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The Author Speaks

America’s Big Dry Spell

Interview with Daniel Okrent, author of 'Last Call: the Rise and Fall of Prohibition'

prohibition

— Art Edger/NY Daily News Archive/Getty Images

Q. How did the First World War play into this?

A. It became a way for Prohibitionists to demonize the German brewery owners as tools of the Kaiser. The 18th Amendment passed after the election of 1916, when Wayne Wheeler of the Anti-Saloon League pulled off the election of a sufficiently dry Congress. The ratification by the states was taking place during World War I while Wheeler and his cronies on Capitol Hill are running hearings on the evil behavior of the brewers. I think that was the clinching moment for Prohibition.

Q. You argue that Prohibition was the first case where a minority political movement found a way to control the country.

A. Wayne Wheeler is absolutely one of the most important people in American history. Everyone from Lee Atwater to Karl Rove, James Carville, David Plouffe—whether they know it or not, they’re all students and heirs of Wheeler and his ability to use the political system to achieve something, and in this case, achieve something with a minority.

Q. His innovation seems to still be in use. What was it exactly?

A. A laser-like focus on one issue. If there’s a reasonably close race in a congressional or senatorial race, if he controls 5 to 10 percent of the people at the margins, he can deliver the voters to the guy who is right on the one issue they care about. It worked, and it still works.

Q. What brought down Prohibition?

A. It was a confluence of factors. One was the increasing corruption. Another was Pauline Morton Sabin, heiress to the Morton salt fortune, founder of the Women’s National Republican Club—really the leading society figure in New York. She turns against Prohibition in 1928, and went on a traveling road show against it with her society lady friends. It made it acceptable for women to oppose Prohibition, a real turning point.

Q. What motivated her?

A. She was motivated by the question: How do you raise children to respect the law when this one is so flagrantly disobeyed, and has brought about so much public corruption?

Q. Similar arguments are being made today about another common intoxicant.

A. Right, marijuana. There are many parallels.

Q. Such as?

A. What ultimately ends Prohibition is the Great Depression. The federal government needed revenue, but tax revenue had plummeted. The place it could get it, however, was the liquor tax. With the current economic situation and the inability of government to even hint at raising income taxes today—someone is going to say, “look at marijuana, there’s a lot of potential revenue there.”

Q. Were you able to speak with many older Americans about their experiences with Prohibition?

A. I found very few people with reliable memories about it—it ended 77 years ago, after all—but those I did talk to all had memories of one thing in particular: the uncle or grandfather or neighbor who was a bootlegger!

Chris Carroll is a writer from Maryland.

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