With David Rubenstein, Founder and Co-Executive Chairman of The Carlyle Group, author of The American Story: Conversations with Master Historians
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Steve spoke with David Rubinstein, the Founder and Co-Executive Chairman of The Carlyle Group, about his book, The American Story: Conversations with Master Historians. The book consists of David’s interviews with famous historians such as Doris Kearns Goodwin and Jon Meacham. The impetus for the book came from a series of interviews that David did for the benefit of members of Congress. The overwhelmingly positive reaction he got from those sessions led to his collecting 16 of the interviews in a book. Here are some of the little-known snippets of American history that David shared with Steve’s listeners.
Jon Meacham On Thomas Jefferson
David interviewed Jon Meacham, presidential biographer and former Editor-in-Chief of Newsweek, about Thomas Jefferson. One of the most interesting tidbits from that interview centered around Jefferson’s famous line from the Declaration of Independence: ”We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” According to Meacham, that one sentence became more or less the creed of our country. Lincoln referred to it in the Gettysburg Address, saying, “Four score and seven years ago we brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”
The controversy, of course, arises from the fact that at the time Jefferson wrote that, he personally had over 200 slaves. Did he really mean that all men are created equal, or just all white men? David got the impression from his interview that Meacham favored the latter interpretation. But there’s no way to know for certain. However, it is certain that having that phrase in the Declaration served as a foundation for the civil rights movement.
Steve brought up the fact that slaves were originally counted as only three-fifths of a person. That came about through a compromise between the North and the South at the Constitutional Convention that was basically about Congressional representation, which, in the House, is based on population.
Meacham revealed that although Jefferson complained for years that the Continental Congress had mutilated the Declaration with changes to his original draft and took no public credit for it, he eventually dictated that “Author of the Declaration of Independence” be inscribed on his tombstone.
The interview with Meacham also delved deeply into Jefferson’s 30-year relationship with his slave mistress, Sally Hemmings, which began when Hemmings was only 16. David brought out the fact that we don’t really know for certain much about the relationship, as neither Hemmings, who was illiterate, nor Jefferson wrote about it. Was it consensual, a forced relationship, or essentially rape? We’ll never know.
One of the questions raised in David’s interview with Meacham was “Why was Jefferson so taken with her that he maintained such a long relationship with her?” One of the theories Meacham mentioned was that it stemmed from the fact that Jefferson’s wife, who died when Jefferson was only 39, had asked him to never remarry, to which he agreed. Hemmings may have distinctly reminded Jefferson of his late wife since they were actually half-sisters. As David explained, “The father of Thomas Jefferson’s wife was a slave owner, and he impregnated a slave, and the result of that impregnation was Sally Hemings.”
A final curiosity regarding the relationship is that Jefferson kept a promise to Hemmings to free their two children, but he never freed Hemmings herself.
Bob Woodward On Richard Nixon
For insight on former President Richard Nixon, David interviewed the famous author and Washington Post reporter, Bob Woodward. One thing that came up in that interview was the lingering question of why Nixon didn’t destroy the tapes that eventually brought him down. David noted, “I think most people would say that if he wanted to survive, he should have destroyed the tapes because in the end, had he not had those tapes, people wouldn’t have seen the cover-up language that was included in the tapes.” One theory that came up during his interview of Woodward was that Nixon kept the tapes simply because he wanted to have an accurate record of his time in the White House when he wrote his memoirs.
Steve brought up the point that Woodward also thought that Nixon was living in a kind of surreal bubble where he actually thought the tapes would exonerate him. The one characteristic Bob Woodward kept mentioning was the hate that Nixon had for others. Yet, oddly enough, in his resignation speech, he said something to the effect of, “Always remember, others may hate you, but those who hate you don’t win unless you hate them, and then you destroy yourself.” Woodward would say that Nixon was projecting onto others what he, himself, was actually guilty of.
