Charles Koch was standing in line, waiting for his greaseburger.  The scene: a little greasy spoon at the foot of San Francisco’s Telegraph Hill, where we low-level Kochtopus employees grabbed a quick hamburger for lunch.  The place was smoky, unappetizing, and cheap.  So what was one of the richest men in country doing there?

He was waiting for his lunch, just like the rest of us.

The year was 1977, and the paint was hardly dry on the walls of the warren of offices that housed the Cato Institute and allied institutions.  The occasion was the first Cato board meeting after the move to San Francisco.  The bookcases were only half-assembled, and the furniture was sparse, and yet the directors were coming to town.  We lowly interns and office employees had been told to keep a very low profile.  “Look busy,” my boss, Libertarian Review editor Roy Childs told me, “even if you aren’t.  Especially if you aren’t.”

I was packing books into envelopes when the high muck-a-mucks visited the Libertarian Review office on their tour of Koch’s domain.  The magazine had launched a direct-mail subscription drive, and we were eagerly opening the business-reply envelopes and bundling the checks for later deposit.  Each new subscriber got a copy of a freshly printed pamphlet by Rose Wilder Lane, Give Me Liberty, a 60-page account of her disillusionment with collectivism in Russia.  Libertarian Review didn’t make any money off these subscriptions, because the cost of printing and mailing the pamphlet was greater than the price of a subscription.  But that didn’t matter to Roy, whose extravagance with Charles’ money was a joke around the office.  “Let Charles pay for it,” he said, when informed of the costs of sending out such an expensive premium.  “He can afford it!”

I was reminded of Roy’s flippancy as news of a rift in the Cato Institute’s top leadership became the talk of Washington wonkdom: Charles Koch, the Institute’s founder—and chief donor until recently—is suing Cato’s board and officers for control.  The response of the Catoites has been to spread scandal about the Brothers Koch all over town for trying to convert their pristine think tank into a “partisan” vehicle, a mere front group for the Republican National Committee.  As the left and the Obama administration itself target the Kochs as symbols of corporate greed, the “libertarian” Catoites, with Fearless Leader Edward H. Crane III at their head, have turned on their former benefactor, whose generous patronage—amounting to tens of millions over the years—made their institute and their careers possible.  Crane and his allies are claiming that association with Koch will damage Cato’s vaunted “credibility” and forever taint them as partisan hacks.  They have set up a “Save Cato” website and enlisted the liberal media in support of their cause, with sympathetic accounts by Jane Mayer in The New Yorker and an unsigned editorial in the Boston Globe.

Charles resigned from the board in 1991, yet kept contributing his money in large amounts until last year, when the gravy train ceased.  It was then that the rift between Charles and Crane seems to have erupted—at about the same time Jane Mayer’s unflattering profile of the Kochs appeared in The New Yorker.

Charles reportedly suspected Crane, and/or other Cato officials, of providing background for Mayer’s profile.  Whether or not this is true, it’s not hard to imagine why an intensely private man like Charles G. Koch would despise this kind of scrutiny.

There he was, the fifth or so richest man in the country, ordering his five-dollar burger—no fries.  He was standing right in front of me, waiting patiently and unobtrusively alongside ten-bucks-an-hour office workers, a group of construction workers, and us low-level Cato flunkies.  The rest of the board had gone with Crane to lunch in luxury at the Rusty Scupper, a wood-and-chrome yuppie hangout around the corner.  Charles, however, had demurred, preferring instead the company of office boys and bicycle messengers.

“Whaddaya want?”

The cashier was surly, as always: He didn’t know he was talking to one of the richest men in the country, someone who could buy the entire building—indeed, the entire block—without batting an eyelash.

Charles ordered a plain hamburger and a Coke, and then waited around like the rest of us for the harried cook to catch up with the backlog and the cashier-with-attitude to take his money.  He left a dollar tip, and then walked over to a table, where he opened a book—Hayek’s The Constitution of Liberty—and ate his lunch alone.

Thirty-five years and some $30 million later, the institute Charles founded with Cranea former stockbroker—and Murray N. Rothbard, the libertarian economist and theorist who died in 1995, is in the midst of an unseemly and very public civil war.  It is, actually, the final battle in a civil war that started right at the beginning, when Rothbard led his followers out of the Cato orbit in the early 80’s.  The issue back then was Cato’s subservience to the liberal media, and their insistence that libertarianism amounted to “low-tax liberalism,” a phrase Ed Clark, the Libertarian Party’s 1980 presidential nominee, picked up from Crane and repeated on national television when asked to define his stance in a few words.  The incident precipitated a huge fight within Cato, which led directly to Rothbard’s ouster: In a weird presaging of what Koch is now trying to do to Crane, Murray had his “shares” in the institute confiscated by Crane and was summarily expelled from the board.

Cato moved to Washington—in part to get away from us Rothbardians—and went on to cozy up to a series of politicians, starting with John Anderson (who ultimately rejected the Catoites’ overtures) and going on to include Newt Gingrich and several low-level Bush administration figures, whose promises to “privatize” Social Security were never carried out.  They ditched Austrian economics, purged all mention of Rothbard from their reading lists, and started swimming with the Republican “mainstream”—i.e., they sold out, just as Rothbard had predicted.  When the Ron Paul movement gained prominence, they stuck their noses in the air and openly disdained the libertarian congressman from Texas.  After all, Ron’s a Rothbardian radical, who doesn’t speak the language of Washington.

Now they are claiming Charles and his brother David want to take over Cato and make it into a “partisan” Republican organization—which is what Crane wanted to do in the first place.  Shamelessly echoing the Obama administration’s direct attacks on the Kochs as sinister billionaires who want to control America, Crane and his minions are sucking up to the liberal media with their tale of woe.

While there may be some ideological differences between Koch and his former comrades, at the core of the dispute is control of the Cato brand name.  Crane’s faction points to the fact that the Kochs wanted to appoint several Republican operatives to the Cato board, but fails to mention that Crane appointed none other than Rupert Murdoch, the neocons’ chief benefactor, in 1997.  They also leave out the fact that the Kochs wanted to put Judge Andrew Napolitano, a Ron Paul supporter and hardcore libertarian, on the board—over their objections.  They complain the Kochs haven’t given them any money since last year—after the Kochs contributed a total of over $30 million since Cato’s inception!

If the Koch lawsuit signals the end of Crane’s Washington empire, then it couldn’t have happened to a more deserving bunch of ingrates.  When Rothbard left, he wrote a screed whose title is a fitting epitaph for this claque of opportunists, careerists, and bandwagon-riders: “It Usually Ends With Ed Crane.”

And so it does.