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I’d Like To Give The World a Koch

Billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch joined the Tea Party movement. They didn't create it.

By From the September 2011 issue

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The kochtopus doesn't dance at the Jefferson Memorial, or even act as eight-armed puppeteer controlling the dancers.

In a roundabout way, that's the first clue which unravels the Left's web of fabrications about the billionaire industrialist Koch brothers, Charles and David, whose vast philanthropy happens to include efforts to promote -- gasp! -- the free market. According to the Left's tall tales -- eagerly promoted in leftist opinion journals such as the New York Times--conservatives and Tea Partiers are essentially incapable of acting on their own without nefarious manipulations from the brothers Koch (pronounced "Coke"). Indeed, all the rest of us conservatives are just so much phantasmagoria; the Left avers that in the benighted conservative universe, only Koch is the real thing.

The Kochs are, according to an oft-quoted line from the Left, "the billionaires behind the hate." At the blog Crooks and Liars, a columnist wrote that the brothers are "an evil force in today's politics, feeding evil men with evil ambitions, and they should be called evil every single chance we get."

It's balderdash, of course, as we shall see.

THE STORY probably starts with the accusations, from then Speaker Nancy Pelosi, among many other enlightened Kultursmoggists, that the Tea Parties from the very beginning were no more than "Astroturf by some of the wealthiest people in America." ("Astroturf" in the political sense, of course, means political organizing designed to look like "grassroots" activity when it actually is mere fake populism laid down and financed from above.) It wasn't long before the Left identified those "wealthiest people" as the Kochs.

Funny, but I had never thought that Astroturf was named J. P. Freire.

Here's how the first Washington Tea Party started, as I well remember it. I was working at the Washington Examiner (I'm essentially just an adjunct at The American Spectator) and I started seeing private e-mails from Freire, then wrapping up his stint as the TAS managing editor. Clearly acting on his own, Freire himself organized the first D.C. Tea Party event on February 27, 2009, timed to siphon attendees from that week's Conservative Political Action Conference. By phone at one point, Freire said that he had seen the now-famous Rick Santelli rant on CNBC on February 19, and he called a friend in Chicago and said, hey, we on the right too often just sit on our tails and grumble; we should go out on the streets and make a show.

Via Facebook, he saw that many other Santelli viewers were reacting the same way, but nobody seemed to be doing anything in Washington--obviously, the single most important location--so he did it himself.

I remember being mildly intrigued, thinking it might be a good idea--but also thinking, hey, this might just be J. P. having some fun, as J. P. is wont to do. In my mind, I wondered if it weren't just another lark, sort of like when, on Thomas Jefferson's birthday in 2008, a group of libertarians thought it would be cool to hang out at the Jefferson Memorial at midnight and some of them started dancing to their iPods--little knowing that the dancing would be considered civil disobedience and get some of them arrested. J. P. was there that night, I remember being told, not really dancing but still part of the merry crew.

The first Tea Party in D.C. seemed at the time to represent the same spirit as the Jefferson dancers, and it developed so organically, by word of mouth and digital equivalents, that I figured it wouldn't be too big a deal. When the day dawned cold and wet, I punted on covering it; I stayed inside the Examiner offices and figured J.P.'s initiative would probably fizzle in the drizzle.

I read the tea leaves wrong. Freire's event was a big success, as were others nationwide. Six weeks later on Tax Day, a host of even bigger Tea Parties made national news. But their genesis was no more dictated from above than was the flash mini-mob at the Jefferson Memorial the year before--and indeed, Freire wrote an uncharacteristically angry TAS blog post griping about the Left's charges of Astroturfing. He wrote that he "got no such support. None. Nada. Zilch….At a time, however, when people are saying that those in favor of limited government are in shambles, these people are organizing. And they're doing it themselves. There was no grand conspiracy underlying a bunch of people on Twitter going, 'Hey, how do you hold a protest where I am?' It was genuine. Some people were some-time activists but worked in the private sector. Others were conservatives with jobs at non-profits. Others were just people who wanted to be involved."

