Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Daniel Schulman on the men who tried to buy America

Charles and David Koch are among America’s richest men - and have put their money to nefarious use, many believe. From funding the Tea Party to lobbying against measures to curb climate change, they are the scourge of progressive, liberal opinion. So how did they happen? Daniel Schulman reveals the roots of America’s right-wing pin-ups

Charles has done more than just construct one of the world’s largest industrial empires. With David, he has spent decades trying to remake the American political landscape and mainstream their libertarian views. Together, the brothers pumped hundreds of millions of dollars into this endeavour. Unlike other major political donors, they offered more than just money; a strategic vision. They funded academics, think-tanks, and political organisers to coalesce public support around their causes. The Tea Party movement that rose up after the election of President Barack Obama germinated, in part, from the intellectual seeds that the Kochs had planted over the years. Though the brothers downplayed any connection to this cadre of irate citizen activists, they helped to provide the key financing and organisational support that allowed the Tea Party to blossom into a formidable political force within the Republican Party – one that paralysed Congress and eventually ignited a GOP civil war.

Morris eased the pickup truck to the side of the road. The wide, busy thoroughfares of 1950s Wichita, Kansas, were just five miles southwest, but here on the largely undeveloped outskirts of the city, near the Koch family’s 160-acre property, the landscape consisted of little more than an expanse of flat, sun-bleached fields, etched here and there by dusty rural byways. The retired Marine, rangy and middle-aged, climbed out of the truck holding two sets of scuffed leather boxing gloves.

“OK, boys,” he barked, “get outside and duke it out.” David and Bill, the teenaged Koch twins, were at each other’s throats once again. Impossible to tell who or what had started it. But it seldom took much. The roots of the strife typically traced to some kind of competition – a game of hoops, a round of water polo in the family pool, a foot race. They were pathologically competitive, and David, a gifted athlete, often won. Everything seemed to come easier for him. Bill was just 19 minutes younger than his fraternal twin, but this solidified his role as the baby of the family. With a hair-trigger temper, he threw the tantrums to match. David was more even-keeled than Bill, but he knew how to push his brother’s buttons. Once they got into it, neither backed down. Arguments between the twins, who shared a small room, their beds within pinching range of each other, transcended routine sibling rivalry.

Morris always kept their boxing gloves close at hand to keep the brothers from seriously injuring each other when their tiffs escalated into full-scale brawls, as they often did. The brothers’ industrialist father had officially hired the former soldier to look after the grounds and livestock on the family’s compound. But his responsibilities also included chauffeuring the twins and their friends to movies and school events, and refereeing the fights that broke out unpredictably on these outings.

Holding their boxing gloves, Morris summoned the feuding twins from the truck. They knew the drill. He laced up one brother, then the other. The boys, both lean and tall, squared off, and when Morris stepped clear, they traded a barrage of punches. A few minutes later, once they’d worked it out of their systems, Morris reclaimed the gloves and the brothers piled breathlessly into the cab of the truck. He slipped back behind the wheel, started the engine, and pulled on to the road. Another day, another battle... 

Pugilism was an enduring theme in the lives of the Koch family. The patriarch, Fred Koch – a college boxer known for his fierce determination in the ring – spent the better part of his professional life warring against the dark forces of communism and the collective might of the nation’s major oil companies, which tried to run him out of the refining business. As adults, Fred’s four sons paired off in a brutal legal campaign against one another over the business empire he bequeathed to them, a battle with plotlines that would seem far-fetched in a daytime soap opera. “It would make Dallas and Dynasty look like a playpen,” Bill once said....

David and Bill followed Charles (and their father before him) to MIT and eventually they, too, joined the family business. But that’s where their paths diverged. David became Charles’s loyal wingman, while Bill, still nursing childhood resentments, grew at first into a gadfly and then, in his brothers’ eyes, a hostile presence within the company. The public would know Bill best for his flamboyant escapades: as a collector of fine wines who embarked on a litigious crusade against counterfeit vino, as a playboy with a history of messy romantic entanglements, and as a yachtsman who won the America’s Cup in 1992 – an experience he likened, unforgettably, to the sensation of “10,000 orgasms”.

Charles and David, meanwhile, built their father’s Midwestern empire – with about $250m in yearly sales and 650 employees in the late 1960s – into a corporate behemoth that Fred Koch would scarcely recognise, a company with $115bn in annual revenues, more than 100,000 employees, and a presence in 60 countries. Under Charles’s leadership, Koch Industries grew into the second largest private corporation in the United States (only Cargill, the Minneapolis-based agribusiness giant, is bigger). Koch made its money the old-fashioned way – oil, chemicals, cattle, timber – and in its dizzying rise, Charles and David amassed fortunes estimated at $41bn apiece, tying them for sixth place among the wealthiest men on the planet. (Bill ranks 329th on Forbes’s list of the world’s billionaires.)