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


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

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: 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.

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