Yet as the months went by, the Left repeatedly demonized these "shadowy" Kochs for all sorts of other occurrences that a) weren't nefarious and, b) were genuinely populist activity. In truth, as the Tea Party movement grew, what was remarkable about all the chatter on the right was not how unified it was, but how fractured, with various groups fighting over who was the "real" Tea Party while organizing numerous spontaneous events that clearly caught better-known groups off guard. The left seized on perhaps the most visible of the latter, Americans for Prosperity (AFP), significantly funded by the Kochs. The conservative movement and the country at large should be grateful that AFP did wonderful work wherever it operated. But to say AFP was "directing" the organic Tea Party activism, or the town hall protests in the summer of 2009, was absurd. For instance, the one town meeting I attended featured enthusiastic but utterly unorganized citizens on the right, while the lefty noisemakers all were bused in, shabbily resplendent in their purple uniforms, following instructions like zombies on pogo sticks.

INDEED, there always has been something deathly soulless about the Left's Alinskyite efforts to pick the Kochs as targets, freeze them, personalize the attacks, and polarize mainstream America against them. As we now know, it was all by design, almost certainly by the minions of the Democracy Alliance--an umbrella group of the Left's super-rich heavily guided by George Soros, the Hungarian insider-trading felon, and by Herb and Marion Sandler, the subprime mortgage hucksters pilloried on Saturday Night Live for helping cause the 2008 financial crisis. As Politico, hardly a right-wing site, reported on March 28, "Back in Washington last month, representatives from Common Cause, Greenpeace, Public Citizen and Think Progress huddled with researchers from the Service Employees International Union at SEIU headquarters to figure out how to make the most of the sudden focus on the Kochs. And meeting participants have continued to trade research about the Kochs and strategize via a Koch-related email listserv and a rolling series of conference calls."

This wasn't a onetime confab, but part of what some accounts describe as a regular meeting aimed specifically at burning Koch. Indeed, attacks on the Kochs have been relentless, organized--and decidedly bizarre. Much of the work refuting them already has been done, especially in a massive piece by Matthew Continetti at the Weekly Standard and in a plethora of sharp-as-tacks blog posts by John Hinderaker at the Power Line website. The New York Times breathlessly reported, for instance, that the Kochs "and their employees" donated a whopping $2 million to political causes in the last election cycle, 92 percent of it to Republicans. Oh, the humanity of our compromised politics! But as Hinderaker noted, the Times neglected to provide the context that the $2 million puts the Kochs nowhere even near the top 20 of givers--a level which would require 12 times as much giving, or more than $25 million--nor that 15 of those top 20 gave overwhelmingly to Democrats and four of the other five gave about equally to both parties.

The Left peddled the fiction that the Kochs were somehow the driving force behind Wisconsin governor Scott Walker's tough line against state unions, supposedly because the Kochs wanted to buy dilapidated power plants from the state on the cheap--even though the Kochs aren't in the power plant business, have never expressed an interest in those plants, and flat-out don't want them.

Lee Fang of Think Progress, the most obsessive and ignorant of the anti-Koch conspiracy theorists, accused Koch businesses of "ask[ing] Gov. Sarah Palin's administration to use taxpayer money to bail out one of their failing refinery [sic]." But there was no bailout, and the issue discussed occurred not under Palin but under her adversary, former Gov. Frank Murkowski.

Fang accused the Kochs of "manipulating the oil market" and exerting "control of every part of the market." To which Hinderaker noted, first, that no manipulation actually occurred and, second, that Koch was in no position to have done any manipulating: "Koch owns [only] three of the 141 largest refineries in the United States; its biggest weighs in at number 12. So how, exactly, does Koch 'control every part of the market'?"

Moving to the entirely laughable, the Huffington Post headlined a story as follows: "Former Koch Executive Supplying House's New Styrofoam Cups"--which, the story's lead sentence informs us, are "now littering the building following the House GOP's decision to phase out biodegradable cups from a Capitol lunchroom." How awful. A host of other media outlets picked up this outrageous story of insider influence.

