Alec and Hilaria Baldwin really could use a Howard J. Rubenstein just about now.
The Brooklyn-born publicist — who died this week, having risen from not-much materially to superstardom in his profession — was a master at extracting flap-jawed foolish people from messes of their own making; the Baldwins’ needs in this regard are manifest.
But Rubenstein also was pretty good at pulling otherwise smart but sometimes impolitic folks from the soup, too, as gracefully as circumstances would permit in a town as bumptious as New York City. His services were always in demand.
So it wasn’t for nothing that George Steinbrenner made sure Rubenstein got one of those door-knocker Yankees World Series rings back in the 1990s. “The Boss” was many things, but he did not lack for gratitude. And Howard — the “Mr. Rubenstein” was often unspoken but always assumed — wore it proudly.
Rubenstein died at home on Fifth Avenue, right across from the Metropolitan Museum of Art — not bad for a Bensonhurst boy who got his start promoting a single neighborhood nursing home. He was 88 and may well have outlived his era.
For he moved among powerful, headstrong people at a time when their interests often conflicted, but when compromise and comity had real utility, and when the idea was to keep the wheels of government and commerce turning as smoothly as possible.
And at this, Rubenstein was peerless. Once summoned, he responded with dignity and grace; you always suspected he was the smartest guy in the room, or close to it. But he didn’t project it and, indeed, that was part of the magic.
He had a famous client who wrote about the art of the deal, but nobody did that better than Rubenstein. He didn’t always operate in plain sight — let’s be real — but he proceeded honorably and, as far as I know, never with a hint of personal impropriety or partisan advantage-seeking.
He dealt in introductions, in conciliation and in the delineation of mutual benefits. He himself was neutral territory, and that was his superpower.
Once there was an afternoon gathering in Rubenstein’s home, called to introduce New York’s commercial-real-estate community to a new state political leader. It soon subtly became clear that the fellow expected to be leaving the meeting with a stack of checks, if not bags of cash.
But only business cards were changing hands, and pretty soon, the politician — miffed and mystified — announced that his principal goal was going to be the construction of high-speed rail to Buffalo. Now the real-estate folks, clearly but without saying so, were wondering why anyone would want to go to Buffalo in the first place. Things were heading south in a hurry.
That’s when Rubenstein came to the rescue: He made another round of introductions, bringing things back into focus and soon necessary relationships had been established, and not a single law had been broken — or even bruised.
Foolish people are offended by the notion that an industry that produces a third of New York City’s home-generated tax revenues — real estate — should have discrete access to the powerful. But men are not angels, and that’s going to happen anyway; the only real question is whether it occurs mostly in daylight or always in the dark.
Howard J. Rubenstein walked the high ground. He helped guide Gotham through decades of fiscal, social and political crises — and he did it honorably, with grace and a smile.
Howard was a real mensch. May he rest in peace.
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