The Washington Monument reopened this week for the first time since it was damaged in a 2011 earthquake. A ribbon-cutting ceremony Monday featured military bands, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, Washington’s mayor and TV weatherman Al Roker. But the man of the hour was David Rubenstein, who single-handedly paid half of the $15 million repair bill.
“Seven and a half million dollars, which is incredible. Thank you David,” Jewell said, one voice in a chorus a gratitude for Rubenstein that morning.
If you’ve heard anything about Alice Rogoff, the woman who recently bought the Anchorage Daily News, you’ll likely know that she’s married Rubenstein, the billionaire who co-founded the Carlyle Group, a Washington, D.C.-based private equity firm, and is No. 209 on the Forbes list of wealthiest Americans.
With his white hair and serious glasses, he looks a bit like the actor Steve Martin if he were playing someone wonky. Rubenstein says he may be the only person to have climbed up the Washington Monument in a suit and tie. His public speeches are often laced with witty, self-effacing asides. But when it was his turn at the microphone Monday, Rubenstein spoke only briefly.
“Many Americans have had good fortune,” he said, his words undercut by the siren of a passing emergency vehicle. “I have had good fortune. And I really wanted to give back to the country and this is just a down payment on my obligation to pay back the country for what it has done for me and my family.”
He’s done a lot of what he calls “patriotic philanthropy” lately, and it’s giving him a reputation makeover. After 9/11, Rubenstein became known as the mastermind of Carlyle Group. Conspiracy theories swirled around his private equity firm, mostly because it invested money from wealthy Saudis, and also because it hired ex-prime ministers and Pentagon bigshots who opened doors, making the firm rich. A more recent rumor, all over certain YouTube channels, has it that Carlyle Group is behind the disappearance of that Malaysian jet.
“Are we to believe the NSA’s private surveillance army run by the Carlyle Group has no information on Flight 370?” the narrator of one video says, with spooky music playing in the background.
The allegation has been discredited by the conspiracy-debunkers at Snopes.com. But if you’re inclined to believe in such things, a lack of evidence only proves it further.
Meanwhile, though, Carlyle Group has changed its style. Rubenstein says he failed to forecast how his firm would be perceived in a post-9/11 world. The ex-presidents and cabinet secretaries retired and weren’t replaced. Rubenstein told Forbes magazine he’s “depoliticized” the firm.
Now, Rubenstein is making headlines with big, patriotic donations: $10 million to restore George Washington’s estate at Mt. Vernon, and the same for Thomas Jefferson’s place at Monticello, plus $75 million for the Kennedy Center. He’s also purchased copies of the founding documents of the United States. He said at a conference recently it all started for him when he heard the Magna Carta, the 13th-century ancestor of the Bill of Rights, was on the auction block at Sotheby’s.
“The things that enable me to rise up from modest circumstances are kind of the freedoms so I really want to do something about it and I decided I was going to go buy the Magna Carta.”
Yes, he says he knows that sounds presumptuous. But he did buy it, for $21 million, and it’s on display now in the David M. Rubenstein Gallery of the National Archives. Pretty good for the son of a postal worker and a homemaker who grew up in Baltimore. He told the New York Times when he’s considering how to give his money away, he aims for things to make his mom proud.
Rubenstein went to law school on a scholarship — and later paid the school back with scholarships for 60 law students. He has signed a pledge to give away at least half of his wealth. He encourages other philanthropists to give to the nation, as well as to foundations and hospitals, “because our country doesn’t have the resources it once had. It just doesn’t.” He also tells them to give it away while they’re still alive. You’ll feel better about yourself, he promises, and thus live longer.
He said at a luncheon in Georgetown a few years ago that he never fell in love with Alaska the way his wife did. He says he’s more prone to air conditioning than to fresh air.
“I’m not big on the outdoors … not so much,” he told Washington society interviewer Carol Joynt. “But I got out of the car to come in here! I was outside for maybe 10 seconds.”
But he does, perhaps, owe his fortune to Alaska, and to the late Sen. Ted Stevens. In the 1980s, when Rubenstein and his partners were scratching for their first few million, Stevens authored a bit of tax code allowing Alaska Native Corporations to “sell” their operating losses. Rubenstein brokered some of the deals, helping profitable companies buy those losses to owe less in taxes. He says his big innovation was an accounting method that found far more losses than the $50 million originally projected. He once said his firm sold some $8 billion dollars worth. It was a boon for the Native corporations, for the buyers of their paper losses and also for Rubenstein and his partners. Only the U.S. Treasury was the lesser for it.