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Ken Burns' 'Prohibition': You Drink You Know This Story. You Don't.

by Jerome Weeks 30 Sep 2011 2:27 PM

It’s another epic PBS doc in the Ken Burns style: handsome, solemn, thoughtful and safe. But while Prohibition relates the story we know – Carrie Nation, Al Capone, speakeasies and jazz — it has some we don’t. Like how a political minority could change America so drastically. Or how a young woman lent The New Yorker some wit.


  • Time magazine review of Prohibition
  • New York Times profile of co-director/co-producer Lynn Novick

The old, familiar tale goes like this: the Women’s Christian Temperance Union agitates against saloons and drinking for decades — seeing their ultimate suppression, mistakenly, as a feminist victory against domestic abuse and even poverty. Somehow — America either has a crazy, hungover moment or simply gets tired of the crusading — the 18th Amendment gets passed, banning the sale and transportation of alcohol. The bootlegging Sicilian, Jewish and Irish immigrant mobs rise up to supply the booze most of us still want, there’s widespread flouting of the law leading to corruption and the inebriated antics of the Jazz Age.  FDR is elected, and after 14 years, everyone’s sick of the failed, hypocritical ‘social experiment’ and its allied street violence, so thankfully, the Volstead Act gets tossed out.

From this, we are left with two, maybe three, consequences: the establishment of organized crime in America, the corporate consolidation of the beer, wine and liquor industries, and a healthy disrespect for attempts by organized religion, special groups or the government to ban basic human pleasures and enact widespread social change by essentially limiting freedom.`

Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s new, 6-hour, historical documentary, Prohibition (starting Sunday for three nights on KERA), covers all those bases in the trademark, handsome Burns fashion: the slo-mo scans of black-and-white photos, the solemn tone occasionally cut by canny talk from lively figures and the overall sense that we viewers are participating in a rich, collective lesson about what’s essentially a commonplace, something many of us already know or agree with (Burns is not known for breaking new ground — he re-packages epic history in a warm, thoughtful manner).

But there are a couple of stories inside Prohibition that aren’t well known and are well worth discovering.  Last year, I reluctantly picked up a copy of Daniel Okrent’s bestselling history, Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition reluctantly because of doubts whether there was anything new worth saying about the subject. But the book got bought anyway because of the praise from several respected reviewers. In his acknowledgements, Okrent tells how it was Ken Burns himself who encouraged him to tackle the subject — before Burns had embarked on his own examination of the period. Not surprisingly, Okrent appears as one of Prohibition‘s wise talking heads.

But what set Okrent off on his search, he says in his prologue, is the question that’s nagged many of us (and which is raised in my summary above): What  happened? How did such a freedom-loving, ornery and quarrelsome people as we Americans ever agree to such a coercive idea?

That is the instructive and important story Okrent and Burns uncover, and judging from the reviews linked to above, it’s one reviewers have overlooked, preferring to concentrate on the Charleston and the tommy gun.

Looking back, the temperance cause now seems an unfathomable moment, when feminists, conservatives,  progressive social reformers, religious leaders (mostly Protestant and Baptist, not Catholic or Jew) and staunch Midwestern propriety were all, more or less, on the same page. Yet their political success was not a matter of priggish drys converting everyone else to the misguided cause.

Prohibition passed because a small but well-organized, well-funded and ardently dedicated political group was able to finesse the political system. Prohibition was never enthusiastically supported by the overwhelming majority of Americans. But it certainly helped the drys that their opposition was divided (the beer industry hated the liquor industry) or didn’t take them seriously until too late or, as with many progressives, got sidetracked into supporting the cause because it seemed a way to break the cycle of drink, poverty and hopelessness that controlled parts of American cities.

The true genius of the movement, however, was Wayne B. Wheeler, a man whose name cries out to be used in the same sentence as “wheeler-dealer.” He was the head of the Anti-Saloon League and the great prohibition lobbyist — so great he was credited with single-handedly amending the Constitution.  Prohibition might never have succeeded without his skills. He knew that to get something as massive as an amendment passed, he’d have to sway hundreds of individual state legislators across the country into ratifying it. So he targeted close races in every state, where his small percentage of voters could make a difference. That way, those he couldn’t persuade, he could coerce through fear. From Last Call:

“I do it the way the [party] bosses do it, with minorities,” Wheeler said. … “We’ll vote against all the men in office who won’t support our bills. We’ll vote for candidates who will promise to.”  [As for politicians who break their promises:] “Next time, we’ll break them … We are teaching these crooks that breaking their promises to us is surer punishment than going back on their bosses, and some day they will learn that all over the United States.”

As a result, even though he was never elected to any public office, Wheeler developed a terrifying reputation for political power. He could crush or reward a representative, senator, governor, even a presidential candidate.

Not surprisingly, it was Wheeler who gave us the term “pressure group.”

The continued relevance of this should be obvious — in our age of “special interests.” Polls, for example, show widespread support for universal healthcare and such federal programs as Social Security. Yet by gaining enough seats in the House of Representatives in the last election, the Tea Party has been able to commandeer the Republican Party establishment and stymie government action on anything involving the federal budget — from the debt ceiling to disaster relief to increasing revenue.

Whether one agrees with the Tea Party is not the issue (I’ve been scratching my head for a liberal/Democratic example — I’m sure readers can supply some): It’s the demonstration of how a well-funded group can tie up the government or coerce it into action without majority approval — until, of course, the majority finally does cave in. It’s seeing this story play out that makes Burns’ first installment, “A Nation of Drunkards,” such instructive, compelling viewing.  His second section, “A Nation of Scofflaws,” is not as fascinating even though it covers the high life and low life: the Chicago beer wars, the Valentine’s Day massacre, the failures of enforcement. That’s because this is mostly the history we know.

Along the way during his third installment, “A Nation of Hypocrites,” Burns happens on a story that not even Okrent related, and it’s a welcome discovery. I’d never heard of Lois Long, a young, spirited, Connecticut woman (below) who became The New Yorker magazine’s first ‘nightlife’ correspondent. She regularly wrote about speakeasies, saloons and Harlem nightclubs with a lightly jaundiced wit that helped set the tone of that magazine’s best writing forever after (and which later writers from Cynthia Heimel to Elizabeth Wurtzel have emulated or failed at) .

In the public mind, Long came to epitomize the “flapper” — at least, the smart, literate version of it.  If the Jazz Age gave us nothing but some newly invented cocktails (designed to disguise the bathtub gin), The Great Gatsby and Long’s “Tables for Two” columns, it was worth it. Because her byline was “Lipstick,” readers didn’t know who was dishing out mordant observations about how “it was customary to give two dollars to the cab driver if you threw up in his cab.” So Long would occasionally drop hints that she was actually a “short squat maiden of forty.” Long eventually married the cartoonist Peter Arno and became, New Yorker editor William Shawn has said, the first person to review fashion as an art form.

Three-fourths through Burns’ documentary, Lois Long gives Prohibition a bit of a welcome wake-up. She’s a delightfully frosty swig of vodka.

  • Ehsan

    While in my eyes this article is somewhat distant from the usual Art & Seek tone, I truly appreciated reading it. Hope you have more of such ‘reviews’ every once in a while.