Except don’t call him a journalist. David Rubenstein talks to Brunswick’s Kevin Helliker about his turn from private equity titan to star host of a TV talk show
Big-name chief executives are wanted, in print and on air, far beyond their capacity or appetite for publicity. They have jobs to do. Their standard response to a media interview request is no – unless it happens to come from David Rubenstein.
Rubenstein is host of “Peer to Peer Conversations” on the Bloomberg Channel and website. As co-Founder and co-CEO of Carlyle Group, the private equity firm, he doesn’t need or aspire to outperform Jimmy Fallon. He produces his shows for much the same reason he interviews historians at private Library of Congress events – to educate audiences, ideally in a way that’s entertaining.
But let’s be clear: “Peer to Peer” is a hit. Its third season under way, Bloomberg says that viewership “has been strong.” Moreover, PBS recently agreed to air the first two seasons nationally, indicating the network’s belief that Rubenstein’s interviews with chief executives bear appeal for broad audiences.
Certainly, the show has buzz: in top-management and business-journalism circles, “Peer to Peer” is a metric of cool. Don’t tell anyone you haven’t watched it, and be prepared to discuss the segment where Lloyd Blankfein talks about disclosing his cancer diagnosis to Goldman Sachs shareholders.
The most remarkable feat of Rubenstein’s show may be the all-star cast of subjects he has persuaded to sit down with him. Actually, “persuaded” isn’t the right word: some top executives have volunteered for duty. His guests from the first two seasons include Oprah Winfrey, Warren Buffett, Bill Gates, Jamie Dimon, Mary Barra, Eric Schmidt, Kenneth Chenault and Indra Nooyi.
Perhaps they take comfort in knowing that this self-made billionaire bears no resentment toward the rich and that, despite his law degree, makes no effort to prosecute his subjects – although he doesn’t shy away from difficult questions. (“Being Oprah, is it hard to go to the bathroom in a public place?”) Equally likely is that these executives appreciate Rubenstein’s gift for evoking the very human story behind every rise to the top. The interviewer keeps the focus on his guest, asking questions that reflect a ton of homework and a penchant for humor. At 67, he has become a popular face of new media for the same reason that, say, Ellen DeGeneres is popular: the camera loves him, and he excels at putting his subjects at ease.
At the start of each show, a female voice behind the camera asks Rubenstein to fix his tie. “People wouldn’t recognize me if my tie was fixed,” he says, before explaining to the viewer: “I began to take on the life of being an interviewer even though I have a day job running a private equity firm.”
How do you manage the work of these shows while doing your day job?
I’ve been afflicted with the workaholic gene. Maybe because I didn’t think I was as talented or as smart as my peers, I thought that I had to work harder. I work a long day and it keeps me out of trouble.
How did this new career develop?
Vernon Jordan, a prominent businessperson-lawyer in Washington, asked if I would succeed him as the President of the Economic Club of Washington, which was a group of about 300 businesspeople. And he said, “Your job is to get four businesspeople a year – one each quarter – just let them speak, then you take questions from the audience on cards that’ll be handed up to you.” So I started doing that, and I realized that businesspeople can be boring speakers.
And then I realized the questions that came from the audience were not that good. So I would make up my own questions, which tended to be somewhat humorous, to kind of lighten the otherwise dry speech that had been given. And then eventually, I concluded that it’d be better if I just asked questions myself, and just did the whole thing as an interview. So maybe six months or so into the whole process, I began doing interviews. I’ve now done 100 of them. And the membership has grown from 300 to 750.
How did “Peer to Peer” come about?
Somebody at Bloomberg who happened to be a member of the Economic Club of Washington approached me and said, “Why don’t you take this interview approach, or style, and we’ll do a TV show out of it.” I was game for it. After I did a couple, people seemed to like it. I don’t think I’m going to be winning an Emmy Award or anything for my interviews. But people do seem to like it.
You explicitly say that you’re not a journalist, yet your Oprah interview made news.
I asked her, “Well, now it’s clear you don’t need government experience to be President of the United States, would you consider running?” And she kind of played with the answer, saying, “Since you don’t need experience, maybe I will, who knows?” I don’t think she’s really running for President. But her answer made news, and that brought home to me that the reason Oprah won’t run for President is she’s got a better job than being President. Being Oprah is a great job. Being Oprah, anything she says, people pay attention to.
Why do so many celebrity executives want to be interviewed by you?
One reason maybe is this. I tell people I’m not a journalist. So I’m not trying to play “Gotcha,” I’m not trying to make news by embarrassing you, or getting you to say something you don’t want to say publicly. By and large, I know these people I’m interviewing, and you can argue that a strict journalist would say, “Well, David, by knowing these people so well, or maybe you’ve done business with them, you have conflicts.” But I’m not a journalist. I’m just having a conversation with somebody, and it works out.