Dan is Mother Jones' deputy DC bureau chief. He is the New York Times best-selling author of Sons of Wichita(Grand Central Publishing), a biography of the Koch brothers that is now out in paperback. Email him at dschulman (at) motherjones.com.
After NBC News suspended anchor Brian Williams for erroneously claiming that he was nearly shot down in a helicopter while covering the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, Fox News host Bill O'Reilly went on a tear. On his television show, the top-rated cable news anchor declared that the American press isn't "half as responsible as the men who forged the nation." He bemoaned the supposed culture of deception within the liberal media, and he proclaimed that the Williams controversy should prompt questioning of other "distortions" by left-leaning outlets. Yet for years, O'Reilly has recounted dramatic stories about his own war reporting that don't withstand scrutiny—even claiming he acted heroically in a war zone that he apparently never set foot in.
O'Reilly has repeatedly told his audience that he was a war correspondent during the Falklands war and that he experienced combat during that 1982 conflict between the United Kingdom* and Argentina. He has often invoked this experience to emphasize that he understands war as only someone who has witnessed it could. As he once put it, "I've been there. That's really what separates me from most of these other bloviators. I bloviate, but I bloviate about stuff I've seen. They bloviate about stuff that they haven't."
How the billionaire brothers built a political network that rivals the GOP itself.
Daniel SchulmanNov. 3, 2014 3:58 PM
The John Birch Society likes to point out that its members were tea partiers before the tea party existed. And indeed, some of today's conservative fears—from a socialist president to a United Nations-driven "one-world government"—wouldn't have sounded out of place in the early 1960s, when Birch Society leader Robert Welch commanded a right-wing movement that Republican establishmentarians viewed as a mortal threat.
The connective tissue linking the Birchers of the past to today's tea partiers meanders through the libertarian movement of the 1960s and 1970s, and detours into the tobacco wars of the 1980s and the Hillarycare battle of the 1990s. At the nexus of this throughline is the Koch family, which for more than six decades has helped to finance and cultivate the ideological uprising that has now, at long last, established itself at the very heart of Republican power.
Patriarch Fred Koch—a leader of the successful effort to make Kansas a right-to-work state in the late 1950s—was a founding member of the John Birch Society. Fred was in the room the day in 1958 when Welch addressed a small group of prominent conservatives to plan a movement that would place its weight on "the political scales in this country as fast and as far" as possible. Charles Koch, a Birch Society member like his father, would later join a group of fellow Birchers committed to growing the Freedom School, a Colorado-based educational center founded by a controversial libertarian guru named Robert LeFevre.
Through the Freedom School—which taught free-market dogma and whose leader postulated that any rights the government conferred, it had first robbed you of—passed many of the luminaries who founded the modern libertarian movement, not least of them Charles and David Koch. Together, the brothers would go on to play a pivotal role in bringing the libertarian ideology (a "radical philosophy," Charles readily admitted) to the masses.
Both Charles and David were major funders of the Libertarian Party, and in 1980 David agreed to be its vice presidential candidate—in part because, by spending part of his own fortune on the race, he could sidestep campaign contribution limits. But in the aftermath of that election, when the party grew too quixotic for their tastes, the Kochs distanced themselves from the movement and set out to affect the political process directly. With their top strategist Richard Fink, later a Koch Industries executive and board member, the brothers formed Citizens for a Sound Economy, a free-market advocacy group that specialized in rallying the grassroots around the pet issues of corporations, including Big Tobacco.
The group was at the vanguard of the fight to scuttle the Clinton administration's BTU tax and health care initiatives. But in the early 2000s, an acrimonious internal feud pitted the Kochs against key members of its leadership, including former House Majority Leader Dick Armey. The Armey faction ended up forming FreedomWorks, while the Koch contingent rebranded as Americans for Prosperity. Both groups were key players in providing the financial and organizational support that launched the tea party.
To bankroll Americans for Prosperity and other outfits that advance their ideological agenda, the Kochs built a political machine that in size, scope, sophistication, and fundraising prowess rivals the Republican Party itself. The Center to Protect Patient Rights—run by a political consultant employed by the Kochs—initially served as a pass-through for contributions from the network of elite political donors who take part in Koch-sponsored seminars.
Later, the Kochs formed a business league—members must pay at least $100,000 in annual dues—called Freedom Partners, which was set up under a section of the tax code that could allow donors to write off political contributions as business expenses. The group's president is Marc Short, a former vice president at Koch Companies Public Sector, the division of Koch Industries that oversees lobbying, public relations, and legal affairs.
