Why This Billionaire Is Spending A Fortune On Washington's Monuments David Rubenstein wants to preserve symbols of American democracy — even as the country splinters along partisan lines.
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Why This Billionaire Is Spending A Fortune On Washington's Monuments

Why This Billionaire Is Spending A Fortune On Washington's Monuments

Deciding to give away money is easy. Figuring out how to do it can be much more complicated. Tyrone Turner/WAMU hide caption

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Tyrone Turner/WAMU

David Rubenstein and I stood at the top of the Washington Monument on an overcast fall day and peered down at the National Mall. The 70-year-old billionaire was dressed in the uniform of a pre-Zuckerberg CEO: Dark suit, Hermès tie, glasses with tortoiseshell frames, substantial watch.

Anyone can ride the elevator up 500 feet to see this view. But only Rubenstein can claim financial influence over so many of the museums and monuments that stretched out below us. I asked him to point out the ones that have benefited from his largesse.

He started listing off nearly every landmark in our sightline, from the National Gallery of Art to the Hirshhorn Museum to the National Archives.

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And those were just the ones we could see. The National Zoo's panda habitat bears his name. The Kennedy Center's president, Deborah Rutter, jokes that the name of the performing arts center's new campus, The REACH, really stands for the "Rubenstein Educational And Cultural Hub" (Rubenstein donated $50 million for it).

Smithsonian Secretary Lonnie Bunch told me he "wouldn't even think about" leading the institution if not for the chance to work with Rubenstein, who chaired the Smithsonian Board of Regents for years and now serves as a member. And in Virginia, Montpelier, Mount Vernon, and Monticello have all received massive sums from him.

Even the Washington Monument is a Rubenstein project. He donated $7.5 million to help the National Park Service repair the monument after it was damaged by an earthquake in 2010. And that state-of-the-art elevator we rode to the top? He paid for that, too, in the form of a $3 million donation in 2016 to renovate the perennially troublesome system.

Mapping David Rubenstein's "patriotic philanthropy." Illustration for WAMU/Matthew Twombly hide caption

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Illustration for WAMU/Matthew Twombly

All told, Rubenstein has shaped the cultural landscape of the nation's capital perhaps more than any other private citizen in the past century. The Bethesda resident has done it while generally avoiding negative press, putting him in stark contrast with other Washington billionaires – your Jeff Bezoses, your Donald Trumps.

"You know, I get a lot of pleasure out of doing these things," Rubenstein told me at the top of the Washington Monument. "And if I didn't do them and I died with more money, would I be a happier person? I don't think so."

He calls this type of giving "patriotic philanthropy."

But in this age of bitter partisanship and vast income inequality, what drives someone to stay out of politics and instead give their money to monuments, museums and historic sites? It's not even clear that these public institutions are as universally valued today as they once were. And many a presidential candidate would argue that the very concept of being a billionaire is morally suspect.

So what motivates David Rubenstein to follow this path?

Deciding to give away money is easy. Figuring out how to do it can be much more complex.

First, you need a strategy. Take Andrew Carnegie: The 19th century tycoon spent the last two decades of his life as a full-time philanthropist, building more than 3,000 public libraries across the country and setting up education and cultural institutions. Many of them still thrive today, from the Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh (now Carnegie Mellon University) to Carnegie Hall in New York City.

Other billionaires set up private foundations and hire other people to give their money away for them. The Ford Foundation was built on the wealth of the founders of Ford Motor Company in 1936. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is the largest private foundation in the world, with more than $50 billion in assets.

There's also a more business-minded approach. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan created a limited liability company that allows them to both make grants and venture investments.

As for David Rubenstein, there's no foundation, no LLC. Just a check book and a passion for American history.

Rubenstein bounded up the steps of the Jefferson Memorial last winter after announcing a $10 million donation to renovate its underground museum. Tyrone Turner/WAMU hide caption

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Tyrone Turner/WAMU

Rubenstein earned his money from co-founding the Carlyle Group in 1987, a global private equity company that he still leads today. He has a net worth of approximately $3.5 billion, enough to keep him comfortably situated in the one percent of the one percent for the rest of his life. But he's giving a lot of it away: He's one of the original 40 signers of Warren Buffett's Giving Pledge, a public promise made by some of the country's wealthiest people to donate at least 50% of their wealth to charity rather than, say, pass it all down to their kids.

