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Icons help tell America’s story, says philanthropist David Rubenstein

LOS ANGELES – What qualifies as an icon? If anyone can look at a picture and immediately identify it, says philanthropist David M. Rubenstein, it’s an icon.

“Everybody has a sense of what it means,” he explains. Often, icons will fall out of favor or disappear. The Ambassador hotel, for example, isn’t around anymore. But, for years, it was iconic because it was the place where Robert Kennedy was assassinated.

“Andy Warhol took something everybody recognized – like the Campbell’s soup can – and made it a work of art,” Rubenstein says.

To get the discussion going, the history buff hosts “Iconic America: Our Symbols and Stories with David Rubenstein” and digs into such likely suspects as the Hollywood sign, the Gadsden Flag, the Golden Gate Bridge, the Statue of Liberty and the American Bald Eagle.

Among the surprises: “Many people think the eagle is our national bird,” Rubenstein says. “We don’t have a national bird. So we wanted to educate people.”

In the eight-part series on PBS, the lifelong collector tells the story behind the icons and what makes them stand out. Some, like the cowboy, for example, aren’t what you think. “Cowboys were not fighting Indians,” Rubenstein says. “They weren’t even carrying guns. They, basically, were just dealing with cattle and it was a tough, tough job.”

While Mount Rushmore would certainly be on a list of icons (“if we did another eight, that would probably be a good one to do”), it does have its share of controversy. The carver, Gutzon Borglum, for example, was behind Stone Mountain (which is in the series) and has a controversial background. “Some of these stories go much deeper than we would even expect,” Rubenstein says. “I know a reasonable amount about American history for a non-professional, but I was astounded to learn some of the things I learned about these symbols.”

Richard Nixon, for example, was among the first to wear a flag pin on his lapel. Subliminally, it said, “he’s more patriotic than I am if I’m not wearing it.” The trend stretched to other Republicans (Ronald Reagan, for one, who liked to speak in front of a grouping of flags) and, finally, “Democrats figured out it was a good thing.”

The Hollywood sign has a history as well. It was first used to identify a housing subdivision then became a symbol of glamour, success and fame. Today, it immediately identifies the place where movies are made.

Rubenstein hit on the idea about icons after talking with friends about citizens’ knowledge of American history. “You can graduate from almost any college in this country without having to take an American history course,” he says. “In fact, you can major in history in most colleges without having taken an American history course.

“Surveys show things like two-thirds of Americans do not know how many branches there are in the federal government.” (The answer: Three: legislative, judicial and executive.)

A student of history, Rubenstein collected artifacts since he was a child. He owns a copy of the Magna Carta, “more copies of the Declaration of Independence than anybody” and other historic documents.

“I put them on display so people can see them and learn more about our history,” he says. “The theory is, if we have a more educated population, we’ll have a more informed democracy.”

The one he’s still seeking: The Gettysburg Address. “There are only five copies of that. Lincoln actually wrote out five copies and they’re hard to get. I also have one of the largest collections of American history books and more copies of the Federalist Papers than anybody.”

The future for those collections? “You can do one of three things: give them to a museum, sell them and take the profit or use it as a charitable contribution, or give them to your children,” Rubenstein says. “I have three children and they have no interest in any of my collections, so I could give them to a museum. It’s in my will, if I die tomorrow. But I’m always changing my mind.”

“Iconic America: Our Symbols and Stories with Rubenstein” airs on PBS. 

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