The brothers' representatives often go out of their way to minimize their role in the politics outfits they fund. They also insist that there is an arm's length relationship between Koch Industries and the brothers' political endeavors. But past and present Koch employees occupy key roles in the political organizations, and, before Freedom Partners assumed this responsibility, it was Koch Industries that organized the famous biannual donor conferences where tens of millions are raised to influence politics.
The five-member board of Freedom Partners exemplifies how closely intertwined the Kochs, their company, and their political activities truly are. It includes Freedom Partners president Marc Short, the former Koch executive; current Koch Industries general counsel Mark Holden, who is also a board member of Americans for Prosperity; Kevin Gentry, a Koch vice president who serves as one of the brothers' chief fundraisers; and Wayne Gable, a former managing director of government affairs at Koch who once served as the president of Citizens for a Sound Economy and later as an Americans for Prosperity board member. (The fifth member is Nestor Weigand, one of Charles' closest friends.)
Through the John Birch Society, Fred Koch tried and failed to convert the country to his way of thinking, a hardline ideology that saw the tentacles of socialism slowly choking the life out of the American self-reliance and free enterprise. His sons have carried forward the torch, and where their father and his allies were dismissed by fellow conservatives as reactionaries, the Koch brothers have risen to become Republican powerbrokers.
Their newfound influence comes thanks to their sprawling political network, a many-tentacled apparatus that has only grown in breadth, scope, and complexity since the Koch's libertarian allies dubbed it the "Kochtopus" in the 1970s. Building on the research for my Koch brothers biography Sons of Wichita, we've mapped the key organizations the brothers have founded, bankrolled, or had a major influence on.
How the billionaire brothers have spread their web of influence across every sector of American society.
Julia Lurie, Daniel Schulman, and Tasneem RajaNov. 3, 2014 3:58 PM
In 1958, Fred Koch, the founder of the Midwestern oil and cattle ranching empire that would become Koch Industries, became a charter member of the John Birch Society, the fiercely anti-communist organization whose members believed Soviet influence was infecting all aspects of American society. The Birchers attempted to place their weight on "the political scales…as fast and as far" as they could, but their movement was quickly sidelined to the ideological fringe. Two of Fred's four sons, Charles and David, have carried forward the conservative torch, and they have succeeded where their father and his allies failed. Their father's company, meanwhile, has grown into a multibillion-dollar conglomerate that is the second-largest private corporation in the country.
Though the Koch surname has become synonymous with political spending, the family's philanthropy has flowed to a wide range of causes. A significant portion has gone to think tanks and policy institutes that advance the brothers' free-market beliefs. And Charles Koch has lavished millions on universities to bolster their study and teaching of this school of economics. But Koch contributions have also established cancer research centers, funded ballets and preserved cultural institutions, and provided grants and scholarships to students.
This project, an effort to track the breadth of the Kochs' philanthropic influence, builds on several years of reporting (which culminated in Dan Schulman's book, Sons of Wichita, and our cover story "Koch vs. Koch"), news stories, as well as data from tax filings and the organizations' websites. (See more about our methodology below.) What follows is by no means exhaustive. It's the first round of a project that we'll continue to expand and update; please leave suggestions and tips in the comments.
The author of "Sons of Wichita" catches up with the makers of "Citizen Koch."
Daniel SchulmanJul. 17, 2014 6:00 AM
Oscar-nominated filmmakers Carl Deal and Tia Lessin were steeped in the production of a documentary on the influence of money in politics, but it wasn't until funding for their project was unceremoniously yanked last year that the power of big donors truly hit home.
The pair had received a $150,000 commitment from the Independent Television Service (ITVS), a Corporation for Public Broadcasting-funded organization that bankrolls projects aired on PBS. They would later learn that their film, Citizen Koch, which explores the post-Citizen United political landscape and the rise of the tea party, had touched a nerve among public television officials worried about angering a generous benefactor, David Koch, who served on the boards of Boston's WGBH and New York City's WNET. In the fall of 2012, PBS had aired Alex Gibney's Park Avenue: Money, Power and the American Dream, which featured a highly unflattering portrait of the billionaire, including an interview with a former doorman at Koch's elite Manhattan apartment building who singled him out as its most miserly resident. Public television officials were sensitive about offending Koch again.
Long before Charles Koch became the left's public enemy number one (or two, depending on where David Koch falls in the rankings), some of his most vocal detractors were not liberals but fellow libertarians. None of his erstwhile allies would come to loathe him more fiercely than Murray Rothbard, one of the movement's intellectual forefathers, with whom Charles had worked closely to elevate libertarianism from a fringy cadre of radical thinkers to a genuine and growing mass movement.