Steve asked David about a comparison between the Nixon impeachment and the recent Trump impeachment. David’s reply was that, basically, Trump had much stronger support across the board, both in the Senate and among the general public. He added, “Remember the Senate then was controlled by the Democrats and the Senate is now controlled by the Republicans. So, it’s a different situation in that respect.”
To read David’s interviews with other historians, including David McCullough on John Adams, Doris Kearns Goodwin on Abraham Lincoln, and Taylor Branch on Rev. Martin Luther King, pick up his book, The American Story: Conversations with Master Historians.
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Steve Pomeranz: I’m very pleased to have invited my next guest. His name is David Rubenstein. He’s the Co-Founder and Co-Executive Chairman of The Carlyle Group, one of the world’s largest and most successful investment firms. But more than that, Mr. Rubenstein is Chairman of the boards of trustee of The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, the Smithsonian Institution.
He’s an original signer of The Giving Pledge, which was created by Bill Gates for the Bill Gates Foundation and a recipient of the Carnegie Medal of Philanthropy. Mr. Rubenstein is also the host of The David Rubenstein Show on Bloomberg TV and PBS, and his book that we’re going to discuss today is entitled, The American Story: Conversations with Master Historians. David, thank you so much for joining us today.
David Rubenstein: My pleasure to be here. Thank you for inviting me.
Steve Pomeranz: Why did you decide to write this particular book?
David Rubenstein: Well, a couple of reasons. One, I have now turned 70 years old. I’ve been on four university boards, and I haven’t written a book. I began to feel [inaudible]. 70 years old, I’ve served in the Duke board, the Hopkins board, the Chicago board and the Harvard board, and I was feeling like I’m the only person on these boards who hasn’t written a book. So that was one factor, but that’s obviously, a tongue in cheek.
The truth is that I started a program about six years ago to try to educate members of Congress a little bit more about American history. And I did it by inviting some of the best historians in the country, at any given time, let’s say Doris Kearns Goodwin or David McCullough or someone like that, to the Library of Congress where I would interview them and after a dinner that I would host for members of Congress, and we’ve now done it for a number of years.
I’ve done about 50 of these interviews, and members of Congress regarded (it) as one of the most interesting things they’re doing in Congress—at least that’s what they tell me. We ask members to come and sit with people from the opposite party in the opposite house, which they rarely get to do in a public setting, and then they get educated for about an hour of my interviews of these individuals. And then we give them a copy of the book that we’ve talked about. And we also display, thanks to the Library of Congress, documents from the individual period of time that we’re doing the books, if it’s to Alexander Hamilton, there’ll be things about Alexander Hamilton.
So I decided I would take about 16 of the best interviews, put them together in a book, and have the little summary upfront and then do the transcripts, slightly edited, and that’s what we did, and the book seems to be receiving a pretty good audience.
Steve Pomeranz: So, you list David McCullough speaking on John Adams, Jon Meacham on Thomas Jefferson, Doris Kearns Goodwin on Abraham Lincoln and so on. But you’ve also added something that I thought was pretty interesting, which was an interview with Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, John Roberts. And when questioned, he said he never really wanted to be a judge or a lawyer, but he wanted to be a historian. What did his father say when he told him that?
David Rubenstein: Well, he said, “John, there’s no money in being a historian. You’ll write books nobody ever reads. You won’t be able to support your family. But little John said, ‘yes, I want to do this.’ And so as he got older, he kept wanting to be a historian, went to Harvard, majored in history. And so when he came back from spring break one year, he got into a cab at the Logan airport and said to the cab driver, ‘please take me to Harvard.’ And the driver said, ‘are you a student at Harvard?’ ‘Yes, I am.’ ‘What are you majoring in?’ ‘Majoring in history.’ Cab driver said, ‘Well, when I was a student at Harvard, that’s what I majored in also’” which made John think maybe his father has some good ideas. John went to law school.
