The Demon Drink

How Prohibition turned tipplers into criminals, teetotalers into lobbyists — and remade U.S. politics

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Walter P. Reuther Library / Wayne State University

Detroit liquor store depleting its stock on January 16, 1920, the last day before Prohibition goes into effect.

The rise of the United States is one of history's amazing stories, even more remarkable when you realize how many of our forefathers were three sheets to the wind. John Adams drank hard cider with breakfast. James Madison drained a pint of whiskey each day. By 1830 the average American was guzzling the equivalent of 1.7 bottles of hard liquor per week — three times the amount consumed today.

So it was inevitable, perhaps, that a movement arose to dry out the nation. And because Americans disdain half measures, that movement eventually demanded, and passed, a Constitutional amendment banning booze. Daniel Okrent tells the tragicomic tale of that misbegotten venture in Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition (Scribner; 468 pages). Anyone fretting over hypocrisy and corruption in modern politics can learn from this book what pikers we are, compared with our forebears, at such venality.

Okrent, the first public editor of the New York Times (and — disclaimer — an editorial adviser to Time Inc.), is the author of Great Fortune, a history of Rockefeller Center that established him as a gifted storyteller of America between the World Wars. No fact is more central to that era than Prohibition, which was ratified in 1919 and repealed in 1933, having proved that if alcohol demoralized American society, outlawing alcohol was even worse. The 18th Amendment made criminals out of casual drinkers, turned clergymen into cheats, encouraged doctors to practice deception and sowed the seeds of the Mob.

Okrent fills a vast canvas with captivating characters, from the hatchet-wielding saloon buster Carry Nation ("six feet tall, with the biceps of a stevedore, the face of a prison warden and the persistence of a toothache") to Canadian bootlegger Sam Bronfman, whose audacious smuggling laid the foundations of a billion-dollar family fortune. The central role, however, belongs to a man forgotten by time, though in his day he cowed Presidents and had Congress on a leash.

Wayne B. Wheeler was the mastermind who transformed the temperance movement into a political shock wave. "Imagine Ned Flanders of The Simpsons, but older and shorter and carrying on his slight frame a suit, a waistcoat and, his followers believed, the fate of the Republic," Okrent writes. A maestro of coalitions, he stitched together a crazy quilt of forces behind Prohibition: progressive reformers, white supremacists, utopian socialists, xenophobes, Methodist bishops, prim Baptist ladies, suffragettes and the virulent anti-Semite Henry Ford.

Wheeler's crusade was ultimately doomed. America's borders were too extensive, its entrepreneurs too creative, its thirst too great to stop the flow of booze. Every legal loophole — like those allowing farmers to ferment fruit juice for personal use, or blessing wine for religious sacraments, or prescribing alcohol for medicinal use — was blown wide open by a torrent of alcohol. Smuggled liquor flooded into the country by train, plane, boat and automobile.

In one sense, Prohibition worked: less booze was consumed. But as a means to a better society, it was a bust. "It encouraged criminality and institutionalized hypocrisy," Okrent concludes. "It deprived the government of revenue, stripped the gears of the political system and imposed profound limitations on individual rights." If you're looking for a lasting legacy of Prohibition, it's the Washington lobbyists who use Wheeler's tactics to bend government to their agendas. But more entertaining would be to visit its enduring monument — the "money machine" eventually created by the men who got their start running rum: Las Vegas.