Are We Finally Learning Who the Koch Brothers Really Are?

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May 23 2014 9:34 AM

Meet the Kochs

The muckraking movies, the books, and the biographies: Are we finally learning who the Koch brothers really are?

David Koch.
David Koch (above) ran for vice president as a Libertarian Party candidate for the same reason his brother Charles Koch considered the Republican Party dead-ended.

Photo by Carlo Allegri/Reuters

The “movie premiere” wasn’t supposed to happen at all. Instead, it happened a little late. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi both endorsed a screening of Koch Brothers Exposed: 2014 Edition in one of the basement rooms of the Capitol Visitors Center. Republicans spied a possible ethics violation—how could this movie, an hour of agitprop from Robert Greenwald’s Brave New Films, not be “political”?

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a reporter for Bloomberg Politics

The screening wasn’t canceled. Nobody had enough to gain from canceling it. Instead, on Tuesday night, Brave New Films set up chairs and a screen and waited for late votes to end in Congress so their special hosts could show up.

To bide time, Greenwald showed the first scenes from his movie. Rapid-fire scenes of poverty alternated with images of fancy cars and champagne. The Koch brothers’ combined wealth, $81.4 billion, was offered as another symbol of this inequality. Two hurried-looking cartoons of Charles and David Koch shoved dollar bills into a funnel, which spurted its contents into piggy banks named Americans for Prosperity ($32 million) and American Future Fund ($13 million) and Center to Protect Patient Rights ($114 million).

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Beneath all of this, a pounding synthesized soundtrack that resembles what Batman might hear when he’s in hot pursuit. But to soften the tone, there was the voice of Jim Hightower, the Texas politician-turned professional liberal. He twanged out some zingers about “the Koch boys” and how “even a dog knows the difference between being stumbled over and being kicked.”

“What I hate about narration is the voice of God,” Greenwald told me. “You know—I know better than you do, the voices on those documentary channels that put you to sleep at night. Hightower’s got that amazing voice and he manages to take ideas and put them in a folksy, more human way.”

He’s got competition. Koch Brothers Exposed is being released right before Citizen Koch, a Kickstarter documentary by two frequent collaborators of Michael Moore. The Greenwald screening happened the very same day that Sons of Wichita: How the Koch Brothers Became America’s Most Powerful and Private Dynasty was released. Mother Jones editor and first-time author Daniel Schulman spent three years writing it, which allowed him to beat Koch biographer Chris Leonard to the shelves. And everyone’s competing with a media that’s devoting resources to Koch stories and a Democratic campaign infrastructure that’s investigating the Kochs as if they were candidates.

The response from the Kochs falls a little bit short of what a combined net worth of $81.4 billion could buy. Ever since 2010 stories in New York and The New Yorker alerted America to the influence of the Kochs, Koch Industries has run a pugnacious press shop—KochFacts—that insists on correcting the record when the Kochs are blamed for a particular evil.

There’s just so much “record” to correct now, and only so much time. Elaine Lafferty, an author who got to know Kochworld spokeswoman Nancy Pfotenhauer during her stint on the McCain-Palin campaign, is writing a book with the Kochs’ reported participation. And the tone of that work got previewed in an exclusive 2010 story Lafferty wrote after Jane Mayer’s New Yorker profile of the Kochs. “The news alert that a businessman with a personal net worth estimated at nearly $18 billion might wield political influence seems to have shocked, shocked, the media,” wrote the future court biographer.

But that book is way off on the horizon. There are less than six months to go before a midterm election that the Democrats have made, largely, about the Kochs. They are writing the story, and their incessant framing of the Kochs has inspired a little media derision and a lot more heat. On Tuesday, when Pelosi, Reid, and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders finally got to the Greenwald screening, they celebrated the progress so far.

“Keep wages low,” said Pelosi, summing up the “personal aggrandizement” behind the Kochs’ campaign spending. “Stop regulation of clean air, clean water. Climate issues. All of those things are harmful to our planet, to our workers, to our children’s future. That’s why when people hear the name, Koch brothers, it has a negative connotation by 2–1.”

Libertarians and Republicans generally posit two responses to this. One: The left has its own tycoons, like environmentalist and hedge funder Tom Steyer. Two: Unlike those tycoons, the Kochs don’t want anything from the state, like that Steyer guy who wants his investments in solar panels to pay off. (They do talk a lot about Tom Steyer.)

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