Kennedy Center board chairman David Rubenstein hosts new PBS history series

Philanthropist David Rubenstein stands at the Arlington House at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Va., on July 17, 2014. The historic house was restored to its appearance after a $12.3 million gift from Rubenstein. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)
WTOP's Jason Fraley previews 'History with David Rubenstein' on PBS

You know him as co-founder of The Carlyle Group and chairman of the Boards of Trustees at the Kennedy Center, Smithsonian and Council on Foreign Relations.

Starting July 3, David Rubenstein will host “History with David Rubenstein,” a 10-episode program airing on PBS stations across the country, including WETA in D.C.

“I started interviewing people who are historians at the New York Historical Society a few years ago and ultimately they decided to start a series,” Rubenstein said. “I interview great historians about their books or people who’ve been important figures in history.”

The series kicks off with the late great political commentator and author Cokie Roberts.

“Cokie was a longtime friend,” Rubenstein said. “I interviewed her about her three books that she wrote about women and their role in history. … Although many people think of her as a correspondent and interviewer, she actually was a very gifted writer about history. The fact that she passed away not too long ago makes it much more emotional.”

Episode 2 features presidential scholar and best-selling author Michael Beschloss.

“One of the nation’s best known historians about the presidency,” Rubenstein said. “Michael has been writing about the presidency for his entire career. I interviewed him about the presidents, in particular about the book he has called ‘Presidents of War.'”

Episode 3 features Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Doris Kearns Goodwin.

“Doris Kearns Goodwin is one of the best known historians in our country,” Rubenstein said. “I’ve interviewed her about many different books, but this particular interview was about her book on … the relationship with Teddy Roosevelt and William Howard Taft.”

Episode 4 features biographer Ron Chernow, who provided the inspiration for “Hamilton.”

“This interview is about his most recent book, this is Ulysses S. Grant,” Rubenstein said. “He wrote many books, one about George Washington, which won the Pulitzer Prize, and the Hamilton book of course is best known, but the Grant book is like those other books, extremely well written and although they’re long, you can’t put them down.”

Episode 5 features former Harvard University president and author Drew Gilpin Faust.

“She wrote a book called ‘The Republic of Suffering’ [about how] during the Civil War, 600,000 men and women were killed and there were terrible problems about what to do with the bodies,” Rubenstein said. “Union soldiers couldn’t be buried with Confederate soldiers, white soldiers weren’t buried with black soldiers, officers weren’t buried with enlisted men.”

Episode 6 features professor and international bestselling author Andrew Roberts.

“Andrew Roberts wrote maybe the best one-volume book on the life of Winston Churchill,” Rubenstein said. “It’s often hard to believe that he didn’t become Prime Minister the first time until he was 65 years old and then led Britain through the war and later became prime minister again when he was close to 80.”

Episode 7 features Harvard University history professor Jill Lepore.

“She wrote a book called ‘These Truths,’ the first comprehensive encyclopedic book of American history written by a woman,” Rubenstein said. “It’s a quite a long book, almost 900 pages, but it’s a terrific look and she brings a different perspective to it than men.”

Episode 8 features Pulitzer Prize and National Humanities Medal recipient Robert Caro.

“A man who’s devoted 35 years of his life to writing about Lyndon Johnson,” Rubenstein said. “He wrote a book … about Robert Moses called ‘The Power Broker’ that took seven years. This one has now taken 35 years. He’s come out already with several volumes. This is the final volume he’s working on, which is Lyndon Johnson’s life as president.”

Episode 9 features biographer and former Aspen Institute CEO Walter Isaacson.

“Walter has written incredible biographies, obviously the most famous was Steve Jobs,” Rubenstein said. “A book called ‘The Innovators,’ which is what I interviewed him about here, all the people that helped lead the revolution that led to the internet. … His book on Einstein, his book on Benjamin Franklin, his book on Steve Jobs are spectacular.”

Finally, Episode 10 wraps with presidential historian and author Douglas Brinkley.

“This particular interview was about a book called ‘The Moonshot,’ which was the race to the moon that President Kennedy launched,” Rubenstein said. “It’s about how complicated the effort was to get there, how very few people actually wanted President Kennedy to do this and how ultimately it occurred when Richard Nixon was president.”

He has experience in this realm having previously hosted “The David Rubenstein Show: Peer to Peer Conversations.” How does he prepare for interviews with such great minds?

“I always read the book,” Rubenstein said. “It’s a courtesy to read the book. … Then I write down questions that I would like to ask, then over the course of a week or so I kind of memorize the questions. So I do it without actually having any notes in front of me. I think it makes it look more like a conversation, so I think it works out pretty well that way.”

Most of the interviews are taped in front of a live studio audience.

“These were pre-COVID,” Rubenstein said. “WNET has a public television broadcasting station in New York — some of them were done there with no live audience — but most were done with a live audience at the New York Historical Society in its main auditorium.”

Knowledge is a lifelong quest for Rubenstein, who grew up in Baltimore, attended Duke University and law school at the University of Chicago. He practiced law in New York and Capitol Hill, then served in the Carter White House before founding the Carlyle Group.

“I try to spend a fair amount of time on philanthropic things in this region, because this is where I raised my family,” Rubenstein said. “This is where I live.”

Due to COVID-19, you won’t be seeing him at the Kennedy Center Honors until 2021.

“We’re waiting for the mayor to make decisions on what phase we can go into,” Rubenstein said. “Clearly it will be difficult to do very large events in the very near future. … We look forward to having the Opera House, Concert Hall and Eisenhower Theater filled again and having people there who feel safe when they’re there.”

Until then, why should we tune into the PBS history series?

“History is important because if you don’t know the mistakes that have been made in the past, you might make them again,” Rubenstein said. “When we learn about great people in the past, we’re really learning about things that they did right and wrong. … Sadly, in this country right now, we don’t teach history very much. We don’t teach civics much.”

He said statistics show that 91% of foreigners pass the U.S. citizenship test, while a recent study found that Americans born here can’t pass the test in 49 out of 50 states.

“If somebody watches these programs … it might wet the appetite to do two things: one, read the book that has been talked about … and two, learn more about history and other important people and important events and maybe read other books,” Rubenstein said.

WTOP's Jason Fraley chats with David Rubenstein (Full Interview)

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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