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Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
This is an all-encompassing view of what lead up to the creation of the 18th ammendment(and its earliest roots which went back pretty far in american history) and its eventual downfall and lightening fast repeal.
I chose this book as a Vine selection because it sounded as though it went beyond the common perception of bathtub gin, speakeasies, and G-men in a Warner Bros. movie smashing trucks full of beer kegs. In fact, it did go way beyond that. Daniel Okrent's book is a lively source of all things Prohibition. He provides a rather in-depth history of how special interest groups such as the KKK and church groups and people such as Billy Sunday, Wayne Wheeler and Carrie Nation banded together to popularize the idea of prohibition and how the concept picked up steam politically via lobbying to enforce a law nationally that the public at large really didn't support. The book discusses the key players nationally who supported and also opposed this bill and provided background material/biographies of these people. The implementation of the bill as well as the go-arounds such as bootleg booze and speakeasies are discussed, and the reader is supplied with information regarding how this stuff (some of which proving quite toxic) was made. Also discussed is the general public disatisfaction with the bill and the reasons for its rapid decline/downfall in depression-era America.
One of the things I particularly liked (and possibly even loved) were some of the unexpected little gems such as the way alcoholic beverages were marketed to a pre-prohibition public, the background information on some of the beer barons and distillers and how they rode out the 'dry' spell. Of particular interest was the way in which the ordinary lives of the american people were changed. New products appeared on store shelves and near beers appeared (but had to be carefully marketed to avoid violation of the specific terms spelled out legally). Home winemaking became more popular. I also appreciated the extreme footnoting and indexing which referred back to specific portions of the ammendment and its execution.
The promotional information provided with my advance copy said this book would be the basis of a Ken Burns series on Prohibition. While reading this book, I kept that in mind. My greatest praise for this book is that I could see how easily the book could be transitioned and how a series would be as enjoyable a viewing experience as reading this book has been. In spite of the language used (you may need a dictionary to decipher some of the words that are no longer in common usage)this book isn't as dry as its topic suggests. It is very easy to read, yet thought provoking.
LAST CALL in general terms is an interesting look at Prohibition from multiple perspectives. I think it would particularly interesting to anyone who is into history, constitutional law, depression-era politics, political lobbying, advertising, special interest groups, or womens rights.
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on May 17, 2010
This book masquerades as a book full of great stories and wonderful personalities - some well known, some utterly new - told with effortless wit at a pace that makes you keep breaking promises to yourself: "I'll read just ONE more chapter, before ...." {you fill in the blank: going to bed, making love on your wedding night, speaking before the UN General Assembly, surrendering to serve your term at Allentown).
But the mean thing about this book is that it also tells the whole story of prohibition, weaving together its emergence from various social, ethnic, political and religious roots, showing its connection to the great themes of the twentieth century, how prohibition was advanced by an alliance between what we would describe today as doctrinaire progressives, left-wing feminists and the religious right, and furnishing a social history of the West in the 19th, 20th and no doubt 21st centuries which more profoundly explains where we are and how we got here than many a more pretentious tome. It's just marvelous and will keep you thinking about it long after you've finally made your speech, formalized your wedding, served your time.
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VINE VOICEon May 13, 2010
Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
Prohibition was the best of intentions; it was the worst of results. A burning passion to cure the world of intoxication begat a wildfire of unintended consequences that permanently changed the American political landscape like no event since the civil war. The 18th Amendment to the Constitution--the first to curtail rather than to protect liberty--was imposed in a bipartisan political landslide of moral fervor led by fiery evangelicals bent on saving Americans from Demon Rum: an idea that had gathered 60 years of steam & brimstone, and whose time had finally come. Prohibition also created powerful new constituencies that profited from its continuance. Even its detractors became hopelessly resigned to its permanence.