Steve Pomeranz: A few weeks ago, I interviewed Gregory Zuckerman who wrote the Jim Simon biography, the great mathematical investor, and there was a similar joke, the joke was, what is the difference between a mathematician and a pizza? And the answer is that a pizza can feed a family of four.
David Rubenstein: Wow, that’s a good point, except Jim can now feed a family of four million or four billion, probably, because as you know from the reading the book, Jim has built just about the best hedge fund track record of the last 20 or 30 years or so. He and I have gotten to know each other because we served on the Institute for Advanced Study Board for many years where he oversaw the investment committee, obviously, did very well. Jim built an incredible company in Renaissance, and his track record is the envy of virtually every manager in the world.
Steve Pomeranz: I know, over 60%, and it’s hard to believe that anybody can actually achieve that rate of return over that long period of time.
David Rubenstein: While the way he did it, for those who are intently listening, is simply that he’s an extraordinary mathematician, one of the best mathematicians in the country at the time that he retired from mathematics and went into investing. And he basically found little areas of discrepancy between markets and various prices, and so he was able to develop the so-called quant method or black-box method of investing, and it just finds little inefficiencies in the markets, gets in there, fills them, and then does quite well.
Steve Pomeranz: So, you didn’t shy away from controversial topics in this book, and I want to get to them today. Jon Meacham on the difficult questions surrounding Thomas Jefferson. So let’s delve into that a little bit. In the book, there’s a quote that, no one ever said it better—speaking about Thomas Jefferson—and no one ever really fell so short. What does he mean by that?
David Rubenstein: Well, Thomas Jefferson wrote a sentence in the Declaration of Independence preamble: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they’re endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” That one sentence became more or less the creed of our country. Now we obviously haven’t honored it in so many ways, but that’s what people wanted us to be. That’s what Abraham Lincoln was referring to in his famous sentence in the Gettysburg Address: “Four score and seven years ago we brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”
So Thomas Jefferson wrote that sentence, that all men are created equal, but how could he have done that when he had two slaves with him in Philadelphia when he wrote it. He had over 200 slaves at his plantation at Monticello, how could he have meant this? Now there are two schools of thought. One is that he meant in theory, all men are created equal. They just can’t live together as equals because of different backgrounds and so forth. Or all white men are created equal. And I think John was probably opting towards thinking that’s what Thomas Jefferson really meant.
Steve Pomeranz: Well, it was put into law to some degree with regards to the idea that the non-whites were two-thirds of a person.
David Rubenstein: Three-fifths.
Steve Pomeranz: Three-fifths of a person, how did that come about?
David Rubenstein: Well, in the Constitutional Convention, they had to decide how many delegates people would get into the House of Representatives, for example, based on population. What do you count a slave? As one person or do you count a slave as less than one person. While you’re from the South, you want them counted because that would make your population be greater, you have more people in the House of Representatives. But if you’re in the North, you’d say, why are you counting these people as people because you don’t treat them as humans and so why should we consider you being allowed to have these count as human? So they ultimately came up with a compromise that was proposed of three-fifths. So each slave would count as three-fifths of a human for the purpose of—three-fifths of a white person, I should say—for purposes of census and for purposes of congressional proportion.
Steve Pomeranz: Now in the interview with Jon Meacham, there’s a large discussion about Sally Hemings who was 16 at the time, and the age of consent back then, I think, was 12, wasn’t it?
David Rubenstein: In Virginia, it was 12 increased from 10 where it once was. Sally Hemings was the… this is the very interesting point. Thomas Jefferson had a relationship with her, you could say it was a forced relationship, you could say it was rape, you could say it was consensual, we’ll never know. She was probably not literate; she never wrote about it and Thomas Jefferson never really wrote about her in any of the letters we have, so we don’t really know the nature of the relationship. We don’t have any pictures of her; we don’t know what she looked like, but we do know that she was probably three-fourths white and therefore, she was very fair-skinned.
