All-American

Morley Safer profiles David Rubenstein, a billionaire investor who's pledging a good part of his fortune to save America's history

The following is a script from "All-American" which aired on May 3, 2015. Morley Safer is the correspondent. Katy Textor, producer.

Think about it. Beyond your income taxes, how much money would you give to help the government? For one Wall Street titan the answer is hundreds of millions of dollars. David Rubenstein is the all-American; at age 65 a self-made billionaire who's pledging a good part of his fortune to save America's history. When an idea strikes him -- he just might write a check for, say, $15, $20 million.

Among his recipients: the Washington Monument, Thomas Jefferson's home, Monticello, and just last week, the Iwo Jima Memorial. And he's buying up rare historical documents, preserving them for generations to come.

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Washington Monument reopens
CBS News

This is inside the Washington Monument the moment an earthquake struck Washington, DC, in 2011. One of the nation's most treasured memorials now had to close. It would take a superman to put it back together again but in fact it was Clark Kent in a suit and tie, armed with just a Blackberry and a passion for American history.

"The government doesn't have the resources it used to have. We have gigantic budget deficits and large debt. And I think private citizens now need to pitch in."

David Rubenstein: It's a monument to our first president and to the revolutionary general.

How did he manage to pull it off? Not with muscles but with money. Lots of money.

David Rubenstein: It's a shorter version of it.

Our Clark Kent is David Rubenstein. When he heard about the damage, he offered to pay the $15 million it would take to repair it.

Morley Safer: Isn't that what government is supposed to do?

David Rubenstein: Well, the government doesn't have the resources it used to have. We have gigantic budget deficits and large debt. And I think private citizens now need to pitch in.

[Caroline Cunningham using loudspeaker: Co-chair of the campaign for the National Mall David Rubenstein.]

Congress -- not wanting to be shown up by a single patriotic American -- ended up offering to split the bill and the monument reopened to much fanfare last spring.

He's so far spent over $50 million on rare historical documents like original copies of the Declaration of Independence and the Emancipation Proclamation which now hangs in the Oval Office.

And he's looking to spend millions more to restore national monuments like the Lincoln Memorial and on the homes of the founding fathers.

David Rubenstein: In honor of George Washington, we built the Washington Monument.

We met up with him at Mt. Vernon, George Washington's home, where he gave us a tour and an impromptu history lesson which led inevitably to the founder's teeth or absence thereof.

"Sometimes the best decisions in life are on the spur of the moment. So I generally try to do what I think is right. And sometimes I make mistakes."

David Rubenstein: George Washington only had one tooth. And he used that one tooth to kinda hold in his dentures. And they were called wooden teeth, but not because they were wood. They were animal teeth but he had a doctor in New York whose named Dr. Greenwood. And it was shortened to wooden teeth. What they do is, they take animal teeth, put 'em together in a denture. But you need somethin' to hook it onto. So he had his one tooth. And that's why you'll never see a picture of him with his mouth open, because didn't look good.

Morley Safer: You're somewhat of a George Washington scholar.

David Rubenstein: Well, I wouldn't say a scholar. But I'd say a fan.

Morley Safer: Why did you choose him?

David Rubenstein: As it was said at his funeral, he was first in war, first in peace and first in the hearts of his countrymen.

Unlike most multibillionaires, Rubenstein doesn't have a foundation and personally oversees each gift from his modest Washington office.

Morley Safer: How do you make the judgment, 'cause you don't have a staff, correct?

David Rubenstein: I don't have a staff. But I generally look at things where my money will make a difference. And in patriotic philanthropy, I think I can do some things. Because not as many people are doing things in medical research or other kinds of areas like that.

Morley Safer: But you seem to make these decisions spur-of-the-moment?

David Rubenstein: Sometimes the best decisions in life are on the spur of the moment. So I generally try to do what I think is right. And sometimes I make mistakes.

Morley Safer: Can we talk about your mistakes?

David Rubenstein: It would take more than 60 minutes.

