David Koch, Businessman, Political Activist, and Philanthropist, Dead At 79
David Koch, one-half of the Koch Brothers and the head of a wide-ranging business empire who also went on to have a huge impact on politics and cultural philanthropy, has died at the age of 79.
David Koch, one half of the “Koch Brothers,” the principal owners of a multinational conglomerate of corporations that owns businesses that impact the daily lives of Americans whether they’re aware of it or not who also played a role as a philanthropist to the arts and medical fields as well as a political activist who once ran for Vice-President of the United States, has died at the age of 79:
David H. Koch, a billionaire industrialist and philanthropist whose fortune and hard-edge libertarianism had a profound effect on American politics while making him an uncommonly polarizing figure, died Aug. 23 at his home in Southampton, N.Y. He was 79.
Mr. Koch, who had suffered from prostate cancer for many years, announced in 2018 that he was stepping down from his positions at Koch Industries and the Koch political and philanthropic networks. His death was announced in a statement from Koch Industries.
Mr. Koch and an older brother, Charles, transformed the Wichita-based family company, which they had taken over from their father, Fred, in the 1960s, into a global conglomerate with interests in businesses from petroleum to ranching to a wide variety of consumer products, such as Dixie cups and Stainmaster carpeting.
Koch Industries became the second-largest privately held company in the United States, and by 2018, Charles and David Koch were estimated to be worth in the neighborhood of $60 billion each.
As a patron of charities, Mr. Koch ranked among the most openhanded donors of his era, disbursing more than $1 billion to cultural and medical nonprofit organizations. But it was through a network of well-financed advocacy groups that the Koch brothers achieved their greatest distinction, spreading an uncompromising anti-government gospel that moved the Republican Party steadily to the right.
They inherited a deep mistrust of big government from their father, a founding member of the arch-conservative John Birch Society. Mr. Koch said he fervently believed that minimal government led to more prosperity and freedom for all people.
“It’s something I grew up with,” he told journalist Brian Doherty, editor of the libertarian magazine Reason, “a fundamental point of view that big government was bad, and imposition of government controls on our lives and economic fortunes was not good.”
In 1980, Mr. Koch was the Libertarian Party’s nominee for vice president on a ticket with corporate lawyer Ed Clark. He aligned himself with a platform that called for the abolition of all corporate and personal income taxes, Medicare, and child labor laws. When the ticket flopped at the ballot box, garnering 1 percent of the popular vote, the brothers pinned their political ambitions on the ascendant Reagan-era GOP.
Impact on politics
The Kochs’ chief instruments were Americans for Prosperity, a nonprofit group founded in 2004 and technically dedicated to “social welfare,” and semiannual conclaves that attracted some of the wealthiest conservative donors in the country. In the 2016 election cycle, the Koch network spent nearly $900 million, not much less than the total laid out by the Republican Party.
“It’s hard to think of another set of individuals who have had such an impact on our political system who haven’t been elected officials,” said Alexander Hertel-Fernandez, a Columbia University political scientist who has studied the Kochs.
David Hamilton Koch was born in Wichita on May 3, 1940. His mother, the former Mary Robinson, was a well-known figure in Wichita society, and his father was a chemical engineer and entrepreneur who prospered in oil refining.
His father was a strict disciplinarian who insisted that his four sons — Frederick, Charles and fraternal twins David and William — perform manual labor to foster a strong work ethic.
David Koch graduated in 1958 from Deerfield Academy, a prep school in Massachusetts, and then entered the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, his father’s alma mater, which was also attended by his brothers Charles and William.
He studied chemical engineering, receiving a bachelor’s degree in 1962 and a master’s degree in 1963. As an undergraduate, Mr. Koch, at 6-foot-5, was a standout on the basketball team, setting the school’s single-game scoring record.
After graduation, he worked for a series of consulting firms before joining the family company in 1970. He inherited $300 million in 1967, after his father’s death.
Over the years, the company was plagued by bitter sibling rivalries, with David and Charles Koch pitted against Frederick and William. In 1980, the latter two led an attempted takeover of Koch Industries. The gambit failed and led to years of acrimonious litigation.
In contrast to Charles, who enjoyed a staid family life in Wichita, the headquarters city of Koch Industries, David Koch chose to live for years in New York City. He relished his life as a freewheeling bachelor and frequent party host until what he described as a life-altering event in 1991: his escape from an airplane disaster at Los Angeles International Airport.
He was aboard a commercial airliner that collided with a commuter aircraft on the runway. Mr. Koch’s plane swerved into a building and caught fire. With smoke filling the cabin, he managed to force open a door and exit to safety. Thirty-three people died in the accident, and Mr. Koch suffered serious burns to his lungs.
“This may sound odd, but I felt this experience was very spiritual,” he told New York magazine. “That I was saved when all those others died, I felt that the good Lord spared my life for a purpose. And since then I’ve been busy doing all the good works I can think of.”
An immediate result was that Mr. Koch soon began dating Julia Flesher, who worked in the fashion industry. They married in 1996 and had three children. A complete list of survivors was not immediately available.
