David: This is my kitchen table and also my filing system.
David, voice-over: Over much of the past 3 decades, I've been an investor...
The highest calling of mankind, I've often thought, was private equity.
[Laughter] David, voice-over: And then I started interviewing.
David: I watch your interview show so I know how to do some interviewing.
David, voice-over: I've learned from doing my interviews how leaders make it to the top... Jeff Bezos: I asked him how much he wanted.
He said, "250."
I said, "Fine."
I didn't negotiate with him.
I did no due diligence.
David: I have something I'd like to sell.
David, voice-over: and how they stay there.
David: You don't feel inadequate now because being only the second-wealthiest man in the world, is that right?
[Laughter] As a young boy, my parents brought me to the Smithsonian because I lived in Baltimore and it was free.
And I came to love the Smithsonian.
So when I had a chance about a dozen years ago to become a regent of the Smithsonian, I jumped at the opportunity, and I got to meet somebody who was then building the African American History and Culture Museum, Lonnie Bunch.
And I recognized from the start that he was a gifted museum director.
He started with nothing to build that museum, and now made it into one of the most popular museums in the entire country.
Barack Obama: I am so proud of Lonnie Bunch.
We could not be prouder of the work that he has done to help make this day possible.
David: And then a vacancy came along to be the secretary of the Smithsonian.
I was a chair of the search committee, and we looked at many candidates around the country.
It was clear that Lonnie Bunch was the best person to be the secretary.
He knew the Smithsonian, he was committed to the Smithsonian.
His life was the Smithsonian, so it was an easy choice.
We're at the Udvar-Hazy museum, which is part of the Smithsonian, and Lonnie Bunch is the 14th secretary of the Smithsonian.
You were the first African American to be selected as secretary and the first historian, is that right?
Lonnie Bunch: That's right, and I'm very proud and glad to be with you today.
David: And I should disclose that I was the chairman of the Smithsonian at one point.
I'm still on the board of the Smithsonian, but I will ask tough questions anyway.
Lonnie: Ha ha!
I appreciate that.
David: So now that you've been the secretary for a while, is the job as good as you thought it was going to be and you're happy to have it?
Lonnie: I think that no one knew what it was like to lead during a pandemic, but what has happened as a result of that, I've really learned the wonders of the Smithsonian when it comes together.
You know, the Smithsonian is often a conglomerate of museums and research centers and that doesn't always blend, but because of this pandemic, people have come together, crossed lines, brought their creativity-- scientists, historians, educators.
So for me, I'm really glad because I'm getting to see what the Smithsonian does even in the most difficult of times when it comes together and brings its creativity to bear.
David: How did you operate during the COVID-19 situation?
What did you do in terms of operating the zoo and all the research institutions and your 19 museums?
Lonnie: What I realized is that once we shut down the buildings, that I needed the Smithsonian to still be operating, so we really--went to everything online.
We created educational opportunities, portals that would allow people-- educators to get our science, our history, our art.
We've made it so that scholars could continue to do the research, the scientists could do the work they needed to do.
But the reality is that we recognize that now as a result of this virus, we've got to rethink so much about the Smithsonian.
We've got to rethink about how we telework more effectively.
We've got to think about once people come back, what does social distancing mean in a museum?
Because, as you know, the major thing that happens in a museum is people who don't know each other come together around an artifact, like the Shuttle.
And so are people going to want to come together in a time of pandemic?
So we're really thinking about, How do we create community, even with social distancing?
David: Now, where did you operate from when COVID-19 was prevalent?
Lonnie: Well, because there were some guards that had to work, I thought I would go into the office, but I realized that if I went into the office, so many other people would come in.
So I ended up working from home, and I learned to master Zoom.
And sort of, other technologies I'm still fighting with, but basically work from home every day.
David: Now, museums have been around for thousands of years, but now with Zoom and virtual technologies, why do we really need museums?
Why can't you just look on the screen and see what you need to see?
Lonnie: I think there is something powerful about the object.
I mean, the fact that you can see the Space Shuttle right in front of you is really powerful.
You feel the connection.
I've seen throughout my career people stand in front of a copy of the "Emancipation Proclamation" or Chuck Berry's candy-apple red Cadillac, and it stimulates conversation, so that in essence what we should do at the Smithsonian is find the right tension between tradition and innovation.
We have to recognize that the traditional stuff is good and we want people to enjoy it, but now we also recognize that as a result of the pandemic, more people are comfortable receiving content digitally.
So it really means that we just need to find the right balance between serving the millions that will never get to a museum and the millions that actually come to the Smithsonian.
