The president of the United States once appointed a successful businessman as Secretary of the Treasury, putting him in charge of, among other duties, the nation's tax system.
When the secretary took the stage at the next Republican presidential convention, the cheering and marching in his praise was so raucous that he dropped his notes and ended up not giving his speech at all.
That was 1921 and the businessman was Andrew Mellon, banker and founder of Alcoa.
Today, successful Omaha businessman Warren Buffett's foray into national politics also is getting a warm — make that hot — reception from Republicans and others.
"Warren Buffett is a Poor, Blind, Sad, Old Man or Worse," blares the headline on nolanchart.com, a libertarian website.
"Eleven ways Warren Buffett is lying about Warren Buffett," writes conservative talk show host Glenn Beck.
While most of the criticism of Buffett is more civil, the Oracle of Omaha has come under close scrutiny not only for his proposal to raise taxes for people who make $1 million or more a year, but also for what his critics view as a venture into the world of public policy best left to government officials.
The controversy could threaten Buffett's longtime image as the wise businessman who hosts college students for lunch and discussion sessions, who writes informatively to his shareholders each spring, who espouses common-sense investing and who pledged 99 percent of his $40 billion fortune to charity.
It all started Aug. 15, when the New York Times published an opinion column by Buffett saying the wealthy should pay more taxes and take part in the "shared sacrifice" needed to resolve the government's budget crisis. He also called for cutbacks in entitlement spending and other programs.
Then, President Barack Obama, in a Sept. 8 speech to Congress, used Buffett's argument that he pays proportionately less in taxes than his secretary.
And last Monday, Obama unveiled a deficit-reduction plan proposing a series of tax increases on the wealthy. He also said he'd be willing to work with Congress to overhaul the tax code as long it follows the Buffett rule: Middle class people shouldn't pay taxes at higher rates than do millionaires or billionaires.
The sequence of events opened floodgates of news and opinion, with Buffett and his namesake tax plan featured on front pages, editorial pages, websites and broadcasts nationwide and abroad.
"This is the eve of an election," said David Kramer, former chairman of the Nebraska Republican Party, with Republicans trying to choose their candidate and Democrats trying to frame the campaign. Kramer said Buffett is drawing criticism especially because Obama embraced the tax-the-rich proposal, taking the idea far beyond the impact of a newspaper column.
"That single item is the most likely to cause controversy," Kramer said. "When the proposals come into the government arena as part of a signature push for reform or for change, then absolutely the scrutiny on them is ratcheted up dramatically."
Many people like the Buffett Rule, however. Gallup said 66 percent of the people it polled last week favored increasing taxes on the wealthy to pay for a job-creation program.
Still, Buffett finds himself a lightning rod for commentary.
"I think it's very sad," said Burton W. Folsom Jr., a Lincoln native and business professor at Hillsdale College, near Detroit, who compiles rankings of influential businesspeople. "I hope he hasn't damaged his reputation, but I think he's completely wrong from the standpoint of history.
"When I come to Omaha, I see a city that has followed the principles of not raising taxes, but Detroit has gone his way" — raising taxes so it has "choked out wealth."
Beverly Kracher, a Creighton University ethics professor, said Buffett has entered an arena where he is not well-known but made an ethical choice to speak up and raise the issue of tax fairness so people can debate it and make a decision. "How glorious that he has recognized the power he has and the responsibility he has, and that he is stepping up."
Of course, Buffett has not been immune to controversy.
Groups that oppose abortion have attacked contributions by his family foundation to Planned Parenthood and its support to bring the "morning after" birth control pill to the United States. A truck displaying large photos of aborted fetuses often drives by the site of the annual Berkshire Hathaway shareholders meeting in Omaha.
Pilots represented by the Teamsters Union demonstrated outside the meeting in 2005 to protest pay and scheduling policies at Berkshire's NetJets subsidiary. In 2007 about 40 Native Americans and others demonstrated in Omaha in an effort to win Buffett's backing for removing some Berkshire-owned hydroelectric dams in Oregon and northern California.
And more recently, his management abilities were questioned when top aide David Sokol, considered by many a candidate to be CEO of Berkshire after Buffett, resigned after a stock-trading scandal.
Nor is Buffett new to politics and tax policy.
He backed Hillary Clinton early in her 2008 presidential campaign and, before that, her husband. He supported Obama in 2008 and is hosting fundraisers for Obama's 2012 campaign.
In 1995, Buffett attended a dinner in Omaha organized by Herman Cain, then chairman of Godfather's Pizza in Omaha, who was on a Republican tax commission set up by then-Rep. Newt Gingrich, R-Ga. Cain and Gingrich are running for the 2012 Republican nomination for president.
At the dinner, Buffett advocated a consumption tax, arguing that the income tax system puts a penalty on savings and encourages borrowing and spending. A consumption tax would apply to income that's spent and exempt income that is saved or invested.
The proposal went nowhere, but Buffett apparently hasn't given up on tax issues.
"He's at the age where he doesn't really care what some of the fallout may be," said management professor Fred Luthans at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. "He certainly is not winning any friends in the business community by this, for sure. He's just speaking from the heart."
In the end, Luthans said, "Buffett is still a big name, that's for sure, and getting bigger across the world."
Five years ago, Buffett's opinions likely would have attracted less heated reaction, said Gina Pappas, director of new media for Albers Communications in Omaha. His New York Times article was "sharable," meaning it could be posted quickly on social media sites such as Facebook and exchanged throughout the online world.
"It's fast, it's intense, it's more easily accessible," Pappas said. "It gives people who have an opinion a chance to engage in conversation about it . to get fired up.
"People tend to say things on social media that ignite things further, that they may not say in real life."
Pappas said the firestorm isn't likely to damage Buffett's reputation.
"He's almost bulletproof, in a way," she said. "I think everybody knows what he's about and where he stands in all the good works he does. ... It's up to him how much he wants to stoke the coals."
Leslie Gaines-Ross, chief reputation strategist at Weber Shandwick public relations firm in New York City, said Buffett is taking a risk but has built up "reputational equity" over the years. "I think this might actually burnish his reputation in the end" by crossing the line from what business leaders usually do.
Hal Daub, a former Omaha mayor and Republican congressman, said the problem with the debate is that it's too superficial. He wishes Buffett would lay out more details of his tax proposal so people could tell exactly how it would work.
"I don't think the debate that's going on right now is unhealthy," Daub said. "It's just not being given the perspective it should. It's calculated for political and emotional gain, to make somebody feel better politically. The real issue is that we spend more than we take in."
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