Billionaire Who Denies Connection to Tea Parties Bankrolls Tea-Partying Glenn Beck Fans
WASHINGTON, D.C. -- In a darkened hotel ballroom, on the eve of Glenn Beck's burlesque of self-righteousness at the Lincoln Memorial, some 2,500 activists listened politely to the tall, impeccably dressed elder at the podium as he stumbled through his introduction of the evening's guest of honor, the conservative columnist George Will. The speaker was introduced simply as chairman of the board of the Americans For Prosperity Foundation, the organization that sponsored the event.
Few among the rank-and-file recognized the billionaire David Koch -- heir to the fortunes of Koch Industries -- or knew him as the man who bankrolls their activism, whose largess subsidized many of their trips to the nation's capital to take part in AFPF's organizing conference, and the Beck rally the following day.
Beck, you'll recall, is in the employ of the billionaire Rupert Murdoch, whose News Corporation (the parent company of Fox News and the Wall Street Journal) has been in cahoots, as AlterNet reported, with Kochs' AFPF since the inception of the Tea Party movement. Koch's halting public speaking style befits his usual reluctance in recent years to interact with the public. He prefers to be known as the philanthropic presence behind the great institutions of New York: the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the American Museum of Natural History and the New York City Ballet. Indeed, he made his entrance to the stage at the AFPF banquet to the strains of "New York, New York," which seemed a bit out of place in a room filled with the sounds of Southern drawls and Midwestern twangs.
But over the course of the past year, Koch has earned a new reputation, one he's not keen to have: the Daddy Warbucks of the Tea Party movement.
As AlterNet first reported last year, the two main astroturf groups responsible for organizing Tea Party supporters into a national movement were both founded by Koch: Americans For Prosperity, presided over by Tim Phillips, the former business partner of Ralph Reed; and FreedomWorks, which is chaired by former House Majority Leader Dick Armey.
Both FreedomWorks and Americans For Prosperity have their roots in a now-defunct Koch-funded group, Citizens for a Sound Economy. While Koch is actively involved in Americans For Prosperity, his spokesperson claims no current relationship with FreedomWorks, or, incredibly, with the Tea Party movement.
Last spring, on the eve of the April 15 Tax Day Tea Party protests, Koch Industries spokesperson Melissa Cohlmia sent an unsolicited statement to reporters and bloggers, asserting that "Koch companies, the Koch foundations, Charles Koch and David Koch have no ties to and have never given money to FreedomWorks. In addition, no funding has been provided by Koch companies, the Koch foundations, Charles Koch or David Koch specifically to support the tea parties. Thanks for your consideration."
“I’ve never been to a Tea Party event," David Koch told New York magazine's Andrew Goldman earlier this year. "No one representing the Tea Party has ever even approached me."
It's a curious statement. At AFPF's RightOnline conference last month in Las Vegas, Americans For Prosperity president Tim Phillips told me the only reason AFP's name did not include the words "Tea Party" was that the organization was founded before there was a Tea Party movement. One of RightOnline's own speakers, blogger Erick Erickson of Red State, advised attendees to avoid describing their goals as "Tea Party" ideals, so I asked Phillips if the Tea Party brand was tainted.
"I don’t think it’s tainted at all; I really don’t," he said. "Our name doesn’t have 'tea' in it because [Americans For Prosperity] started six years ago...." We stood on an escalator that was carrying Phillips to the vans that would take his RightOnline conferees to conduct a "citizen education" canvass of Las Vegas residents to "educate" them about the voting record of Sen. Majority Leader Harry Reid, who is standing for re-election against Republican Sharron Angle, a Tea Party insurgent.
"We’re going to be knocking on doors today," Phillips said. "If folks are wearing Tea Party T-shirts , or if we mention [Tea Party] -- I have a feeling there will be a positive reception."
Back in Washington, less than four hours before David Koch took that stage at the Americans For Prosperity Foundation banquet, the AFPF conference featured a break-out session featuring a panel of Tea Party activists, moderated by an AFPF state director.