David: So, what's the biggest challenge you have at the Smithsonian right now other than getting ready for opening again after COVID?
And what's the biggest challenge?
Is it fundraising, dealing with members of Congress?
What is the biggest challenge?
Lonnie: I think first of all, the challenge is-- to make sure that the Smithsonian has the stable funding it needs.
Because of the pandemic, we've lost millions of dollars, people aren't going to the restaurants and shops, which has an impact on our research and on staff, so really trying to make sure we have the strongest financial model, because what it really means is we've got to rethink some things.
So, rather than just reopen our shops, we've got to build more e-commerce.
So this is really allowing us to think creatively about what the Smithsonian should be.
David: And what about the lessons you've learned?
What lessons have you personally learned, and how are you going to change your life as a result of all this?
Lonnie: What I've learned is, one of the big lessons is, that I don't have to put my fingerprints on everything, that I've got good people working and that we can--you know, in other words, I used to think I had to be there.
I don't have to be there.
The other thing, though, I learned, maybe more than anything else, is the fragility of human life and the fragility of fairness in this country.
So the pandemic, the dual pandemics of the virus and racism, have really inspired me even more to sort of struggle to help a country understand itself better and to find a country that's freer and fairer.
David: Now, during the COVID closing of the museums, we had some race riots in Washington and other cities around the country in reaction to the death of a number of people, such as George Floyd.
How is the Smithsonian reacting to that?
Lonnie: I thought it was really important to realize that in some ways, the Smithsonian's the glue that holds the nation together and it's the kind of place that can bring people of different political points of view together.
So, when all of the sort of angst and the pains happened as a result of the murder of George Floyd and others, I realized that the Smithsonian had a role to play, that we should be a place that would help the public grapple with the things that have divided us.
So one of the things we did was we got support from Bank of America and created a program that looks at race, community, and our shared future, to basically say, "How do we create town halls", an opportunity for people to come together to talk about what has divided us?
How do we use the resource of the Smithsonian, our expertise on African-American culture to give people the kind of historical guidance to help them live their lives?
David: Now, the Smithsonian itself, what about the diversity in the Smithsonian workforce and your executives who help run the museums?
Lonnie: I think the Smithsonian, like many places, has a lot of work to do.
I'm very pleased that we've got some diverse leadership.
We've got strong, diverse people in different parts of the Smithsonian, but I think that the Smithsonian needs to do a better job because if we're going to help the public grapple with these issues, we've got to model it.
David: Now there's a story that the secretary of the Smithsonian, when they had the Lafayette Park riots, or whatever you want to call them, that he was wandering around, looking for artifacts he could pick up and take to the Smithsonian.
Any truth to that?
Lonnie: Old curators can't break their habits.
I was down at Lafayette Square talking to people, looking at some of the material that was on the walls, collecting some for the Smithsonian but really directing others, saying, "Here's some stuff we should have."
David: Well, you're walking around there, and you're saying, "I'm the secretary of the Smithsonian.
Can I have this?"
And the police are saying, "Oh, sure."
Lonnie: Ha ha!
Well, I had to show my ID.
David: OK, so you didn't get arrested.
So, let's talk about your background a moment.
You grew up in New Jersey.
Lonnie: In the Garden State.
In the Garden State.
And what did you want to be when you were growing up?
I assume not secretary of the Smithsonian, right?
Lonnie: I didn't know what the Smithsonian was, but I wanted to do something with history.
I've always loved history.
And the story that is an absolutely true story is that my grandfather died the day before I turned 5.
And he would read to me, and he would read books.
And one day he was reading a book, and it had a picture of schoolchildren.
And it was probably from the 1860s.
And he said to me that the picture said "Unidentified children."
And then he said something I've never forgotten.
He said, "Isn't it a shame people could live their lives, die, and all it says is 'Unidentified'?"
And that got me trying to figure out, How do I understand what their lives were like?
And I began to look at photographs as a little kid and tried to imagine, what were their jobs, were they happy?
And it got me interested in history.
So that was the first step.
And the second step was, growing up in the town I grew up in, there were very few African Americans.
In fact, I was the only African-American in my elementary school.
And there were people that treated me horribly and others that treated me wonderfully, and I thought if I understood the history of this town, maybe they'd understand me.
And so it was both first a personal journey to understand myself, but then it was recognizing that history was, and still is, a wonderful tool that could help people live their lives.
And so, it became my calling to help a country understand itself better by understanding the past.
David: When you were younger, your father would drive you to the South, but you couldn't stop in many places, except one place that he did take you.
