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Remarks by Ron Chernow Honoring David Rubenstein

Ron Chernow delivered the following remarks at Humanity in Action's Twentieth Anniversary Celebration Benefit on December 8, 2016, at Christie's in New York City. Chernow's remarks honor David Rubenstein, the Philanthropist and Co-Founder of the Carlyle Group. Chernow is a member of Humanity in Action's Board of Directors and the host of the organization's Twentieth Anniversary Celebration Benefit.


It is a special pleasure for me this evening to pay tribute to David Rubenstein, Co-Founder and CEO of the Carlyle Group, because in philanthropic circles he has become known as Mr. American History. He is the foremost practitioner of what he calls patriotic philanthropy, specializing in the founding era and the Civil War—like a certain biographer I know. But please don’t think of this as some dull, sleepy affair. Like Humanity in Action, David has tried to use the past to illuminate the present. 

Let me give one example in which I happened to be a lucky participant. For many years, people have criticized the poisonous atmosphere and partisan malice in Washington. The way Congressmen have seen people on the other side of the aisle, not as legitimate opponents, but as illegitimate enemies. This is very dangerous. Democracy depends, not just on a set of practices and principles, but on a culture of civil discourse that has been coarsened and brutalized by our President-elect. 

Well, David came up with an inspired idea: he would sponsor a series of historical evenings at the Library of Congress in which he would interview a presidential biographer while members of both parties in Congress enjoyed a beautiful dinner. David interviewed me on stage about Alexander Hamilton last year and we had a full quarter of the U.S. House and Senate there. Quite remarkable. And he’s done this many times, at his own expense. As we all know, the rancor and extremism are still there—they’ve gotten worse—but I think David has made a courageous start in the right direction. He is an erudite man with a delightful dry wit and a formidably retentive memory of every history book he has ever read—as I learned when he quizzed me onstage that night. 

When an earthquake damaged the Washington monument in 2011, it was David who teamed up with the federal government to undertake fifteen million dollars in repairs. He has given generously to Mount Vernon, Monticello, the Lincoln Memorial, and many other historic and educational sites. Most importantly, he has become the chief guardian of the founding charters that have defined our nation, buying a copy of the Magna Carta, that he then gave to the national archives, along with a gallery to house it, and two copies of the Emancipation Proclamation, one of which ended up staring down on President Obama in the Oval Office.

When we decided to honor David this evening, we didn’t realize quite how timely his inclusion would be. For the basic principles of our democratic system, embodied in the Magna Carta and Constitution, the Bill of Rights and the Emancipation Proclamation, are now the firewalls that stand between us and despotism. These abstractions now take on new meaning. Donald Trump isn’t just a threat to this or that policy. Much more fundamentally, he endangers our democracy itself. During the next four years, our system of checks and balances and separation of powers will be tested as never before. Our founders knew that the public could be fickle and volatile and run after false, demagogic prophets. And the words that David has helped to preserve will be part of the bulwark that we need to survive as a nation. Humanity in Action has been dedicated to the proposition that history is not some musty thing, best left in the classroom, but a living, breathing force for social justice. And so we are especially pleased to honor David Rubenstein this evening. 

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