By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 4, 2010; C01
As a youngster in Baltimore, David M. Rubenstein says he was inspired by John F. Kennedy, so much so that he planned a public service career. The young lawyer got a job in 1977 at the White House under President Jimmy Carter, a stint that gained him an invitation to the first presidential reception for Kennedy Center Honors recipients.
At that gathering in 1978, Rubenstein remembers meeting Marian Anderson, Artur Rubinstein, Fred Astaire, George Balanchine and Richard Rodgers. And that's when the relationship between David Rubenstein and the Kennedy Center began, a relationship that culminated Wednesday when the center's board unanimously elected the 60-year-old as its next chairman, beginning in May.
"I am involved in a lot of nonprofits. And when I reached the ripe old age of 60, I wanted to provide leadership to some I had been involved in. This was an opportunity. You have to be involved if you are going to have an impact and be transformative," Rubenstein said in an interview before Wednesday afternoon's announcement. "Also, this is a way to pay back to Washington, which has been very good to me."
Rubenstein, who was No. 123 on last year's Forbes list of the 400 richest Americans, is co-founder and managing director of the Carlyle Group, one of the world's leading private equity firms. He has an impressive track record of generosity in Washington and elsewhere.
In six years on the Kennedy Center board, he has given the center $3.5 million. Rubenstein and his wife, Alice Rogoff Rubenstein, are also the principal underwriters for the Very Special Arts international festival, which in June will bring about 2,000 artists and educators to Washington, both with and without disabilities, to perform and participate in seminars.
The Rubensteins also sponsored the six-month Shakespeare in Washington festival in 2007 and the Kennedy Center's production of the drama "Mister Roberts" in 2005.
Rubenstein's gifts to scholars and visitors alike have created news. In 2007, he bought a 710-year-old copy of the Magna Carta for $21.3 million and donated it to the National Archives. He bought a signed copy of the Emancipation Proclamation in 2008 for an undisclosed sum, lending it to the National Museum of American History and then the White House. Of his interest, he said simply, "I think American history is important."
In other arts-related arenas, Rubenstein, vice chairman of the board of the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in New York and chairman of its fundraising drive, gave $10 million to the center's redevelopment project in October. The center named its new atrium -- with a cafe, ticket booth and seating areas -- for the benefactor.
The Lincoln Center campaign goal kept ballooning. "It started at $300 million, then we raised $625 million, and now we want to raise $800 million," he said.
Rubenstein joined the Kennedy and Lincoln boards about the same time. "I couldn't say no to the performing arts, and so then I went on the Ford's Theatre board. I found I enjoyed it," Rubenstein said. He was appointed to the Kennedy Center board by President George W. Bush in 2004. He is also a regent at the Smithsonian Institution.'Prodigious' energy
Rubenstein has been the leading candidate for months to succeed Stephen A. Schwarzman at the Kennedy Center. "David knows a lot about the Kennedy Center, and I've gotten to know him in the last six years," said Schwarzman, co-founder of the private equity firm Blackstone Group. "He is knowledgeable, well-liked, respected. People respect his commitment and energy. His energy is prodigious."
Given that the center is financially sound these days and that its three major theaters were renovated during the past decade, Schwarzman says, a Rubenstein term will probably be more "evolutionary than revolutionary."
"David has built the most successful business in town, a unique Washington success story. It is great to see him running this crucial regional institution," said Donald E. Graham, chief executive and chairman of the board of The Washington Post Co., who has known Rubenstein for many years.
Yet, the center is a complicated operation, functioning as a presidential memorial, a performing arts center and an arts organization whose mission includes training programs and education outreach. The main responsibilities of the chairman are to provide leadership in fundraising, run the 59-member main board, work with Congress and other constituents and motivate and guide the staff.
Rubenstein already has a fan in Michael M. Kaiser, the center's president and day-to-day leader. "He is really smart and a strategist," Kaiser said. "He knows the numbers. He understands the major programs."
The center, which opened in 1971, provides a daily smorgasbord of art, including free performances on the Millennium Stage, world-renowned instrumentalists and vocalists, and theater that it produces or imports from Broadway, Europe, Russia and elsewhere. It is also the parent organization for the National Symphony Orchestra.
The center receives money from Congress for the building's maintenance and repairs. Congress appropriated $39.9 million for fiscal 2010. For its other operations and performing arts schedule, the center has to raise $74 million for this year's programs, an increase from about $40 million a decade ago.
"The Kennedy Center is doing well, but the world is not doing well," Schwarzman said. "We had a slight decrease in donations, which would be normal. We are about the only performing arts center that is cash-flow positive. We have been running a surplus, only it's a little less than before."
Rubenstein said he wanted to be more involved in part because of the current leadership. "I thought Michael Kaiser is an extraordinary, talented impresario. I enjoyed working with him, because he's intellectually challenging and fun," he said. Kaiser became president of the center in January 2001 and has expanded its reputation internationally, creating programs to help struggling arts groups and educating arts managers. His contract with the center ends next year.
Rubenstein's primary work will remain with Carlyle. That focus, he said, gives him a sustained energy that spills over to his other board involvements. "My work life is intense. But I love what I do," he said.
Nearly $90 billion in assets is committed to Carlyle. During the financial upheaval of the past couple of years, Rubenstein said, it "had some hiccups, but we are actually in pretty good shape."
The firm, with its investors and vast connections in the political world, has also been the object of scrutiny. After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, it returned a $2 million investment from a branch of Osama bin Laden's family. Rubenstein pledged to make Carlyle's work more transparent.Seeing unity through art
Rubenstein grew up in the Pikesville area near Baltimore in what he describes as a rigidly segregated Jewish community. The only child of a postal worker and homemaker, he lived in cultural isolation until attending public high school. He attended Duke University on scholarship and graduated magna cum laude.
Rubenstein received a law degree from the University of Chicago law school, where he was an editor of the Law Review. He practiced law with Kennedy speechwriter Theodore Sorensen's firm in New York and moved to Washington in 1975. He worked on a Senate committee, then joined the White House from 1977 to 1981, building a reputation as a tireless policy wonk before co-founding Carlyle in 1987.
He has been married for nearly 27 years, lives in Bethesda and has three children, ages 18 to 25. White-haired and fit, he doesn't drink or smoke.
Even with an organization that has a long track record, some areas can be revitalized, Rubenstein said. "What I am interested in doing is making certain the Kennedy Center exposes young people to the great performing arts. I also want to encourage people from disadvantaged areas to come and make sure people from all over participate."
At the very least, Rubenstein says, the performing arts provide a change of pace.
"The world is a complicated place, and there's a lot of division between people," he says. "The performing arts tend to unify people in a way nothing else does. It makes people happy, thrilled, and as I began to travel around the world, I found the common things people like, such as ballet. For me, few things are more compelling than watching a great opera."