Dear Commons Community,
David Koch, the industrialist and backer of conservative causes, died yesterday, and leaves behind a complicated legacy. With a fortune of $50 billion, he played a part in shaping the world. Daniel Schulman, a Koch brothers biographer, has an interesting piece about the two sides of the man. Here is an excerpt:
“David’s older brother Charles, the chairman and CEO of Koch Industries, released a statement on Friday praising his brother’s “institution changing philanthropic commitments to hospitals, cancer research, education and the arts.” David’s family, in their own remarks, noted that “David’s philanthropic dedication to education, the arts and cancer research will have a lasting impact on innumerable lives—and the we will cherish forever.”
It was in this benevolent, Carnegie-esque mold that David would prefer to be remembered. But, of course, there is another part of his legacy these statements conspicuously left out—David’s role as a conservative megadonor and political boogeyman who was one half of the enigmatic Koch brothers duo.
Together with Charles, he poured millions into politics in a decades-long bid to advance a conservative, free-market worldview, one passed down to the brothers from their hard-charging father, Fred, a founding member of the John Birch Society terrified by what he saw as encroaching communism. In 1980, David Koch ran for vice president on the Libertarian ticket. The party’s platform that year included abolishing Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, and shuttering a host of government agencies including the Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Transportation, Federal Trade Commission, CIA, and FBI. The primary qualification for David’s candidacy at the time was his overflowing bank account—as a candidate, he could spend as lavishly on the campaign as he chose. He infused the campaign with upwards of $2 million, and, ultimately, Koch and his running mate garnered a little more than 1 percent of the popular vote, a high-water mark for a party that had formed less than 10 years prior.
The Libertarian Party run crystallized a role that David would play throughout his life as the public face of Charles’ political projects. It was Charles who had elevated the libertarians from obscurity, funding the movement almost singlehandedly in its early years and co-founding its flagship think tank, the Cato Institute. Similarly, when the tea party emerged during the early years of the Obama administration, thanks in part to the organizational assistance of Koch-created Americans for Prosperity, David, the group’s chairman, was the more visible presence. It was during the Obama-era, as the Kochs ramped up their political operation to fight what they perceived as a socialistic onslaught, that David Koch’s two worlds came uncomfortably into conflict—in one, he was the benefactor behind the renovation of the David H. Koch Theater at Lincoln Center in New York City, a board member of Boston’s WGBH, and sponsor of NOVA, and the man who had ponied up $65 million to overhaul the plaza in front of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. In the other, he was the modern-day robber baron financing climate change denial and an intemperate right-wing movement of anti-regulatory and limited-government activists.
In the crucible of politics, Charles and David’s identities became virtually fused together as the monolithic Koch brothers. But they were far different men. That was evident by looking at the way both billionaires lived, Charles on the Wichita compound, hemmed in by strip malls, where the brothers grew up, and David in an 18-room duplex at one of New York’s most elite addresses, 740 Park Avenue, where a plaque in the marble entryway to his home read: “Toto, I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore.”
Charles was the visionary and strategist behind their political and corporate empires. David was his loyal deputy, and though an eager participant in both endeavors, his passions seemed to lie elsewhere. When I was working on Sons of Wichita, my biography of the Koch family—there are four Koch brothers, by the way, not two—a Koch Industries veteran summed up their differences this way: “David,” he said, “is a true philanthropist. David’s [giving] is about making the world a better place. Charles’ is about changing the world.”
David’s numerous detractors—some of whom tastelessly took to Twitter today to wish him eternal damnation in hell—would argue over whether David, at least in the political realm, shaped the world for the better, though in other areas his backing has unquestionably done so. In the end, he leaves behind a complicated legacy. His name memorialized at Lincoln Center and at a cancer research center at M.I.T., will tell one story; the significant, though less-visible imprint of his giving on our polarized political climate will tell another.”