17 things you didn’t know about the Koch brothers

2014 is the Year of the Kochs, apparently.  Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and other Democrats are working feverishly to cast the billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch as the symbols of big money run amok in politics. And there are a slew of new books coming out that delve deeply 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 (yes, there are four).

So far, the Kochs are taking a cautious posture toward the tome, 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."

After getting an early copy and staying up late reading it, we pulled out some of the most interesting tidbits and revelatory details. The 17 best are below.

1. 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.”

 2. 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, bailing 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.” A tearful Charles was shipped off to boarding school at 11. Also, the Kochs did not get a television set “until well into the 1950s.”

 3. 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 mansion. 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.

 4. Fred Koch removed his oldest son, Frederick, from his will, setting off one of the many intense struggles over money that tore the family apart.

According to Charles,  his father cut out Frederick because he stole traveler’s checks and cash from him and then lied about it. Frederick denies the allegations, calling them part of “a calculated campaign of vilification.”

 5. 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.”

6. 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 Wichita Eagle in May 1968 that read, “Let’s Get Out of Vietnam Now.”

 7. As he embraced the libertarian movement, Charles Koch initially regarded the Republican Party with disdain.

“If this is our only hope then we are doomed,” he wrote in a four-page essay in the Libertarian Review in August 1978. “The Republican Party is the party of ‘business’ in the worse [sic] sense – in the sense of business accommodation and partnership with government.”

8. David Koch described his 1980 campaign as the Libertarian vice presidential candidate as his “proudest achievement” on a questionnaire for his 25th class reunion at MIT.

 9. 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 their 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.

10. 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.” The longtime bachelor -- known for throwing wild parties with scantily clad women – began seriously dating his future wife six months after the crash.

11. A two-decades-long battle between the brothers -- Charles and David versus Bill and, occasionally, Frederick– grew so bitter that the brothers hired private investigators to dig up dirt on one another. Bill’s investigators “pilfered trash from the homes and offices of Charles, David, and three of their lawyers, bribing janitors and trash collectors," Schulman writes.

The family war 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.”

12. After a slew of legal problems in the 1990s – including a record $296 million wrongful death award related to a leaky Koch pipeline that killed two teenagers and a $35 million fine the company agreed to pay for Clean Water Act violations – Koch Industries went through a dramatic transformation. Charles Koch demanded “10,000% compliance with all laws and regulations” as the company beefed up its lobbying ranks and offloaded much of its pipeline system.

 13. 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.

14. 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.

 15. The Koch-backed Citizens for a Sound Economy – a precursor to Americans for Prosperity – rented a rundown bus in 1994 to protest Hillary Clinton’s health-care overhaul proposal. As the then-first lady traveled the country on a bus tour to promote the plan, she was met by the group's broken-down bus, spray-painted with the words “This is Clinton Care."

16. The first donor conclave held by the Kochs in 2003 drew just 17 guests, many of them Charles’ friends.

Less than a decade later, at least 200 conservative donors signed up to be part of the Koch political network, helping pump more than $400 million into a web of politically active nonprofits in the 2012 campaign.

17. When President Obama won reelection, an incredulous David Koch blamed the GOP’s drawn-out primary process for weakening Republican challenger Mitt Romney.

“We’ve got to do better with primaries,” he told a friend. “We’ve got to find ways to make sure our candidate is advantaged.” 

Matea Gold is a national political reporter for The Washington Post, covering money and influence.

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