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Behind the Koch Brothers: New Book Spills the Secrets of Nation’s Most Powerful and Private Dynasty

The Koch brothers’ net worth tops $100 billion, currently tying for fourth on the Forbes 400 list of wealthiest Americans.

Charles and David Koch have funneled millions of dollars to conservative candidates and causes over the last four decades while working tirelessly to open the floodgates for money in politics. The Koch brothers’ net worth tops $100 billion, currently tying for fourth on the Forbes 400 list of wealthiest Americans. Their rise to becoming two of the nation’s most powerful political figures is explored in the new book, Sons of Wichita: How the Koch Brothers Became America’s Most Powerful and Private Dynasty. The story is based on hundreds of interviews with Koch family and friends, as well as thousands of pages of legal documents. We are joined by the book’s author, Daniel Schulman, a senior editor at Mother Jones magazine.


NERMEEN SHAIKH: To talk more about the Koch brothers, we turn now to Daniel Schulman. He’s a senior editor at Mother Jones magazine, and his new book, just out this week, is Sons of Wichita: How the Koch Brothers Became America’s Most Powerful and Private Dynasty. The story is based on hundreds of interviews with Koch family and friends, as well as thousands of pages of legal documents.

Daniel Schulman, we welcome you to Democracy Now! Explain why you wrote this book.

DANIEL SCHULMAN: Well, in the 2010-2011 time frame, you really started to see the Koch brothers become demonized and villainized. And they really became these cartoon villains behind the curtain of politics, and they were a caricature. I started looking into their story a little bit, and the one thing that first interested me was there are actually four Koch brothers, not two. We always talk about Charles and David Koch. Of course, there are also Frederick and Bill Koch. These guys obviously have a phenomenally interesting political story, but their family story is just as fascinating to me.

AMY GOODMAN: Why don’t you tell us, in a nutshell, that family story?

DANIEL SCHULMAN: OK. Well, their father, Fred Koch, in the 1920s develops a process for refining oil. His firm ends up getting sued by the major oil companies of the era, and in order to find work, he ends up having to look for contracts overseas. That leads him to work in Stalin’s Soviet Union in the early 1930s, where his firm makes $5 million helping to modernize the Soviet oil industry. He’s horrified by what he sees there. And when he returns home, he vows to do everything he can to fight communism. He ends up becoming a founding member of the John Birch Society, ultraconservative group whose leader, Robert Welch, considered Dwight Eisenhower to be literally an agent of the communist conspiracy. Fred Koch is in the room, literally, when the John Birch Society is founded. Charles Koch becomes a member of the John Birch Society as a young man. His three brothers—his three other brothers—

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, explain, for—especially for young people, John Birch Society, Ku Klux Klan. What were their relationships or the kind of issues, the similarities?

DANIEL SCHULMAN: John Birch Society, you know, was certainly accused of racism, and they rejected—and anti-Semitism, actually—and they rejected a lot of those charges. Their thing was very much they saw communists—the evidence of communist subversion behind every move of government.

AMY GOODMAN: Like Senator Joe McCarthy.

DANIEL SCHULMAN: Like McCarthy. They accused Martin Luther King of being a communist agent, that sort of thing. They thought the U.N. was a tool of bringing about a one-world government. You hear a lot of this today in the tea party rhetoric. And indeed there is kind of a direct through line from the John Birch Society to the tea party.

But in terms of—you know, there are three other Koch brothers. Frederick is the eldest. He never went into the family business. He is really a philanthropist who’s—and an art collector who’s spent his life restoring a series of really fabulous historic homes around the world. I had the opportunity to tour one of them on the Upper East Side, amazing stuff in there, including Marie Antoinette’s bed. That’s the most—that’s the rarest object in the house.

AMY GOODMAN: Did you get to sleep in it?

DANIEL SCHULMAN: No guests get to sleep in it.

AMY GOODMAN: Or take a nap?

DANIEL SCHULMAN: Unfortunately, no. Unfortunately, no. David and Bill Koch are the youngest of the Koch brothers. They’re fraternal twins.

