David M. Rubenstein puts money where his passions are: arts, education, history

By Jacqueline Trescott
Sunday, May 2, 2010; E01

When Duke University was raising money to turn its public policy institute into a stand-alone school, they ran into some financial difficulties.

"It became very challenging," says Richard Brodhead, the president of Duke, recalling how the recession almost brought donations to a halt.

Who stepped up? David M. Rubenstein, Duke class of 1970, magna cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa, university trustee and member of the Forbes Top 400. "He said, 'What more do you need?' " Brodhead says. In October, Rubenstein gave $5.75 million and the school met its goal.

That's how Rubenstein operates, whether the need is an educational institution, a last-minute chase of a historical document or Washington students seeking scholarship help. He reaches back into his memory of who helped him as a strapped student, evaluates where he can make an impact and tries to fill the demand.

"I don't have the wealth to make transformation gifts, but around the margins I can help," says Rubenstein, a white-haired man with dark, bushy eyebrows who often speaks with understatement. The Washington financier and co-founder of the Carlyle Group, which has $90 billion in assets committed to its private equity business, ranks No. 123 on Forbes's list of richest Americans. "Around the margins," in his case, means a $2.5 billion personal account.

The business, academic, arts and medical worlds along the East Coast know Rubenstein well and, Monday, so will patrons and followers of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts; that's when he'll become the sixth chairman of the venerable arts organization.

"Performing arts tend to unify people. And that has certainly been true of the Kennedy Center. It is a rare, and helpful, unifying force in the city and region," says Rubenstein, who has been a board member since 2004. Sitting in an upscale restaurant in Washington on a recent Sunday, Rubenstein drinks tea, nursing some congestion that seems to have started right after he attended last month's NCAA men's basketball championship game in Indianapolis -- where Duke beat Butler. "I acted appropriately," he says, meaning that he's not of the screaming fan variety, he doesn't drink or smoke, and after the game, he flew back to Washington and went right to the office.

On a mission

He has been on a fired-up mission since he was about 54, six years ago, when he read that a person of his demographic group would likely live to be 81. He began to sort out his philanthropic directions.

"Since my firm was based in Washington and my wife and I raised our kids here, I felt that this was a city that had been very good to my family and me. It deserved a fair amount of what I could now give," Rubenstein says.

The list of his involvements began: the Smithsonian Institution, the National Archives, the Library of Congress, the National Symphony Orchestra.

He has given the Kennedy Center $3.5 million, and he is underwriting its Very Special Arts festival in June. At Lincoln Center, where as a vice chairman he contributed $10 million to its capital campaign, a popular atrium is named for him. At Harvard University, he donated more than $15 million for student financial aid. At Johns Hopkins, he gave $5 million and now the Child Health building bears his name.

The Harvard gift is another example of the largess Rubenstein shows toward struggling students. He wanted students to move between the public and private sectors -- without debt. The gift supports students enrolled in both the John F. Kennedy School of Government and Harvard Business School, and gives tuition and other aid for up to 20 students per year for five years. He's aiming for "new models of cross-sectoral leadership." As the president of the Economic Club of Washington, a forum for government and business leaders, he underwrites another scholarship program for local students.

'Historical literacy'

Over the last six years, Rubenstein has donated -- well, the tally isn't forthcoming from him. "More than I ever thought I would be able to afford and less than I would like," Rubenstein says.

Aside from his direct financial gifts, Rubenstein has a penchant for purchasing and then lending documents that say something unique about the United States' guiding principles. He bought a rare copy of the Declaration of Independence, now at the State Department, and a signed copy of the Emancipation Proclamation, now at the White House.

These purchases, says Brent Glass, the director of the National Museum of American History, where Rubenstein is a board member, underscore his desire for "historical literacy."

The day he bought the 713-year-old Magna Carta was a spur-of-the-moment experience that still amazes Rubenstein. He read about the auction and went to Sotheby's the same day. He was back the next morning. "I wanted to ensure it stayed in the U.S.," he says. After accepting the $21.3 million offer, the Sotheby's representative asked Rubenstein -- who is not a regular at auctions -- who he was.

