His third act

By his own calculations, David Rubenstein, the Baltimore-born businessman and philanthropist, has just a couple of short decades left to make his mark on the planet.

"I'm 60 now," Rubenstein says." "I'm running out of time. The average white man my age can expect to live to age 81, and before I die, I'd like to make an impact on the world. I'd like to have been truly transformative in at least one area."

The sense of urgency is striking, if somewhat puzzling.

Rubenstein is the son of a postal carrier and homemaker who grew up in a blue-collar enclave in Northwest Baltimore. He has, by most yardsticks, achieved on a grand scale. Just three years out of law school, he was helping to crafting domestic policy for the nation. Ten years after that, he co-founded a company that in short order made him a billionaire.

Now — and with the trademark intensity that made him a success in other spheres — Rubenstein is turning his focus toward philanthropy.

In the past month alone, Rubenstein became chairman of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and donated $5 million to the National Book Festival.

Between 2007 and 2008, he purchased three rare historic documents — the jewel of which is the last remaining Magna Carta copy in private hands, which he bought for $21.3 million — and either gave or loaned them all to federal agencies.

Most people would be satisfied with what Rubenstein has accomplished in just one of his spheres, but he remains restless.

"I'm Jewish," he says. "I can never be completely happy."

It's hard to tell whether or not he's joking.

The obvious question about Rubenstein isn't why he hasn't done more but how he manages to fit it all in. A large stone outside Rubenstein's summer home in Nantucket displays these painted words: "I'd rather be working — David."

He sits on the boards of directors of about 30 nonprofit organizations, a staggering number for a man who is not only running a private equity firm with $90 billion in assets, but who also has a family life. (He has been married for 27 years and is the father of three grown children.)

But Michael Kaiser, the Kennedy Center president, says that Rubenstein is no mere figurehead. He is, in fact, amazingly ubiquitous.

"David never makes a commitment he's not going to keep," Kaiser says.

"He never misses a board meeting or a committee meeting, and he attends most performances. That would be sort of astonishing even if he weren't working with all those other organizations. If I send him an e-mail, and within five minutes, I'll get a response."

Add to this Rubenstein's reading habits — he consumes eight newspapers a day and six books a week — and it's tempting to speculate that he must have come up with a supernatural means of stretching time.

His associates attribute his productivity to his extraodinary focus and discipline. Conversations with Rubenstein seem to take less time than do conversations with other people. His mind moves so quickly that his discussion partner can skip the boring background explanations and cut to the chase.

Reynold Levy, president of the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, observes wryly:

"I've actually heard David say, 'Good morning,' but he's not a guy for idle chatter. Once you know David, you can have a three-minute conversation with him and reach a decision, whereas with someone else the same conversation might take 30 minutes."

(Rubenstein is vice chairman of the Lincoln Center board of directors, but he says he plans to surrender that post soon to avoid a potential conflict of interest.)

It's easy enough to document Rubenstein's ferocious work ethic, but much more difficult to pinpoint its source.

"From early on, I've been pretty driven," he says with characteristic understatement.

His determined pursuit of knowledge began when he was 6 years old and made weekly visits to the Enoch Pratt Free Library with his mother.

"At that time, you had to be in the first grade to get a library card," he says, "and then you were allowed to check out up to 12 books each week. I'd check out all 12, finish them up, go back and check out 12 more."

Rubenstein takes pains not to describe his childhood as disadvantaged, and instead points to adversity's potential for building character. But he concedes:

"I come from a modest background, and I knew that if I wanted to get anywhere in life, I'd have to do it on my own."

He selected his college (Duke University, Class of 1970) and law school (University of Chicago, Class of 1973) on the basis of which institutions offered the most generous scholarships.

Rubenstein always has enjoyed the company of very bright people, whom he finds energizing. He's drawn to society's movers and shakers because they achieve results. And at a very early age — 11, to be precise — he responded to then-President John F. Kennedy's inaugural call to citizens to dedicate themselves to the national good.

"I knew from that day on that I wanted to go into public service and work in the White House," he says.

So three years after graduating from law school, he signed on as legal counsel to Sen. Birch Bayh of Indiana, who was contemplating running for the Democratic presidential nomination. After Bayh dropped out of the race, Rubenstein joined the campaign to elect a Georgia peanut farmer named Jimmy Carter.

"When I came on board, Jimmy was 33 points ahead in the race," Rubenstein says. "By the election, he was ahead by just 1 point. So you can see how effective I was."

The young staffer quickly distinguished himself by a self-discipline that bordered on the monastic, sleeping in his office and subsisting on yogurt and crackers from vending machines.

Today, he exhibits a willingness to sacrifice personal pleasure for a larger goal. A vegetarian, Rubenstein doesn't drink alcohol or smoke.

He famously has no hobbies When he does indulge in a seemingly frivolous pursuit, such as attending a sporting event, his approach is characteristically information-based. According to Levy of the Lincoln Center, Rubenstein has memorized vast amounts of arcane baseball statistics.

