David Rubenstein’s take on what American history can teach our politicians

David Rubenstein’s take on what American history can teach our politicians

November 29, 2019 0 By Stanley Isaacs


JUDY WOODRUFF: In 2013, billionaire investor,
businessman and philanthropist David Rubenstein set out an ambitious plan, to moderate a series
of conversations with prominent historians in front of an audience of bipartisan lawmakers. The goal? To make members of Congress more knowledgeable
about the past, so they could better deal with the country’s future. Rubenstein is now sharing the best of those
conversations in a new book, “The American Story.” A note: David Rubenstein’s philanthropy includes
public television and the “PBS NewsHour.” I spoke with him recently. And I began by asking him if work with lawmakers
and historians has achieved its goal. DAVID RUBENSTEIN, Author, “The American Story:
Conversations With Master Historians”: We have Republicans, Democrats and people from
both houses coming. We get about 250 to 300 people participating
in each interview. They have a reception. We ask them to sit with people from the opposite
party in the opposite House, so they get to know people they don’t otherwise know or otherwise
get to talk to. There’s no press there, so there’s not pressure
to do anything. And they have an interview that they can watch
and then they participate in the interview by asking questions. And they’re just like any other audience. They bring their dog-eared copies Robert Caro’s
book or David McCullough’s book. They want them autographed just like anybody
else. So the real reason for this is not just the
era of good feels, but the thinking is this. People who make the laws should know our country’s
history. And our country’s history should be known
by everybody in the country, particularly the lawmakers. Right now, we don’t teach history very much
in the United States. We don’t teach civics very much anymore. And, as a result of that, you get surveys
that show, for example, three-quarters of Americans cannot name the three branches of
government. And one-third Americans cannot even name one
branch of government. It’s a sad situation. JUDY WOODRUFF: It is a sad situation, when
you see those statistics. And from this book, David Rubenstein, you
talk to historians of 10 different presidents, but then you talk to other great American
leaders. I mean, there were so many things that stood
out to me, talking to historian Jack Warren about George Washington, and how he was the
right man for the moment. Why? DAVID RUBENSTEIN: Well, remember, George Washington
three times turned down power. After he won the Revolutionary War as the
leading general, he went back to Mount Vernon, said, I don’t want to be the leader of the
country. Second time, he presided over the Constitutional
Convention, but he didn’t really want to lead the country. He went back to Mount Vernon. And the third time, he was elected president,
and he didn’t really want to be president. But he served. And each time, he basically said, I’m going
to do what I can for my country. And he was the indispensable man. If we had not had George Washington, I’m not
sure we would have won the Revolutionary War. JUDY WOODRUFF: It’s so striking in so many
ways. And I’m jumping way ahead. Franklin Roosevelt. You press Jay Winik on why Franklin Roosevelt
didn’t intervene in World War II to stop the Holocaust any sooner. The answer was kind of stunning. I mean, he says it was Roosevelt’s decision
not to intervene any sooner. DAVID RUBENSTEIN: That’s correct. I don’t think it stemmed from anti-Semitism. I just think it was a combination of many
things going on in the war. I don’t think even he knew how much impact
he could have, had he been willing to bomb the railroads that were then going to Auschwitz. So I think what I try to do in this book is
try to say, here are some of the interviews from the greatest historians in our country. Don’t read this book alone. Read the books themselves. Basically, I’m digesting the interviews. And I think they’re very readable, but you
should read the entire book. JUDY WOODRUFF: Most of the great leaders you
write about, of course, are man. In the chapter where you interviewed Cokie
Roberts, our dear friend, the late Cokie Roberts, who passed away not long ago, because she’d
written several books about the founding mothers. What did you take away from that, David Rubenstein,
about why women haven’t gotten more attention in history? DAVID RUBENSTEIN: Well, in the early days
of our country, women were not allowed to vote. They weren’t allowed to hold — own property. If you were married, you couldn’t own property. And, obviously, you couldn’t be an officeholder. So how did they exercise influence? Well, they tended to do it through their husbands. And very often, their husbands were away. So they wrote elaborate letters. And the letters between John and Abigail Adams,
there are about 1,000 of them. And when you read them, you realize that Abigail
Adams, although she had maybe a second grade education, was every bit as intelligent and
literate and well-written a person as her husband, John, who was trained as a lawyer. So the letters from these women are one said
Cokie Roberts dug into. She found many that nobody really knew had
existed. And you saw that the women had a lot of influence
on the men. JUDY WOODRUFF: There’s so much here. David McCullough telling you early on in the
book — he, of course, the great historian of John Adams — he said: “The best and most
effective people in public life, without exception, have been the people who had a profound and
very often lifelong interest in history.” Do you make a connection with today and President
Trump? DAVID RUBENSTEIN: Well, I think many people
who understand history are at an advantage. But because of STEM, we have taken civics
and history out of our curriculum. JUDY WOODRUFF: The focus on science and math,
right. DAVID RUBENSTEIN: Yes. People are concerned about competing with
the Chinese. That’s a very legitimate concern. But I don’t think people should only take
STEM courses and not take history courses. Right now, over the last eight years, history
majors in the United States have gone down by 34 percent. So there are fewer people majoring in history. And the result is, very few people know about
our history. JUDY WOODRUFF: Have you thought about which
great historian is going to be in a position to write about President Donald Trump? DAVID RUBENSTEIN: Our mutual friend Michael
Beschloss would say it takes maybe 40 years after a president is gone for a historian
to really be able to get hold of all the documents and really come up with some judgment. So I think it’s probably too early. The person who’s going to be the great historian
who is going to write about that president probably is in grade school right now. So it’s probably going to be a while. I think people your age, my age are not going
to be the great historians probably to write that. But I think it’s just too early to say. And, of course, we don’t know what’s going
to happen to his term. Most presidents are judged as successes if
they get reelected, even if the second term isn’t that successful. And many second terms are not that successful. But I think, until you know whether President
Trump’s going to be reelected, I think it’s difficult to say whether his first term is
successful or not. JUDY WOODRUFF: Last question. There are two, maybe three billionaires right
now running for president of the United States, of course, President Trump running for reelection,
Tom Steyer, maybe Michael Bloomberg. What about David Rubenstein? What do you think about running for office? DAVID RUBENSTEIN: Well, I think that, right
now, I’m doing the best I can in what I do. I think the country has enough people who
are billionaires running for president. I know many of them. They are very qualified in some ways to be
president. But I think my best use for the country is
doing what I’m doing right now. And what I would rather do more than anything
else is talk to you about this book. JUDY WOODRUFF: David Rubenstein, the book
is “The American Story: Conversations With Master Historians.” Thank you very much. DAVID RUBENSTEIN: My pleasure. Thank you.