Sons of Wichita: understanding the enigmatic Koch brothers


The Koch brothers have become a household names in the past decade. Three out of four brothers are major players in energy development in the West and across the country. Two are powerbrokers for the conservative right and have been at the forefront of bringing libertarianism into the political mainstream. In the energy and political arenas, much is made of the men today, but the origins of the actual brothers Koch – Fredrick, Charles, David and Bill – remain little known to most Americans.

In a new book, Sons of Wichita: How the Koch Brothers Became America's Most Powerful and Private Dynasty, author Daniel Schulman attempts to understand the lives of these four enigmatic men. Schulman, a senior editor at Mother Jones magazine, explores how their childhoods in Kansas, their sibling rivalries and their early business ventures inform their political philosophies and other current endeavors, from their support of the Tea Party to their influence on the climate debate.

During their childhood, the brothers’ father would pit the younger twins against one another in impromptu boxing matches, and from the beginning of the book, Bill competes with his older brother Charles for their father’s approval – all of which sets the stage for endless legal battles and one-up-manship in their adult lives. At one point, in 1983, Bill seems to cut his losses when he creates his own energy company called Oxbow, “the term for a sharp, U-shaped bend in a river,” a “poetic nod to Bill’s own new direction.” Yet the family saga, Schulman writes, never truly ends.

Schulman recently spoke to High Country News about the book and the brothers both.

High Country News What inspired you to begin writing this book three years ago?

Daniel Schulman I heard Charles’ and David’s names coming up more and more in connection with their political involvement. I did cursory research and there were the outlines there of what seemed to be a really fascinating family story. You had a trifecta of a great business story, an interesting political story and a dramatic family saga.

The thing that helps you understand who these guys are – everything from their business philosophy to their political beliefs to the family feud that ripped the family apart begins with the patriarch, Fred Koch. He was this young upstart oil engineer in the 1920s whose firm at that time was selling an oil refining process. Their first major overseas contract was with the Soviet Union.

The result of it was to help to industrialize USSR and put it on the path to becoming a world superpower. But Fred Koch was horrified by what he saw there and returned to the United States vowing to do everything he could to stop the spread of communism. You can see it come full circle in the Obama age with the fear of socialism that is sort of coursing through the right in this country.

Bill, Charles, and David Koch in Lincoln, Massachusetts, in 1968, the year after their father's death. Charles was then running the family company. Bill was earning a Ph.D and overseeing a family venture capital fund, and David was working in New York City for the chemical company Halcon International. Photo credit: Mikki Ansin.
Fred Koch’s anti-government views derived from these experiences and influenced both his political ideology and that of his sons.

HCN A large part of the book chronicles family feuds. Bill brought suits against David and Charles’ company, Koch Industries; did that end up having a positive impact on the company in that it forced them to fall more in line with EPA regulation?

DS There were a lot of things going on at one time. Bill Koch and his brother Fredrick were suing Charles and David and their company over the settlement of one of their first disputes – when Bill basically staged a boardroom coup and was thrown out of the company. Bill and Fredrick also sued over control of the family foundation. Separately Bill was trying to get his brothers investigated for stealing oil from federal and Native American land. He brought a whistleblower suit against his brothers and was successful.

Another major thing that happened during that era was a major pipeline explosion in Texas that ended up killing two teenagers. It was a record wrongful death (suit), $296 million, (which) at that point was unheard of. The plaintiff lawyer had only asked for $100 million. The jury was so appalled by some of the practices of the company that it tripled what (the plaintiff) had asked for. This did provoke a major change in the way they operated. At that point they really started emphasizing compliance with all government regulations.

HCN In the book you mention Bill Koch’s company, Oxbow, exploring renewables. How would you characterize the Kochs' companies now, in terms of their environmental record?

DS Bill Koch was hugely interested in alternative energies in the 1980s. He had a bunch of geothermal power plants but slowly transitioned. He’s had coalmines, but one of the big areas he’s involved in is petroleum coke, a byproduct of the refining process that is a coal-like fuel source. Koch Industries has had a horrible environmental track record in the ‘90s going up to 2000 or so.

If you look at Koch industries cumulative pollution it’s really high because of the size of the company. But you have individually various refineries that win awards from the EPA. In terms of where it was in the 90s, and where it is today, it’s night and day.

HCN How did they make the transition from being behind the scenes and managers of an energy company to becoming household names?

DS When Obama was about to take office, they thought it was going to be a repeat of the Clinton era all over again. Here’s this guy, Barack Obama, talking about reforming the health care system and reining in the financial industry – things that the Kochs are completely opposed to, based on their libertarian beliefs. That’s when you really see them get much more involved in direct political action. It was Americans for Prosperity and that they were so out there in 2009 and 2010 at the vanguard of the anti-Obama rebellion essentially that ended up putting them on the map.

HCN What did you find the ideological differences are between the brothers?

DS I think Charles and David are probably the most similar ideologically. To an extent, Bill Koch also holds some of their beliefs and did fund some of their libertarian causes. He was a pretty big backer of Mitt Romney. In the past, he’s also given to a number of Democrats. In fact he once considered running for senate in Kansas as a Democrat, so it’s hard to pigeon hole his politics. Fredrick is pretty politically liberal.

HCN What was the role of the Koch brothers in the forming of the Tea Party?

DS The Kochs tried to distance themselves from the Tea Party, though it seems clear – and seemed clear at the time – that Americans for Prosperity, their flagship advocacy group that the brothers co-founded and helped to fund, were integral in providing the organizational and financial support that helped the Tea Party thrive. They obviously weren’t the only ones doing this, but their support was pretty pivotal in helping the Tea Party to become the vast movement it is.

HCN How would you say the Koch brothers have impacted the climate change conversation in this country?

DS Clearly, the brothers through their various foundations and their donor network have funded a number of think tanks and advocacy groups that have sowed doubt about the existence of global warming and especially in the 2009 timeframe when the climate change bill was defeated in Congress. So they’ve had a pretty major impact on this conversation.

The question is, do they really believe there’s no such thing as climate change? There was an interview with Bill Gates in Rolling Stone a couple of months ago, and he said he’d just had dinner with Charles Koch, and they were talking about climate change. (Charles) remarked that the United States alone cannot address this problem. That indicates Charles Koch thinks there might be a problem, in which case funding groups that doubt its existence, that seems like a pretty cynical strategy.

Author Daniel Schulman. Photograph by Stacey Schulman.

They’ve been fighting the renewable energy standards around the country. The latest initiative they’re rolling out is basically an energy initiative (in response to) the EPA’s emissions rules that were recently released. In addition to just being generally opposed to any kind of regulation – they clearly see efforts to regulate the energy sector as a threat to their bottom line. I certainly think you’ll see them continuing to fight that.

Tay Wiles is the online editor at High Country News. She tweets @taywiles. Photograph of the Kochs is ©Mikki Ansin.

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