Even the speed-reading can be seen as evidence of a tendency toward the ascetic. In order to cover a large amount of literary ground in a small amount of time, Rubenstein is willing to forgo the delights to be gained by lingering over individual words, sentences and ideas.

"If I sit on a beach, I'm afraid that at that moment, my immune system will relax and germs will come in, and I'll get a disease that will kill me," he says, the corners of his mouth tilting upward at his own joke. "If you love what you do, if your mind is actively engaged, it's not work."

In 1981, after Carter lost his bid for re-election, Rubenstein went back to practicing law, but quickly became bored. He began casting about for a new challenge with two friends, William E. Conway Jr. and Daniel A. D'Aniello.

The three decided to create an international private equity firm based in Washington and outside New York's financial power corridor. They named their company after the hotel in the Big Apple where the trio initially concocted their plan.

The Carlyle Group's rise was meteoric. The firm was created in 1987 on an initial investment of $5 million. Today, it has $90 billion in assets and offices in 19 countries. Rubenstein ranks 123rd on Forbes magazine's 2009 list of the 400 wealthiest Americans, with an estimated net worth of $2.5 billion.

But with success has come some controversy.

Carlyle was excoriated in Michael Moore's 2004 film "Fahrenheit 9/11," which made much of a $2 million investment in the company by Osama bin Laden's estranged half-brother. After the connection was made public, that money was returned.

In addition, the prominent political figures who served as Carlyle board members and advisers — including former President George H.W. Bush, former British Prime Minister John Major and former Secretary of State James Baker III — led some critics to insinuate that the firm was manipulating the government for personal gain. The Carlyle Group is widely thought to have been the model for the sinister Manchurian Global Corp. in Jonathan Demme's 2004 remake of "The Manchurian Candidate."

At the time, Rubenstein maintained that his company had never engaged in questionable business practices. And it's been several years since the firm has shed the high-profile pols that once raised so many eyebrows.

"Balzac said that behind every great fortune, there is a great crime," Rubenstein says. "Some people think that if you have made a great deal of money, you must have done something wrong. But that is behind us now. I haven't thought about it in years."

Levy of the Lincoln Center researched the controversy before inviting Rubenstein to sit on that organization's board, and he concluded that there was no basis to the innuendos.

"I did my homework about Carlyle, and so did the other members of the board," he said. "I had no hesitation whatsoever about asking David to join us. None. He is very disarming and totally honest. If you're curious about something, just ask him."

In a way, Rubenstein identifies with the skeptics.

"I ask myself, 'How did I get so lucky?' " he says.

He is determined to share his wealth with those who are less fortunate, though at the moment he's struggling with the most effective way to accomplish that goal.

He won't say how much money he and his wife have given away, but suffice to say, it's an impressive sum: There's $5 million to the National Book Festival, $3.5 million to the Kennedy Center, $5 million to the Johns Hopkins Children's Center, and so on.

Oddly enough, the wide-ranging nature of his generosity is causing him some concern.

"I've talked to Bill Gates about this," Rubenstein says. "I have a lot of eclectic interests. I give a little bit to this cause and a little bit to that cause. But if I want to be truly transformative, it may be that I should focus on one or two areas. The problem is that sometimes small gifts make the biggest impact."

For instance, about five years ago, he was inducted into the Baltimore City College Hall of Fame. Calvin Anderson, the treasurer of the school's alumni association, sat next to Rubenstein on the stage. As he recalls:

"Mr. Rubenstein said, 'You know, this is the same piano that was here when I was going to school. It has all of the same scars.' The gentleman typed something into his BlackBerry and said, 'I'm going to donate $100,000 to buy the band some new equipment.' "

It was them the largest individual donation in City's history. After the offer had sunk in, Anderson asked when he should stop by the Carlyle Group's office to pick up the check.

"Mr. Rubenstein said, 'No, no, I'll make an electronic transfer. You'll have the money within a day.' When I checked our account, there it was," Anderson says. "I've never experienced anything like it in all my life."

City College used the donation to purchase a new baby grand piano, to upgrade computer equipment and to give $1,000 gifts to 10 especially dedicated teachers and 15 high-achieving students.

"It was a tremendous motivation," Anderson says, "not just to the students, but to the teachers who gave up their evenings to help the kids. We were just overjoyed."

Rubenstein doesn't just want to give away his money. He wants to be around to see his dollars work their rejuvenating magic.

"I don't understand people who give away fortunes after their deaths," he says. "I've always thought, 'Why don't they do it while they're still alive?' "

But the kind of social change he has in mind frequently doesn't bear fruit for decades. Meanwhile, he is intensely aware that he has begun his seventh decade and that the clock is ticking away.

"I need to do this sooner rather than later," he says. "When I get to the end of my life, I don't want to have any regrets."

mary.mccauley@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
39°