First of all, I’m surprised that this is one of the only modern books on a bizarre time in our country’s history: Prohibition. Okrent’s take on how the U.S. wound up with prohibition, how we flaunted its rules when it passed, and then how we repealed it, is fascinating for someone unfamiliar with the topic. And it is even more interesting if you have even a passing interest in electoral trends and social movements.
I knew the basics of prohibition. No booze. Lawlessness. Mafia. Bootleggers. Repeal. Everyone happy. But I had never thought about how we got to a point where 2/3 of state legislatures could easily pass a constitutional amendment eliminating alcohol. It is seemingly impossible in today’s society, but back then it was seemingly impossible too. It strikes me that prohibition was one of those periods of American history where we lost our collective minds. And because when it was over, everyone said, “Hey, we just lost our collective minds,” the country just decided to forget it ever happened! For more than a decade, booze was illegal in the United States. And for that, it earns a couple of paragraphs in 8th grade American history textbooks. Okrent’s book is an important reminder of what the nation went through for half a century.
First, political strange bedfellows have existed for a long time. Usually they are the result of conniving individuals with untrustworthy agendas and it’s probably healthy to look upon them with skepticism. The fact that the temperance movement, the suffragettes, and the KKK were all in favor of prohibition should have been a minor red flag.
Second, a good deal of the movement ran through Ohio. The earliest temperance protests took place in Hillsboro, just east of Cincinnati. Wayne Wheeler, the until now nearly forgotten leader of the movement, got his start at Oberlin. And some of the most important players politically such as Warren Harding, were straight out of Ohio. For Cincinnati history nerds, Okrent includes more than a few references to Cincinnati’s newspapers’ opinions, and a few great pictures of alcohol prescriptions written by “doctors” in Covington.
Okrent recognized the importance of good, strong characters. He brings to life Wheeler, Sam Bronfman (you wouldn’t be enjoying 7&7s if it wasn’t for Bronfman’s bootlegging operation), Carrie Nation, and Pauline Sabin. And the book takes great delight in debunking some of the myths of Al Capone and Joe Kennedy. In the case of Kennedy, we should beware how political chicanery can ultimately become truth.
As a lobbyist, I appreciated watching how the beer associations and the wine/distillers associations were completely inept in how they approached the defining issue of their existence. Because they couldn’t talk to one another (for foolish reasons of insecurity and unnecessary competitiveness), they were inadequate in fighting the temperance movement.
Finally, taken in total, “Last Call” isn’t really just about prohibition. It is a manual for leading a revolution. It is about how a few people can get together, manipulate public opinion for their own narrow view, and create wholesale political change. Some reviews of this book chide Okrent for focusing too much on the politics of how Prohibition came to be. Yet after reading the book, there is no question that this was the REAL story. Wheeler and his compadres figured out the sweet spot: how 10% of the population could create policy and govern the other 90%. And for decades, interest groups and political parties have sought to mimic that sweet spot. It is frightening that after the debacle that was Prohibition, we would potentially be unprepared to stop something like it from happening again. Maybe the lesson is this—if you are apathetic, they will take away your bourbon. Or something else that is important to you.
This is getting to be a long post. Sorry. But one more thing. This type of history writing is my favorite. If I could find a graduate program that would let me read books like “Last Call” for two years, I’d be in. To top it off, Okrent strikes the right kind of tone for 2010. It reminds me of the lecture that some judges give new attorneys—you don’t always need to write in legalese. Write convincing arguments in language we can understand and you will be successful. Okrent gets that perfectly as a historian. He includes timely asides, useful and valuable footnotes, and parallels that are obvious but just under the surface. It wasn’t easy to read (if it is good, it shouldn’t be a skimmer), but it wasn’t written for the post-doctorate. All in all an excellent summer read.
And when I finished it, I toasted the book –and prohibition—with a healthy pour of bourbon.