, had trashed his own bedroom and now refused to leave it. The spectacle of my crumbling community frightened me more than the virus, but I stayed quiet, aware that the solemn voices of cable news who carried Gates’ message to the masses considered such qualms heretically off-script. If saving the village from the virus required destroying the village, then so be it. And the village was certainly burning – I smelled the smoke. I smelled it through my mask. I felt like a bashful golfer at Buffett’s tournament who’d snuck away to answer his buzzing phone, learned that his country was under deadly siege, but couldn’t bring himself to tell the boss, nor even betray his awareness of the carnage.
“Who finally told him?” I asked the banker as we stood on the lawn of his ranch and watched his pig slowly turning and roasting on its spit. “Who was the one with the guts to spill the beans?”
“Probably one of his flunkies. I don’t know. I doubt it was any of us. I’m sure it wasn’t.”
“Do you know how Buffett reacted when he heard?”
“Well, it’s Warren, so probably calmly. But no idea.”
“You never asked him?”
The banker laughed at this. “No, I did not, young man. I never asked.”