It was something of a surreal moment. Charles de Ganahl Koch, the nerdy multibillionaire from Wichita who has become known as the Rasputin of the American Right, was trying to explain to me why he was getting into bed—politically speaking—with people like George Soros, his progressive archrival in the big-money-and-politics set, and Cory Booker, the liberal black senator and former mayor of beleaguered (and very Democratic) Newark, New Jersey.
The vast apparatus of foundations, advocacy groups, corporations and think tanks that Koch oversees and supports—what his critics darkly call the “Kochtopus”—was busy this winter launching programs and initiatives aimed at reeling in the worst excesses of one of the few industries larger than his own: the criminal justice-industrial complex. Koch had decided to help pull together a new coalition of left-right advocacy groups in Washington, including the Hillary Clinton-aligned Center for American Progress, to fight what he calls the “overcriminalization of America.” He was underwriting a documentary screening at the Newseum about Weldon Angelos, a marijuana dealer serving a 55-year sentence that even Angelos’ judge called “unjust” and “cruel”—and helping to train attorneys to aid poor people across the country. In March, Koch’s general counsel, Mark Holden, plans to join with Van Jones, a former Obama administration official who took the liberal side on CNN’s since-canceled “Crossfire,” in mounting the #Cut50 Bipartisan Summit, which will explore strategies for reducing America’s incarcerated population by 50 percent over the next 10 years. (Jones’s old CNN adversary, Newt Gingrich, is also involved.)
A passionate prairie libertarian who as a young man wouldn’t permit a friend to bring an Ernest Hemingway novel into his house because “Hemingway was a communist” (the friend had to leave the book on the stoop), the 79-year-old Koch now evinces a much more relaxed attitude toward joining up with Soros and other liberals. “The more the merrier,” he told me. “One of my heroes was Frederick Douglass. He said, ‘I would unite with anyone to do right and with nobody to do wrong.’ We’ve worked with unlikely bedfellows. … But I would say we have gotten the most support in criminal justice reform.”
To anyone who followed the past several national political campaigns, it might seem that Charles Koch had wandered through the looking glass. This is, after all, the same Charles Koch who considers Democrats to be “collectivists,” who believes that President Barack Obama uses “Marxist models” and whom Harry Reid blasted on the floor of the Senate as “power-drunk” and “about as un-American as anyone that I can imagine.” But when we spoke in February, Koch insisted there is nothing strange or secretive or un-American about his criminal justice campaign—it all makes perfect sense. And he explained why.