Magazine article The American Conservative

Koch Brothers: The Real Thing

Magazine article The American Conservative

Koch Brothers: The Real Thing

Article excerpt

Sons of Wichita: How the Koch Brothers Became America's Most Powerful and Private Dynasty, Daniel Schulman, Grand Central, 432 pages

According to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, the Koch brothers are responsible for global warming and much else that's wrong with the world. This is part of a strategy to demonize Charles and David Koch--the principals behind the country's largest privately-held company--and make them the issue come Election Day. There's a big problem with this strategy, however: a recent poll shows that most of Reid's own constituents haven't the slightest idea who the Brothers Koch are.

Daniel Schulman's much anticipated book, the first biography of the Koch family, may help voters bridge the knowledge gap--but Democrats are going to be disappointed if they think it will help their smear campaign. Indeed, it is likely to do the opposite. It's hard to write a biography of someone you hate, and Schulman, a writer for Mother Jones, clearly came to admire his subjects.

The story starts with Fred Koch, a son of Dutch immigrants who settled in the "poor but plucky" town of Quanah, east of the Texas panhandle. Ambitious, single-minded, and tough as nails, Fred made his fortune helping Joe Stalin extract oil from the Russian steppes--learning in the process that the rosy picture of a "workers' paradise" drawn by the likes of Walter Durante was the exact opposite of the truth.

Driven to seek overseas markets by an onslaught of patent-infringement lawsuits from a Rockefeller-connected oil consortium, Fred Koch arrived in Russia in 1930 and "found it a land of hunger, misery, and terror," as he would later recall. When he let that autumn, his Soviet minder--who had spent the whole time capitalist-baiting him--bid adieu with this warning: "I'll see you in the United States sooner than you think." What Fred had seen in Stalin's Russia set him on a course that landed him in the ranks of the John Birch Society.

Robert Welch, the society's founder, recruited him early on: Fred was at the 1958 meeting where Welch first laid out his plan to fight the Communist menace and roll back the New Deal. The John Birch Society was a hybrid of Old Right libertarian economics and the McCarthyite paranoia of the 1950s, and Fred--by this time a tycoon--relentlessly lectured his four sons on the evils of collectivism and the value of hard work. He had no intention of raising a brood of "country-club bums" who would coast along on the family fortune. The 1950s were almost over before he bought the kids a television, and even then they had little time to watch it.

They had no allowance, only the money they earned by manual labor. While the children of the upper crust cavorted in the pool at the Wichita Country Club across the road from the Koch compound, Fred's boys were out in the fields getting calluses on their hands: mending fences, driving tractors, milking cows, pulling weeds, and doing the work required to maintain their father's ranches. They "were treated no differently than lowly cowhands"

Schulman tells the story of one summer when a teenage Charles was sent to Montana's Centennial Valley, where he stayed in a cabin with one Bitterroot Bob, "who was known to take potshots at lies as he lay in bed at night cradling his pistol." On the journey back to school one autumn, he and a ranch hand stopped for lunch in Dillon, where "Charles glanced around the divey restaurant. 'It sure is clean here,' he said"

"Trips to the family ranches were not vacations," writes Schulman, "they were yet another opportunity for Fred to break his children of any privileged tendencies through long days of labor." Pretty egalitarian for a family that has been caricatured as 21st-century Bourbons. Schulman shatters the myth and drills down to the reality, hitting paydirt all along the way.

Sons Frederick, Charles, David, and Bill--the latter twins--each reacted in his own way to their father's stern regime, and in turn they interacted with each other in a way that generated a family saga with the drama of "Downton Abbey" and the message of Atlas Shrugged. …

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