sons cover

Schulman, David. Sons of Wichita: How the Koch Brothers Became America’s Most Powerful and Private Dynasty. Grand Central Publishing, Boston and New York, 2014 (424pp.$30)

Driving into Wichita on old Highway 54 during the early 1960s, the visitor would encounter a large billboard with lettering that read: IMPEACH EARL WARREN. Warren, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, had become a lightning rod for criticism after the landmark 1954 Brown v. Topeka Board of Education decision desegregating public schools in America. “If many of the opinions of the Warren Supreme Court had been written in the Kremlin they could not have served the Communist better,” Fred Koch, Sr. had written in a little book he’d authored titled, “A Businessman Looks at Communism.”

Fred, a brilliant engineer, had made his money building refineries for Stalin and he thought he had an inside track understanding the Bolshevik world plan, which included seducing America’s youth, infiltrating her government, and subverting her morals and work-ethic.  Pretty soon he teamed up with other business moguls to create the John Birch Society and Wichita became home to a Society bookstore on East 13th. Along with Bob Love, another local businessman, Fred Sr. fought unions (eventually Kansas became a “Right to Work” state). The Society created “fronts” to forward its activities, propagandized relentlessly, destabilized elections for school board, and attacked Halloween box collections for UNICEF (the United Nations Children’s Fund) as a communist proxy.  Fred Sr. headed a smallish engineering firm and had visions of owning ranchland and running cattle. After marrying, he fathered four sons—Fred first, then Charles, followed by the twins, David and Bill. “Sons of Wichita” is their story, a tale of brutal family struggle, jealousy, strife, litigation, zealotry, unimaginable wealth, human frailty and strength, illusion and philanthropy.

Daniel Schulman, a senior editor in the Washington Bureau of Mother Jones, is an investigative reporter whose work has appeared in many national magazines and other publications. “Sons of Wichita” is a solid work, vivid in its details, carefully researched, and convincing in its portraits, a work that traces the business, social, and political ambitions of the brothers, their sometimes oddly charming artistic pursuits, their girlfriends, athletic competitions, public embarrassments and, for two of the brothers, Charles and David, their single-minded Libertarian, conservative, and free-market ideological pursuits.

Striking is the hardness of their childhoods, the remorseless spiritual penury of a youth spend battling, being molded into “men” by a father who brooked no weakness and armed his sons with boxing gloves and shipped them off to brutally difficult summer jobs to toughen them up. Fred Jr. grew up different, left and never looked back. Charles sewed wild oats, nurtured a mean streak, and returned home from MIT a genuine Libertarian zealot, whose intellectual purity, quasi-religious vision, messianic devotion to the cause, and belief in hierarchical power in harness to non-empirical theory, rivals that of Lenin. David, the athlete with a genuine gift of humility, stayed East and became a philanthropist with “naming rights”, but joined his brother Charles to control and command a sophisticated political machine meshing politicians, economists, scholars, judges, advocacy groups, non-profits, PACS, Super Pacs, pubic interest groups, think tanks, institutes, and universities, each and all interfacing with hundreds of millions of mostly anonymous dollars. Meanwhile, Bill wins the America’s Cup, sues his brother Charles and the company a number of times, founds his own energy company, and buys a lot of expensive wine, some of it fake.

Reading the “Sons of Wichita”, one recalls “Rosebud”, Charles Foster Kane’s magical childhood sled. One imagines, too, Fred Sr. one bright, hot summer day in 40s Wichita locking away all that old psychological horror in a trunk somewhere in the basement of the Big House. One imagines him grabbing up his kids and his beautiful and accomplished wife Mary in a flurry of laughter and excitement, getting the Woody station wagon out of the garage, tossing some camping gear, a tent, and fishing rods into the back of it, and announcing happily that the whole family is heading to Montana, telling the servants they’ll be gone a long time. He kisses his wife passionately, hugs his sons, whispering to each the secret of his great conversion to the Doctrine of Compassion, and orders the Butler to make a basket of ham sandwiches, Crackerjack, and lemonade.

The last we see of them they’re in the country north on Highway 81, a field of sunflowers off to their right and sunshine streaming by as the morning advances.