-By Daniel Fisher
December 24, 2012- A man who, by FORBES’ careful measure, is one of the 50 most powerful people in the world, one of the 20 wealthiest–and one of the dozen most vilified–is perpetually in a position to reflect. But given it’s Charles Koch’s 77th birthday, the calendar demands it. Especially with the presidential election that Charles has called “the mother of all wars” less than a week away, and with Koch Industries, the firm he has built into the second-largest private company in America, considering several more big acquisitions, including an 18,000-employee automotive glassmaker, Guardian Industries.
Yet despite all these momentous events swirling around his wood-paneled Wichita office, decorated with seascapes and looking out on to the prairie to the north, the legacy he wishes to initially address comes via a piece of paper with a color photograph of his first grandson. The baby’s name: Charles. “My proudest accomplishment,” he smiles.
Given that he and his brother have been called “pigs” (by MSNBC host Chris Matthews) and protesters have unfurled “Koch Kills” banners at rallies, Charles clearly wants to use this rare interview to humanize himself, attaching some personal substance to his courtly Midwest manner. Yet this grandfatherly presence, framed by an unbuttoned collared shirt and a toothy grin, is at odds with the business and political juggernaut that he and his younger brother David have built in a systematic process befitting their MIT training.
Charles’ many critics on the left–including the President of the United States–accuse him of accumulating too much power and using it to promote his own economic interests through a network of secretive organizations they call the “Kochtopus.” Ironically, the Koch brothers believe they’re fighting against power, at least in the political realm. For the Kochs the real power is central government, which can tax entire industries into oblivion, force a citizen to buy health insurance and bring mighty corporations like Koch Industries to heel.
“Most power is power to coerce somebody,” says Charles, in a voice that sounds like Jimmy Stewart with a Kansas twang. “We don’t have the power to coerce anybody.”
The November elections–which David, in a separate interview shortly after the results were finalized, termed “bitterly disappointing”–seem to confirm Charles’ last point. Not even the Koch brothers, who spent tens of millions of dollars during this election cycle (they won’t disclose the exact amount) funding direct political contributions and issue-driven “nonprofits,” could coerce voters to back their candidates. Mitt Romney’s loss was a huge blow to them, both in terms of likely policy outcomes and personal reputation.
But those who think the brothers, older and chastened, will now fade away don’t understand the Kochs. Not a bit. Obama’s victory was just a blip on a master plan measured in decades, not election cycles. “We raised a lot of money and mobilized an awful lot of people, and we lost, plain and simple,” says David. “We’re going to study what worked, what didn’t work, and improve our efforts in the future. We’re not going to roll over and play dead.”