This idea of inheritance is something he and his fellow Giving Pledge members discuss together often, he told me. "The kids of wealthy people very often don't have the ambition or the drive to do things that are significant," he said. "I try to be supportive of what [my children] want to do, but they shouldn't say, 'I don't have to do anything because my father's going to give me money.'"

Rubenstein hasn't set up trust funds for his three children, though of course they've already greatly benefited from his success. He's paid for their schooling, including an MBA for each, and gives them each a "modest sum" (his words) to put toward their own philanthropy. It's the "teach a man to fish" philosophy, except your fishing rod is really, really fancy, and at the end of the day you give your catch away.

For his part, the vast majority of his charitable contributions go toward education and medical research – hospital buildings in New York and Baltimore are named after him, as are a slew of buildings and scholarship programs at his alma maters, Duke University and the University of Chicago Law School.

But what he's best known for is his patriotic philanthropy.

Rubenstein invited me on a quick trip over to the Jefferson Memorial after one of our interviews at Carlyle's downtown offices a few months back. He wanted me be there when he announced a $10 million donation to renovate the memorial's underground museum. ("A relatively modest gift," he called it – a phrase he uses a lot.)

"If you have money, what are you going to do with it?" he mused afterwards. "You can be buried with it, that's not so good. You can give it to your children, that's not going to be so great for them. You can give it away while you're alive, that's probably the best thing. To a good cause, if you can find one."

And he's still actively on the hunt for causes: Rubenstein's total charitable giving adds up to just 18% of his net worth so far, according to his entry on Forbes's list of the richest people in the country. If he's really going to live up to that giving pledge, he has a lot more checks to write.

If "patriotic philanthropy" was a club, Rubenstein would be its president and one of its only members. His gifts in this category are so sensational in size that I never really figured out the right way to respond when he told me about them. At one point in our time together, he described how he bought an original copy of the Magna Carta for $21.3 million and permanently loaned it to the National Archives.

"Cool!" I replied. I mean, what would you say?

Rubenstein said he's tried getting other billionaires to donate to National Mall landmarks, but he hasn't had much luck.

"He's in a very small group of people," said Will Shafroth, the president and CEO of the National Park Foundation, the charitable arm of the Park Service. Shafroth said he could count on one hand the number of donors who give to any of the country's national parks and memorials at a similar level.

Many of his peers prefer to spend their money on more pressing issues – climate change research, say, or AIDS prevention. Others assume, as I did, that the federal government pays for everything needed to maintain the free monuments and museums that line the Mall.

"I'm pleased and honored to be able to help out in this relatively modest way," Rubenstein said, after signing away $10 million to the Jefferson Memorial. Tyrone Turner/WAMU hide caption

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Tyrone Turner/WAMU

But that's far from the case. Congress typically authorizes new memorials, but private citizens raise the money for their construction. Charitable dollars accounted for 90% of the budget for the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, for example. After construction, the Park Service stepped in to maintain it with federal funds.

The Washington Monument itself was built with a mix of private dollars and federal funds. A charity organization started building the obelisk in 1848, but the group ran out of money after five years when the monument was only a third of the way finished. A war and two decades later, the federal government stepped in and directed the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to turn the giant stone stump into a proper monument.

But these days, the federal government is the one asking for help. The Park Service's maintenance backlog currently hovers around $12 billion. A number of nonprofits like the National Parks Foundation and the Trust for the National Mall have had to step in to raise money for important upkeep around the Mall.

"People don't realize that," said Trust president Katherine Townsend. "They think the government has paid for everything." In Will Shafroth's words, funding the parks is "sort of a team sport. The federal government's never going to do the whole thing."

Without Rubenstein, Shafroth said, the Washington Monument would almost certainly still be closed.

Rubenstein surely knows the Washington Monument's backstory well. The man is a fiend for American history.

Consider that car ride to the Jefferson Memorial. Over the course of 15 minutes, he treated me to an exhaustive history of the memorial's construction, highlights from Jefferson's political career, and a word-for-word recitation of a section of the Declaration of Independence (he owns a few original copies). It felt like being trapped inside a Ken Burns special.