When Thomas Jefferson saw her, she was 16 and he began a relationship with her for, as I say, some 30 years. Why was he struck with her? Well, there may have been many reasons, but one is this probably: His wife died when Thomas Jefferson was 39 years old, and she asked him not to marry again and because she didn’t want her two daughters to have a stepmother because she’d had a stepmother and she didn’t like that. Thomas Jefferson agreed he wouldn’t get married again.
He didn’t say he would be celibate forever, but he did say he wouldn’t get married again. When Thomas Jefferson saw Sally Hemings, he was seeing his wife as a young woman because Sally Hemings’ father was also the father of Thomas Jefferson’s wife. He was a slave owner and he impregnated a slave and the result of that impregnation was Sally Hemings. So Thomas Jefferson may have been seeing, in effect, when he saw Sally Hemings, a 16-year-old version of his wife and he fell in love with that version again.
Steve Pomeranz: So Sally Hemings was his wife’s half-sister, essentially?
David Rubenstein: That’s correct.
Steve Pomeranz: Yeah, so she was light-skinned, you mentioned, and he took her to France. And there’s a story there about how she could have stayed in France, which had no policy for slavery and she could have become free but she came back with Thomas Jefferson, what was that story?
David Rubenstein: Yes. Well, what happened was Thomas Jefferson had two daughters who survived, he had four total, but two died young. So one was with him in France when he was serving, in effect, as an ambassador, and then the other one was too young to be brought over early on. But then eventually, when she was nine, she was brought over, but she was thought by nine years old to be too young to go on a ship to France by herself, so she had a chaperone, Sally Hemings.
When Sally Hemings arrived with the daughter, Thomas Jefferson, obviously, was struck with her, they apparently struck up a relationship, he impregnated her, though the result of that impregnation did not survive. But Thomas Jefferson apparently said to her—according to Sally Hemings’ child from Thomas Jefferson who wrote a book about it later—that the deal was, if you come back from France with me, yes, you would be a slave again, but I promise that I will free our children at the age of 21 or upon my death, and he did. He didn’t free her upon his death, for reasons I could explain, but he did free those two children that they’d had together [inaudible] at the end of his life.
Steve Pomeranz: Very complicated story, but I think you have to look at the times, and especially, when you’re thinking about what the age of consent is at age 10 or age 12, it’s all in context with the times. Now of all of the accomplishments of Thomas Jefferson, I think he was most proud of his writing of the Declaration of Independence. What transpired during the writing and actually, during the acceptance of it, that really turned off Thomas Jefferson to the whole thing?
David Rubenstein: Thomas Jefferson at the age of 33 was asked to write a draft of what became the Declaration of Independence. They were a committee of five people, including John Adams and Benjamin Franklin. Thomas Jefferson, like many humans, he had 17 days to do it, he waited till the last three days because he was busy and put it off. He wrote it, essentially, from memory of what he wanted to say, didn’t have a lot of books to write it from, but he wrote out what was pretty much the conventional wisdom he would say at the time about some of these issues.
When it was given to the committee, they made some modest changes. They knew he was very sensitive to changes, but when it got to be voted on by the entire Continental Congress on July the 3rd and July the 4th, they made about 60 some changes and he was very upset with them. In fact, so upset that he wrote letters to his friends saying, here’s my version and here’s what they did, don’t you think my version is better? But, ultimately, of course, the Congress agreed to its version and one of the main changes was that he had blamed King George for the slave trade and one that wasn’t really true. King George hadn’t forced the slave trade on them. Slave trading had gone on well before King George.
But secondly, and most importantly, perhaps, nobody in the Continental Congress wanted to mention slavery in the Constitution because it was very controversial and many of the people there didn’t want to mention slavery, so it was never mentioned. But in the end, [inaudible] I should have said in the Declaration of Independence, it was never mentioned nor was it ever mentioned in the Constitution either.
