Pete Peterson, who rose from humble origins in Kearney, Neb., to become a billionaire New York power broker, is certainly living the American dream. But it's a dream that Peterson says has fallen into peril. So now the 83-year-old is focusing his vast fortune on finding solutions to the fiscal imprudence he believes is jeopardizing the country.
In his new book, "The Education of an American Dreamer," Peterson unfolds his rags-to-riches story, from his childhood as the son of Greek immigrants running a 24-hour diner in Nebraska to his life as a billionaire Wall Street tycoon. Recently he sat down with "Nightline's" Cynthia McFadden to talk about his book, his life and his outlook.
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Peterson credits much of his success to his upbringing. His parents moved to the United States when they were both 17. His father took a job on the railroad and saved money to open a 24-hour Greek diner. Peterson, who began working at the diner at the tender age of 8, said his father was the hardest-working man he's ever seen.
"I got a tradition out of him, unconsciously maybe, of a work ethic," said Peterson. "[Another] thing I loved about him: he believed in the American dream, not just for himself, but for his kids."
And with that background, Peterson excelled. He left Kearney to study at Northwestern University and the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business. By the age of 34 he was the youngest CEO of a Fortune 300 Company, president of Bell & Howell. While there, he spurred innovation, including the creation of the boom box.
At age 45, Peterson was tapped by President Richard Nixon to be Secretary of Commerce, becoming the first Greek-American ever appointed to a Cabinet post. Peterson left the administration just before Watergate.
"I didn't get along very well with the White House staff," Peterson said, echoing his public statements at the time. "The next thing you know, I am this courageous, far-seeing, prescient person who anticipated what they were. I got fired is what the truth was."
Where one door closed, others opened, and by 1985 Peterson had founded his own company, the Blackstone Group. Blackstone would become one of the most successful private-equity firms in history. But success for Peterson has never been measured in dollars and cents.
"[Money was] not nearly as important as achievement. No question about it," he said. "I've never been overly money-hungry because my father's lesson would stick in my head."
And when Blackstone went public two years ago, Pete Peterson, then 81, became an instant billionaire. His windfall: $1.8 billion.
"It was such an amount of money that I wanted to confirm it was true," he recalled. "I had my assistant call the bank and ask, 'Did you really get a check for this much money?'" Indeed, the bank had.
No stranger to fiscal policy, Peterson said the nation's current economic difficulties require more than a quick fix. And he does not believe that fix is contained in the Obama administration's policies.
"They're dealing with an unprecedented situation due to a bad habit this country has gotten into," said Peterson. "We spend far too much, we borrow too much, and we save too little.
"I've gotten so much out of this country. ... And as I get older, I think, how much have I given back? I've taken out a hell of a lot more than I've given back, so I'm trying to make up for that."