Philanthropist David Rubenstein took the John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum stage on Monday to share his thoughts on public service, education, and the importance of history—among other lessons.

Rubenstein served in President Jimmy Carter’s administration, founded the private equity firm the Carlyle Group, and is known for his “patriotic philanthropy,” supporting the preservation of buildings and objects central to American history. A donor to the arts and education—and a chair of seven nonprofit boards—he is a member of the Harvard Corporation and a major supporter of the Kennedy School. Rubenstein is also an avid reader and writer, and he interviews public leaders for Bloomberg’s The David Rubenstein Show. All these subjects were fodder for a wide-ranging Forum conversation, billed as “Leadership Lessons in History, Investing, and Public Service.”

Joining Rubenstein for the discussion were HKS faculty members Graham Allison, the Douglas Dillon Professor of Government, and Meghan O’Sullivan, incoming director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and the Jeane Kirkpatrick Professor of the Practice of International Affairs at Harvard Kennedy School. Setti Warren, the newly named director of the Institute of Politics, introduced the event.

We share a few perspectives from Rubenstein below.


On humor:

“I do use humor. I got the concept of it from a man after whom this place is named. When I was a little boy, I would watch the press conferences of John Kennedy, and he had incredible self-deprecating humor. When you have self-deprecating humor, it usually works. It’s really hard to screw up self-deprecating humor, although I have seen some people do it. … When I do an interview, I either use self-deprecating humor or am able to have the person I am interviewing do self-deprecating humor.”


On Jimmy Carter:

“He was a peanut farmer. I said, I don’t know if this is really going to work. Carter has no chance of getting elected, but he did. I joined his campaign when he was 34 points ahead of Gerald Ford, and when I was finished, Carter won by one point. So, Carter asked me, ‘What was your contribution?’”

David Rubenstein.

“We are all here for a relatively short time on the face of the earth. What can you do in that time to justify your existence?”

David Rubenstein

On public service:

“Public service is a great way to give back to your country. And I think everybody should try to think about what you can do to give back to your country in some modest way. You don’t have to be president of the United States or work in the White House or Congress or be a governor—just find something. It can be philanthropy. It can be service. Just think about what you can do. We are all here for a relatively short time on the face of the earth. What can you do in that time to justify your existence?”


On philanthropy:

“Be involved in philanthropy but not just by writing checks. The most valuable thing you can give is your time. All philanthropy is patriotic.”


On history:

“The concept is … to remind people of the history and heritage of this country. We don't teach civics that much anymore and we don't teach American history that much anymore, and as a result people don’t know that much of the history of our country. The theory of history is that you study the mistakes of the past so you can correct them and do better in the future. Civilization can progress by learning the mistakes and correcting the mistakes. … I preserve these buildings, the people go visit them, and hopefully learn more about American history. That’s the whole point.”


On education and reading:

“Education is the one thing you can carry anywhere in the world. You can’t have too much education. …  If you are highly educated, you are more likely to do things with your life that are going to be interesting. … I am a big believer in reading books. I try to read 100 books a year. … Books really do focus your brain.”


On leadership and success:

“You have to learn how to talk effectively. … Learning how to talk in a persuasive, effective way is very important. … Also writing well. …  Lead by example. … Don’t be afraid of failing. Every leader has failed. … Experiment with many different things. …  You should all find something you really love. Nobody ever won a Nobel Prize hating what they did.”

Watch the full Forum discussion.

Photos by Martha Stewart

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