Peter G. Peterson is an American entrepreneur, investment banker and politician. He served as United States Secretary of Commerce during the Nixon administration and was Chairman of the Council on Foreign Relations Council on Foreign Relations until his retirement in 2007. Peter co-founded the Blackstone Group, a private equity firm, in 1985 and retired in 2008 as its Senior Chairman. He is the author of the book Running On Empty: How The Democratic and Republican Parties Are Bankrupting Our Future and What Americans Can Do About It. Peterson was Chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank Federal Reserve Bank of New York from 2000 to 2004 and is founding Chairman of the Peter G. Peterson Institute for International Economics.
Well again, a lot of this has to do with my parents I think. I guess I have a philosophy of “God Bless America” generally. And I’m under no illusions. When I was Secretary of Commerce and I was President Nixon’s International Economic Advisor, I traveled all over the world and was deeply involved in the Council on Foreign Relations in the so-called Peterson Institute. I’d go all over the place, and have. And I’ve come to the realization: Pete Peterson, don’t take yourself too seriously here. There are probably no other places in the world, or damn few, for a person with your background to have achieved what you have achieved. So that’s another piece of dumb luck. To my knowledge, I had very little to do with where I was born and who my parents were. So that gives me a sense of profound gratitude for my good luck, and the fact that I was born and brought up here in the way I was brought up. And it’s very important for us private citizens to give back not only of our money and our philanthropic, but of ourselves. And my own theory about giving back – at least it’s the model that I somehow came to – is it’s great if you can make your giving back of your human capital, and your passions, and the things you care about, and tie that with your philanthropic financial capital so there’s a fusion between you as a person and your passions in what you want to change or do and your money. And that’s kind of a philosophy I’ve had. Well I think there are all kinds of faiths somehow. I have faith that one has been brought into this world for a reason. None of us would claim to understand that we don’t. And we have faith about various theories about how we came here. But then somehow, we’re lucky to be here for however long we are. And while we’re here, it makes eminent good sense to try in your infinitely small way to make this world a somewhat difference place, and a somewhat different better place than it would have been without you. And that involves helping society. It involves helping people. It involves a lot of things that’s involved with making the world a little bit better in your own small way. Now some people might call that faith. Why do you believe that? Is it because you’re gonna go to heaven? Or is it because . . . It just makes very good sense to be a good, productive, empathetic, sympathetic human being – a helpful human being. Now in my case, I was brought up in the Greek Orthodox Church, and it was all tied up with the difficult life that immigrant children had in this country. And I’m in no way suggesting my experience is unique. On the one hand you have your immigrant parents who are in a strange land, insecure, fearful to some extent, not feeling totally accepted. And they had children, and the children are kind of torn between two very powerful forces. They desire their parents to keep them in – in their society, with their customs, with their religions, with their holidays and so forth. And to marry girls, if you’re a boy, who are also of the same religion, and also of the same ethnic group. My mother for quite a long time had very nasty things to say about non-Greek girls, which had nothing to do with what they were. It had a lot to do with the fact that they weren’t Greek. And at some level you understand that. It’s totally understandable, and the religion is part of that. On the other hand, the children are brought up in America, and they will spend 98% of the time speaking English, learning English, learning American customs, learning what the society is all about out there, not in the small immigrant world. And the tension between those two worlds is not an easy one, at least it was not for me. I’m doing my memoirs now, and my life is the founder of Sesame Street – Sesame Workshop. So I know all about the Muppets, and which ones, and what they’re supposed to represent. But you remember Kermit the Frog does that song, “It’s Not Easy Being Green”. Well my first chapter in my book is gonna be, “It Wasn’t That Easy Being Greek”. It talks about the travails of a young child who was torn between these two groups and having different religions, and having these bearded priests and, you know, who looked different, and speak differently and so forth. And a lot of children, you know, wanna be accepted. They wanna be a part of their peer group and so forth. So that often makes them perhaps a little bit less whetted to their earlier religion than they ought to be. And that probably describes me.
Recorded On: 7/26/07