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Citizen Koch Goes to Tampa

Meet the left’s public enemy number one.

Sep 3, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 47 • By MICHAEL BARONE
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Koch grins as he describes his cancer research philanthropy, never more than when he shows a picture of the “brilliantly well-designed” building housing his institute at MIT. If he seems to have a zest for engineering problems, he also has an aesthetic impulse. He’s proud of having hired David Childs—whom he remembers as “a quiet guy” a year behind him at Deerfield Academy and now considers “America’s greatest architect”—to design buildings he has funded. He describes with gusto how he convinced his fellow members of the Metropolitan board that the venerable museum needed a friendlier façade, with fountains flanking the entrance and spectacular lighting—and how he agreed to pay for it all himself.

This is not the milieu in which the Koch brothers grew up. Fred Koch raised his sons on a farm near Wichita, with horses, cows, and pigs. “When I got to be 10 he put me to work,” David recalls. He worked summers as a field hand there or, during one memorably hot summer, near Durant, Oklahoma. From public school in Kansas he was sent to Deerfield in Massachusetts; though he was “unmercifully teased” as a hayseed, he has since made the largest gift ever to the elite boarding school (upwards of $50 million for an 80,000-square-foot facility for the study of science, math, and technology). At MIT, he found that the veneer of prep school sophistication gets you only so far when you major in chemical engineering. After college he worked in Cambridge and New York designing petrochemical plants and lived on an annual salary of $8,000. He joined Koch Industries in 1970, after his father’s death, but stayed in New York, while Charles ran the firm in Kansas.

It was Charles, he recalls, who prompted him to seek the Libertarian party nomination for vice president in 1980. Their father had worked in the Soviet Union in the late 1920s, selling his refining process, and had come to detest the Communist regime and to fear it would take over Europe and the United States. David and Charles shared his support of free enterprise and opposition to big government (though not his support of the radical John Birch Society). Koch admits that he was nominated for VP because candidates could spend unlimited amounts—“we spent $3 million, I put in $2 million”—and notes that he campaigned for 14 months in 27 states. But the Libertarian ticket got only 1 percent of the popular vote, and later in the 1980s, when he posed for a photo with George H.W. Bush, Bush was surprised to learn that Koch had run against him for vice president. 

“The Libertarian party got a little too radical for us,” Koch says. Instead, he and Charles started creating and funding institutions to further their ideas. These include the Cato Institute, where they recently settled a dispute over control with longtime president Edward Crane, and Citizens for a Sound Economy, later renamed Americans for Prosperity. This was the beginning of “the Kochtopus,” a term David uses himself, and of the twice-a-year Koch Brothers conferences, where attendees hear progress reports on their attempts to promote their ideas through political activity, public advocacy, think tanks, and academic programs. The conferences have grown from a dozen people a decade ago to “an amazing number of people” who want to attend now. But “you’ll never find a senior executive of a publicly held company. They’re afraid the government is going to punish them” if they go.

The Kochs don’t reveal how much money they give to these organizations, but David insists that Americans for Prosperity and its 34 state chapters have involved some 2 million activists, many of them driven by Tea Party-type opposition to the big -government policies of the Obama administration. AFP says it has 90,000 contributors, and Koch says the amount he and his brother contribute is “very small, around 10 percent.” This is in line with my own observation, having spoken to two AFP chapters and at two Koch Brothers conferences, that institutions the Kochs gave birth to and incubated have attracted mass followings. The brothers have also attracted mass opposition, from liberal commentators and politicians and from the president of the United States. “It does not feel good,” Koch says. “He has the ability to influence bad people to go after the people he attacks.” There have been multiple death threats, and Koch and his family have security guards. When he held a fundraiser for Mitt Romney at his Southampton beachfront house, Occupy movement people came up from the beach and did “all the vulgar things.”  

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