The love for Washington and democracy, and the monuments to both, run deep. He read voraciously when he was a child in Baltimore, the only child of a postal worker and retail saleswoman. His favorite topic was history. His mom recalls ferrying him around Washington to view the monuments and ogle the centers of power.
“He was was very, very impressed with the White House, the monuments, the State Department,” his mother, Bettie, recalled. “That had a lot to do with it.”
As Rubenstein puts it, “I live in Washington. I met my wife in Washington. I raised my kids in Washington. I’m an American. And when you get to be fortunate, you should give back to people. And I’m giving back ... because my country enabled me to do this. If you grew up anyplace else and your last name is Rubenstein and you came from a very modest background, you probably wouldn’t have had the chance to rise up. Here, I’ve had the chance to rise up and get to be wealthier than I ever dreamed possible.”
Not much of this is random, even if Rubenstein himself admits he sometimes stumbles through the process. After two decades of building Carlyle, he expanded his focus at age 54 to what he would do with the fortune he accumulated after reading that men his age typically have a life span of 81. He did the math and decided to get started.
The turning point was the Magna Carta, which Rubenstein purchased during a blind bidding process at Sotheby’s in New York City.
He sat in a closed room, where he bid on one of several original copies of the famed document, which England’s feudal lords forced onto the king in order to establish their rights and limit the sovereign’s powers.
After the sting of writing the $23 million check, he felt pretty good about himself and set out to give more.
Philanthropy can take many shapes. Rubenstein’s colleague, Bill Conway, the investment brain of Carlyle, is also giving away much of his fortune. But he has taken a different approach, targeting the homeless and hungry, and asking for public suggestions on what he can do.
The much wealthier Gates, meanwhile, wants to rid the world of malaria, fix education and deliver proper sanitation to billions.
Rubenstein keeps his own counsel. He studies. He has read biographies of Andrew Carnegie (“who invented modern philanthropy”) and John D. Rockefeller (“he took it to the nth degree”) for ideas.
“I don’t have enough money to solve the poverty of Washington, D.C.,” he said. “I’m never going to get that kind of money. I don’t have the money of Bill Gates. I don’t have the money of Mike Bloomberg. And I don’t have the money of Warren Buffett. I have a constrained amount of money compared to them.”