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last call

16 august 2010

It took me a relatively long time to read Dan Okrent's Last Call, but hardly because I found it a tedious slog. Instead, I was savoring every word and every incisive bit of analysis, as if I were a 1920s Wet making sure to enjoy the last pipe of madeira in my cellar to the very last drop. Here and there, Last Call is almost too good. Ken Burns was involved in some of the early planning of the project. Though the final result is Okrent's own, some of the brand-name Burns style washes into the pages of Last Call. Some of Okrent's paragraphs cry out to be read by John Chancellor, and as you thumb through the black-and-white plates in the book, you can almost hear somebody picking out "The Minstrel Boy" on a tinny piano. But the book is a lot more than a prose attempt at a Burns miniseries. Okrent gives us Prohibition in all its complexity and contradictions. The result is award-worthy history in vividly readable language.

Prohibition cast a long shadow over American memory during the 20th century. But it can seem in now-distant retrospect like a temporary extraordinary delusion. Popular culture played Prohibition for laughs while it existed, and has looked back in laughter ever since. But while managing to repeat nearly every great one-liner and wacky anecdote from the period, Okrent also weaves the politics of Prohibition together with many other American strands. As a result, the 1920s seem less like an age when everyone collectively lost their senses, and more like an integral part of the development of American society.

Prohibition seems at odds with an essential American libertarianism that flourishes on both the left and the right of our culture. Do whatever you want with your own property, start any kind of business that doesn't actively rob or kill people, and Americans generally approve. Americans were fond of bootleggers, in fact: particularly successful, efficient ones. So how did the 18th Amendment ever succeed?

Okrent identifies five dry constituencies that formed a very unlikely coalition for the purposes of banning booze. Racists, progressives, populists, suffragists, and nativists linked hands across party and regional lines to agree on this one issue alone. Southern Democrats who used the spectacle of drunken black people to stoke racial hatred, Northern Republican anti-racists who saw a rational world beyond the alcoholic fog of the 19th century, small-town and farm Democrats wanting to free their communities from a scourge that led to debt and broken homes, women of all parties and regions all too aware that families' livelihoods could be poured into bartenders' tills, and ugly white folks from everywhere who loathed Catholic and Jewish cultures where alcohol was central: they could agree on very little, but they all disapproved of drink. The one common denominator among the temperance crowd was that they tended to be evangelical Protestants, that great majority of c1900 Americans that was hopelessly split on so many other political issues.

The fearsome Anti-Saloon League, under the direction of Wayne Wheeler, made single-issue politics a permanent feature of the American two-party system. Long after their message came to seem utterly quaint, the methods of the ASL continue to be employed in Washington by groups like the National Rifle Association. True, gun control and gun rights now seem to split the country along left/right and Democratic/Republican lines. But you don't see a whole lot of Congressional Democrats out ahead of the curve trying to regulate firearms, do you? And it seems almost incumbent on Democratic Presidential candidates of the 21st century to talk about how their daddy taught them to shoot and how a good weekend in the duck blind is their favorite recreation.

As with pro-guns today, so with anti-liquor 100 years ago. Only a few outrageously wet lawmakers could afford to flout the power of the ASL, and they were perpetual targets for its wrath. Like the NRA today, the ASL wasn't wedded to either major party. There was a Prohibition Party, in fact, but its candidates rarely won. The idea was to swing close elections, thereby parlaying a fanatical minority into a dog-wagging supermajority on the single issue of dryness. And man, was Wayne Wheeler ever successful at that.

Okrent charts how Prohibition became naturally linked with three other great progressive causes that needed Constitutional amendments of their own to become law: the income tax, direct election of Senators, and women's suffrage. The income tax not only redistributed wealth, but compensated the Treasury for the impending lack of excise taxes on booze. Direct election not only made America more democratic, but brought the upper house under direct pressure from Wheeler's highly mobilized voters. And women tended to vote dry, so enfranchising them usually went hand-in-glove with Prohibition.

The ASL so controlled American legislation that once the 18th Amendment was in place, it seemed absurd to think of its repeal. Yet repealed it was, just a few years after its runaway victory. Okrent is just as good on the fall of Prohibition as on its rise. Repeal was fomented by a solid Catholic bloc of wets, ultra-conservative DuPonts and Mellons who liked to drink and hated income tax, and common-sense progressives who saw attempts to criminalize the alcohol trade as the ghastly failures they were.

Yet Prohibition succeeded in one sense. Americans drank less after its passage than before (though as one wag noted, Prohibition was better than no alcohol at all). And after Repeal, we drank still less for a long time thereafter. Depression and War had something to do with a drier America, but so too did the spirit of regulation that came in with the 18th Amendment. Local-option laws, restrictions on package sales, drinking-age rules, closing hours, blue laws, and other mechanisms frustrated the American drinker in the years after 1933, and a strain of American Puritanism continues to cramp our drinking style. In quite a few American locales, it's harder to buy a drink today than it was 85 years ago. Prohibition has had deep implications for states' rights, "concurrent" enforcement of local and federal laws, and for wide swaths of the American lifestyle (the aimless Caribbean cruises that so many of us now enjoy were invented to give people a chance at a weekend bender before returning to drier shores). And not least, Prohibition gave us Dan Okrent's wonderful book Last Call.

Okrent, Daniel. Last Call: The rise and fall of Prohibition. New York: Scribner, 2010.