It was not a revolution made led by dull people. The morally excited are, for all their dryness (pun intended), more animated, more colorful than the skeptical or the wise. Here the dramatis personnae of this tragicomedy seem more than merely memorable, they come to life on the page. But even in the limelight of the author's wit, prohibitionists don't seem caricatured, uneducated or stupid. (How could they have known? The lessons of hindsight were waiting offstage.) The complex tale of their successful constitutional coup is chronicled here in far more complex depth and detail than you might expect, yet the narrative flows quickly among the actors and events without losing momentum. The avalanche of startling facts and grotesque statistics are leavened with enough really good writing to yield laugh-out-loud descriptions, outrageous quotes and incisive commentary. Along with familiar folks like Rev. Billy Sunday, Carrie Nation, Andrew Volstead, et.al., Daniel Okrent introduces us to the forgotten workaholics who engineered this disastrous triumph of prescriptive moralizing.

Not all the consequences of prohibition were unforeseen. Anti-booze activists were instrumental in passing the 16th Amendment in 1913 authorizing a federal income tax in anticipation of the end of alcohol taxes--then the federal government's 2nd largest revenue source (after tariff duties). The bulldog fixation on winning and keeping the prohibition prize created all sorts of odd bedfellows: suffragettes and Ku Klux Klansmen, Boston puritans and rural sharecroppers, and later on, the bootleggers and prosecutors, smugglers and judges. When prohibition finally arrived, it rode in on the coattails the anti-German hysteria of World War One: most of the nation's brewers had Germanic surnames. Widespread anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic, and anti-Semitic sentiments had heavily fertilized the grass roots of the cause.

And so this catastrophically bad idea was made law by a lopsided legislative majority representing a demographic minority. The the constitutionally mandated congressional reapportionment to reflect the 1920 census was deliberately (and illegally) delayed 8 years to keep that majority intact. But nothing could prevent the unprecedented mass civil disobedience which followed prohibition's victory. The Twenties roared because all liquor laws (save the infamous Volstead Act) had been effectively swept away. Once the fruit was forbidden, it quickly became glamorous, accessible, and demand exploded. With the flotilla of smugglers, an army of bootleggers, and dense constellations of speakeasies came a flood tide of corruption that inundated nearly every police precinct, courtroom, and customs house in the nation. New fault lines appeared: civil service laws were bypassed to give the Anti-Saloon League control of federal liquor enforcement hiring, but state legislatures and local officials were often uncooperative (or obstructive) for a variety of reasons.

To prosecute so many millions of victimless crimes would have bankrupted America in a month. So the token fine and a metastasizing culture of bribery soon replaced enforcement. The profits of crime ballooned. Al Capone is alleged to have made $60 million in a single year. Soon the Klan would be deputized to terrorize moonshiners--and all too predictably, others. Later, Congress would pass the Jones Act "get tough" and "send a message"--like life imprisonment for repeat moonshine sellers. Sound familiar? Wood alcohol, isopropyl alcohol, and even deadlier intoxicants became common bootleg additives. The phrase "blind drunk" originated in prohibition. A neuropathic chemical pollutant would permanently cripple some 500 tipplers in Wichita. (The vindictive crocodile tears of sympathy would be echoed by defenders of Paraquat in the 1980s).

Even economics becomes mesmerizing as legally "dry" America experiences skyrocketing commodity prices for the ingredients of fermentation and the nation's residential cellars (and even bathtubs) are converted to forbidden production. But the irritations and absurdities of alcohol criminalization evolved slowly into political outrage, and like it's entry, prohibition's exit was kicked forward by the hard boot of circumstance: the stock market crash of 1929 and the the Great Depression. That it was overthrown so unexpectedly and so decisively is another part of a tale well worth telling, and in Daniel Okrent's "Last Call" it is wonderfully told. Almost none of this rollicking history is spent on prohibition's moral lessons or drawing parallels to the War on Drugs. They're just too obvious. If you've recently been bored by history books that don't hold your interest, this may be the kind of fun reading you''ve been waiting for.
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VINE VOICEon May 31, 2010
Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
Daniel Okrent has written an entertaining and thorough history of Prohibition, starting with the political and social organizations of the late 19th century whose decades of lobbying and gradually refined lobbying techniques resulted in the passing of the 18th Amendment. He then discusses how citizens (nearly universally) ignored the law, how bootleggers produced alcohol and brought it to market, how the government responded, and how very rapidly it came to an end once the Great Depression started.

