'Prohibition' – so much more than gangsters and flappers

This Sunday (8 to 10 p.m. EDT) Ken Burns turns his prodigious research efforts and illuminating camerawork loose on America's failed attempt to sober up.

Courtesy of John Binder Collection
Americans fought hard to pass the 18th Amendment in 1920, which brought in prohibition. But they repealed the controversial amendment just 13 years later.
Courtesy of Stephanie Berger
Ken Burns takes a look at one of America's biggest social experiments in "Prohibition."

Nearly a century ago Americans decided to make drinking alcohol illegal – and then promptly and widely ignored their own new law.

Prohibition turned liquor distribution into a lucrative business for criminal gangs. Yet it was spawned, at least in part, by an altruistic American notion that society could be improved to form “a more perfect union.”

This Sunday (8 to 10 p.m. EDT) America’s preeminent documentary historian, Ken Burns, begins a 5-1/2-hour series that turns his prodigious research efforts and illuminating camerawork on “Prohibition.”

That era, from the passage of the 18th Amendment in 1919 to its repeal 13 years later, is a subject that means so much more to America than just gangsters, flappers, and jazz, he says.

“We’ve got all of that. But it’s so much more complicated,” Mr. Burns says in a phone interview. “It’s kind of an inside look at the original culture war, with all of these folks trying to assert control over other folks.”

In part, it’s the story of single-issue political campaign that resulted in unintended consequences, he says. It all may sound strangely familiar.

“It’s got every single one of today’s [issues],” he says, “demonization of recent immigrants, smear campaigns during presidential elections – everything that we think is so new to us is, in fact, a recapitulation of the original culture war.”

“Prohibition” takes viewers from early 19th century efforts at “temperance” to 1920, when prohibition was enacted as a reaction to massive changes in American society, to 1933, when it is repudiated and repealed. Just how America changes over this period is reflected in the titles of the three installments: “A Nation of Drunkards,” “A Nation of Scofflaws,” “A Nation of Hypocrites.”

The series, narrated by Peter Coyote, features music by jazz great Wynton Marsalis, as well as the voices of actors Tom Hanks, Jeremy Irons, Paul Giamatti, Oliver Platt, John Lithgow, Samuel L. Jackson, Patricia Clarkson, Sam Waterston, and others.

Below is more of what Burns had to say, edited and condensed.

How did the project come about?
I bumped into Dan Okrent on the Brooklyn Bridge. You know, [the bridge] was the subject of my first film. I was pushing, then, a newborn baby, my little gal, over the Brooklyn Bridge, and I bumped into Dan and he said, “I know what your next film is going to be....”

He’s also friends with Lynn Novick, who is my co-director and coproducer on this, a longtime collaborator. And they’d been conspiring, so it was all fortuitous. He was embarking on a book project [about prohibition], and we were happy to share our research with him and he shared his with us.

Did Daniel Okrent write a companion book about prohibition for your series?
He did a book called “Last Call.” It’s not a companion book.

What was the research like?
It was our usual deep dive.... This required us to take a lot of time, to work with a lot of scholars, to interview a lot of people ... lots of witnesses from all across the country. It required us to find incredible footage in the most unlikely places and, of course, go to hundreds of archival places to find the still photographs [that] make it come alive.

How long did it take to make?
The decision to do it was about six years ago. The actual intense work has been over the last three-plus years. And that’s normal for us.

What was the biggest challenge in pulling it together?
I think understanding the levels and complexity of the story to represent [prohibition accurately.] We are all distracted, understandably, by the gangster story. By the flapper story. And we have that. The film is sexy, and it’s violent, and it’s dramatic. All that stuff.

But invariably we permit Al Capone to distract us from the fact that bankers, newspaper reporters, I’m sure filmmakers, judges, regular people, were routinely breaking the law [to drink alcohol]....

Human beings have been drinking alcohol as long as there have been human beings, and all of a sudden we decided to take what was a very serious social problem – it was called drunkenness in the 19th century, alcoholism today, something that afflicts a terribly large number of people, perhaps 10 percent of the population – and we decided to impose a solution on 100 percent of the people....

We loved getting to know people who would have been front page news in that day besides Al Capone.... [such as] Wayne B. Wheeler [general counsel of the Anti-Saloon League], who said he could make the US Senate sit up and beg. How come we don’t know more about him?

The “drys,” who wanted to end drunkenness, were sincere reformers with an admirable cause. But the question seems to be whether they went about it the right way with the 18th Amendment and prohibition.

They just didn’t really think it through. Because you had Democrats as well as Republicans, you had progressives ... you had the Ku Klux Klan that was for prohibition. So was the NAACP.... The captains of industry, Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller, were for it because obviously alcohol cut down on output and productivity. So you have all these strange bedfellows....

It was a way for small town America to get back to some idealized, never-happened vision of America....

The original social impulse was how to help people who were afflicted with addiction to alcohol. But all of a sudden it really got hijacked.

The politics behind passing and then repealing the 18th Amendment seems very contemporary.

The politics is no different.... One of the things I’ve spent my entire professional life trying to do is to remove the onus of the past. That is to say, we in the present exert an enormous arrogance over past events. It has to do with the fact that we’re here and they’re not. And what we fail to do is to extend to those people who went before us the full lives that we live now. They lived just as rich existences as we do. And we fail to understand that.

Could the “drys” have saved the amendment if they had been willing to compromise?
I don’t know whether they could have saved it.... The moral certainty is so great that they can’t see – what they want is more and more enforcement – which is only going to make the problem worse.

This had in it very legitimate progressive ideas, that America could improve itself. If you look at the spate of amendments starting in 1865, they are all about taking the preamble of the Constitution literally – we’re there to make a more perfect union. That while the Constitution heretofore has been a dry, operating instruction manual for how to do it, we now have eliminated slavery, we now have extended voting rights to African-Americans, we aren’t going to discriminate on the basis of race.

Oh, by they way, we’re going to have an income tax to redistribute the wealth. Oh, by the way, we’re going to elect our senators directly. Oh, by the way, we’re going to eliminate alcohol. Oh, by the way, we’re going to allow women to vote.

This is an amazing time of a very positive sense that government could be a major force in creating that shining city on the hill ... we were obligated to fix society.

And what people, perhaps naively, perhaps blindly, fixed on was the notion that you could do it all by getting rid of alcohol.

It turns out that the thing you can’t have, alcohol, is what you want the most?
Mark Twain said “Nothing so needs reforming as other people’s habits.” But his last line is, “It is the prohibition that makes anything precious.”

We do still legislate against other “sins” such as gambling, smoking, use of drugs.
Let’s set the record straight: We do legislate morality. We have laws against murder. We have laws against stealing....

The rub is in all these places where we’re not sure, where we perceive a victimless crime.... [Prohibition] asks questions about how we handle gambling [today], how we handle drugs, particularly.

Did anything good come from going through prohibition?
I think that we’re suspicious of the panacea, the magic bullet, the cure all.

We learned a lesson?
In some ways the whole story is a positive one for a democratic people. We had this notion, however naive but very democratic, that we could vote in this notion that we thought would help society. It didn’t, and we got rid of it. That’s a good story – oops, we made a mistake.

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