Philanthropy Magazine’s Spring 2018 issue featured an interview with the prolific D.C. philanthropist David Rubenstein.
Rubenstein is a man of seemingly endless energy: after serving as a domestic policy advisor in the Carter administration, he helped found the Carlyle Group, a global private equity firm that now manages more than $170 billion; he serves as chairman of the Kennedy Center, the Smithsonian, and the Council on Foreign Relations, as well as president of the Economic Club of Washington D.C.; since 2016 he’s hosted a “peer-to-peer” interview show on Bloomberg TV with other executives, investors, and philanthropists (his favorite guest was Oprah).
And, as the Philanthropy Magazine profile points out, he’s become particularly well known for what he calls “patriotic philanthropy”—high-profile gifts and pledges to help support America’s most recognizable landmarks and artefacts: In 2007 Rubenstein bought a copy of the Magna Carta and donated it to the National Archives; after a 2011 earthquake damaged the Washington Monument, Rubenstein fronted the money to cover repairs; he’s given money to Mount Vernon, Monticello, and Montpelier; and in 2016 he donated nearly $20 million towards upkeep on the Lincoln Memorial (a gift he described as “relatively modest”).
Rubenstein hopes that by investing in these touchstones of civic culture, he can make a “modest contribution to improving our democracy.”
Rubenstein is quick to point out that his patriotic gifts are a small fraction of his overall giving: “Most of my money goes to education and medical research,” he says. But the patriotic gifts attract attention because they are so rare. Most donors are of the mentality that federal institutions and properties don’t need any help—the government can always cut another check. But Rubenstein is right to note that now more than ever, federal budgets are tight and “the government just isn’t going to fund these organizations at the level they need.”
There are a couple of takeaways from all this. First, it is interesting to consider whether or not Rubenstein would be making these same gifts if he weren’t a D.C. local. It is a strange quirk of our capital city that there, philanthrolocalism has national implications.
Second (and more significantly), it’s all very well and good that a billionaire like Rubenstein is around to “fill the gap” when the federal government can’t maintain its properties, but oughtn’t it worry us that he’s necessary? “Patriotic philanthropy” can’t help but feel like a rearguard action at a time when the national deficit sits somewhere north of $20 trillion.
Moreover, our polarized political climate makes this kind of giving perilous, as Rubenstein himself has discovered in light of a 2014 $12.35 million gift to restore the Robert E. Lee Memorial mansion overlooking Arlington National Cemetery. Rubenstein was interested in the site because of its links to George Washington (it was originally built as a memorial to the first president), but that’s not stopped a certain degree of tut-tutting from national media in the wake of protests over Confederate monuments since last August.
Perhaps most importantly, even if our budget was balanced and our politics more pacific than they are, there doesn’t seem to be the sense of shared ownership over America’s cultural heritage that would motivate other “patriotic philanthropists” like Rubenstein.
School groups might still flock in droves to Washington, but does the average citizen—let alone the average plutocrat—really consider it a source of common identity? Until they do, Rubenstein’s likely to find himself a lonely crusader for collective memory.
As partisans of a thriving philanthropic culture, we ought to be grateful to Rubenstein’s commitment to our civic spaces; but at the same time, it’s incumbent upon us to ask why his brand of charity is so rare right now.