Friday, May 7, 2010

Through a glass, brightly

Daniel Okrent serves a tasty version of a familiar story in Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition

The following review was published earlier this week on the Books page of the History News Network.

This may be a rare case where one can plausibly accept a book jacket description at face value: "Last Call is capacious, meticulous, and thrillingly told. It stands as the most complete history of Prohibition and confirms Daniel Okrent's rank as a major American writer." Certainly the story of Prohibition has been told before, many times; in particular, Norman Clark's Deliver Us From Evil has justly earned evergreen status since its publication in 1976. But Okrent's rendition may well be unequaled in its finely wrought narrative arc and its attentiveness to language, both of the era and the rhythms of contemporary prose. This is hardly surprising, as Okrent, author of four previous books, is a former trade book editor (at Knopf, among other houses), magazine editor (at Time, among other publications), and the first ombudsman at the New York Times. Nor is it surprising that that the book is loosely hitched to a forthcoming Ken Burns documentary on Prohibition to be aired on PBS next year. Such are the wages of talent and good connections.

In its almost century-long history, Prohibition was one of those issues in American history that made for some very strange bedfellows. For one thing, advocates for the abolition of alcohol crossed party lines. So-called "drys" included northern Republican Progressives and southern Democratic evangelicals. Pro-alcohol "wets," by contrast, included privileged plutocrats as well as impoverished immigrants. To a great extent the struggle was a matter of the city versus the country, and yet some rural folk with a by no-means uncommon libertarian streak disliked federal intervention in personal life -- and what it might imply on other issues. Urban reformers, many of them women, knew (sometimes personally) just how badly alcohol could ravage family life. And yet when Prohibition was ultimately overthrown, it was women who led the way.

But as Okrent shows, it was a specific set of circumstances that transformed the political landscape surrounding Prohibition, resulting in the 1919 passage of the Eighteenth Amendment as well as the Volstead Act to enforce it. While there had long been synergy between the suffrage and temperance movements -- the leader of the Women's Christian Temperance Movement (WCTU), Francis Willard, typified the explicit fusion of the two -- the coming of the First World War gave new urgency to, and justifications for, both. Conversely, one of the biggest impediments to Prohibition -- the huge tax revenues alcohol generated -- became less important with the passage of the 16th Amendment, which created the federal income tax in 1913.

But the real reason Prohibition happened is because some exceptionally committed people worked hard for it, and had the political skills to bring it about. (It's also because the opposition was disorganized and made some bad tactical decisions, like brewers who crudely funded African American causes as a way of asserting their political enlightenment, and thus inciting the substantial racist constituencies that laced through the Democratic Party, Progressivism, and the suffrage movement.) A key figure in this regard was Wayne B. Wheeler, lobbyist extraordinaire for influential Anti-Saloon League (ASL). Though now forgotten -- Okrent notes that while the Washington Post called him the most influential citizen in American history in 1927, his name never surfaced in the paper after 1975 -- Wheeler wielded enormous power by eschewing the broad-based approach of the WCTU in favor of a tightly focused, non-partisan strategy of targeting candidates in close races and demonstrating ASL clout by making or breaking them. Wheeler and his allies also exploited the disproportionate power of rural areas in institutions like the U.S. Senate, and acted decisively to prevent legislative reapportionment that would give urbanites and immigrants fair representation in Congress. The third leg of Wheeler's strategy was great care in not insisting that those who voted in support of Prohibition actually believe, or even practice, it themselves (hence the phenomenon of the "wet-dry"). Making hypocrisy a tribute vice paid to virtue was hardly morally uplifting, but it was remarkably effective -- for a while.

For, as every schoolchild knows, Prohibition doesn't work. (There's seemingly always a present-tense tilt to their saying so.) Okrent chronicles the inevitable descriptions of speakeasies and organized crime that followed, with a particular emphasis on a failure in enforcement rooted in an willingness to actually pay for it, to a great degree because its advocates were unwilling to face the Big Government implications of actually doing so. But the real pleasures of this part of the book come from little detours that never seem irrelevant, ranging from the rise of the Napa Valley wine industry to the change in gender mores that resulted in socializing in homes rather than bars. Okrent also has a wonderful little tidbit of persuasive extrapolation about Joseph P. Kennedy's relationship with the bootlegging industry that he saves for last.

What really makes the book, though, are the personalities, in no small measure because the author himself savors them so. Tellingly, Okrent does not dwell on obvious suspects like Al Capone, who gets his due but no more, and instead sketches a series of figures that range from the unjustly forgotten Wheeler ("imagine Ned Flanders of The Simpsons, but older and shorter, carrying on his slight frame a suit, a waistcoat, and, his followers believed, the fate of the Republic") to the elegant Prohibition opponent Pauline Morton Sabin, with whom Okrent seems understandably infatuated. His ability to capture them on their own terms, and yet frame them in his, is typified by this passage about wet Missouri Senator James A. Reed:

A Senate colleague said that when Reed spoke of an opponent, "it was as if he had thrown acid upon him" -- for instance, when he charged that Prohibition was enacted by "half-drunk legislators" suffering from "the leprosy of hypocrisy." Reed called suffragists "Amazonian furies" who chanted "in rhythmic harmony with the war dance of the Sioux . . . To his friend (and drinking buddy) H.L. Mencken, Jim Reed was "for our time, the supreme artist of assault." Given Mencken's own skills, this was like Babe Ruth praising someone for his hitting ability."

The book is filled with such memorable turns of phrase: The legendary, axe-wielding temperance advocate Carrie Nation is described as "six feet tall, with the biceps of a stevedore, the face of a prison warden, and the persistence of a toothache." Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon, who presided indifferently over Prohibition, "looked as if he had been carved from chalky stone." Finding wet advocates in Manhattan "was as about as remarkable as a sidewalk." To read Okrent's prose is to realize, and lament, the loss of color in so much contemporary historical writing.

Such entertaining passages notwithstanding, there is an unstated but sobering moral implicit in this story, and that is the ongoing power of determined minorities to push and realize agendas that their opponents sometimes complacently assume simply contradict the March of Progress. The most surprising part of Last Call is Okrent's compelling description of the power of the liquor lobby in American politics in the early 20th century, a well lubricated machine that maintained legislators as efficiently as it provided everything from food to furnishing for its franchisees. And yet, when the time came, all its money and popular support was mowed down with surprising ease. To consider that many of the people who seek to ban abortion and immigration come from the same demographic heritage as Prohibitionists is to realize the force of William Faulkner's famous maxim that the past is never dead. It's not even past. Something to keep in mind the next time you raise a glass.