Thomas Jefferson was so upset with the changes that were made, he never spoke up because he didn’t like to speak in public. He only made one speech as the President of the United States in public, he hated speaking in public, and when the Declaration of Independence was being edited by the Continental Congress, he never spoke up about it, but he was upset about it. But he was so upset about it, he said that they had mutilated what he had written. For eight or nine years, he didn’t admit publicly that he had written it. Later when it became a very famous document, he later admitted it, and as you suggest, he was so proud of it that when he figured out what he wanted to have on his tombstone, the first thing was author of the Declaration of Independence.
Steve Pomeranz: My guest is David Rubenstein. The book is, The American Story: Conversations with Master Historians. David, I want to switch gears here and talk about your interview with Bob Woodward on President Nixon. In that interview, Bob says that there was an extreme cover-up and he had difficulty getting people to talk. People were quite fearful. Tell us a little bit about that part of the story.
David Rubenstein: Well, in those days, the President of United States was thought to be fairly invulnerable and people didn’t want to be talking to a reporter who wasn’t really famous then. Nobody really knew who Bob Woodward was or Carl Bernstein and nobody wanted to get themselves in trouble, and so it was very difficult. And Bob Woodward, as he describes in the interview and in his books about this, knocked on doors and just did a lot of shoe-leather work to get people to talk. And eventually, he did get some good sources, the most famous of which is, of course, Deep Throat.
It is an unusual situation compared to today because today when President Trump had his situation in terms of impeachment, there was a big reservoir of support in the country for him among his supporters, and there was a television network that was pretty supportive of him. Nixon didn’t have that. Nixon had reasonable support in the Republican party, but it wasn’t intense. And Nixon didn’t have social media things that President Trump has. So it was a completely different environment. We tend to forget in those days, those people who cared about the news would get it from 15 minutes of evening news, CBS, NBC, or ABC at night, and that was it. There were no cable TV shows, there was no social media and the newspapers were relatively less significant in some respects than the social media is today.
Steve Pomeranz: But there was a feeling back then by Nixon that the office of the presidency protected him, that he had rights of protection and the ability to do pretty much anything that he wanted to. There seems to be a similar feeling today with the current government as well.
David Rubenstein: Well, I’ll just say with respect to Nixon in hindsight, I think most people would say that if he wanted to survive, he should have destroyed the tapes because, in the end, had he not had those tapes, people wouldn’t have seen his language. They wouldn’t have seen the cover-up language that were included in the tapes. Nixon did not destroy the tapes, most people would say, probably because he thought that he was not likely to be forced to turn them over by the Supreme Court.
He, ultimately, was in a nine to zero decision, but had he not had the tapes, he probably would’ve survived. Had he burned the tapes, he would’ve probably survived and if he hadn’t had a few things on those tapes, he probably would’ve survived. But he never believed that those tapes would become public and he wanted to preserve the tapes. He preserved them because he wanted to have an accurate view and his view of history. So when he wrote his memoirs, he would be able to say, this is what actually happened, I have very good evidence of it.
Steve Pomeranz: I think Bob Woodward also said in the interview that Nixon thought the tapes would exonerate him, that he was living in his unreal bubble.
David Rubenstein: Well, I suspect he may have felt that way at times because he may have forgotten some of the things that were on the tapes. But anybody who listened to the tapes for a while would realize that President Nixon was involved in the cover-up, so-called, and Nixon just was his own lawyer advisor, I guess at that point, and he was not probably advising himself very well.
Steve Pomeranz: In Nixon’s resignation speech, he said something to the effect, always remember, others may hate you, but those who hate you don’t win unless you hate them and then you destroy yourself. And the one characteristic Bob Woodward kept mentioning was about the hate that Nixon had for others.
