Monday, August 5, 2013

Required Reading for Wet (and Dry) Political Scientists

History. Politics. Illicit booze. Daniel Okrent may have written Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition (paperback) just for me. Mr. Okrent brilliantly weaves history, culture, politics with wit, intelligence, and humor to provide the definitive tome on Prohibition.* The book starts in the pre-prohibition era covering just how awash in booze the country was in the early 20th century. The story gets particularly interesting when the dry movement starts gathering momentum. The various stakeholders that come together to get the 18th amendment passed is almost mind boggling - drys, women suffragists, immigration opponents (yep, we've hated immigrants almost from the beginning), creation of the income tax and even the Klan. Overturning 18 was not quite as politically riveting but is a good story nonetheless; particularly given how insurmountable that mountain appeared. There were indeed opponents to the 21st amendment, not the least of which were the gangs and bootleggers enjoying a tax free, unregulated enterprise.

More than anything the book is a lesson in political achievement led by one Wayne B. Wheeler. Today we have Karl Rove. Karl Rove is no Wayne Wheeler. The defacto leader of the Anti-Saloon League (ASL), Mr. Wheeler was a master of the political process. Last Call goes to great lengths to show how Mr. Wheeler effectively controlled Congress in the realm of liquor. He was adept at knowing where the ASL should put its support and what issues were not worth fighting. Through Wheeler, the ASL supported candidates who supported Prohibition. The ASL was allied with other groups that supported the Prohibition cause. Wheeler, and the ASL, focused on one agenda and made no judgement of candidates with views on other social, political, or moral issues. Because of his political acuity, the ASL stayed away from some debates after passage of the Volstead act. For example, Wheeler wisely stayed away from the debate about funding federal enforcement of Prohibition. From the book: "Wheeler, familiar as he was with every hillcock and valley on the political landscape, had early on recognized the prevailing resistance to government spending. Wheeler told Morris Sheppard that five million dollars would be a sufficient appropriation for all federal enforcement of Prohibition (by way of comparison, the sum wouldn't even have covered the payroll of Columbia University that year)."

Western New Yorkers should have an interest if only to learn more about John J. Raskob. Mr. Raskob was born in Lockport, NY and played an integral part in overturning the 18th amendment. Raskob worked for Pierre du Pont first at General Motors. He was a major player in politics serving as chairman of the Democratic National Committee. Mr. Raskob's more impressive work in repealing Prohibition would make anybody from the greater Buffalo-Niagara area proud. Oh, he also apparently sold his GM stock to build the Empire State Building and penned the obviously titled article "Everybody Ought to be Rich".

Last Call should also encourage locals to learn more about the area's role during the 13 dry years of Prohibition. The book references massive deaths from wood alcohol originating in Buffalo. Further, Mr. Okrent spends many pages discussing the important relationship between Canada and Detroit, MI in getting illicit liquor into the country and distributing it across the Midwest. In fact, the booze flowed freely from various maple leaf points into the states. One can't help but wonder about Buffalo's role given it's own proximity to the border - there's your next book Mr. Okrent.

So, there you have it. Politics, history, local boy makes good, and booze. Read this book; with a cold beer close by.

*Strictly the opinion of the author who is not an historian or even really sure what a tome is.

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