Though this time period is often featured in fiction and in movies, I found myself repeatedly surprised at how little of this story I already knew. The mutual dependence of the Prohibition movement and Women's suffrage, for example, or the effective nullification of Prohibition by the very Congress that had passed it, as they never allocated money for enforcement. Okrent also has a good sense for amusing anecdote, especially about the larger-than-life characters who violated the law once it was in place (including many members of Congress and of every presidential administration from 1919 to 1933).

The most interesting material in the book, I think, is the discussion of the various *legal* ways that alcohol was produced in the United States or shipped here under prohibition. Demand for drink was so strong that even small loopholes in the law were torn open. "Medicinal" alcohol, "sacramental" wine, even home brewing kits became massive industries.

Between the engaging writing and the Ken Burns documentary to come, it is inevitable that this book will be widely read. As the story of Prohibition sheds light on modern pressure group politics, drug legalization, and fluidity of political alliances, America will be better for having read it. (The term "pressure group" was invented, by the way, to describe those agitating for Prohibition.)

The book's one great weakness is that Okrent seems to have felt compelled to include every anecdote he could find about people who later became famous for non-prohibition activities (or whose children would later become famous). Thus, for example, we have a bizarre excursion about a shopkeeper who may have sold bootleg liquor in the late 1920s. Why is he mentioned? He was the father of Ivan Boesky. At the end of the book, after Prohibition has been repealed and Okrent has completed the "where are they now" review of the people and organizations responsible, he adds a long discussion of the fact that Joe Kennedy wasn't a bootlegger, though some people thought he was. It feels terribly out of place; if he couldn't find any place to discuss the Kennedys in the body of the text, he should have left them out altogether.

I'd give it 4.5 stars if I could.
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Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
Prohibition, which banned the sale of most alcoholic beverages in the United States for nearly 14 years between January 1920 and December 1933 by Constitutional amendment, was a socio-political phenomenon of such great impact that American culture has been permeated by its repercussions ever since. When reading 20th century history, one cannot help but stumble over references to the great social experiment, whether they concern politics, law, religion, women's lib, organized crime, economics, government, or just about any other aspect of American life. And many fine books have been dedicated to specific aspects of prohibition. But Daniel Okrent's "Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition" tries to bring together all aspects of Prohibition, from its causes to its results, its supporters and detractors, losers and profiteers, into one volume.

Everything we know about Prohibition obviously wouldn't fit into one book. But Okrent does an excellent job of taking the reader through the salient points of Prohibition's ratification, practice, enforcement, and repeal. He divides his study into four sections that address the fight for prohibition by the forces of temperance, the methods by which imbibers and bootleggers adapted, the ongoing political war between "wets" and "drys", and, finally, the movement to repeal the 18th Amendment. Okrent presents a large and varied cast of characters. From the leadership of the Anti-Saloon League (ASL) to that of the Association Against the Prohibition Amendment (AAPA), rum runners and gangsters, dry suffragettes and bootlegging rabbis, and unfortunate victims of Prohibition's violence and poisonous booze, we see America during Prohibition.

Okrent points out that Prohibition did genuinely reduce American alcohol consumption on the whole (though not for all demographics), but also that it was easier to get alcohol during those years than it would be after repeal. Pushed through state legislatures by a bizarre coalition of progressives, racists, suffragists, populists, nativists, and the ASL, Prohibition "encouraged criminality and institutionalized hypocrisy" more than it did abstinence. It left a long and starling legacy that includes national organized crime syndicates, Las Vegas, consolidation of beer producers, women in politics, the dinner party, soft drinks, and NASCAR. The great service that "Last Call" performs is tying it all together. We get the big picture and enough of the details to make it interesting and comprehensible. Though I've read other books on Prohibition, I appreciate "Last Call" as a guide to its many tentacles.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon May 27, 2010
Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
This is one awesome book and it's not just about Prohibition. This book is also about the social turmoils in America after the Civil War through the 1930s. Daniel Okrent put a lot of time researching for this book and compiling the information into logical and related subjects.

