Book Review: Sons of Witchita

sons of witchitaSchulman, Daniel. Sons of Wichita : how the Koch brothers became America’s most powerful and private dynasty. Grand Central Publishing, 2014.

The October 2014 issue of Harper’s magazine features an article, PBS Self-Destructs, that begins with a protest at WGBH in Boston, to force the station to dislodge David Koch from the station’s board of trustees. Protesters claim that the oil tycoon’s new strategy for PBS is to destroy it from within, and they condemn the business practices of Koch Industries in general.

The protest is given a short mention in the final pages of a remarkable new book, Sons of Wichita, by journalist Daniel Schulman.  This story about the Koch family’s power, wealth and abundant conflicts begins in Kansas where Fred Koch begins life in modest circumstances, starts a refinery business and celebrates his 30th birthday a wealthy man.  A zealous anticommunist, he helps found the John Birch Society.  He teaches his four sons to be tough and competitive, to work hard and to distrust government. Two of Fred’s sons, Charles and David, join the family business and under their leadership, Koch Industries grows into the second largest private corporation in the US.

Schulman paints a picture of Koch Industries as an unethical company with a profit obsessed corporate culture.  In a two year period in the late 90’s Koch Industries are taken to court four times– for duping family members on the sale of their company holdings; for pipeline violations that caused two teenagers to be burned to death; for fraud when taking oil from native American lands; and for covering up the environmental consequences of leaky pipelines and storage tanks.  Yet the book is more about the dysfunctional Koch family than about the company.  In two of the four lawsuits, the Koch brothers support the plaintiffs as well as the defense as the brothers battle bitterly over the empire their father left to them.

Co-founders of the libertarian CATO Institute and drivers of the Tea Party movement, the Koch brothers are sometimes accused of orchestrating a secretive campaign of self-interested political reforms.  But to Schulman, it is more creed than greed.  Koch Industries CEO Charles Koch believes that all functions of society should be privately funded and he donates heavily to causes that advance the doctrine of libertarianism.  To shape public opinion, Koch hopes to reach the intellectual class through educational institutions, research funding, and yes, even public television.

Readers of this book will find themselves both engaged and enraged about the Koch family.  The battles and feuds among the four brothers last 20 years, vicious attacks in courtrooms and boardrooms, over issues at the company as well as their inheritance. Shulman’s illuminating portraits of Koch family members bring a human dimension to the conflicts.  Recommended reading for anyone who enjoys business, politics or Game of Thrones.

© Meg Trauner & Ford Library – Fuqua School of Business.
All rights reserved.

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