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David H. Koch, industrialist who fueled right-wing movement, dies at 79

David Koch during an interview in Cambridge, Mass., on March 4, 2011. Koch, who joined his brother, Charles Koch, in business and political ventures that grew into the nation’s second-largest private company and a powerful right-wing libertarian movement that helped reshape American politics, has died, his brother Charles announced Friday. He was 79. (Gretchen Ertl/The New York Times)
August 23, 2019 10:44 am Updated: August 23, 2019 10:52 am

David H. Koch, who joined his brother, Charles G. Koch, in business and political ventures that grew into the nation’s second-largest private company and a powerful right-wing libertarian movement that helped reshape American politics, has died. He was 79.

Charles Koch announced the death in a statement, which gave no cause but noted that David Koch had suffered from prostate cancer in the past.

Hitching his star to the soaring ambitions of his older brother, David Koch (pronounced coke) became one of the world’s richest people, with assets of $42.2 billion in 2019 and a 42% stake in the global family enterprise, Koch Industries. He also became a nationally known philanthropist and the early public face of the Koch political ascendancy, as the Libertarian Party’s candidate for vice president in 1980.

Three decades after David Koch’s public steps into politics, analysts say, the Koch brothers’ money-fueled brand of libertarianism helped give rise to the Tea Party movement, strengthened the far-right wing of a resurgent Republican Party and played a significant role in the election of Donald Trump as president in 2016.

A gregarious, socially prominent New Yorker, Koch loved the ballet, had been a dinosaur buff as a child and battled prostate cancer in his 50s and 60s. These were the stories behind his name appearing on cornices at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, the American Museum of Natural History and NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital — the Manhattan institutions on which some of his $1.2 billion in charitable gifts were bestowed.

He was a familiar figure at society galas, a 6-foot-5 former college basketball star who long held the single-game scoring record — 41 points — for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology team, the Engineers. He also had what New York magazine called a “seemingly limitless storehouse of Elks club-inflected jokes, which are often followed by his loud, wheezy honk of a laugh.”

Koch had palatial homes in Manhattan; Southampton, New York; Aspen, Colorado; and Palm Beach, Florida; a yacht in the Mediterranean rented for $500,000 a week for summer getaways; and acquaintances that included Winston Churchill Jr., Prince Charles, and Bill and Melinda Gates.

He also had bad experiences and good luck. He survived a 1991 plane crash that killed 34 people at Los Angeles International Airport. He broke down in tears on a witness stand in Kansas during a civil trial that nearly tore his family apart over money. And for years, he and Charles faced, and denied, accusations of having exploited libertarian principles for self-serving purposes.

They insisted that they adhered to a traditional belief in the liberty of the individual, and in free trade, free markets and freedom from what they called government “intrusions,” including taxes, military drafts, compulsory education, business regulations, welfare programs and laws that criminalized homosexuality, prostitution and drug use.

Fueling the right

Since the 1970s, the Kochs have spent at least $100 million — some estimates put it at much more — to transform a fringe movement into a formidable political force aimed at moving America to the far right by influencing the outcome of elections, undoing limits on campaign contributions and promoting conservative candidacies, think tanks and policies.

But they said they had not given money to any Tea Party candidates. “I’ve never been to a Tea Party event,” David Koch told New York magazine in 2010. “No one representing the Tea Party has ever even approached me.”

Still, he and his brother acknowledged roles in founding and contributing money to Americans for Prosperity, the right-wing advocacy group that was widely reported to have provided logistical backing for the Tea Party and other organizations in election campaigns and the promotion of conservative causes.

Among the groups they supported was the American Legislative Exchange Council, an organization of conservative state legislators and corporate lobbyists. ALEC, as the group is known, drafts model state legislation that members may customize for introduction as proposed laws to cut taxes, combat illegal immigration, loosen environmental regulations, weaken labor unions and oppose gun laws.

As part of their longstanding crusade for lower taxes and smaller government, the Koch brothers in recent years opposed dozens of transit-related initiatives in cities and counties across the country, a review by The New York Times found. Campaigns coordinated and financed by Americans for Prosperity fought state legislation to fund transportation projects, mounted ad campaigns and public forums to defeat transit plans, and organized phone banks to convince citizens that public transit was a waste of taxpayers’ money.

By early 2017, Charles and David Koch, with a combined net worth of more than $100 billion, had become the leaders of a libertarian juggernaut loosely allied with the Republican Party, which, after eight years in the wings, again controlled the White House, both houses of Congress and many state legislatures.

Under the Trump administration, the Koch brothers’ prospects in Washington seemed improved, at least superficially. But under the surface lay substantive political and personal differences between the Kochs and Trump. While the Kochs did not endorse Trump, David Koch attended his election night victory party and later met with the president-elect at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach. The Kochs contributed heavily to Vice President Mike Pence’s two campaigns for governor of Indiana, and counted a half-dozen close allies among the president’s cabinet choices and Republican advisers.

“The Kochs will be key figures in any discussion about what direction the party takes after 2016,” The Times reported in September that year, “and they are determined to steer it toward their free-market vision.”