Rubenstein's foray into patriotic philanthropy began on a whim when -- on a business trip to New York -- he heard the last privately held copy of the 800-year-old British Magna Carta would be auctioned off the next day and would most likely leave the country. Rubenstein sent his wallet into action.

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Magna Carta press conference
CBS News

David Rubenstein: The head auctioneer came in and said, "You just bought the Magna Carta. Who are you? We don't know who you are." And I explained. And they said, "OK, it can be yours if you have the money. You do have the money for this?" I said yes. And they said, "OK, you can leave the side door, nobody ever know. Or there's 100 reporters who wanna know who bought it." And I said, "I will go out and talk to them. And tell 'em that I'm giving it to the country, in effect, as a down payment on my obligation to give back to the country."

Beyond the $21 million purchase price Rubenstein built a multimillion dollar center at the National Archives to showcase the document that served as the inspiration not only for our Bill of Rights but for all Western democracies.

David Rubenstein: If you are better informed about American History you can be a better citizen.

His friend, Warren Buffett, says Rubenstein's approach is unique.

Warren Buffett: He may wake up in the morning without knowing what that philanthropic act is going to be by sundown. But something will spark his interest. And when it does, he can move.

Jonathan Jarvis is director of the National Park Service. He oversees the nation's memorials.

Morley Safer: Have you ever had any offers of somebody who's come forth with his attitude and his dough?

Jonathan Jarvis: Not really. I think David is somewhat unique and his sort of occupying this space of patriotic philanthropy at the moment.

Morley Safer: What else has he offered to pay for?

Jonathan Jarvis: The next big project he did after the Washington Monument was the Robert E. Lee Memorial which sits at Arlington Cemetery. He gave us $12.3 million to do a full restoration and then he has also offered just recently $5 million to restore the Marine Corps war memorial, the Iwo Jima. David recognized that this is an opportunity to give back to the country and also to recognize the Marine Corps where his father served.

[David Rubenstein: People in the house are wondering who are these crazy people who are out here. Probably wondering whether I'm about to be indicted...]

We traveled with Rubenstein and his mother Bettie to the home he grew up in working class Baltimore. His father was a mail sorter at the post office.

David Rubenstein: Well, so when I was growing up here, I didn't know exactly what I wanted to do. But I thought one thing I didn't want to do was what you wanted me to do.

Bettie Rubenstein: And my dream was for you from a small child up, that you become a dentist.

Rubenstein disappointed his mother and instead went to law school. Then, at age 27, he landed a job in the White House as an adviser to President Carter.

Morley Safer: How would you rate yourself as a public servant?

David Rubenstein: I enjoyed it very much. I'm not sure the country enjoyed what I did for the country. I like to say that there was a rumor that I was going to be promoted in the second term. And that's why President Carter lost. And since I have left the White House I can tell you honestly nobody's ever invited me back.

When he was booted from the White House along with Jimmy Carter in 1980, Rubenstein tried lawyering but says he was terrible at it. So in 1987, he and two partners decided to start one of the first DC-based investment firms which they named after a New York hotel.

Morley Safer: What made you decide to call the company Carlyle?

David Rubenstein: Carlyle sounded kind of British. And it sounded kind of maybe not aristocratic, but sound like you've been around for a while when we really hadn't been around. We were new.

It's now a global giant over $200 billion in assets. For years, the firm had a reputation as politically connected and secretive. Carlyle's success made Rubenstein a fortune. He says his wife Alice and three kids support his decision to give most of it away.

David Rubenstein: In the end, it's not clear that if you give a child $500 million, he or she will win a Nobel Prize for doing something. And I think if you give somebody too much money, it can force them not to work as hard and be as productive.

A cardinal sin in Rubenstein's eyes. And, in 2010, he was one of the first to sign onto the Giving Pledge with Bill Gates and Warren Buffett promising to give away at least half of his billions to worthy causes.

Warren Buffett: I think many of the members of the Giving Society, and certainly including David, would like to have their last check bounce. I mean, that's the goal. It's a little hard to time things perfectly so that happens. But there's no Forbes 400 in the graveyard.

