Veteran committee man Rubin suited for new economic hot seat

December 28, 1992|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- Coming to town next month: the complet committee man to head the newest White House committee.

From the rarefied atmosphere of the Securities and Exchange Commission's market oversight panel to the ground-level gatherings of the New York mayor's economic advisory group, Robert E. Rubin has had a seat at many tables.

His biography lists no fewer than 32 committees, boards and trusts. It is a background that should serve him well as director of the newly invented National Economic Council in Bill Clinton's White House.

He will play the "honest broker" for ideas and initiatives that will determine whether this country gets its economic house in order or sees the foundations crumble further.

His job will be to coordinate policy among powerful agencies and personalities, to referee departmental differences, and set economic priorities for the president's consideration. No one expects it to be easy.

Former vice president Walter F. Mondale, who tapped Mr. Rubin to be one of his chief advisers during his 1984 presidential campaign, predicts he will have to fight for his survival.

"You can bet where some of the fights will break out," Mr. Mondale said. "You'll have pro-Treasury, pro-Commerce, pro-CEA [Council of Economic Advisers] types trying to shoot down the new institution which requires them to coordinate through this new officer in the White House."

But Mr. Rubin, 54, slight of stature, mild of manner, a surprisingly gray, self-effacing presence for such a successful and powerful money man, appears well-equipped to cope with the pressures.

A virtual stranger to Washington, Mr. Rubin comes from one of the most successful financial services houses in New York -- Goldman, Sachs & Co. He joined the private banking partnership 26 years ago, rising to co-senior partner and co-chairman, establishing the firm as a market leader in underwriting, mergers, acquisitions and international finance, and making his personal fortune.

In 1989 the bank ran afoul of federal regulators, and one of its senior operators pleaded guilty to insider trading, but Mr. Rubin was not implicated.

How rich is Mr. Rubin? It's impossible to tell. Goldman, Sachs' books are private. But, according to the Wall Street Journal, Mr. Rubin's share of the 1991 profits was $15 million, and the firm this year is estimated to earn record pretax profits of as much as $7 billion, promising him another fortune.

"When you get into those kind of numbers, it doesn't matter," said longtime Rubin friend Donald Kummerfeld, former banker with First Boston and now president of Magazine Publishers of America. "Bob never has to work again in his life."

He has been politically generous, giving $100,000 to Democratic fund-raising committees over the past two years. He and his wife, Hilary, contributed $275,000 toward the New York Democratic Convention last year, when he headed the city's host committee.

Mr. Rubin is one of a small group of extremely wealthy Democrats on resoundingly Republican Wall Street. They include Roger B. Altman, tapped by Mr. Clinton to be deputy treasury secretary under Texas Sen. Lloyd Bentsen, and Felix Rohatyn, senior partner at Lazard Freres & Co., who was invited to speak at Mr. Clinton's economic summit in Little Rock, Ark., earlier this month.

"They tend to be fiscal conservatives, or moderates, but at the same time care about social priorities that are more Democratic than Republican," said Mr. Kummerfeld.

Mr. Rubin has demonstrated an intense interest in the problems of poverty and the inner city. He volunteered to chair a committee on urban problems for the Commission on Competitiveness created by New York Gov. Mario Cuomo.

In the commission's recently published "America's Agenda: Rebuilding Economic Strength," Mr. Rubin wrote:

"America's inner cities are in a state of crisis -- a crisis that needs to be addressed if our nation is to renew its economic strength in the 1990s. . . . Poverty and its associated problems are creating deep social, economic, and racial cleavages within America -- divisions that are eroding the bonds of mutuality upon which all democratic governance is based."

His proposed solution: education and welfare reform, improved health care, new urban economic initiatives, all bolstered by the self-help of community action. It was pure Clinton philosophy.

But Mr. Rubin pointedly distanced himself from the Cuomo Commission's call for an economic growth package that would increase the deficit by $70 billion in 1993, saying he had "no view" on whether or not there should be an economic jump-start. Such neutrality is in line with Mr. Clinton's own caution as he waits for the latest available economic figures next month before making a judgment.

For all the electric efficiency at Goldman, Sachs, the firm has, according to Wall Street insiders, a strikingly low turnover in personnel and an impressively high level of the sort of collegiality Mr. Clinton underscored in selecting his economic team.

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