David Rubenstein: There’s a term in psychology or psychiatry where it’s called projection or word, I should say. Projection means you accuse somebody of something, but you’re actually responsible for yourself. You do that yourself. And that’s really what Nixon was doing. Nixon was saying exactly what he was doing. He hated other people and he, in effect, destroyed himself.
Steve Pomeranz: Mm-hmm (affirmative), he also hated anybody that went against him or was not loyal to him.
David Rubenstein: I think most politicians are probably that way, I wouldn’t say it was just Nixon. I think most politicians are, certainly presidents I’ve known, they want loyalty for those people who work for them in the White House, and it’s very difficult to get complete loyalty because lots of people like to talk to reporters and lots of people have different views in the president even though they’re working for him. I think Nixon did like to have people around him who were intensely loyal, and the two most significant aides to him, John Ehrlichman and Bob Haldeman were intensely loyal, but they couldn’t control everything.
Steve Pomeranz: Now Barry Goldwater was very much involved in the impeachment back then, and in his personal diary in the last days of Nixon, Nixon knows he’s going to be impeached in the House. The question is what will the Senate do? Which is always the question? We just went through that right now, right?
David Rubenstein: Right.
Steve Pomeranz: So-
David Rubenstein: A delegation went to see Nixon. It was led by the Senate Republican leader, Hugh Scott, and Barry Goldwater, being a very prominent person, came along as well. And there were one or two other senators, and Barry Goldwater said, “Mr. President, we’ve done a count in the Senate and we think you’ve got six votes and one of them is not mine.” Barry Goldwater wasn’t going to support Nixon. So when Nixon heard that, he, I think, resigned the next day.
Steve Pomeranz: Well, to me the power of that statement is he said, he needed 34 votes and he asked, how many votes do I have, 20 votes? And then Barry Goldwater says, no, you have, as you said, six votes but one of them isn’t mine. I mean that’s a statement of fact right in his face and the next day Nixon resigned. It seemed to me that back then the Senate was more incensed about the lying that Nixon did to try to cover everything up.
David Rubenstein: Well, it’s hard to make the comparisons, but I would say that Nixon’s popularity in the country at that point was very, very low and the Senate reflected that. The Senate Republican leadership reflected that whatever you might think of what President Trump did or what he said, his popularity among his key supporters is still very, very high. And therefore, the Republican senators, they can sense from their own constituents what their constituents’ views are. And I think that is what was very helpful to President Trump that his popularity among his Republican base is extremely high—much, much higher than Nixon’s was in a comparable period of time
Steve Pomeranz: Mm-hmm (affirmative), so you don’t really see very many aspects of the Nixon impeachment era and today’s impeachment era?
David Rubenstein: Well, there’s some similarities, but remember the Senate then was controlled by the Democrats, and the Senate is now controlled by the Republicans. So it’s a different situation in that respect. And I’d say that the social media impact, the impact of television that is very much in favor of, let’s say, one person or another, is much different than it was. So it’s always tempting to draw analogies to say it’s similar to what it was before, but it was really completely different situation.
Again, Nixon’s popularity was much less in his party. The party that controlled the Senate was not his party. The outrage over what was said on the tape, the expletives deleted and the clear sign of a cover-up were just evidence that you couldn’t say it’s perfect.
Steve Pomeranz: The book is The American Story: Conversations with Master Historians and their interviews with these historians on John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, Benjamin Franklin, even Charles Lindbergh, Martin Luther King, Lyndon Johnson, and so on. David Rubenstein, thank you so much for taking your time to spend with us today.
David Rubenstein: My pleasure, thank you very much for having me.
Steve Pomeranz: I hope you’ve enjoyed this interview. My mission is always to educate you, and I remind you week after week, segment after segment, that we love to get your questions and your comments because we do. These are complicated times, which makes for complicated topics and I’m always here to answer them for you. So if you have a question about your 401k, about your retirement or anything monetary or financially involved, visit us at our website, which is stevepomeranz.com, go to the contacts section and let me know how we can help, stevepomeranz.com.