After the accident, Mr. Koch embarked on a wide-ranging campaign of philanthropic giving. Among the many beneficiaries of his largesse were various cancer research institutions, which received hundreds of millions of dollars, and the American Museum of Natural History and the Smithsonian Institution.
In 2008, he donated $100 million for the renovation of New York State Theater at Lincoln Center, the home of the New York City Ballet and New York City Opera. In all, Mr. Koch was estimated to have doled out at least $1.3 billion to scientific research and nonprofit arts groups.
Reportedly the wealthiest resident of Manhattan, Mr. Koch for years occupied, among other properties, a Fifth Avenue apartment once owned by former first lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. In 2003, he traded up for a $17 million, 9,000-square-foot Park Avenue duplex.
In his later years, Mr. Koch took considerable pride in what he viewed as the successful effort to bring libertarian ideas into the mainstream, as well as his philanthropic giving. But he marveled at the differing legacies of those two ventures for him.
At the 2011 dedication of a new cancer research facility at MIT, to which he had contributed $100 million, he joked, “I read stuff about me and I say, ‘God, I’m a terrible guy.’ And then I come here and everybody treats me like I’m a wonderful fellow, and I say, ‘Well, maybe I’m not so bad after all.’ “
While the general public may know much about what David and his brother Charles have done with their money, and the controversies that have erupted over that issue, very little is known publicly about how they earned that money and the extent to which their company and its subsidiaries play a role in the daily lives of pretty much every American. While it ostensibly started out as an oil and petrochemicals conglomerate, Koch Industries has expanded over the years to have a hand in a wide variety of industries that play a role in the manufacturing of a wide variety of consumer and manufacturing goods. (This video from MSNBC provides a pretty fair assessment of the reach of Koch Industries.) As a result of the success and reach of the family business, David and his brother Charles were listed as the 11th richest people (tied) in the United States on the most recent iteration of the Forbes list of American billionaires.
Outside of the business world, of course, David and his brother best known as the funders of a wide variety of conservative and libertarian causes dating back to the early 1980s when they played a role in the funding of the libertarian-oriented Cato Institute as well as other organizations. In later years, of course, they became more widely known as the men behind the funding of the American Legislative Exchange Council, Americans for Prosperity, and at least some of the groups behind the founding and expansion of the Tea Party movement in the early years of the Obama Administration. In later years, they moved on to direct donations to candidates for lower Federal offices and causes such as criminal justice reform, bail reform, and other causes that didn’t exactly fit the “right-wing” label that many people had labeled them with. One piece of evidence in that column is the fact that David Koch was the Libertarian Party’s nominee for Vice-President in 1980 and spent several million dollars to help the ticket make an impact nationwide. The Clark/Koch ticket ended up getting just under 1,000,000 votes, which was the highest national vote total for an LP ticket until Gary Johnson’s campaigns in 2012 and 2016 respectively.
One reason for this shift was, as noted above, the rise of Donald Trump, someone that both brothers publicly denounced on more than one occasion. As it was, the Koch Brothers and their affiliated groups had only rarely donated on the Presidential level to begin with, but it was clear from the time he entered the race that Trump represented the antithesis of the libertarian-oriented ideas they believed in, especially on issues such as international trade, immigration, and a wide variety of other issues. Additionally, reports at the time indicated that both brothers had told acquaintances that they found Trump’s rhetoric and behavior to be personally repulsive, which is perhaps not surprising for two men who grew up in the Midwest and ran their multinational empire out of, of all places, Witchita, Kansas.
After Trump won the election, the brothers distanced themselves and their donation strategy from the Republican Party. Charles Koch said in an interview at this time that he’d be willing to support and work with Democrats who support his values, something that can be seen in the recent pushes that Koch-backed groups have made in areas such as criminal justice reform where they’ve allied themselves with groups like the American Civil Liberties Union and Democratic politicians like New Jersey Senator Cory Booker. Additionally, various news outlets such as The Daily Beast and CBS News reported that the network had allied with pro-immigration groups to lobby for efforts to protect beneficiaries of the Deferred Action For Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program as well as other so-called Dreamers who were brought to the United States illegally by their parents when they were children.
Not surprisingly, these new moves by the Koch network generated pushback from the Trumpian wing of the Republican Party. Former Presidential advisers Steve Bannon, for example, told the organizations in the Koch political network that they needed to “shut up” and back the President and the President himself lashed out against the Koch Brothers and their network in a way you’d expect a Democrat to do.
While it will be his impact on domestic politics, for good or ill depending on your point of view, that David Koch will be best remembered, it’s also worth noting that he, along with his brother, donated far more to non-political causes. David, in particular, was a generous benefactor for many arts-related causes in New York City, including the renovation of what is currently known as the David Koch Theater at Lincoln Center, which serves as a home for the New York City Opera as well as hosting various ballet and classical music concerts and performers. That building was completely refurbished in the early 2000s thanks in no small part to a $100 million donation from David Koch. He also donated generously to hospitals, universities, and other non-political venues and operations over the years.
In recent years, David had retired from business and his brother had taken over the day-to-day operation of the family business. In no small part, this was apparently due to the lingering impact of pancreatic cancer that David was diagnosed with several years ago. It is unclear at this time though if that cancer played a role in his death.
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