David H. Koch, who joined his brother, Charles G. Koch, in business and political ventures that grew into the nation’s second-largest private company and a powerful right-wing libertarian movement that helped reshape American politics, has died. He was 79.
Charles Koch announced the death in a statement, which gave no cause but noted that David Koch had suffered from prostate cancer in the past.
Hitching his star to the soaring ambitions of his older brother, David Koch (pronounced coke) became one of the world’s richest people, with assets of $42.2 billion in 2019 and a 42% stake in the global family enterprise, Koch Industries. He also became a nationally known philanthropist and the early public face of the Koch political ascendancy, as the Libertarian Party’s candidate for vice president in 1980.
Three decades after David Koch’s public steps into politics, analysts say, the Koch brothers’ money-fueled brand of libertarianism helped give rise to the Tea Party movement and strengthened the far-right wing of a resurgent Republican Party.
A gregarious, socially prominent New Yorker, Koch loved the ballet, had been a dinosaur buff as a child and battled prostate cancer in his 50s and 60s. These were the stories behind his name appearing on cornices at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, the American Museum of Natural History and NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital — the Manhattan institutions on which some of his $1.2 billion in charitable gifts were bestowed.
He was a familiar figure at society galas, a 6-foot-5 former college basketball star who long held the single-game scoring record — 41 points — for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology team, the Engineers. He also had what New York magazine called a “seemingly limitless storehouse of Elks club-inflected jokes, which are often followed by his loud, wheezy honk of a laugh.”
He also had bad experiences and good luck. He survived a 1991 plane crash that killed 34 people at Los Angeles International Airport. He broke down in tears on a witness stand in Kansas during a civil trial that nearly tore his family apart over money.
They insisted that they adhered to a traditional belief in the liberty of the individual, and in free trade, free markets and freedom from what they called government intrusions.
Since the 1970s, the Kochs have spent at least $100 million — some estimates put it at much more — to transform a fringe movement into a formidable political force aimed at moving America to the far right by influencing the outcome of elections, undoing limits on campaign contributions and promoting conservative candidacies, think tanks and policies.
But they said they had not given money to any Tea Party candidates. “I’ve never been to a Tea Party event,” David Koch told New York magazine in 2010. “No one representing the Tea Party has ever even approached me.”
Still, he and his brother acknowledged roles in founding and contributing money to Americans for Prosperity, the right-wing advocacy group that was widely reported to have provided logistical backing for the Tea Party and other organizations in election campaigns and the promotion of conservative causes.
Among the groups they supported was the American Legislative Exchange Council, an organization of conservative state legislators and corporate lobbyists. ALEC, as the group is known, drafts model state legislation that members may customize for introduction as proposed laws to cut taxes, combat illegal immigration, loosen environmental regulations, weaken labor unions and oppose gun laws.
David Hamilton Koch was born in Wichita on May 3, 1940, the third of four sons of Fred Chase Koch, an oil engineer and entrepreneur, and the former Mary Clementine Robinson, a Wellesley College graduate and the daughter of a Kansas City physician.
David and his brothers — Frederick, seven years older; Charles, five years older, and David’s twin, William — grew up in Wichita under the discipline of an emotionally distant father, who taught them to fight and compete with each other. That spirit carried into adulthood, engendering feuds and lawsuits that became public displays of avarice and fraternal malice.
Fred Koch made millions in the 1920s and ’30s by inventing a process to extract more gasoline from crude oil and by building refineries in the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany and elsewhere in Europe and the Middle East. Fiercely anti-Communist, he co-founded the right-wing John Birch Society and created the Wichita company that became Koch Industries.
After Fred Koch’s death in 1967, his sons inherited significant stakes in the company.
On Feb. 1, 1991, a Boeing 737 USAir flight from Columbus, Ohio, to Los Angeles, carrying 89 people, including David Koch, crashed into a small commuter plane on landing. All 12 people on the commuter plane and 22 passengers on the jetliner were killed. In a smoky, crowded cabin, Koch pried open an exit and leaped to the tarmac, escaping with cuts and burned lungs.
In 1992, he learned he had prostate cancer. He had surgery and radiation and hormone treatments that kept the disease in check for decades. All his brothers had prostate cancer and were said to have been cured.
Koch stepped away from his political and business interests in June 2018.
“David is more of a philanthropist in the classic sense of the word,” Schulman, the Koch biographer, said in a “Fresh Air” interview on NPR in 2014. “He funds medical research, science; he funds the arts. Charles’ lifelong mission has been to change the political culture and mainstream libertarian ideas.”