Has any nation in history shamed itself so comically as the United States did when it tried to quit drinking? Prohibition can trace its beginnings to a Philadelphia physician advocating temperance in part because he once knew a drunk who burped near a flame and exploded. It can also mark its end with a rowdy crowd interrupting one of President Hoover’s speeches with the chant, “We want beer!”
It wasn’t all so funny. People died, of course, from murder, cirrhosis, or even poisoned liquor. And for something that seems so ridiculously implausible and antiquated in 2010—the Constitutional amendment to outlaw “the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors”—the misplaced anger stirred into action for and against Prohibition is still evident in our discourse today, under the guise of different causes. If any lesson is to be learned from Daniel Okrent’s Last Call: The Rise And Fall Of Prohibition, it’s that we hardly ever learn from our lessons, no matter how many times we doom ourselves to repeat them.
With measured clarity and well-placed humor, Okrent walks us through the dramatic confluence of events that pitted the “wets” vs. the “drys,” dragging every issue from woman’s suffrage to the federal income tax and immigration along with it. In fact, the terms “wet” and “dry” became freighted with so many appellate crusades that whether a given individual actually tipped back a drink was practically irrelevant. The era was peopled with innumerable sweat-drenched orators slamming podiums and proclaiming all variety of plagues that would bedevil a nation so enamored with liquor. Preacher Billy Sunday even warned those opposed to Prohibition that he would “fight them ’til hell freezes over. Then I’ll buy a pair of skates and fight them on the ice!”
Last Call is remarkably dense, and keeping track of every player involved can be daunting. Readers are more likely to retain odd bits of trivia, like how the cigarette speedboat was developed out of rumrunners’ need to elude the Coast Guard, or how “powder rooms” were invented along with speakeasies. Or maybe the “recipe” for pumpkin gin. But one man lingers throughout: the singular Wayne B. Wheeler, a Karl Rove-esque figure lurking in the shadows like a “hovering conscience,” a political operative whose fingerprints are on virtually every lurch forward in the temperance cause. The unassuming Wheeler isn’t as exciting a figure as, say, Joe Kennedy (whose history as a bootlegger is summarily debunked), but as Okrent argues, “The most familiar legacy of Prohibition might be its own mythology.” With Last Call, Okrent has given America’s strange, 13-year experiment with universal sobriety the properly mixed comeuppance it long deserved.