But (again as per Hinderaker), the House Republicans didn't choose the company that makes the cups. And the company that makes the cups isn't owned by the Kochs. And the executive who owns the cup company wasn't a Koch man: for four years he was a vice president of Georgia-Pacific, which then was bought by the Kochs--at which point he immediately left Georgia-Pacific. A year later the executive went to work for the cup company, which has no Koch connection.

This is the "guilt by association" version of "connect the dots," except there's no guilt to start with and the dots themselves are in invisible ink, not just on different pages but in entirely different books in different libraries.

AN ENTIRE VOLUME could detail other scurrilous attacks against the Kochs or their enterprises, including several shots across their bow from President Obama and his administration. For sheer, sickening viciousness, however, nothing comes close to one of the manifold smears in a New Yorker article by Jane Mayer, the crusading liberal known for a quarter-century of demonizing conservatives--especially Clarence Thomas, whom one reviewer said Mayer effectively had depicted as "an id suffering in the role of a Republican superego." It was Mayer who widely popularized the term "Kochtopus" to describe the Kochs' tentacles supposedly extending their grip in slimy ways throughout the conservative world.

While rather grudgingly listing in dollar terms some of David Koch's "spectacularly large donations" to the arts and sciences, especially cancer research (Koch himself is a survivor of prostate cancer), she broke all twisted-logic records to portray this philanthropy in a negative light. In lefty la-la land, conservatives/libertarians are evil even when they fight cancer:

In 2004, President Bush named him to the National Cancer Advisory Board, which guides the National Cancer Institute. Koch's corporate and political roles, however, may pose conflicts of interest. For example, at the same time that David Koch has been casting himself as a champion in the fight against cancer, Koch Industries has been lobbying to prevent the E.P.A. from classifying formaldehyde, which the company produces in great quantities, as a "known carcinogen" in humans….Koch Industries became a major producer of the chemical in 2005, after it bought Georgia-Pacific, the paper and wood-products company, for twenty-one billion dollars. Georgia-Pacific manufactures formaldehyde in its chemical division….David Koch did not recuse himself from the National Cancer Advisory Board, or divest himself of company stock, while his company was directly lobbying the government to keep formaldehyde on the market. (A board spokesperson said that the issue of formaldehyde had not come up.)

The parenthetical sentence provides a thin veil of objectivity. Very thin. Of course the issue of formaldehyde never came up--because the NCAB's only job is to evaluate grant requests. It has no role whatsoever in adjudging whether substances are carcinogenic. Furthermore, for years there has been a legitimate scientific debate about whether formaldehyde is carcinogenic--so it's not as if Georgia-Pacific, which the Kochs bought only after Koch already was on the NCAB, was unusual in arguing the case for its product. But never mind all that: The Kochs are by definition evil, so they must be ascribed ulterior motives.

Then again, maybe a cancer survivor like David Koch might legitimately want to see cancer cured. Imagine that. To date, he has donated in excess of $250 million to the anti-cancer effort, at places like the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, and especially to cancer research at his alma mater, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. What formerly was the MIT Center for Cancer Research is now the David H. Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research, after Koch donated a cool $100 million for a completely new building, another $20 million for new equipment, and (through the years) more than $30 million for other purposes. What formerly featured 13 faculty and about 250 total employees, focusing solely on biological research, now boasts 26 faculty and some 600 employees and, as its name indicates, integrates biological research with chemical engineering, nanotechnology, and other science that puts MIT at cancer fighting's cutting edge.

Koch's involvement resulted from a collaborative, evolving relationship with MIT's cancer center.

"He initially pledged a certain amount of money to help MIT do a new building, just as a replacement for the old one," Dr. Tyler Jacks, then an MIT professor and now director of the new center, told me. "But as we talked about it, the faculty and administration developed this concept of an integrative facility, and he was interested, and he doubled his gift. And then he doubled it again! And at some point as he increased his commitment, he added this condition that we make the commitment to fast-track construction of it. We actually cut about a year of the normal timing for a project of this size and scope.….He pushed it in ways certainly helpful to the researchers, to the field, to cancer research overall. The sooner we were able to take advantage of this, the better. I think MIT was excited to be able to move quickly."

