“If not now, when?” It’s one of the most famous maxims of history, attributed to the great Rabbi Hillel, who’s also credited with a down-to-earth version of the Golden Rule: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. This is the whole Torah; all the rest is commentary.”
Now, here’s your trivia question for the day: Who in our time revived that call to action with the challenge: “If not us, who? If not now, when?” Michael Moore? Barack Obama? Leaders of Occupy Wall Street?
No, not even close. Hillel’s urgent plea “If not now, when?” was appropriated by oil billionaires Charles and David Koch in a letter of invitation summoning CEOs to a fundraising summit in Rancho Mirage, Calif., in January 2011. It was imperative that they join forces, explained Charles Koch, “… to combat what is now the greatest threat to American freedom and prosperity in our lifetimes” – the administration of Barack Obama.
This was not the first such meeting called by the Koch Brothers. They’d been holding semi-annual gatherings of corporate barons since 2003, sprinkled with right-wing journalists, politicians and Supreme Court justices. Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas sat in. So did Jim DeMint, Eric Cantor, Paul Ryan, Chris Christie and Rick Perry. Conservative pundits Charles Krauthammer, Michael Barone and Glenn Beck shed any pretense of objectivity to attend and wow the crowd of executives representing many of America’s biggest corporations: the Bechtel Group, the Fluor Corporation, Georgia-Pacific, Home Depot, Wells Fargo, the Blackstone Group, Circuit City and Laredo Petroleum, among others.
Nor was this, as Charles Koch described it, just an innocent gathering of “some of America’s greatest philanthropists and job creators.” No, this was a meeting to line up corporate opposition to President Obama’s re-election – and a very successful one. Corporations attending the Rancho Mirage summit pledged $49 million for the 2012 anti-Obama campaign. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg of what the Koch brothers have raised and pumped into politics over the last 20 years.
As I learned in researching my book, “The Obama Hate Machine,” Charles and David Koch, with a combined wealth of $50 billion, are two of the richest men in the country. With more than $100 billion in annual revenues, Koch Industries is a mammoth energy and manufacturing conglomerate. They operate oil refineries in Alaska, Texas and Minnesota. They control 4,000 miles of pipelines. They own Georgia-Pacific. They have 70,000 employees in 60 countries.
But it’s because of their political activity that the brothers Koch have recently gained notoriety. Together, they’re probably the nation’s biggest political donors. Nobody else – not George Soros, not Bill Gates, not even Sheldon Adelson – comes close. And their influence is everywhere. They’re major funders of two conservative think tanks, the Heritage Foundation and the Cato Institute. They’ve created pseudo-scientific research centers on many college campuses, like the Mercatus Center of George Mason University. They’re the sugar daddies behind two powerful political organizations, FreedomWorks and Americans for Prosperity – which is currently running anti-Obama TV ads in 10 states. They were the money bags behind the tea party. They put up the funds to oppose new mining safety regulations in West Virginia, overturn tough mileage standards in California and elect Scott Walker in Wisconsin. And, by my count, they’re principal sources of funding for at least 57 conservative political action groups.
Indeed, their political empire is so vast it’s been called the “Kochtopus.” Charles Lewis, founder of the Center for Public Integrity, told the New Yorker’s Jane Mayer, “The Kochs are on a whole different level. There’s no one else who has spent this much money. … They are the Standard Oil of our times.”
And for the last three years, most of that money, directly or indirectly, has been fueling a hate-filled campaign against President Obama, marked by personal attacks worse than any American president has faced since Abraham Lincoln. Obama’s been called a communist, fascist, socialist, Marxist, Nazi and America-hating terrorist. The chair of the Republican National Committee even compared him to the captain of the ill-fated Costa Concordia, a man responsible for the deaths of at least 17 passengers.
So we know what lies ahead for 2012 – more money, and more corporate money, in politics than ever before, and uglier, more personal attacks against President Obama. For which, you can thank a Koch brother. Or both of them.