This week, Mother Jones senior editor Daniel Schulman published Sons of Wichita, the definitive history of the billionaire political influencers Charles and David Koch, their family, and their empire. And he's here now to answer your questions.
If you know the Koch brothers at all, you know them as the ultra-rich financiers of virtually every formidable conservative cause in America today. But the story behind their quiet ascent and big cultural splash is a fascinating one.
That story starts with their father, Frederick Koch, Sr.—an arch-conservative industrialist who wrote admiringly about fascism in Germany and Italy on the eve of World War II; helped found the John Birch Society; and demanded a bizarre oil-lands toughness out of all four of his sons, as evidenced by this video Schulman unearthed of two of the boys boxing:
Schulman had unprecedented access to archives and family friends, enabling him to capture many previously unrelated military-school and college-frat exploits and Koch family dysfunctions—and to tie them all together into a suspenseful, confessional narrative that echoes Fitzgerald, Updike, and Roth while remaining scrupulously (perhaps surprisingly) fair to the brothers and their lives.
Schulman—who, by way of disclosure, worked with me at Mother Jones—answered a few of my questions about the Koch dynasty below, and he'll join us at 1 p.m. Eastern time to answer your questions about the book in the comments.
What are a couple of things about the Koch family that might surprise casual readers of David's and Charles' political exploits?
Among other things, many people don't know that there are actually four—not just two—Koch brothers. Bill (David's fraternal twin) and Frederick, the eldest, have often been referred to lately as the "other" Koch brothers, but they've lived lives that are every bit as fascinating as Charles and David's.
Another thing many people might not know relates to Charles and David Koch's politics. They are now considered Republican kingmakers, but this is a relatively new thing. They have had an uneasy relationship with the Republican Party—Charles Koch once said that Republicanism represented a "doomed" strategy.
They are really libertarians, though they eventually realized that they had to work through one of the major political parties to effect change. They are not social conservatives (David has publicly backed gay marriage), and they are generally anti-war and pro-civil liberties. Where they align with Republicans is mostly on free-market economic issues, the main thrust of their political activity.
In a recent excerpt in Vanity Fair, you describe being shown the door by Frederick Koch Jr. after refusing to sign a release guaranteeing that he could review what you wrote. What kind of access did you manage to get from the family, and how did you get it?
The Koch family is very private and I had to fight for every inch of access. Charles and David declined to be interviewed, but I was able to speak with some of their close friends, some extended family members, and others who know them well. It wasn't easy. I don't think I've ever made so many cold calls in my life. I felt like I was banging my head against the wall at first, but then one interview begat another and another.
In terms of Frederick, he responded to a letter I sent him (I sent letters to all of the brothers explaining this project and asking if they would meet with me). I think the reason he called me up is because he was struck by the fact that I had done enough research to bring up his master's thesis when he studied playwriting at Yale. He wrote a musical theater adaptation of the comedic book No Bed for Bacon. (The book was later cited as one of the inspirations for the film Shakespeare In Love).
Frederick and I spoke by phone a handful of times and met on a couple occasions. He very graciously toured me through his home, but I obviously couldn't sign the document he presented me with and we were unable to come to an agreement he was comfortable with. I still would love to hear his full story if he is ever comfortable telling it.
This is a family that built much of its fortune with money that Frederick Koch, Sr., the patriarch, made refining oil in Stalin's Soviet Union. How did each of the men come to terms with that legacy? Is their conservatism a penance in some way for taking money from the communist regime?
Fred Koch was definitely haunted by what he had seen in the Soviet Union, and his firm certainly played an important role in empowering the USSR economically, so he must have had some serious regrets about that. I'm not sure if Fred's sons came to terms with this legacy, so much as were shaped to varying degrees by their father's staunchly anti-communist and anti-government views.
(I should add that Frederick, unlike his brothers, is pretty liberal. Bill, who was a big Romney backer during the last election, has also backed Democrats and once considered running for Senate as a Democrat in Kansas.)
Fred saw signs of Communist subversion everywhere and he had definitely developed a deep suspicion of government after his company was relentlessly sued for patent infringement. Charles and David have carried his politics forth into the 21st century in a way Fred wouldn't have thought possible. (Old Fred, for his part, wasn't even convinced the US would go on as a free country past 1970.)
In previous narratives of the Koch family, women tend to be absent. Can you say a bit about them? What role, for example, did their mother play in the family business and in the brothers' development?
I devote a chapter to their mother, Mary Koch, who was dubbed Mighty Mary (as is the chapter) for her indomitable spirit. She was an elegant woman, but also outdoorsy, a very gifted artist, but also a crack shot. She tried mightily to bring her sons together after their rift and her letters from that period—some of which I was able to obtain—are heartbreaking. ("The only thing I want before I die is reconciliation," she once pleaded with Bill.) Mary and Frederick were quite close. They enjoyed many of the same interests in the arts, but their relationship suffered because of the feud.
Charles' wife, Liz, has been extremely important in making him the man he is today. Before she came along, he lived a bit of a tunnel-vision life, obsessed mainly with growing his father's company. "She brought Charles down to earth," one of his close friends told me. "I think he lived a normal life because of Liz." She gave him some dimension. From what I hear she's smart, sassy, and has an endearingly foul mouth. David's wife, Julia, likewise transformed his life. Before she came along, he had a bit of a reputation as a Gatsbyesque playboy. (As Dave Weigel pointed out, it really doesn't get more YOLO than this '90s-era picture of David with a scantily-clad dancer, which is included in my book.) I'm told that Julia also played an important role in David's reconciliation with his fraternal twin, Bill.