David M. Rubenstein is the co-founder and co-chairman of the extremely successful international private equity firm The Carlyle Group. He is also an original signer of the Giving Pledge, and involved in chairing nonprofit organizations, including the Kennedy Center, the National Gallery of Art, the Library of Congress, and the Council on Foreign Relations, to name a few.
As if that’s not enough to do, Rubenstein is also the host of PBS’s new eight-part ICONIC AMERICA: OUR SYMBOLS AND STORIES WITH DAVID RUBENSTEIN, which premieres Wednesday, April 26. Rubenstein’s other PBS series, HISTORY WITH DAVID RUBENSTEIN, recently concluded its fourth season.
During PBS’s portion of the winter 2023 Television Critics Association (TCA) press tour in Pasadena, Rubenstein sits down to talk about ICONIC AMERICA.
ASSIGMENT X: Where did your passion for history and American monuments come from?
DAVID M. RUBENSTEIN: Well, I grew up in Baltimore. My parents didn’t have a lot of money, so they would take me to Washington [D.C.] as a boy, because all the Smithsonian museums are free. So, I spent a lot of time in museums, and saw the monuments over many years, and then, as a young man, I worked in the White House for four years for President Carter. When you work in the White House, you get a sense of history. I’ve lived in the Washington area for forty years now. So, that’s probably part of it. Also, when I went to school, I was better in history than I was in physics. If I was better in physics, I might be doing something about Albert Einstein, but I was better in history.
AX: What was the original concept for ICONIC AMERICA: OUR SYMBOLS AND STORIES WITH DAVID RUBENSTEIN?
RUBENSTEIN: I have spent the last ten, fifteen, twenty years, trying to do more than an average person might do to educate other Americans about American history. And toward that, I’ve been trying to preserve American history, preserve the Washington Monument, Lincoln Memorial, things like that, [and] historic American documents, like the Declaration of Independence, the Emancipation Proclamation, and put them on display for people to see them.
I have a number of TV shows which are designed to educate people. And I spent a fair amount of time trying to educate people, including members of Congress, so I have a program where, once a month, for the last eight years, I have hosted a dinner at the Library of Congress, only for members of Congress, I bring a great American historian in, like Doris Kearns Goodwin, or David McCullough, or Jon Meacham, interview them about one of their books, and try to educate the members of Congress about American history, because they’re making our laws.
So, I thought it would be good to do a TV show based on some iconic American symbols, weaving in the history of those symbols, of things that we know about, things that many people don’t know about, and try to educate people about it.
AX: What are the individual segments about?
RUBENSTEIN: Okay. We have the bald eagle, the Statue of Liberty, the Gadsden Flag, which is “Don’t tread on me.” We used that against the British in the Revolutionary War, and the Tea Party people now, and at the January 6 [riot], they use the same kind of flag. So, interesting how it’s transformed. The Gadsden Flag – the Stone Mountain, which is a big piece of granite near Atlanta, where they’ve carved Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, Jefferson Davis’s images on it, and it’s a place where it honors the Confederacy, yet the Vice-President of the United States, Spiro Agnew, went to dedicate it, in effect honoring slavery. The Ku Klux Klan used to have a lot of its meetings there. So, it’s a very unusual thing. Now, people who are Black go there. It’s a Disney World kind of thing there. But the history of it is basically to promote racism. So, we did one on that. The American Cowboy, the Hollywood Sign, the Golden Gate Bridge, and Fenway Park are the other ones.
AX: How did you determine what the individual segments would be?
RUBENSTEIN: Like many things in the world, it’s a collaborative process. So, you can’t say, “Here are my ideas, and everybody should love my ideas.” I had some ideas, but then, the other people in the production had ideas. Then you had to figure out what’s realistic. You have to actually film something, you have to get permission from people, you’ve got to get people to cooperate, so we also tried to make certain that we had a balance.
We wanted things from all parts of the country, and some things that were really well known, and some things maybe less well known. Fenway Park is well known. The Golden Gate Bridge is well known. The Gadsten Flag may not be as well known. Stone Mountain may not be as well known. So, it’s a combination of things, and a team process. We could have easily picked eight other ones, and maybe gotten good ones on those, too, but these are the ones we came to, and the schedules worked.
AX: How big was the team of people making those decisions?
