Biography charts rise of personal, political Koch empire

By Elaine K. Alexander, Special to the Light

The Koch (pronounced “coke”) brothers surfaced along with the Tea Party as the moneyed leviathan bankrolling  this supposed citizens’ corps – and its (ironic) irritation with big government. Since then, Charles and David Koch, longtime libertarians tied at sixth place for richest person on the planet with a combined net worth of $100 billion, have been afloat in a sea of muckraking – including two documentary films, “Koch Brothers Exposed” and “Citizen Koch” – concerned with the power of supersize corporate cash to swallow up political opposition.

For instance, in 2010, The New Yorker quoted Charles Lewis, founder of a nonpartisan watchdog group Center for Public Integrity, who said about the Kochs: “There’s no one else who has spent this much money. The sheer dimension of it is what sets them apart [along with] a pattern of lawbreaking, political manipulation and obfuscation.”

“Sons of Wichita: How the Koch Brothers Became America’s Most Powerful and Private Dynasty” caps two years of research by author Daniel Schulman, a senior editor for Mother Jones and a founding member of the magazine’s cadre of investigative journalists. Given the author’s credentials and the reigning indignation in liberal circles, Schulman’s book might have been a 408-page diatribe. But the author surprises with a cool-headed biography of the entire Koch family, which includes the late parents, Frederick “Fred” Sr. and Mary, and the two other brothers, Frederick Jr. and Bill – respectively, the artistic eldest son and David’s flamboyant fraternal twin.

The Kochs’ inexhaustible wellspring has been Koch Industries, founded by Fred Sr., a Texan with modest roots who trained as an engineer at MIT (where Charles, David and Bill also received advanced engineering degrees). The  business began with operations in oil, cattle, chemicals and timber. Since Fred’s death, it has inflated to a private enterprise second in size nationally only to the Minneapolis-based agribusiness Cargill.


Koch Industries – called “the biggest business you’ve never heard of” by David – employs 100,000 people, operates in 60 countries and has annual revenues of $115 billion. Unfortunately, the success of Koch Industries has not been without cost: huge environmental disasters and loss of life due to shoddy business practices.

After years of litigation, Frederick and Bill separated their fortunes from Koch Industries. Subsequently, Frederick has crafted a reclusive life as an arts patron and collector of historic properties restored or renovated by him to dazzling standards. Bill, known for “messy romantic entanglements” and for winning the 1992 America’s Cup, has amassed a personal fortune ranked No. 329 on the roster of global billionaires.

Meanwhile, Charles (based in Wichita, Kansas) and David (based in New York City), have expanded Koch into a behemoth whose products outfit American life as we know it, with “gas for our cars,” “steak for our forks,” natural gas, Brawny paper towels, Dixie paper cups, Stainmaster carpeting, Lycra fabrics, drywall, window panes, fertilizer and more. 

Equally stunning is how Charles and David, and the captains of industry they draw to upscale resort conferences, have invested hundreds of millions of dollars to create a hidden but elaborate network in service to their libertarian political and economic vision.

“Sons of Wichita” includes colorful details of courtship, marriage, tragic feuds, industrial espionage, red carpet dresses, menus at parties and galas, a private resort styled like an Old West town and the many other properties and extravagant homes (like the former Manhattan apartment of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis) that a river of money can buy. 

Daniel Schulman’s book is recommended as an engaging, empathic and leisurely narrative of how Charles and David Koch came to be emperors of their two kingdoms: corporate and political.