Against a backdrop of exhibits at New York’s Museum of American Finance highlighting the U.S.’s financial history, Blackstone Group LP Chairman Emeritus Peter G. Peterson told patrons and supporters of the museum that the country’s future could be harmed by its national debt.
“I think the American dream is threatened,” Peterson, 84, said last night to about 170 attendees at the Wall Street museum’s 2011 gala dinner. “It’s very important that we start educating the country about why this is important.”
The U.S. has accumulated more than $14 trillion of debt and had a $1.3 trillion budget deficit in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, according to government figures.
The museum honored Peterson at the dinner with the John C. Whitehead Award for Distinguished Public Service and Financial Leadership for his work spanning the private and public sectors. A former chief executive of Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. and a U.S. Secretary of Commerce under President Richard Nixon in the 1970s, Peterson has focused on studying the effect of public and global debt through the foundation he started in 2008.
“My parents came here without a word of English and they worked and worked and worked and saved and saved, and here I am the lucky beneficiary,” Peterson, the Nebraska-born son of Greek immigrants, said in an interview before the gala. “I’m concerned whether the American dream is going to be there for my children and nine grandchildren.”
The annual gala has honored Wall Street titans such as Peterson and former Federal Reserve System Chairman Paul Volcker to raise the 22-year-old museum’s visibility and increase the number of its supporters and patrons.
Last night’s dinner raised more than $425,000 and included William H. Donaldson, former chairman of the Securities & Exchange Commission; last year’s Whitehead Award recipient, Muriel Siebert, president of Muriel Siebert & Co., who was the first woman to own a seat on the New York Stock Exchange; and John C. Whitehead, former co-chairman of Goldman Sachs Group Inc., after whom the award was named.
“John is a particularly close friend of mine,” Peterson said about Whitehead. “He called and asked me to be the honoree. Normally, what John asks me to do, I do it.”
Before the dinner, Peterson joked about Whitehead’s reputation for being a tough leader and asked the former Goldman executive if he was going to say nice things about him in his introduction.
“He scares you,” Whitehead later told the audience about Peterson’s debt concern, after the dinner of filet of beef. “But you should be scared.”
Peterson, who created Blackstone with Stephen Schwarzman in 1985, turned his focus to philanthropy in 2007 after receiving about $1.9 billion in proceeds from the New York-based private equity firm’s initial public offering that year. The Peter G. Peterson Foundation works to educate the public and elected officials about the dangers posed by government deficits, unchecked spending and insufficient savings to the U.S. economy.
Last year, Peterson joined the Giving Pledge, a campaign launched by Microsoft Corp. founder Bill Gates and Berkshire Hathaway Inc. Chairman Warren Buffett to persuade other American billionaires to give away most of their money to charity. Peterson said in an interview that Buffett, also a native of Nebraska, called him last summer about joining the pledge.
Those who have joined the Giving Pledge include Paul G. Allen, Eli and Edythe Broad, Barry Diller and Diane von Furstenberg, David Rockefeller and Citigroup Chairman Emeritus Sanford Weill and his wife, Joan Weill.
“I accepted the pledge immediately,” Peterson said. “I had all the money I needed, and I wanted to devote my life to a problem that threatened the American dream.”
To contact the reporters on this story: Patrick Cole in New York at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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