In the 1970s, Charles helped fund Rothbard's work, as the economist churned out treatise after treatise denouncing the tyranny of government. Rothbard was a man with a plan when it came to movement-building. Where some libertarians had bickered over whether to advance the cause through an academic or an activist approach, Rothbard argued that the solution wasn't to choose one path, but both. Charles was taken with his strategic vision.
Rothbard dreamt of creating a libertarian think tank to bolster the movement's intellectual capacity. Charles Koch made this a reality in 1977, when he co-founded the Cato Institute with Rothbard and Ed Crane, then the chairman of the national Libertarian Party. This was a high point for libertarianism, when a busy hive of libertarian organizing buzzed on San Francisco's Montgomery Street, home to Cato and a handful of other ideological operations bankrolled by Charles Koch.
But the relationship between Cato's co-founders soon soured.
"Charles Koch has a practice of misusing nonprofit foundations for his own personal ends. He wants to spend that money on things that will enhance his personal image and goals, even it these expenditures are not consistent with the publicly stated goals of the foundation."
Rothbard, who was feisty by nature, chafed under the regime of Crane and Koch—the libertarian movement's primary financier at that time. His breaking point came during the 1980 election, when David Koch ran as the Libertarian Party's vice presidential nominee. Rothbard and his supporters felt that, in a bid for national legitimacy, David Koch and his running mate, Ed Clark, had watered down the core tenets of libertarianism to make their philosophy more palatable to the masses. Americans today would consider their platform—which called for abolishing Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid and eliminating federal agencies including the EPA and the Department of Energy—a radical one. But to Rothbard and his circle, it wasn't radical enough. For instance, the Clark-Koch ticket stopped short of calling for the outright repeal of the income tax. And Clark, to Rothbard's horror, had even defined libertarianism as "low-tax liberalism" in a TV interview.
Following the 1980 election, in which the Clark-Koch campaign claimed a little over one percent of the popular vote, Rothbard did not hold back. He penned a scathing polemic titled "The Clark Campaign: Never Again," in which he wrote that Ed Clark and David Koch had "sold their souls—ours, unfortunately, along with it—for a mess of pottage, and they didn't even get the pottage." Thanks in part to Rothbard's rabble-rousing, factional feuds and recriminations splintered the libertarian movement just as it was gaining momentum. A few months after Rothbard's diatribe, Charles Koch and Ed Crane tossed him out of the Cato Institute and voided his shares in the think tank (which was set up, under Kansas law, as a nonprofit corporation with stockholders), a rebuke that turned their libertarian brother-in-arms into a lifelong adversary.
Rothbard would later play a cameo role in the messy battle between the four Koch brothers. In 1988, when Bill and Frederick Koch sued their brothers over control of the family foundation that had been established by their father, they dredged up Rothbard as a possible witness, seeking to depose him in the case. They hoped his testimony would damage Charles Koch's credibility and support their contention that their brother was a tyrannical control freak who used nonprofit entities to advance his own aims.
A document summarizing Rothbard's anticipated testimony was filed in the case, and I came across it as I pored over thousands of documents at the district court house in the Koch family's hometown of Wichita. Rothbard, it seemed, was only too eager to denounce his onetime benefactor.
Charles Koch, Rothbard planned to testify, "involves himself in the minutest details related to the non-profit foundations with which he is associated…. He insists on personally approving even the minutest matters, such as $100 grants, stationery design and color of offices." Rothbard contended that Charles would go "to any end to acquire/retain control over the nonprofit foundations with which he is associated" and "considers himself above the law." And the economist further alleged:
Charles Koch has a practice of misusing nonprofit foundations for his own personal ends. Charles Koch wants absolute control of the non-profit foundations, but wants to be able to spend other people's money not his own. He wants to spend that money on things that will enhance his personal image and goals, even it these expenditures are not consistent with the publicly stated goals of the foundation. Amongst other things, Charles Koch uses his involvement with non-profit foundations to aquire access to, and respect from, influential people in government and elsewhere.
Rothbard died in 1995, taking his grudge to the grave. By then, Charles and David Koch had abandoned the libertarian movement and struck out on their long path to becoming Republican powerbrokers. As their influence has expanded within the broader GOP in recent years, I've heard echoes of Rothbard's past criticisms in the conservative nonprofit world by recipients of Koch network funding who complain of micromanagement by the Koch brothers' political adjutants. "Nobody really works with them," said the leader of one conservative group. "They work for them or not at all. They are kind of creating a monopoly" and attempting to "make the conservative movement theirs."