Lonnie: So we would drive from New Jersey to visit my mother's family in North Carolina, and this was in Jim Crow era.
So we would load the car up with food and blankets because he knew we couldn't stop.
And he was the only driver in those days.
David: Couldn't stop because there was no place you could-- Lonnie: Because there was no place that would let Black people stop.
And so I remember he was falling asleep, and he pulled off, and he pulled into a motor court.
You know, and he pulled in, and my mother and my brother were asleep.
And I was watching him, and he went out to smoke a cigarette.
And I noticed he was standing under a sign that said, "White only," and I was terrified.
I thought something's going to happen, and I was just a wreck.
He finally comes back into the car.
He recognizes that I'm really worried, and he said to me something I've never forgotten.
He said, "You know, this is my America, too."
And it reminded me that no matter what happened, this is part of my country, and I want to do whatever I can to make it fairer.
David: And did he ever bring you to the Smithsonian?
And why did he bring you to the Smithsonian?
Lonnie: For me, when we used to go south, we would go past the museums-- say, the museums in Richmond and Petersburg.
And like many kids, I was a Civil War buff.
And so I wanted desperately to stop.
And he would always find an excuse not to stop.
And on the way back, I remember picking out a map and plotting, saying, "OK, there are 20 miles before we get to Richmond or Petersburg," and I would sort of alert him, but he would always keep going.
But then instead of driving straight to New Jersey, he pulled into Washington and he pulled in front of the Smithsonian.
And he said, "Here is a place where you can go learn "about yourself in a museum and not worry about the color of your skin."
So for me, the Smithsonian was always a place of fairness, that for a 12- or 13-year-old kid, this was a place that said to me, "Here you can be "who you want, you can learn all you want, and not worry about the color of your skin."
So being secretary in a way was my way of thanking an institution that embraced me when few places did.
David: So you came to Washington to get your undergraduate education at American University in history.
Lonnie: I did my graduate work there.
David: So, you're an African-American male, in--this is the 1960s, '70s?
1970s, late '70s.
David: So were there lots of job opportunities?
Lonnie: Ha ha!
There were very few teaching jobs.
And I remember at the end of my graduate career, I was broke.
I was living on a teaching assistant's salary, and there was a returning student.
She was 40 years old, and she said to me, "You should go down to the Smithsonian," because her husband worked there, "and you could maybe get a job."
And I remember saying to her, "Who works at the Smithsonian?
It's where you take dates because it's free."
I mean, that was my notion of the Smithsonian.
Well, I went down and the man-- her husband was the head of science, David Challinor.
He introduced me to the secretary, S. Dillon Ripley.
I didn't know who the secretary was, and I'm not going to get a job.
So, I'm in jeans, I've got a big afro, and I sit there, because I'm not going to get a job, very comfortable, and we talked for two and a half hours.
Then he says, you know, "We might want to hire you."
I said, "Really?"
I said, "I wouldn't mind working at the Museum of History and Technology," and he said to me, "We don't have any jobs there.
We only have a job at the Air and Space Museum."
And I said, "I'm a 19th century historian.
I know nothing about air or space, and I hate airplanes."
And then he said language that was so instructive to me as a secretary.
He said, "Young man, how much money are you making now?"
And I told him.
He said, "You'll make four times that if you become-- and work for me at the Air and Space Museum."
I said, "I'll become an Air and Space employee."
And that's really how my career began, by luck.
David: You also met your wife there?
Lonnie: Air and Space was everything.
I met my wife there.
I learned about how to be a curator there.
I learned about the wonders of the Smithsonian.
So for me, my whole life has been shaped in part by the Smithsonian.
David: So you were recruited away for a while to go to California and a museum there.
And what was that?
Lonnie: I went away to run, to be the first curator of the California African American Museum.
It was the first state-funded museum that explored issues of race.
And I went there before the Olympics of 1984.
So my big job was to do a major exhibition on the history of Blacks in the Olympics.
You know, and the Smithsonian taught me how to be a scholar.
It didn't really teach me how to be a curator, so I had to learn everything: how to deal with the press and how to curate exhibitions, and it turned out to be a wonderful experience.
I learned so much.
I was there for, sort of, six years.
And then Roger Kennedy, who was the director of the Museum of American History, said, "Why don't you come back?"
And I said, "Wait a minute.
"I'm living in California.
I got a house in Pasadena.
"I go to the beach every Saturday.
Why should I come back?"
And he said to me that the Smithsonian is the place you get to have the greatest impact if you care about history.
And he convinced me to come back.