And while his $10 million gift was certainly headline-grabbing gift, the bookish, teetotaling Rubenstein isn't what you'd call a splashy guy.

His entire life, as he tells it, has been shaped by the hard work of public servants and the access he's had to the American Dream. Investing in the country's monuments is his way to repay that gift – or that's the narrative, at least.

Rubenstein grew up in a working-class Baltimore neighborhood where most of the residents – including him and his parents – were Jewish. His father deployed with the Marines during World War II and then returned to Baltimore to a decades-long career as a postal worker. His mother was a homemaker who gave small amounts of money to hundreds of charities over her lifetime. (Her son only found out about her philanthropy after her death.)

Rubenstein did well in school and earned scholarships to Duke University and the University of Chicago Law School. After a brief stint on Wall Street, he moved to Washington and eventually landed a job in the Carter Administration as a deputy domestic policy advisor.

By the late 1980s, he wanted a new challenge outside of Capitol Hill or Wall Street, so he and two partners, Dan D'Aniello and Bill Conway, Jr., founded the Washington region's first private equity firm, The Carlyle Group. The men raised money from investors and used it to purchase companies — many of which held valuable government defense contracts. Carlyle soon became a global investment giant due to its founders' ability to raise capital and make companies more efficient.

The firm didn't escape criticism: Filmmaker Michael Moore called out Carlyle in his 2004 documentary "Fahrenheit 9/11" for its involvement with military contractors in Iraq. Then in 2008, an affiliate, Carlyle Capital, defaulted on about $16.6 billion in debt from investments in mortgage-backed securities.

But Rubenstein himself largely avoided any targeted negative press.

He also found himself to be well-suited to the demands of the industry, including the grueling work schedule. He routinely travelled up to 250 days a year, leaving his wife and three children at home in Bethesda."Jet lag," he told me, "is something I don't have a problem with."

Rubenstein signs copies of his book, "American Story," at Politics & Prose in Northwest D.C. Tyrone Turner/WAMU hide caption

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Tyrone Turner/WAMU

Chris Ullman, Carlyle's director of global communications, said Rubenstein reminds him of an Olympic swimmer, but built for private equity. "It's like Michael Phelps, whose body is perfectly suited for swimming. [Rubenstein's] whole body is geared towards high energy output."

He hasn't slowed down, even after entering his 70s. When he's not at the office he prepares for meetings of the dozen or so boards of trustees he sits on, writes history books and interviews prominent businesspeople on his eponymous Bloomberg TV show and at the Economic Club of Washington, D.C., of which he is the president. In October he published a book of interviews with leading American history writers called "The American Story: Conversations With Master Historians."

"I have never seen a person with more natural curiosity," D'Aniello, his Carlyle co-founder, told me."He can read four, five books a week and still have a normal business career."

(That constant curiosity is immediately apparent when you meet him. During the first hour we spent together, Rubenstein asked me about both my parents' birthplaces and education, the full arc of my academic and journalistic career, how many siblings I had, and why I had decided to get a tattoo, which he'd spotted on my ankle. "How do you get rid of those?" he asked.)

It might help that he doesn't drink or gamble and has an empty nest. He and his wife divorced a few years back, and his children are grown. He also doesn't read fiction – he said he can learn more from "books that are true." And he often leaves early from performances he attends at the Kennedy Center, where he's the chairman.

"To be quite honest with you, when you're in a 24/7-type organization, there is no such thing as a fun time," D'Aniello said. "Of course you spend time with family and all that kind of stuff, but with David and Bill and I, we rarely socialize for just socialization's sake."

These days, meeting an avowed nonpartisan like Rubenstein is like running into a unicorn at a bar. But Rubenstein is insistent on his political impartiality: He's a registered independent, and he doesn't give to any political campaigns. He said candidates have finally stopped asking him for money.

His relationship with D'Aniello is telling of his worldview. Both men shy away from making major political donations, though D'Aniello contributes to the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute and Rubenstein to the left-leaning Brookings Institution. D'Aniello said all three of them – Dan, Bill and David, or DBD as they're known inside Carlyle – feel "agnostic" about taking sides politically.