And then the billionaire businessman made sure the rare document would remain at the Archives, to which its previous owner had loaned it.

"Every meeting he starts with, 'What do you need? What do you need? He loves the chase. And he loves to say, 'That's mine,' " says the Archivist, David Ferriero. "Bill Gates is a collector, also, but David is much more of a strategist."

Despite his many commitments -- he sits on about 30 boards -- Rubenstein can be as generous with his time as he is with his money, says Roger Sant, a Washington philanthropist and former chairman of the Smithsonian Board of Regents, who played a key role in persuading Rubenstein to join that board.

"We were looking for sleeves-rolled-up leadership," Sant says. "We wanted someone who could commit to 100 percent of the meetings and who could contribute to the strategy of the institution."

Such a lofty reputation would have been unimaginable to Rubenstein as a boy growing up in a blue-collar Baltimore neighborhood.

His father came back to Baltimore after World War II, went right to the post office and never detoured from that 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. routine. "I lived in a blue-collar Jewish community. No one had much money, or thought about it all that much. I never dreamed of making or giving away large sums of money. That was not our world," says Rubenstein, an only child.

Public service

After graduating from Duke and law school at the University of Chicago, Rubenstein vowed to live by the public service commands of President John F. Kennedy. He joined the New York law firm of Ted Sorensen, the famed speechwriter and adviser to Kennedy. It wasn't quite what Rubenstein expected.

"I realized fairly soon I was not going to be Edward Bennett Williams. So I decided to go into public service, through politics, sooner than I had planned," he says.

His first job was with then-Indiana Sen. Birch Bayh, a presidential candidate. Bayh dropped out in 1976 and Rubenstein moved onto Jimmy Carter's staff "I saw Carter's lead go from 33 points to a one-point victory," he says, adding that Carter jokingly asked him if that was his doing.

At age 27, Rubenstein joined the White House staff and the legend of the tireless worker was formed. He was famous for eating out of the vending machine, sleeping in the office, not taking a day off for four years.

"But I did meet my wife there, and so I guess I spent some time not working," he says, with a wink. He and his wife, Alice Rogoff Rubenstein, live in Bethesda; she has a Harvard MBA and is a businesswoman who co-founded the Alaska Native Arts Foundation.

Meeting at the famed Carlyle Hotel in New York in 1987, he and two friends hatched the idea of a private equity firm. Everyone said that was New York's business.

Edward J. Mathias, a managing director for the Carlyle Group and a friend of Rubenstein for three decades, says there has hardly been a ripple in Rubenstein's makeup. The policy wonk without a need for sleep is now the economic forecaster without a need for sleep. "He gives new meaning to the term 24/7. He is able, with laser focus and unparalleled energy, to get things done," Mathias says. "I have seen no change in him or his drive over the years."

Those who have watched him over the decades, like Vernon E. Jordan, say Rubenstein's success is based on personal gratification. "He enjoys being a leader, and if you have that capability, you should do it," says Jordan, a lawyer, businessman and former civil rights leader.

The profile Rubenstein brings to the Kennedy Center is enhanced by his phenomenal business success, his focus on philanthropy and the enduring interest in public service.

"He is a skillful strategist and brings organizational maturity to what is a complex organization. The center is healthy, strong, increasingly well-respected but also has to keep changing and evolving. David is used to thinking about what is the core strategy," says James A. Johnson, a former chairman of the Kennedy Center.

In preparation for the chairmanship, Rubenstein called every board member, soliciting their thoughts on the center's future. That's speed dial for 60 people. Now a fixture for 38 years, the center has a full slate of performances and a broad education reach. "We are a large organization for an arts organization and our numbers are not simple. Having someone who very easily grasps our numbers and appreciates what we do is very beneficial," says Michael Kaiser, the center's president.

But high on Rubenstein's agenda is lowering the age of patrons and improving the diversity of the audiences. "I love those who currently come to the Kennedy Center. But I hope we can add to the current audience by bringing in a somewhat younger and more diverse group of patrons, even if we have to subsidize doing so," he says.

"And I am happy to help do that."

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