David: You came back, but then you were recruited away to run the Chicago Historical Society.
So you moved to Chicago, is that right?
Lonnie: That's right.
I was at American History for 12 years and wasn't going to leave, and Chicago recruited me, and I really wasn't planning on going, but I had a meeting with the mayor and the governor of Illinois, and they said, "This is a city that has been tortured by race.
"And if you could come and be the only African American "running one of our major institutions and do well, what an impact you could have."
And that appealed to me, so I came back, and I came to Chicago and loved it and had planned to stay there the rest of my career, when I got the call to think about, Would you like to come back and help build the National Museum of African American History and Culture?
David: So there was a secretary then, who called you, and that was Larry Small.
Lonnie: Larry Small.
David: And he said, "Come back and build this museum."
And you came back, and you ultimately took the job, but why did you take it?
Because there was no money, there was no land, there was no plan.
And did you know all that?
Lonnie: You know, I wasn't sure how many no's there were.
I knew that there was no plan, and I knew that there was no site, but I didn't know there were no staff.
But what I realized is that being an African American running a major museum in Chicago nurtured my soul.
I was really happy, but I realized that if I could help build this museum, we could really both nurture the souls of my ancestors, but we could help America really grapple with race, so that's what brought me back.
David: Now, the museum opened right before President Obama left office, and that was 2016... Lonnie: '16.
David: And a very memorable ceremony.
But before we got to that ceremony, you had to get an architect to build a building, get a site, raise the money, and get the artifacts.
So let's go through that.
Let's take the money.
How much did it cost to build that museum?
Lonnie: The museum basically cost $550 million to build.
And we raised about 620 million to do that.
Half of it was paid by the federal government and half by wonderful philanthropists and donors.
David: Did you ever think you could raise that much from the private sector when you started?
Lonnie: When I told my mother that I had to raise that amount of money, she said, "That's more money than God can count."
So I wasn't sure, but one of my great strengths is to be able to sort of look at the big picture and then put my head down and do the work.
And so slowly but surely, it began to work.
David: I should point out, your mother is 93 years old.
Lonnie: My mother is 93 years old, still with us.
And one of her great days was actually coming when I became secretary.
David: So when you got the money from the Congress and you got the money from the private sector, and then you had to figure out, What are you going to put in the museum?
How many artifacts did you inherit?
We had no artifacts whatsoever.
And at some point I thought, "Well, do we just do it without artifacts?"
But it's the Smithsonian.
People come to see the Wrights' Flyer or the ruby slipper.
So we needed to find these objects, and I didn't know exactly how to do it.
And one day I sort of fell asleep in front of the television, and I woke up, and "Antique Roadshow" was on.
I had never heard of it, and so I suddenly said, "What a great idea!"
So I stole the idea, called it "Saving African American Treasures," and we took curators and conservators from around the Smithsonian and went around the country and helped people preserve Grandma's old shawl or that 19th-century photograph, and then people would bring things out and say, "Do you want this?"
And suddenly we found amazing things that I wasn't sure we could find.
David: How many artifacts total did you get?
Lonnie: We collected over 40,000 artifacts, of which about 4,000 were on display.
David: And 75% of them came from people's basements?
Lonnie: 75% came from basements, trunks, and attics of people's homes.
David: Of the most well-known of those, was it Nat Turner's bible or Harriet Tubman's shawl?
Lonnie: I think Harriet Tubman's shawl was really what convinced me we could do this.
Harriet Tubman was the great abolitionist, led many people to freedom, was a union spy during the Civil War.
And I didn't know if we could find things by people like her, and we had done one of these Antique Roadshows.
And the next day, I got a call from a collector, who said he had material on Harriet Tubman.
Now, as a 19th century historian, my first response was, "No, you don't.
I don't have time to come see you," and he said, "Well, look, I'm only in Philadelphia.
Come on up."
And I came up, and he was this very big man, and he pulled out a box.
And it had pictures of Harriet Tubman shawl I had never seen.
And I was so moved by it, and he began to pull things out, and he had Harriet Tubman's shawl that was given to her by Queen Victoria, and amazing collections, like a hymnal that had all those spirituals she would sing.
But then I thought-- I got scared.
I said, he's going to ask for money.
I don't have any money, and I finally said to him, "What's it going to take for this to come to the Smithsonian?"
He said, "Shake my hand," and that generosity of the American public is what led to the creation of this museum.
David: And how many people have visited so far?
Lonnie: Over 7.5 million people.
David: And it's one of the few museums at the Smithsonian up to now where you don't-- you can't just walk in because you need tickets because the demand is so great.