Like Warren Buffett, Rubenstein isn't flashy. He drives a 20-year-old car -- he doesn't drink or smoke -- but he has allowed himself one super luxury: a $65 million plane he uses to fly around the world an average of 200 days a year. He is a man in constant motion, appearing on TV boosting his firm, sitting on 26 not for profit boards, and taking his standup comedy routine on the road.

David Rubenstein: I became the deputy domestic policy adviser to the president of the United States, a job I wa-- obviously wasn't qualified for but Carter wasn't qualified either, I thought. So...(laughter)

Morley Safer: Well, when you became wealthy enough to be able to sort of sit back-- you remained a workaholic.

David Rubenstein: It's not work for me. I am not under any pressure or stress when I'm doing this. When I'm tryin' to relax, if I ever do that, that's when I'm under stress. And I think I'm more likely to have a heart attack when I'm relaxing than when I'm under-- I'm working.

David Rubenstein rap video: Takes a lot of brains to do what we do, looking for a way to make some dough for you.

Work now including learning how to rap after Carlyle doubled its money in an investment in the headphone company beats by Dre.

[David Rubenstein, rap video: We are global, we're mobile, we're aiming to please, only goal in mind, serve our LPs.]

David Rubenstein: I did meet Dr. Dre when we were first doing the deal and we did a take-off on that for our holiday video.

[David Rubenstein, rap video: Haven't done anything like this really since my Bar Mitzvah.]

David Rubenstein: And when I did it, it was supposed to take five minutes. And it took about four hours. And they had a young rap coach for me to explain how to do this. And he said, "Mr. Rubenstein, you are the whitest man I've ever met in my life." (laugh)

[Sally Jewell - sec. of the Interior: How are the legs? Excellent.]

David Rubenstein: I didn't need a defibrillator. I didn't have to go to the hospital.

Rubenstein may use self-deprecation as a form of bragging and if you don't get the message, he puts his name on his good works. $20 million here, $75 million there soon adds up to real money.

He even joked he put his initials at the top of the Washington Monument.

David Rubenstein: I took my pen out and put my initials on the very top of the Washington Monument. So if you ever get there you will see my initials.

Morley Safer: How important is the recognition? Because you put your name on most of the things you support. Is that-- I think what-- to use a Yiddish word, chutzpah?

David Rubenstein: Maybe I have a character flaw, and I haven't done it as anonymously because I'm trying to say to people, "I came from very modest circumstances. And look what I was able to do. You could do the same thing. "

And while the vast majority of his wealth goes to inanimate objects, Rubenstein took care of DC's favorite residents: momma bear Mei Xiang, pappa bear Tian Tian and baby bear Bao Bao when the National Zoo ran out of money.

David Rubenstein: I said OK, I'll put up the money to keep 'em here. Because the Chinese rent pandas. You pay $1 million a year more or less, and you get two pandas. And the money goes for panda conservation.

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National Zoo Panda Exhibit
CBS News

Morley Safer: Sweet potato, right?

David Rubenstein: Pandas are the biggest attraction at the zoo. And when the government had its shutdown people weren't calling in to say they weren't getting their social security checks or Congress wasn't moving forward or anything. They were saying the panda-cam was shut down.

Richard Nixon first brought the pandas to the U.S. after his historic trip to China in 1972.

Panda diplomacy may have worked but panda love life is another matter.

Morley Safer: You compared the relationship between male and female pandas with the U.S. Congress.

David Rubenstein: Members of Congress know what they're supposed to do but they don't know how to do it. The pandas know what they're supposed to do but they fumble. They come here with the best of intentions but sometimes things don't work out the way that they're supposed to.

So it's bye bye, Bao Bao, and thank you, Mr. Rubenstein.

David Rubenstein: So I don't think anything I've said has impressed Bao Bao.

Morley Safer: No, no. (laugh)

  • Morley Safer

    Morley Safer’s distinctive style and the broad range of his much-honored work have made him a giant in broadcast journalism and a mainstay of 60 Minutes since 1970.