But though I enjoyed the amusing story of a bygone era, I found this a troubling book. The cause of temperance -- outlawing booze -- was a classic social movement. An ungainly coalition of feminists, fundamentalists and nativists strove to use the political system to rid the country of what they thought -- for divergent reasons -- was a monstrous evil. This led to bizarre assemblages of strange bedfellows, such as the Ku Klux Klan supporting women's suffrage: women were expected to vote to outlaw drink which would strike at Jews, Catholics and other foreigners who were stealing the country from its rightful white male founders. Besides, all good Southerners "knew" that Black men would laze around drunk on the streets leering at white women if white manhood didn't stop them. (Some evil memes have great staying power.) On the other hand, the corporate barons who eventually funded the cause of repeal were led by Pierre Du Pont who wanted to legalize liquor so as to tax it heavily; such an excise tax would enable his class to do away with the new income and inheritance taxes that were cutting into his profits from a chemical empire built on weapons sales to the belligerents in World War I.
As I was carried along by Okrent's story, I realized he had somehow written a long account in which he encountered NO attractive people. Everyone on either side of the liquor debate comes across as ignorant, and/or bigoted, and/or self-serving. The story of Prohibition in his telling is all villains and no heroes. The kindest treatment that Okrent gives to any of them is to portray them as helpless obsessives.
The result is a book whose essential message is that vast social movements that change the country are the terrain of fools and/or charlatans. Now Prohibition certainly proved a terrible mistake. But is that all there is? I don't believe it; some of those people on one or the other side of liquor restriction must have had better motives that those.
Okrent comes off as an historian all too true to his background as a Very Serious Person calling balls and strikes at the Very Serious Newspaper of Record -- above and superior to the fray of movement politics. This is unattractive and, for me, undermined an interesting account of how citizens of this country worked out their wishes in a particular arena of passion and prejudice. These ebbs and flows are very much what life in a democracy is all about. Democrats (small "d") don't turn up their noses at them.