And did you expect the demand to be that great?
Lonnie: I did.
And I knew it would be popular.
It's the Smithsonian, but it really has become a pilgrimage site for many people: for African Americans, for non-African Americans, and we expected 4,000 people a day.
We were getting 8,000 people a day.
So we had to actually say, you have to have tickets to get people in because the crowds were so great.
David: So every congressman and senator is calling you for tickets, I assume.
Lonnie: I am everybody's best friend.
Everybody wants tickets.
I would go to the grocery store, and people would stop me and say, "Can I get a ticket?"
Barack Obama: This national museum helps to tell a richer and fuller story of who we are.
It reaffirms that all of us are America, that African-American history is not somehow separate from our larger American story.
It's not the underside of the American story.
It is central to the American story.
George W. Bush: I do want to give a shout-out to Lonnie.
It's really important to understand this project would not and could not have happened without his drive, his energy, and his optimism.
David: Let's go back to the opening day.
So you worked on this for how many years?
Lonnie: 11 years.
David: 11 years.
You started with nothing.
It opens in September of, uh... Lonnie: 2016.
And who is there?
Who are the dignitaries?
Lonnie: It became a who's who.
I mean, on the stage was President and Mrs. Bush, President and Mrs. Obama.
I was seated next to John Lewis.
The chief justice was there, other senior people from the Smithsonian.
And in the audience were a who's who.
Almost every political figure was there, so many people from entertainment and sport.
And what I was so moved by is the people who wanted to participate in the program, Oprah Winfrey and Will Smith and Robert De Niro, so that it really became more than I could have ever imagined.
It was less an opening of a museum and more a celebration of a culture.
David: So were you worried that something would go wrong that day?
Lonnie: I was terrified.
I was terrified that I would mess up, I was terrified that somebody would not enjoy themselves, I was terrified that we wouldn't get the crowds that I hoped, and instead we got tens of thousands of people on the mall.
It became an opportunity where I thought, some of the best speechmaking I've ever heard.
I thought President Bush gave a powerful speech about how a great nation confronts its history, it doesn't run from it.
President Obama talked, oh, just beautifully, about what this meant to him and his family, but, clearly, the late John Lewis stole the show, talked about how this museum was the culmination of the Civil Rights movement for him and that this was really something that he was proudest of.
And I'll be honest, I was so grateful to be able to help fulfill his dream.
It was just a special day.
David: President Bush 43 had signed the legislation that approved the museum, and President Obama was president when it was opened.
I think he said to you, "Make sure it's open while I'm in office."
Is that right?
Lonnie: He did.
He would say to me, "You've got to let me cut the ribbon."
And so that was great.
I would go to the construction people and say, "I was talking to the president.
He says we got to move a little quicker," so that helped.
David: It worked.
So most people don't have a chance to do two great things in life.
One great thing is pretty good for people.
You built this museum, you deserve the lion's share of the credit, if not all the credit, to take it from nothing to this great museum that's very popular and so forth.
Why did you want to be the Smithsonian's secretary?
Because, as your mother would say to you, "What do you need that for?
You already have a great job."
And, besides, you have the best office in Washington.
You have a great view of the Washington Monument, the top of the African American History and Culture Museum.
Why did you want this job?
Lonnie: Because you told me to.
What I really realized is that I loved what I did, and I knew that I had the best view, I could see everything.
The story is I took President Obama through the museum, and he came to my office, and he said, "You got a better view than I do."
And I said, "Well, you only worked 8 years.
I worked 11."
But I realized that I didn't need to accomplish anything, so I could give everything to the Smithsonian.
This was really my opportunity to say, How do I bring, you know, more than 25 years of Smithsonian experience to the fore?
How do I give back to the place that has meant so much to me?
And how do I help the Smithsonian really rethink itself as a 21st-century institution?
David: Why do you regard this as an important job for you to do?
Because you're an African American, because you're an American?
Why do you care about the Smithsonian so much?
Lonnie: In part, as an American, the Smithsonian is this amazing treasure, that it really is a reservoir that the public can dip into to not just understand the past but to have a better sense about who we are now and really point us towards a better future.
It is a reservoir that says, You want to understand about space?
We're here to do that.
You want to understand about our history?
We're also able to help you do that.
You want to see the creativity of people artistically?
We're here to do that as well.
So in some ways, the Smithsonian really is a great source of information and creativity that I want the public to really draw from.
And so I feel honored to be the secretary--I feel humbled, to be honest-- to be the secretary because every day, I learn something new.
And I want the public to be able to learn from the Smithsonian every day.