And in terms of the feud that broke out between the brothers, this is really what, you know, is fascinating about this family. And this has its roots back in childhood. These four brothers ended up pairing off—Charles and David first, Frederick and Bill—over the business empire their father bequeathed to them. And it was basically two decades of the most brutal legal fighting you could ever imagine. We’re talking private detectives snooping through each other’s trash. They believed moles had been inserted within the ranks of each other’s, you know, enterprises, that sort of stuff. And they really beared these truly—it was brutal in terms of the testimony that they were forced to give about their childhood and the relationships with each other. And, you know, Frederick was disinherited—partially disinherited by their father when he died in 1967. And that sort of carried a sting that really never quite went away. And so, all of this really came out in the most public of settings for the most private of families, and it was quite poignant.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, you also suggested that Fred Koch had a—the patriarch, that is, the father of the four—had a role to play in fostering this competition among his sons. And one of the things, as you mentioned—we talked about the John Birch Society—one of the things that Fred Koch had said is that he warned in the U.S. of a vicious race war, saying, quote, “The colored man looms large in the Communist plan to take over America.” So could you explain to what extent his views permeated those of Charles and David Koch, his sons who became kind of his inheritors?

DANIEL SCHULMAN: Sure. You know, they grew up with this sort of—a lot of this sort of anti-communist rhetoric in their home. One sort of amusing story I heard was, in the early 60s, a visitor shows up to their house carrying a copy of Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. And Charles opens the door, and his eyes kind of flicker over the cover of the book, and it’s clear that there’s something wrong. And the visitor says, you know, “Is everything OK?” And Charles says, “Well, you know, you can’t come in carrying a copy of that book. Hemingway was a communist.” So that type of literature was not allowed in the family home. One thing that a lot of people don’t know about Fred Koch is that he was actually a leader of the drive in Kansas for Right to Work in 1958, successfully, to pass that amendment in the state. So—

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Could you explain what that is?

DANIEL SCHULMAN: Right to Work is basically a measure that’s been passed in a lot of states since then, but it basically bans closed union shops, where you have to be—where union membership is compulsory.

AMY GOODMAN: Also, the sympathy for fascism. You write that in 1938, then sympathetic to the fascist regimes ruling Germany, Italy and Japan, Fred—that’s the father—


AMY GOODMAN: —wrote that he hoped one day the United States would resemble these nations, which had “overcome” the vices of “idleness, feeding at the public trough, [and] dependence on government.”

DANIEL SCHULMAN: He made a lot of pretty bombastic and very strange statements. And I think even David has acknowledged that his dad was a little—went a little bit overboard with the anti-communism stuff. But there’s no question that his kind of anti-government ethos and his fears about socialism are reflected today in the politics of his sons—Charles and David, in particular.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about their politics and how they went from this private dynasty to coming out much more—maybe it was after the battles—


AMY GOODMAN: —within the family—to be so publicly powerful, influencing. I mean, we just passed the midterm Mini-Super Tuesday, tea party defeats around the country, but they’re a huge funder of this organization.

DANIEL SCHULMAN: So, essentially, it’s been a decades-long evolution. And the one thing to understand about Charles and David Koch is that they’re considered this monolith, but they’re really quite different people. David is much more of a classic philanthropist. He obviously gives to conservative causes, but a lot of his philanthropy is in medical research and that sort of thing. Charles, on the other hand—

AMY GOODMAN: And the arts. I mean—

DANIEL SCHULMAN: And the arts, oh, yeah, huge.

AMY GOODMAN: —you’ve got his name at Lincoln Center.