RUBENSTEIN: We had an Emmy-winning production company that has a lot of experience in this, called Show of Force, based in New York. They have a lot of experience in how to produce a TV show.
I have spent a fair amount of time in recent years interviewing people in various TV shows, or in various other forums I have. The idea was, I would interview people about these various iconic symbols, but we’d have other people doing some interviewing, too, so it wasn’t just me. And then we would go on site to make it much more interesting. If I did an interview of somebody who’s an expert on the American cowboy, but it’s all done in Washington, D.C., it wouldn’t be the same. So, we went to Cheyenne [in Wyoming], and we went to Cody [in Wyoming], and we went to Fort Worth [in Texas], and we went to rodeos and cowboy museums, and talked to cowboys. We tried to make it a little bit more exciting than just my interviewing somebody, sitting in an office in Washington.
AX: What was the balance between stuff that you already knew, and wanted to educate people about, and things that you were curious about and wanted more information on yourself?
RUBENSTEIN: I would say I didn’t think I was an expert on any of these things. I knew something about the Statue of Liberty – you probably know something about the Statue of Liberty, everybody has seen it – but not nearly as much as I thought I did. Most people don’t realize it had nothing to do with immigration. It was originally designed to thank the Americans for getting rid of slavery, more or less. And for Franco-American friendship, but mostly to thank the Americans for getting rid of slavery. That became a little controversial.
Later, it became a symbol of people coming into this country, because they would go past the Statue of Liberty as they went to Ellis Island, which was set up in the early part of the twentieth century to process immigrants. I think most Americans probably will be surprised at all the things that the Statue of Liberty represents, and how it works, and how it was built, compared to what they probably thought they knew.
AX: When you had a subject that was more broadly thematic, like American cowboys, how did you decide what the images or the places would be?
RUBENSTEIN: In that case, I relied a lot on Show of Force. They said, “We need to go to some rodeos, interview people who are also cowboys today.” For example, if you grew up when I grew up, you watched a TV show, you think a cowboy is somebody who’s out there fighting [Native Americans] all the time. Well, cowboys really were people who moved cows toward the trains. That was their real purpose was. There are other people who might have been fighting, but they weren’t cowboys. And when I watched cowboys on TV, I would see all white men. It turns out that there are a lot of Black cowboys, there were even some Jewish cowboys, there were some Latino cowboys. There were Indigenous cowboys as well. So, it’s much different than what you might see if you just watched Westerns.
And it was a much more difficult time than you might think. They weren’t really carrying guns so much. They could be on these cattle marches for months at a time, no showers, no anything, it wasn’t exactly a pleasant way to live. So, we wanted to explain what the American cowboy is.
But the real issue is, why did the American cowboy become such a symbol of our country? The most successful television ad of all time, some people would say, is the Marlboro Man ad. Why did that cowboy, presumably smoking a cigarette, looking out on the plains of Texas or somewhere, become such a symbol that ad people correctly figured out would make people smoke more cigarettes? There’s something about the cowboy that became a symbol of our country, or at least the western part of our country. So, why did that happen? And we went through that in the explanation of “American Cowboy.”
AX: Was there one particular segment that made you feel like you’d learned a lot more than you knew before?
RUBENSTEIN: I learned a lot on the “Bald Eagle” one. I’m not a big outdoors guy normally, but I didn’t realize how we almost killed all the bald eagles in this country. People think it’s a symbol of our country, the official bird, but it’s not. We don’t have an official bird. We have it on our seal, and a lot of government documents, but it’s not technically the official government bird. But we basically put a bounty on them, and we let people kill them in the early part of the twentieth century, and people were killing the bald eagles, and then, after World War II, we started spraying [the pesticide] DDT everywhere, and almost the entire population of bald eagles died out.
So, when our country was started, they say there were maybe five hundred thousand bald eagles. And the American bald eagle only is in North America. It’s a North American bird. And now there are probably five hundred thousand. But it went down to about five hundred at one point, because we were killing them off with DDT, until they finally realized DDT was killing more than insects, it was killing birds.
We went up to Haines, Alaska, which is apparently the place that a lot of bald eagles in North America gather, because during the wintertime, the bald eagles [mostly] eat fish. So, you have to find a place where there’s going to be fish in the wintertime. In Haines, there’s an underground warming part of the river, so the river doesn’t freeze over. And also, the salmon go up to spawn.