Significantly though--in contradistinction to the Left's portrayal of the Kochs as puppet masters--Jacks said Koch was "very supportive of what we are doing, but at no point did he ever tell us what to do. He never said you should study this type of cancer,
or you should study cancer in this way. He never tried to influence the nature of our research program."

MOVING FROM SCIENCES to arts, David Koch's $100 million donation to renovate what had been the "State Theatre" of the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts was similarly transformative in the best of ways for the New York City Opera, for all sorts of other performances there, and particularly for ballet. The acoustics were improved, a center aisle was added to make it more convenient for patrons, and the orchestra setup was vastly improved.

"It restored a great hall," Lincoln Center chair Katherine Farley told me. "It was a life-changing gift to the New York City Ballet. And there were two other things about this gift that really were significant from a philanthropic standpoint. The timing of this gift was important because it happened in the midst of a recession [2008], and a gift of that magnitude at a time when it was really hard to raise money was both stimulating of other giving, and symbolically very important."

The second thing special about the donation, she said, is that a gift so large usually carries with it the expectation that the donor's name be permanently attached to the facility. Instead, "David volunteered to make his gift a 50-year gift," explained Farley. "He knew that in 50 years it would need renovations again, which is just the nature of facilities like these, so he specified that after 50 years his name be taken down so that another donor could come forth and get the naming. Otherwise, it's more difficult to raise the money because people like to have the building named for themselves."

Another Koch favorite, since at least 1982, has been the Metropolitan Museum of Art--to similar good effect, rising to the tune of some $5 million annually in recent years.

"He's keenly interested, keenly aware, and extraordinarily generous," said Emily Rafferty, president of the Met. "Part of a museum's mission is to preserve works of art. They have to be taken care of like anything else. We take care of paintings, objects, textiles, library books, all sorts of things….In particular, as you know, he is interested in science and he's been active as a donor to our conservation area--in particular to our textile conservation center. He serves, also, on our trustees' building committee and as you know he is an engineer by training. He's very interested in the infrastructure of our 21 buildings, all the engineering components, and he's very helpful."

On and on the major philanthropic record goes: to his high school, Deerfield Academy; to New York Presbyterian Hospital; to the American Museum of Natural History; to the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Natural History, and others. Older brother Charles Koch's donations are just as extensive, many of them to educational institutions. All told, these philanthropic activities far exceed their gifts--substantial as they are--to political, or quasi-political, causes of a libertarian bent.

Yet it's true, and thank goodness for it, that the Kochs are highly significant and effective boosters of the free market cause. Heck, as I was writing this story, I came across third-party claims that the Kochs even give some money to The American Spectator Foundation, which through The American Spectator magazine provides me with a decidedly small portion of my income. I don't know how much, if any, their alleged fraction of my fraction amounts to, and I don't want to know. Nobody even came close to telling me what to write when I embarked on this story.

MAYBE that's the point. I'll gladly tell the Left that I've been a member of the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy since 1979. But I was aware of the Koch brothers only in the vaguest sense until a conversation with a then-colleague at the Washington Examiner in 2008. If the Kochs' contributions are large and effective, their touch is light--and it aims not toward centralized control, but toward freedom.

As Charles Koch noted in a March 1 column in the Wall Street Journal, "Recent studies show that the poorest 10 percent of the population living in countries with the greatest economic freedom have 10 times the per capita income of the poorest citizens in countries with the least economic freedom. In other words, society as a whole benefits from greater economic freedom."

For the Kochs, then, the political giving is part and parcel of the philanthropic impulse. Via e-mail, David Koch explained his thinking to me, after weeks of my pleading through his aides for a comment:

"Liberty and the free enterprise system create prosperity, and that's why we've advocated for these principles all our lives."

Methinks Thomas Jefferson himself would dance to celebrate that. 

Disclosure: The Charles G. Koch Foundation made a small contribution to The American Spectator Foundation in 2010.

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About the Author
Quin Hillyer is a senior editor of The American Spectator and a senior fellow at the Center for Individual Freedom. Follow him on Twitter @QuinHillyer.