"We work both sides of the aisle," D'Aniello said. It's business before politics, always.

Rubenstein chatted with two acquaintances outside Politics & Prose in Northwest D.C. Tyrone Turner/WAMU hide caption

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Tyrone Turner/WAMU

Even outside the world of Carlyle, Rubenstein's nonpartisanship is rooted in practicality: His work on the board of the Smithsonian or at the Library of Congress goes more smoothly if he's viewed by politicians as completely unbiased. Deborah Rutter, the Kennedy Center president, called him "the consummate pragmatist."

"He's a nontraditional person," she said, "but he could not be more humanly connected and caring about other people. He just does it in his David Rubenstein way."

The strategy appears to be working, even amidst today's seemingly unbridgeable political and social divisions. He's on friendly terms with every living president and hosts regular events for members of Congress where he conducts interviews on stage and encourages members to talk to one another. "Members show up because they don't see me as a partisan Democrat or partisan Republican," he said. "You can say that's a good or bad thing, but that's what I've done."

For many of the city's cultural leaders, Rubenstein's nonpartisan views and the access they afford him in the Trump era are a godsend. A few months ago, for example, Rubenstein went to the White House in part to gauge Trump's interest in attending this year's Kennedy Center Honors. (Trump chose not to go.)

Smithsonian Secretary Lonnie Bunch said he often asks Rubenstein for advice, particularly around funding asks. "When I think about political issues, I'll also raise it with David to get his guidance – not to ask him to call a president, but to give me a sense of how I might move forward," he explains.

But should a billionaire's insistence on nonpartisanship really be lauded, or even believed? "If you believe in capitalism and democracy, as opposed to oligarchy, you shouldn't believe in billionaires," Arwa Mahdawi wrote in The Guardian a few months back. "After all, those billions don't just buy you superyachts, they buy you politicians and policies."

The idea of whether it's moral for Americans to accumulate so much wealth is at the center of the current presidential race. Three billionaires are currently running for President – Michael Bloomberg, Tom Steyer and Donald Trump. Meanwhile, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Ma) has proposed expanding a "wealth tax" on the nation's richest people, and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt) says there should be no billionaires in the country at all.

Then there's Rubenstein's relationship with the current president. While Rubenstein insists he doesn't know Trump very well, he also has stories about being personally greeted by Trump while staying at his Mar-A-Lago resort and meeting with him in the White House. In 2014 he conducted a genial interview with Trump at the Economic Club of Washington D.C., before Trump announced he was running for president.

"You don't need to have your name on something. It's okay," Rubenstein said. "The thanks of a country and your fellow citizens is probably enough." Tyrone Turner/WAMU hide caption

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Tyrone Turner/WAMU

When I brought up all these dichotomies, Rubenstein responded with a quote from the French writer Honoré de Balzac: "Behind every great fortune there is a crime." He quickly clarified: He hasn't committed any crimes, but he understands why people distrust him.

"My view is, I got lucky in life and now I'm trying to give back to society," he told me. "You can't please everybody"

But he hopes he can please a lot of them. By studying America's shared history and preserving its grandest cultural institutions, he believes we have a good shot at bringing the country together.

As I wrapped up my reporting on this story, I spent an afternoon reading the transcript of Rubenstein's Economic Club interview with Trump. They discussed business, family wealth and Trump's looming candidacy. Rubenstein comes off as concise and self-effacing, Trump as the opposite.

At the end of the interview, Rubenstein did something that now stands out to me as rather extraordinary. He presented the future President with a replica of a 1793 map of the city of Washington, the very place Trump would one day call a swamp. A relatively modest gift, but one that clearly held great meaning for Rubenstein.

"Wow, beautiful," Trump said. "Thank you."

I can't begin to guess whether the president values a gift like that — or for that matter, whether the majority of Americans value Rubenstein's myriad other patriotic gifts. Maybe only a small sector of Americans actually care at all.

David Rubenstein does. Artifacts and artwork, monuments and museums: They're all reminders of an origin story he shares with the county he loves. In a wealthy nation with humble beginnings, a man with humble beginnings achieved great wealth.

Who wouldn't want to be reminded of that?

Map illustration for WAMU by Matthew Twombly.

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