The bald eagle is a really interesting animal, because they turn their neck almost three-hundred-and-sixty degrees. They have eyesight that’s about four or five times our eyesight. And they’re incredible in their nesting habits and their mating habits. When they want to mate, the two bald eagles, the male and female, will hook their talons together, and then they’ll go on a death spiral all the way down to about ten feet off the ground. They’re twirling and twirling, and then finally they break away.
And then, they’re very good parents, because when they come together and the female lays the eggs, the male will keep coming back, bringing in food for the babies when they hatch, and the baby can be in the nest for a year or so before they learn how to fly. The amazing thing is that the male and female can be together for ten or twenty years. They seem to be very faithful to each other, unlike some animals.
AX: With icons like the Statue of Liberty, obviously, the originators of that are not around anymore, so do you interview experts, do you interview the tour guides …?
RUBENSTEIN: The sculptor who conceived of it was a Frenchman, [Frédéric Aguste] Bartholdi. So, we interviewed people who had written books about him, we went to Paris to do that, and we interviewed people who are familiar with why the French wanted to have the symbol of the Franco-American relationship. And then we interviewed people that were familiar with the construction of it and so forth.
The most famous part of the Statue of Liberty, some would say, is the poem at the bottom that Emma Lazarus wrote, but she wrote that well after it was already up and running. It wasn’t as if they needed that at the beginning. So, we went through this history of Emma Lazarus and talked to people and saw her original poem – it’s in a library [of the American Jewish Historical Society], in New York, the original handwriting that wrote out the poem, which was done for a contest.
AX: With something like Stone Mountain, how do you navigate the difference between depicting the racism inherent in its creation and endorsement?
RUBENSTEIN: Well, that’s a little complicated, because you don’t want to say that Stone Mountain is completely a terrible thing, because a lot of people go there for tourism reasons and it’s a Disneyland kind of thing there. The man who’s designated to promote tourism there is an African-American, who I interviewed. He’s a preacher in Georgia. His job is to get people to go to Stone Mountain. And I would say to him, “Well, Stone Mountain is a symbol of racism to some people.” He would say, “Well, some people look at it that way, but it’s evolving, and it’s history, and I don’t really want to change the history of it.” So, it’s an unusual situation.
But Stone Mountain is very controversial in some circles, because people see it as symbolizing racism, symbolizing the Confederacy. We went through the whole history of the Confederacy, and the idea that the Civil War was fought for something other than keeping slaves, which is really what it was fought for.
AX: Approximately how long did it take to do each of the segments?
RUBENSTEIN: I would say it took about three times longer than I thought it would take. Because if you know you’re filming a TV show, nobody says, “The first take is wonderful. We don’t need to do it again.” They always say, “Well, that was really good. But let’s do it one more time.” So, you’re filming a lot of things. It’s fun to do, but it’s time-consuming, and I can see why people get tired when a director says, “Let’s do twenty and thirty takes,” which they do in the movie business sometimes.
But we’ll see what the reaction is. I think the reaction should be good, because people like learning about history. The reaction to Ken Burns on PBS has been pretty good. Ken Burns has seen this and he thinks it’s been done very well. And I’m a big supporter of his as well, I’ve supported a lot of his projects. This is a different thing, taking one symbol at a time, and really educating people about it.
AX: Assuming ICONIC AMERICA is successful, do you foresee doing a second season?
RUBENSTEIN: It takes a lot of time to do this, to film these things takes a lot of time, and it’s a complicated schedule. I put a lot of time into it in 2022, and gave up most of my weekends, because of my day job, so I did a lot of this on weekends. I would film these things and run around doing it. So, we’ll see.
AX: And what would you most like people to know about ICONIC AMERICA?
RUBENSTEIN: That if they watch it, they will get rich, they will marry somebody who’s wonderful, and they will go to Heaven. But if they don’t believe that, I would say, if they watch it, they’ll learn a little bit more about American history than they knew before. The theory of our country’s government is that you have an informed citizenry. That’s the theory of a republic, which is what we have. And if you have uninformed citizens, you have not as good a republic, not as good a government. So, when the country was created, it was created with the idea we’d have informed people voting. And now we increasingly have less-informed people voting. If people watch it, and they’ll probably feel better educated, and maybe be a more informed citizen.
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Article: Exclusive Interview: David Rubenstein gives the scoop on his series ICONIC AMERICA: OUR SYMBOLS AND STORIES