“. . . And so, my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country. . .”
Eleven-year-old David Rubenstein was permanently inspired. The next day, his sixth-grade teacher drove home the message by presenting the speech as a class lesson. Ever after, Kennedy’s inaugural address would play a decisive role in his life, sometimes overtly, sometimes implicitly.
Rubenstein began forming an ambition to be a lawyer and serve in the government. While at Baltimore City College high school, he joined the Lancers Club, a fabled citywide institution mentored by Baltimore judge Robert Hammerman, who died in 2004. The club convened Friday evenings for sports and guest speeches by politicians and public figures.
“I just remember him questioning some of the political leaders and having great insights into their work,” recalls Schmoke, now dean of the Howard University Law School.
Rubenstein chose Duke from among several colleges that accepted him, because Duke offered the biggest scholarship. Four years later, he picked the University of Chicago Law School for the same reason.
He landed a job in 1973 at the New York law firm that also employed former John F. Kennedy speechwriter Ted Sorensen — so he could be near the man credited with helping to draft Kennedy’s inaugural address.
“I didn’t think I had the money to be a candidate, the charm, the looks, the personality,” Rubenstein says. “I could be the adviser. And so my role model was Ted Sorensen, who had written the great speech.”
In 1975, Rubenstein became chief counsel to the Senate Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Constitutional Amendments. Visiting her son on Capitol Hill one day, Bettie Rubenstein marveled at his progress. She could tell that skipping dentistry was working out.
She recalls saying to him, “ ‘I never dreamed you would be working at the Senate.’ He looked over at the White House and said, ‘Next time, I’ll be working in the White House.’ ”
Eizenstat drafted Rubenstein to work on Carter’s presidential campaign. When Carter won, Rubenstein became deputy domestic policy adviser. Newsweek published a profile of “one of Carter’s most effective aides,” the “White House Workaholic.”
“He never put himself forward,” Carter says in an interview. “He was always very reticent about taking the initiative to speak up, but when I would ask him a question, he would invariably know the answer.”
Eizenstat adds: “David certainly didn’t have charisma. There was almost a negative charisma. But what he had was a sort of intensity of intellect and dedication and devotion to public service. . . . That endeared you to him. That was its own magnetism.”
Carter’s defeat after one term and the career wilderness that staff members plunged into were jarring to Rubenstein. He was going to have to find a different way to answer Kennedy’s challenge.