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‘Sons of Wichita’: An Unauthorized Examination of the Koch Dynasty

Posted on Jul 15, 2014

By Emily Wilson

AP/Damian Dovarganes

Until the run-up to the 2010 congressional elections, Daniel Schulman—like much of America—had barely heard of Charles and David Koch, billionaire industrialists who were primary backers of the tea party and were determined to take down President Obama. But after reading Jane Mayer’s piece about the political machinations of the brothers in The New Yorker, Schulman began researching them and found all the elements of a good story full of money, power, and corporate and political intrigue. And lawsuits—lots and lots of lawsuits. As Bill Koch, David’s twin, said, “This would make ‘Dallas’ or ‘Dynasty’ look like a playpen.”

Now Schulman, a senior editor in the Washington bureau at Mother Jones, has written a book about the family and their influence on America, the recently released “Sons of Wichita: How the Koch Brothers Became America’s Most Powerful and Private Dynasty.”

Patriarch Fred Koch and his firm developed a new process for refining oil. On a trip to the Soviet Union to help modernize its refineries, he was so horrified by communism that it shaped his politics and he went on to become a founder of the far-right John Birch Society.

Charles Koch, who believes fervently in libertarian ideas and free-market economics, joined with his younger brother David to grow his father’s firm, renamed Koch Industries, into one of the largest private companies in the world with more than 100,000 employees. They are two of the wealthiest men on the planet, worth about $40 billion each. Their older brother, Frederick, wanted nothing to do with the family business and stays out of public life as an arts patron with several homes.

Bill Koch was thrown out of the family company, built an energy empire of his own, had a flashy lifestyle with multiple marriages and affairs, won sailing’s America’s Cup and has spent much of his time suing his brothers. Truthdig talked to Schulman about the Koch family’s pugilism, how the brothers made libertarianism mainstream and how it might be fun to have a beer with Bill. 

Emily Wilson: You start the book with the story of the twins Bill and David, as teenagers, getting out of the car to box. Their caretaker, an ex-Marine, carried boxing gloves around so they could fight without killing each other. Why did you begin the book this way?

Daniel Schulman: I think the theme of pugilism carried through their lives. These guys fought each other legally, physically and emotionally. If you look at Bill Koch, his life is like a series of legal cases. Then Charles and David are taking a stand against the Obama administration. So it was an image that seemed to get to the themes that emerged later in the book.

EW: You say that their politics is not the most interesting thing about the Kochs. What is most interesting?

DS: I was really fascinated by how their father had left such a deep and lasting imprint on his sons. His legacy really has influenced all four of these guys in different ways. If you look at the politics of Charles and David especially, they’re more or less carrying his political torch into the future. The eldest Koch brother, Frederick, he was a disappointment to his father, so his life has been slightly haunted by that.

Bill Koch saw his dad fighting all of these lawsuits when he grew up, so what he took from that is that litigation is this tool of righteous retributions. You see him in this long fight with his brothers feeling as if he’s doing what his father would have done. So that was what captivated me. And, of course, this legal drama playing out between the brothers, which is absolutely brutal and goes back to things that happened in childhood.

EW: How did you do research? Whom did you talk to? The Kochs wouldn’t talk to you, right?

DS: I talked to the eldest brother, Frederick. We spent a few hours together and spent some time on the phone. I spoke to a lot of friends, relatives and former employees. The other layer to this is there is this massive amount of court records going back to 1929 that had to do with their father’s litigation. There was a lot of material out there, but it wasn’t necessarily easy to find. The court records for Koch v. Koch were literally stored in a salt mine, so tracking them down and actually being able to see them was pretty difficult.

I’ve never made so many cold calls. I was making 10 calls to get someone who would talk. That was the biggest challenge because the Kochs did not want me doing this book. Bill Koch and his operation were the least cooperative. When I talked to his spokesman, as I was describing what I was trying to do, he was like, “Yeah, letting you talk to Bill would be like slitting my throat.” Charles and Bill aren’t necessarily friendly right now—they’re just not fighting. I think both sides are afraid they could touch off a war.

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