During the debate over health care reform in Congress, Tea Party protesters made regular, organized forays to Capitol Hill. At one such event organized by Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn. (who leads the newly formed Congressional Tea Party Caucus), some 40 busloads of protesters were ferried in by Americans For Prosperity.
On Friday, Bachmann, doyenne of the Tea Party caucus, served as the warmup act for Koch and Will. Offering her boilerplate of Obama-bashing and American exceptionalism, the Minnesota congresswoman promised those assembled that Harry Reid was on the way to the unemployment line at the hands of Sharron Angle, the Tea Party candidate.
It seems safe to say that if, when he spoke to New York's Goldman, Koch had never been to a Tea Party event before, he's been to one now: his own AFPF conference, called the "Defending the American Dream Summit."
And, by his own description, the activists in the room -- most of whom consider themselves to be either Tea Partiers, or allied with the Tea Party movement -- represent a dream of a movement that Koch had at the founding of Americans For Prosperity: "We envisioned a grassroots organization of Americans from all walks of life, banded together to advance economic freedom and prosperity...." he told the conference-goers.
Billions and More Billions: Murdoch and Koch
David Koch and his brother Charles -- who runs Koch Industries, the second largest privately held corporation in America, and one of the nation's worst polluters -- probably have enough money between them to have launched a impressive movement without a billionaire from outside the family. But with Rupert Murdoch, CEO of News Corporation on their side, the Kochs' dream of a grassroots movement that would advance their pro-corporate, anti-regulatory agenda became manifest.
It is impossible to estimate the value of the in-kind contribution Fox News has made to the growth of the Tea Party movement, thanks to the day-and-night trumpeting of Fox News, but you can bet it's a price tag no other American political movement could afford.
Yet Murdoch, like David Koch, insists that promoting the Tea Party movement is not his aim -- nor, he says, is it something that Fox News should be doing. Confronted by Ari Rabin-Havt of Media Matters at a press conference last April about the appropriateness of a Fox Business news host having directed his viewers to go to a Tea Party Web site to buy merchandise, Murdoch replied, "No, I don't think we should be supporting the Tea Party -- or any other party."
Of course, that was before News Corp. was revealed to have contributed $1 million to the Republican Governors Association -- just as David Koch did. And the Beck rally provided a sweet organizing tool for Americans For Prosperity, which conveniently planned its conference to take place just ahead of the conference. Cut-rate travel packages were offered to conference-goers.
Even those who got to the conference on their own, foregoing the busfare and hotel package deals offered by AFPF, still got off pretty cheap. Included in the $99 conference fee were the banquet at which Koch appeared, shuttles back and forth to the Beck event, and an Americans For Prosperity T-shirt that participants were encouraged to wear to the rally.
As the Americans For Prosperity Foundation ferried its troops to the site of the Beck rally, the grounds between the Lincoln Memorial began to swell with at least 300,000 Beck fans, many of them wearing Tea Party T-shirts and other regalia. Nearly everyone I spoke to said they had learned of the rally by watching Glenn Beck. Most of them seemed convinced that the government had taken over the private sector of the economy, and that that was exactly what President Barack Obama intended. And that's why he must be opposed on all fronts.
If there were any missteps made in the execution of the billionaires' weekend events, it may have been the appearance of Koch himself at his Americans For Prosperity Foundation banquet and the selection of George Will to receive the organization's George Washington award.
As I composed a blog post in the hotel lobby after the event, I overheard an attendee talking to her friends. "Michele Bachmann, now she's real," the woman said, speaking with a Southern accent. "You would never know that she's an attorney. But George Will and that other guy -- these people have never had real jobs. They don't know what it's like to sit in a broken office chair because your job can't afford for you to put in for a new one."
She seemed unaware that "that other guy" was the one who was going to get her to the big rally, and rake in a windfall -- likely at her expense -- if the agenda she signed onto through her activism ever came to pass.