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A newsman’s reflections on Charlie Munger

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A newsman’s reflections on Charlie Munger

Nov 29, 2023 | 2:21 pm ET
By Steve Jordon
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A newsman’s reflections on Charlie Munger
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Warren Buffett, left, and Berkshire-Hathaway partner Charlie Munger address members of the press May 5, 2002. in Omaha during Berkshire weekend. (Eric Francis/Getty Images)

Charlie Munger returned my calls.

“I always have time for Omaha,” he would say.

I was reporting for the Omaha World-Herald at the time, including several years writing a Sunday column called “Warren Watch.” Charlie’s doings regularly made the column since his relationship with Warren Buffett was an integral part of the Buffett story.

Charlie Munger

Charlie Munger, vice chairman of Berkshire Hathaway, died Tuesday at age 99, just weeks before his 100th birthday on Jan. 1.

Together, the two formed almost a comedy team, each laughing heartily at the jokes the other told. Warren was usually the straight man, and Charlie provided the punchlines.

Some of the jokes were real groaners. When Berkshire Hathaway, their investment company, bought Fruit of the Loom, Buffett remarked, “Charlie and I always wanted to get into women’s underwear.”

Charlie just smiled.

While Warren may be better known, when they were together in public Charlie seemed to draw more attention, in part because he appeared in public less frequently.

When Charlie was about to say something controversial, Warren would give a warning, something like, “Get ready for this one.”

The late Dick Holland, an Omaha friend of Buffett’s and an early Berkshire investor, hosted the two men decades ago when they were new acquaintances. Buffett and Munger sat in a pair of chairs next to each other, engrossed in conversation to the exclusion of everyone else in the room, Holland said.

I would contact Charlie for a Warren Watch column item when he filed public reports on his donations of Berkshire Hathaway stock. He was vice chairman of the company, so he had to tell the market when he donated shares.

Among many other causes, he supported a private school in California that his children had attended, and he financed a dormitory at the University of Michigan, where he had earned his law degree.

I would calculate the value of his remaining Berkshire stock, which was still far above a billion dollars. Once when I called about a donation, he told me that he was trying to get out of the billionaire class by giving away stock but that the stock price kept rising faster than he could give it away.

I think he was joking, but it was hard to tell.

After that, I wrote a few column items “complaining” when Charlie failed yet again in his financial goal of slipping below the $1 billion mark.

Charlie also responded to my request to talk about Warren for the book I wrote for The World-Herald, “The Oracle & Omaha: How Warren Buffett and his Hometown Shaped Each Other.” He added interesting details, since he knew the subject of the book much better than I did.

“I think Warren was genetically disposed to be interested in money and how to get it,” Charlie once said. “He just came out of the womb that way.”

During one of the Berkshire shareholder weekends, I used photos from the book during a talk I gave about Charlie to an investor group. I found out later that one of his nephews had attended; I was relieved to learn that he said I had gotten the story right.

I did a story when Charlie published his memoir, “Poor Charlie’s Almanack.” Someone else assembled much of the material based on Charlie’s writings and speeches, but Charlie spent so much time on the book project that Warren Buffett dropped his long-held idea of writing an autobiography. Instead, he invited financial expert Alice Schroeder to write that book, giving her unprecedented access to his records and time. The result was her definitive biography, “The Snowball.”

In recent years, Charlie used a wheelchair when he had to go long distances between Berkshire meeting events. Warren used to joke that he still had time left in this life because Charlie was six years older and still active in the business.

Charlie was a realist, and so is Warren.

Since I retired from the newspaper, I’ve missed the last few Berkshire meetings, held each May in Omaha. One year I wrote a “play by play” account for the Nebraska Examiner. This year I watched the meeting online because I was out of town and a Chinese journalist wanted to interview me afterward — a somewhat scary experience for a person used to asking questions, not answering them.

Among other things, the journalist wanted to know how I thought Charlie had done at the meeting. At one point, Charlie had answered a complex question from a Chinese investor about Chinese and U.S. internet companies.

Charlie’s response:

“Well, there’s been some tension in the economic relationship of the United States and China. I think that tension has been wrongly created on both sides. I think we’re equally guilty of being stupid.

“If there’s one thing we should do, it’s get along with China, and we should have a lot of free trade with China in our mutual interests. There’s so much safety and there’s so much creativity that’s possible. 

“Think what Apple has done by engaging in a partnership with China as a big supplier. It’s been good for Apple and good for China. That’s the kind of business we ought to be doing with China.

“Everything that increases the tension between the two countries is stupid, stupid, stupid and ought to be stopped on each side, and each side ought to respond to the other side’s stupidity with reciprocal kindness. 

“That’s my view.”

I told the journalist that I thought Charlie was as sharp as ever.