‘Sons of Wichita’: New book explores the lives of the Koch brothers

05/23/2014 10:11 AM

08/13/2014 10:23 AM

2014 is the Year of the Kochs, apparently.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and other Democrats are working feverishly to cast billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch as the symbols of big money run amok in politics. And several new books are coming out that delve into the lives of the conservative donors and their compatriots.

The first, “Sons of Wichita: How the Koch Brothers Became America’s Most Powerful and Private Dynasty,” came out Tuesday. It was written by Daniel Schulman, a senior editor in the Washington bureau of the liberal publication Mother Jones, and centers on the fraught family dynamics that shaped the four Koch brothers.

So far, the Kochs are taking a cautious posture toward the book, which revisits a lot of painful family history.

“We have been aware of Mr. Schulman’s book project since January of 2012 and had minimal participation since that time, mostly involving some fact-checking,” Koch Industries spokesman Robert Tappan said in a statement. “Neither Charles Koch nor David Koch were interviewed for this book. We are in the process of reviewing Mr. Schulman’s book and are reserving judgment at this time.”

From an early copy of the book, here are some interesting tidbits and revelatory details.

• Charles Koch’s full name is Charles de Ganahl Koch. He was named after his father’s mentor, Charles Francis de Ganahl, who “dabbled in everything from shipbuilding to oil, from plane manufacturing to gold mining, with business interests that spanned three continents.”
• The family patriarch, Fred Koch, was a hard-charging and emotionally distant father who made the four boys – Frederick, Charles and twins David and Bill – work through their childhoods.

“He put them to work milking cows, baling hay, digging ditches, mowing lawns and whatever else he could think of,” Schulman writes. “The never-ending routine of chores was especially torturous during the summer months, when other local kids from Wichita’s upper crust whiled away the afternoons at the country club, the sounds of their delight literally wafting across 13th Street to the Kochs’ property.”

• Fred Koch was such a staunch anti-communist that he distributed at least 2.6 million copies of a pamphlet he wrote, “A Business Man Looks at Communism,” to every weekly newspaper in the country, among other recipients.

Present at the birth of the John Birch Society, Fred Koch served as one of its national leaders and held chapter meetings in the basement of his family’s Wichita home. His antipathy to socialism was so intense that when an acquaintance visited the family home in the 1960s, Charles Koch asked him to leave on the doorstep a copy of Ernest Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises” that he was carrying. Hemingway was “a communist,” Charles explained to the guest.

• Charles Koch, who took over his father’s company, was a workaholic who finally got engaged at 37. He proposed to his girlfriend of five years “over the phone and while paging through his calendar for an opening in his schedule.”
• After getting involved in the Birch Society through his father, Charles Koch ultimately broke from the group because of its support for the Vietnam War. He and another Birch Society member took out a full-page ad in The Eagle in May 1968 that read, “Let’s Get Out of Vietnam Now.”
• Oil tycoon J. Howard Marshall II, who later married Anna Nicole Smith, played a pivotal role in helping Charles and David fend off a challenge from brothers Bill and Frederick over control of Koch Industries. That’s why David Koch, a major patron of the New York City Opera, refused to give more support to save the faltering company when it put on the show “Anna Nicole” last year.
• David Koch walked away from a 1991 plane crash in Los Angeles that killed 22 people aboard his flight, including the couple seated directly across from him in first class. The experience profoundly shook him.

“I felt that the good Lord spared my life for a purpose,” he said later. “And since then, I’ve been busy doing all the good works I can think of.”

• A two-decades-long battle between the brothers – Charles and David versus Bill and, occasionally, Frederick – played out before jurors in a Topeka courtroom in 1998, in the case of Koch v. Koch Industries. During the trial, David broke down in tears on the stand recounting the tension between the brothers. After Charles and David prevailed, Bill told reporters he would appeal, adding, “These guys are crooks.”
• Charles, David and Bill ended their long-running feud in 2001, at a dinner held at Bill’s Palm Beach mansion to sign a final settlement divvying up their father’s property. It was the first time they had shared a meal in almost 20 years.
• Koch Industries employees often spot Charles Koch “in the cafeteria, tray in hand and waiting patiently in line at the ‘healthy choice’ station,” Schulman writes.

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