That proved prophetic. As the 2018 congressional elections approached, the Kochs’ frustrations with Trump broke into an ugly and open exchange between Charles Koch and the president. Charles denounced Trump’s restrictive trade and immigration policies as divisive, and threatened to withhold the family’s support for Republican candidates who opposed the free-trade, government-shrinking policies at the heart of the Koch political philosophy. Trump struck back on Twitter, calling the Koch political apparatus “overrated” and “a total joke in real Republican circles.”

A powerful dynasty

Critics accused the Kochs of buying influence and using their political machine to manipulate elections and government policies under a guise of patriotism and freedom, cloaking what the critics called a hidden agenda to cut taxes and federal regulations governing business, the environment and other interests, primarily to benefit the Koch family and its enterprises.

Jane Mayer, the New Yorker writer and a critic of the Koch brothers, said in her book “Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right” (2016), that the libertarian policies they embraced benefited Koch chemical and fossil fuel businesses, which were among the nation’s worst polluters, and paid millions in fines and court judgments for hazardous-waste violations.

“Lowering taxes and rolling back regulations, slashing the welfare state and obliterating the limits on campaign spending might or might not have helped others,” Mayer wrote, “but they most certainly strengthened the hand of extreme donors with extreme wealth.” The Koch brothers rejected the allegations.

In interviews after the book’s publication, Mayer said that investigators who she believed were hired by the Koch brothers had tried to intimidate her by digging up false information, including accusations of plagiarism, to smear her reputation.

While the brothers portrayed themselves as equal partners promoting libertarian ideas, Charles was the major decision maker, just as he was the dominant voice in Koch enterprises, according to Daniel Schulman’s 2014 biography, “Sons of Wichita: How the Koch Brothers Became America’s Most Powerful and Private Dynasty.”

There were other differences. Charles has lived most of his life in a walled compound in Wichita, Kansas, a secretive kingpin surrounded by lawyers, public relations retainers and security guards. By all accounts he reads economics, history and political philosophy, listens to opera, eats lunch in the company cafeteria with his employees and rarely gives press interviews.

David, by contrast, was an extrovert who attended several dinner parties a week and bantered with reporters, politicians and friends in New York society. His outgoing personality was on display in a nationally televised interview with Barbara Walters on ABC in 2014. His vice-presidential run with Ed Clark, an oil company lawyer nominated as the Libertarian presidential candidate, drew nearly 1 million votes.

Brothers against brothers

David Hamilton Koch was born in Wichita on May 3, 1940, the third of four sons of Fred Chase Koch, an oil engineer and entrepreneur, and the former Mary Clementine Robinson, a Wellesley College graduate and the daughter of a Kansas City physician.

David and his brothers — Frederick, seven years older; Charles, five years older, and David’s twin, William — grew up in Wichita under the discipline of an emotionally distant father, who taught them to fight and compete with each other. That spirit carried into adulthood, engendering feuds and lawsuits that became public displays of avarice and fraternal malice.

Fred Koch made millions in the 1920s and ‘30s by inventing a process to extract more gasoline from crude oil and by building refineries in the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany and elsewhere in Europe and the Middle East. Fiercely anti-Communist, he co-founded the right-wing John Birch Society and created the Wichita company that became Koch Industries.

After Fred Koch’s death in 1967, his sons inherited significant stakes in the company. Charles became chairman, chief executive and the strategist behind its expansion into chemicals, pipelines and consumer goods, eventually making Koch Industries the nation’s second-largest private conglomerate, with interests in 60 countries, more than 100,000 employees and annual revenue of more than $100 billion.

David graduated from the exclusive Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts and studied chemical engineering at MIT, earning a bachelor’s degree in 1962 and a master’s in 1963. He worked for engineering firms in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and New York City before joining the family company in 1970 as a technical services manager. But he did not settle in Wichita, as Charles had.

Instead, he founded a Koch Industries office in New York City, where he had already put down roots. He was known as a playboy whose penthouse parties were attended by models. In 1979, he was named president of his own division, Koch Engineering, which later morphed into Koch Chemical Technology Group, and in 1981 he became executive vice president of the parent company.

Retirement from politics and business

On Feb. 1, 1991, a Boeing 737 USAir flight from Columbus, Ohio, to Los Angeles, carrying 89 people, including David Koch, crashed into a small commuter plane on landing. All 12 people on the commuter plane and 22 passengers on the jetliner were killed. In a smoky, crowded cabin, Koch pried open an exit and leaped to the tarmac, escaping with cuts and burned lungs.

In 1992, he learned he had prostate cancer. He had surgery and radiation and hormone treatments that kept the disease in check for decades. All his brothers had prostate cancer and were said to have been cured.

Koch stepped away from his political and business interests in June 2018. In a letter to employees of Koch Industries announcing his brother’s retirement, Charles Koch said that David’s deteriorating health had made it impossible for him to continue working. The letter did not disclose the nature of his illness. David’s presence in social and political circles, which once ran at the highest levels, had been declining for several years.

A bachelor until he was 56, Koch married Julia Flesher, a former Adolfo fashion assistant, in 1996. They had three children: David Jr., Mary Julia and John Mark.