Richard Rubin

Richard Rubin

THE NEWLY APPOINTED chair of the Commonwealth Club of California brings a wealth of political and public affairs experience to the 114-year-old San Francisco–based organization.

And that’s not the only change at the club. After more than a century of being a tenant, the Commonwealth Club is on the verge of moving into its own brand-new building in San Francisco. Strawberry’s Richard Rubin was recently named the chair of the nation’s oldest public affairs forum. Considering that he only served the club in an administrative capacity for two years before moving into the new position, one might think that Rubin is a little apprehensive. But when we sat down with him to talk about the club, as well as its past, present and future, we found a very confident and experienced man who is taking his duties very seriously, while ready to embrace the challenge of his chairmanship.

Before being appointed chair of the Commonwealth Club of California, you served as vice chair for two years. How long have you been involved in the administration of the club altogether?

Only for those two years. I’ve been a participant and an avid follower of its activities for a long time. The appointment to vice chair is a two-year term, and it always proceeds a chairmanship. I had no idea at all that this was ever going to happen. And no expectations. I knew about the club. I liked the club. That had drawn my interest, so I joined a long time ago. But I had no idea that at one time I would be holding a gavel.

Where did your interest in politics and government come about?

I’ve been involved in public affairs throughout my career in one manner or another, working for people in various levels of government. I was in Washington, D.C. for a long time — 10 years — working in a couple of senatorial offices, including for a fellow from California: John Tunney. I joined his staff in Washington years ago after I’d already served in an office of another senator, Harrison Williams, my first boss and a Democrat from New Jersey, which was my native home state. Politics and government have not merely been vocational for me; they’ve become almost a hobby as well.

So politics, government and policy get discussed quite a bit at the Commonwealth Club as a matter of course?

They interact all the time. And we are an advocacy organization with a nonpartisan stance. We do not take sides ideologically. Our principal interest is in giving organizations and individuals a chance to talk about themselves and what they do. The basic thing for us is, how interesting are they going to be to the public? We want to shine a light on subject matter that’s relevant. And there is always going to be something that’s worth talking about. We facilitate those discussions as well as or better than most organizations in the country and have done it for longer than any in the country.

How many talks and other events does the club put on?

We do 450 programs a year, about two-and-a-half per week on average, which is extraordinary. I don’t know another organization that puts on that many events. And they’re well attended. More than 70,000 people attend our events annually.

What might a fundraising project look like for the club?

We are just in the process of completing a $28 million capital campaign, the first ever in the history of the organization, to restore and move into a new building at 110 Embarcadero in San Francisco. This particular campaign is now approaching its closing chapter, and it was very much the work of the last chair, John Farmer. He and I came onto the board about the same time, and we put together an organizing committee that could identify individuals and organizations that wanted to be benefactors.

What was the story behind deciding to finally stop being a tenant after more than a century of paying rent?

You may be familiar with the name Shirley Temple Black. Ambassador Black was one of my predecessors as president of the board. Her vision was to have a building of our own for the club someday and now, these many years later, she’s gone but her vision is coming true.

Are there other people you regard as truly key to the Commonwealth Club?

One of the people I want to mention is Gloria Duffy. She’s our president and CEO. She does a phenomenal job of running the organization. She’s been there through all of the major events that have occurred over the past 20 years. She is the chief manager for the organization.

She was really behind the effort spearheading the new building, right?

Very much so. Gloria had been working on that well before I arrived, and we bought the building over five years ago when the plans were just beginning to be formulated for how it was going to be utilized. We had plenty of ideas, but none of them could come to fruition until we had bricks and mortar in place. Now we have that. Gloria has contributed immensely to the concepts that are going to underlie the building once it’s standing and open.

Is the club developing a healthy social media presence?

Very much. We’re on podcasts — 1 million podcasts are downloaded annually. We broadcast through TV and radio stations. We do video productions of the speeches and talks given by our speakers, which can be seen live, as they’re speaking. In the past four years we’ve had 5 million video views.

How difficult is it for people to join the club?

Not at all. They can go online or they can fill out a little form and send it in. They can get on the telephone and talk to somebody. There are any number of ways they can sign up. We make it as easy as possible for them to do that.

You don’t need to be sponsored by a member like some organizations insist upon?

No, you do not. It’s a wide-open membership opportunity. All you have to do is be interested in what we do and take advantage of it. There are different levels of participation available to members. Those who want to come to programs and not get more involved can do so. They can pick the lectures they want to hear and, with 450 programs to choose from, that’s quite a smorgasbord. I have yet to meet anybody who’s come away and said, “Gee, that wasn’t worth it.”

What do you see as your major areas of focus as your run as chair starts to really take hold?

In addition to the usual duties of conducting our meetings, formulating our agenda for the coming year in conjunction with Gloria Duffy, expanding our network of donors, and working closely with our committee chairs, I really am hoping to participate in offering strategic direction to meet our goals as one of the nation’s leading communication forums in a rapidly changing world.

How did you nurture your interest in politics?

I studied political science when I went to college. I was fortunate enough to have a professor at Columbia University whose name was Richard Neustadt — he was a very famous professor at the time; he ran the John Kennedy Institute. He was one of my teachers in one of my foreign policy seminars, and a brilliant human being whom I miss today. He wrote a book in 1960 called Presidential Power. It’s a small book but very important. In it he talks very much about the limitations on the power of the president, whoever he may be and whatever party he may be in.

What do you think when you look at the world of politics today through that lens that Neustadt helped to temper?

I’ve always been very interested in how, even in the worst of times in this country, things have a way of balancing themselves out when sensible people apply themselves to finding solutions. I can’t say that’s entirely the case today. I think we’ve gone astray. We have to bring dialogue back, civil dialogue. And that is one of the things that the Commonwealth Club prides itself on doing. Sponsoring civil dialogue.

Through the years, have there been favorite places where you and the family enjoyed hanging out in Marin?

The Discovery Museum has always been very high on our list. For many years we never missed it. Now my grandchildren are being taken when they visit. They [my kids] always loved hiking in the woods and we did a lot of that. They have really flourished in Marin County.