DANIEL SCHULMAN: Exactly, exactly. Charles, you know, as people who know him will tell you, his lifelong mission has really been to change the political culture. And he’s been working on this project for going on, you know, over five decades at this point. He was a John Birch Society member in the early ’60s, ends up getting—not quite pushed out; he resigns because he runs an ad blasting the Vietnam War in The Wichita Eagle, enraged the leadership of the Birch Society by doing this. And from there, he sort of gets involved with the fledgling libertarian movement of that day. He was an early trustee of a school called the Freedom School, which was in the Rampart mountain range, organized by this colorful anti-government guru who had moved there just to get away from—he believed that even by voting, you were legitimizing government. So that’s how anti-government his philosophy was. Charles falls in with this kind of radical stew of anarchists and, you know, freedom seekers of all sorts. And he decides that he—that the mainstreaming of libertarian ideas is going to be his philanthropic legacy. He first tries to do this through the Libertarian Party. And David Koch ends up running for the vice-presidential candidacy in the 1980 election. There was no question that they thought that this was going to be an election they’d win. The whole point was to sort of get these ideas out there and get people exposed to them. That election sort of imploded the movement, because, frankly, David Koch wasn’t radical enough for the libertarians of those days and who—you know, he was calling for reforms to the income tax. They wanted to abolish it entirely.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: So was he more political then than he became subsequently? Because it’s David Koch who gives more, as you were pointing out, to medical causes and the arts and so on.

DANIEL SCHULMAN: David Koch, in the relationship of Charles and David Koch, plays the role of the political face man. It’s Charles that’s really the big strategic thinker. It’s David who’s much more comfortable putting himself out there in a political setting. Charles was, in fact, asked if he wanted to run for the vice-presidential candidacy. He’s a very private guy, not comfortable with public speaking, and he had a big company to run, so he decided he didn’t want to do that. He asked his brothers David and Bill if they were interested. And Bill turned him down. David said he would—he would do it.

AMY GOODMAN: David Koch described in—his 1980 campaign as the Libertarian vice-presidential candidate was his proudest achievement, he wrote, in his 25th class reunion—


AMY GOODMAN: —book at MIT. Mark Ames has written, in 1976 the Koch-funded Reason, the magazine, “devoted an entire issue to promoting Holocaust deniers—one of the deniers was Ron Paul’s Congressional aide at the time, Gary North, who wrote in REASON that the Holocaust was ‘the Establishment’s favorite horror story’ and recommended a book called The Myth of the Six Million.” How does this follow through in Charles and David Koch’s work?

DANIEL SCHULMAN: You know, I’m not sure if that’s really part and parcel of the sort of thing that they would advocate. In the libertarian movement of the ’70s—and I’m not—honestly not familiar with that issue of Reason magazine—you had a lot of fringe thinkers. And this is actually one of the reasons why David and Charles Koch sort of jettisoned themselves from the movement in the ’80s, because they were trying to bring some level of respectability to libertarian, free-market ideas. That’s their—those are their issues. And there were a lot of fringe players in the libertarian movement of that time, and they felt like it was basically tarnishing the movement.

AMY GOODMAN: What were you most surprised by, Dan Schulman, in your book, Sons of Wichita?

DANIEL SCHULMAN: What honestly shocked me was just the absolute brutality of the battle that played out between these brothers. You couldn’t imagine these sorts of things happening between some of your worst enemies, let alone people that had grown up under the same roof. And also, it was sort of the depth of—to which they were influenced by their dad and some of the things that had played out in their childhood.

AMY GOODMAN: And what did Charles and David Koch end up with in terms of the family business? And people don’t even think about them exactly, many, as oil barons, but in fact—

DANIEL SCHULMAN: Yes. Well, Koch Industries, you know, really started out when Charles started running it in the ’60s, after their father’s death. It was basically a pretty midsized oil, cattle-ranching empire. From there, it’s grown into, you know, just an international behemoth with 100,000 employees, locations in 60 countries, and it’s gone well beyond oil and gas. It’s in petrochemicals. They own Georgia-Pacific, so Brawny paper towels, Dixie cups, you know, Quilted Northern toilet paper. You know, when you go into that airport bathroom and the motion-sensor towel dispenser—yeah, they made that. You can’t really go through a day without encountering one of their products. It’s basically impossible.

AMY GOODMAN: Dan Schulman, I want to thank you for being with us. Daniel Schulman is a senior editor at Mother Jones magazine. His new book is just out this week; it’s called Sons of Wichita: How the Koch Brothers Became America’s Most Powerful and Private Dynasty.

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