“Remind People of Our History.” Checking in with “Patriotic Philanthropist” David Rubenstein

David Rubenstein. Photo credit: Robert severi

Carlyle Group cofounder and Co-Chairman David Rubenstein has the distinction of being one of the few major donors who has picked up a nickname: the patriotic philanthropist. For close to 20 years, he has funded the restoration of some of America’s most iconic monuments and the preservation of historically important documents. In the process, he’s carved out a unique niche in the rarefied strata of billionaire mega-givers. 

“I would say I stumbled into it,” he told me. “I bought copies of the Magna Carta in 2007, and then that led me to buy other historic documents like the Declaration of Independence and the Emancipation Proclamation. And then, by chance, I put up some money to restore the Washington Monument, and then I started restoring other buildings, like the Lincoln Memorial, Jefferson Memorial, Mount Vernon and Monticello.”

But Rubenstein’s civic-minded giving is just one part of a much broader portfolio. He has provided extensive support to universities where he has served on the board, like Johns Hopkins University, and his alma maters, Duke University, which had provided him with a scholarship, and the University of Chicago, where he’s currently the chair. Medical research is another big priority area. Rubenstein has made big donations for a pancreatic cancer center at Memorial Sloan Kettering, a center on hearing research at Johns Hopkins, and Target ALS, an initiative to streamline discovery of new approaches to treating amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.

Rubenstein has been the chairman of the board at the Kennedy Center for the last 13 years, is currently the chairman of the National Gallery of Art, and has served on the boards of the Lincoln Center and the Smithsonian. Previous recipients in the arts and culture space include the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and the National Museum of African American History and Culture. The National Zoo named its giant panda habitat after the Rubenstein family in honor of his consistent support. He also made a six-year, $20 million gift to the Brookings Institution to establish a fellowship program and provide support for its Foreign Policy program.

In 1987, Rubenstein, William Conway and Dan D’Aniello cofounded the Carlyle Group, a global private equity firm that currently manages $369 billion from 29 offices around the world. The firm is one of the largest in the world and developed a reputation as a powerful, sometimes controversial, Washington dealmaker with extensive political connections and investments in defense firms. In 2021, Forbes reported that the 73-year-old Rubenstein, who was one of the 40 original signatories of the Giving Pledge, had donated an estimated $700 million to charitable causes over his lifetime. Last year, he was only one of 16 donors in the Forbes 400 list who received a score of 4, meaning he has given away 10 to 19.99% of his wealth. With a net worth of approximately $3.2 billion, Rubenstein, according to NPR, doesn’t do his giving through a foundation or an LLC — “just a checkbook.”

I chatted with Rubenstein as he was preparing for the April 26 PBS premiere of “Iconic America,” a program which he hosts and executive produces. The eight-part series explores American history by examining iconic national symbols like the Hollywood Sign, the American cowboy and the Golden Gate Bridge.

Rubenstein, who attributes his interest in history and civics to his childhood in blue collar Baltimore and his time in the White House, where he was a deputy domestic policy advisor to President Jimmy Carter, said the series complements his philanthropy. “I like to educate Americans about our history,” he said, “and the theory that if you learn more about history, you’re more likely to not repeat the mistakes of the past, and you’re more likely to improve upon the good things that happened in the past.”

Rubenstein’s philanthropy, TV work and his other educational offerings — including his dinners at the Library of Congress, where he interviews American historians with members of Congress in attendance — comes as some funders are ramping up efforts to build social cohesion and heal the body politic during a time of deep polarization. I asked him if his efforts, which seek to strengthen the democratic health of the country, fell along this continuum.

“No one person, even the president of the United States, is going to unite all Americans on every subject, of course,” he said. “And so I’m just trying to do my little piece as a private citizen by providing some education about things that might unite people in terms of explaining the history of these iconic symbols and let them feel that they can learn more by reading more about it. It’s like an appetizer — I’m trying to whet peoples’ appetite to learn more about American history, and hopefully, they will do so.”

Rubenstein’s patriotic gifts typically flow through the National Park Service’s National Park Foundation. Previous support through the service helped to restore the Arlington House, the U.S. Marine Corp War Memorial, the Thomas Jefferson Memorial and the Belmont-Paul Women’s Equality National Monument. The NPS has also used his funding to bolster educational resources, foster public access and create new exhibit space. In 2020, National Public Radio published a map of D.C.-area sites that have received gifts of at least $1 million, laying out the full extent of efforts to shape “the cultural landscape of the nation’s capital perhaps more than any other private citizen in the past century.”

Given the sad state of our national discourse and a budget deficit that’s $1.4 trillion and change, I suspect few readers will find fault with Rubenstein bankrolling the restoration of treasured national landmarks. In fact, private citizens play a crucial role in drumming up support for capital costs. “Charitable dollars accounted for 90% of the budget for the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, for example,” reported NPR’s Mikaela Lefrak. “After construction, the Park Service stepped in to maintain it with federal funds.”

Nonetheless, Rubenstein’s prodigious support can raise concerns that more private dollars for activities that traditionally fall within Uncle Sam’s purview will incentivize our friends in Washington to step back even further. “It’s a challenge for sure,” Rubenstein said. “Because if I put up X dollars to fix the Lincoln Memorial, the government will say, ‘Well, we don’t need to put up any money because a private citizen has done it.’ So you’ll always run into the danger when you’re dealing with things that people think are government-oriented, whether the government will then put up money, as well.”

Rather than acting as a proxy government agency, Rubenstein said he hopes his efforts to restore landmarks and buildings will “incentivize others to do something, but also to kind of show the federal government that there are private citizens who can help, but they have to provide some support, as well.”

Sixteen years after purchasing copies of the Magna Carta, Rubenstein’s civic-oriented approach to giving has taken on a life of its own. “I can’t say it was planned well in advance with a lot of forethought, but I did come up with the idea that doing things to remind people of the history and heritage of our country might be called ‘patriotic philanthropy,’” he said. “That’s what I try to do — to remind people of our history and our heritage, and hopefully, they’ll become more informed.”