David Koch Dies; Billionaire Industrialist Funded Conservative Causes Koch and his brother Charles built one of the nation's largest private businesses and created a network of secretly funded organizations that attacked Democrats.

David Koch Dies; Conservative Billionaire Helped Reshape U.S. Politics

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Philanthropist and political activist David Koch has died. He and his brother Charles were worth tens of billions of dollars apiece. They transformed American politics by creating a network of secretly funded organizations that attacked Democrats and promoted conservative causes. David Koch was 79 years old. NPR's Peter Overby reports.

PETER OVERBY, BYLINE: David Koch helped his brother Charles build Koch Industries into one of America's largest private businesses Its brands include Georgia Pacific plywood and Lycra fabric. The two brothers also created the Koch political network, famous for its secret funding and fiercely negative advertising when Barack Obama was president.


UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR #1: Tell President Obama American workers aren't pawns in your political games.

UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR #2: Earl Pomeroy cast his vote. Tell him North Dakotans won't forget.

UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR #3: Tell Mike McIntyre his policies are killing jobs. Americans for Prosperity is responsible for the content of this advertising.

OVERBY: Americans for Prosperity boosted the Tea Party movement. The Koch brothers funded AFP with money from themselves and other rich donors they recruited. Here's David Koch at a gathering in 2010, the year AFP rallied Tea Party voters to elect record numbers of Republicans to Congress.


DAVID KOCH: Five years ago, my brother Charles and I provided the funds to start the Americans for Prosperity. And its beyond my wildest dreams how this - AFP has grown into this enormous organization.

OVERBY: Besides AFP, the Koch network had groups aimed at veterans, women, seniors and Latinos. Ostensibly non-political, the groups exploited the lack of transparency, weak enforcement by the IRS and Supreme Court decisions. The system was tagged dark money by its critics.

The Koch network amassed as much clout as the Republican National Committee, maybe even more - this even though David Koch was not a doctrinaire Republican. In 1980, he was the Libertarian nominee for vice president. He supported abortion rights and gay rights, while the network backed conservative lawmakers opposed to both. In 2014, he explained it this way to Barbara Walters of ABC News.


KOCH: I'm very worried that if the budget is not balanced that inflation could occur and the economy of our country could suffer terribly.

OVERBY: David Koch and his three brothers grew up in Wichita, Kan., the sons of oil industry tycoon Fred Koch. Charles and David eventually became co-owners of Koch Industries. Charles ran the company, and David stayed involved even after he moved to New York City.

DANIEL SCHULMAN: David Koch has always been the Robin to Charles Koch's Batman - more or less the sidekick.

OVERBY: Daniel Schulman wrote the book "Sons Of Wichita: How The Koch Brothers Became America's Most Powerful And Private Dynasty." He said, in the network, Charles Koch was the strategist, and David Koch was the front man.

SCHULMAN: Up unto his late 40s, maybe even early 50s, he was kind of living this New York socialite, playboy lifestyle. And he loved that sort of thing.

OVERBY: But in 1991, Koch was in an airliner that collided with another plane on a runway. Thirty-five people died. He barely escaped. As he later told Barbara Walters...


KOCH: I felt that the good Lord was sitting on my shoulder.

OVERBY: The year following the crash, he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. He turned to philanthropy, giving mainly to causes he was familiar with - medical research, the arts and museums. In 2011, he recounted persuading his alma mater, MIT, to build a center to research prostate cancer.


KOCH: With tears running down my face, I begged the MIT Corporation to commit to this essential project. I was treated to a standing ovation.

OVERBY: The generosity often had a personal touch. John Damgard and David Koch were teammates on their prep school basketball team. Decades later, Damgard needed heart surgery.

JOHN DAMGARD: David just says, I'm able to do this, so don't worry about it.

OVERBY: Damgard went to New York.

DAMGARD: I had the best surgeon. People waited years or at least months to get Carl to do the work. Carl said, you're a friend of Mr. Koch's? I said, I am. I'm a very good friend of Mr. Koch. He said, you name the time.

OVERBY: Koch left politics and Koch Industries in 2018. The explanation was unspecified health issues. His legacy includes entrepreneurial success and substantial donations to charitable causes. Also, he anonymously funded attack ads that helped to polarize American politics. Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.

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