What I enjoyed about this book is not just learning about the behind-the-scenes details that went on in this country as early as the 1840s, but realizing how determined religious groups, anti-alcohol groups, certain ethnic immigrant groups, businessmen (brewers and distillers) and even the women's suffrage groups were in pushing for the 18th Amendment. These groups perhaps got more (or less?) than they initially lobbied for, but final laws in Congress never end up being carbon-copies of initial proposals.

Okrent lets us know from the first pages that we are and were a country of drinkers. Women stayed at home and raised the children, but also were victims of alcohol abuse by the men who spent too much time at local saloons and taverns where hard laborers spent what little pay they made "washing away their troubles." Liberal drug laws of the 19th century didn't help matters, either.

Okrent breaks down the story of Prohibition, how it grew, how it affected American society and why the 18th Amendment had to be repealed (loss of massive tax revenue and the surge in organized crime) into three parts: The Struggle, The Flood and The War of the Wet and the Dry. I found Chapter 14, "The Way we Drank", which details the time just before Prohibition became law, as especially interesting as we see the ethnic and social classes panicking; gangsters rose to prominence because of Prohibition.

Critical thinkers of this book will realize that this topic of Prohibition is still a timely subject. What if we were to legalize marijuana, for example, or loosen alcohol laws? We still have dry counties (especially in the South) and we still have Blue Laws on the books, and this book clearly explains the history behind all our weird alcohol laws.

If there is a complaint about this book it's that at times it is so detailed that it reads like a textbook. But a good textbook describes not just the facts and gives names and dates, it also gives reasons for the "Why" and "How" of events and discusses the significance of each. Okrent does this very well in "The Last Call."

Another complaint--or compliment, really--is that Okrent's vocabulary is so extensive that I made it a habit to look up one unknown word every few pages until I learned most of Okrent's high-end words: augury, anodyne, apotheosis, postprandial, imprimatur, calumny, dithyramb, pecuniary just to name a few. Okrent's often use of high-end words, however, never takes away from comprehending the text.

I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in our social history of 1840s through the 1930s. You don't have to be a beer lover or whiskey sipper to enjoy this book as Okrent isn't biased in his information or analysis. The characters in this book, from Wilson, Harding, Coolidge or even Rockefeller and Carnegie and Anheuser and Busch all make the chapters fascinating to read.
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on December 26, 2010
Very well researched but doesn't seem to flow as well as a popular history should. Part of the problem may be the constantly changing cast of characters that makes it all but impossible to keep them all straight. I hesitate to give advice to someone who can write as well as Okrent, but it might have been a better idea to have concentrated on four or five main characters to tell the story. (And despite the cast of thousands, there are some curious omissions -- Arnold Rothstein, for example.)

Still, it is exhaustively researched. So while it does not read as well as the usual popular history, it is far more readable that a textbook with as much information.
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on June 30, 2012
Daniel Okrent's "Last Call" provides a comprehensive overview about the Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, better known as Prohibition. In his well-researched book, Okrent focuses on how Prohibition came into being in 1919, its impact on the United States and its well-deserved repeal in 1933.

I found it interesting that this ridiculous piece of legislation made it as far as Congress, thanks to a few passionate "drys" and their well-organized efforts; as I read through the book, it struck me that, despite the fact this amendment was ratified by the majority of state legislatures (three-fourths are required for passage), it was far from popular, even among the politicians. Certainly something needed to be done about the excess drinking in the U.S. during the latter part of the 19th century and early part of the 20th, but Prohibition ended up being a typical knee-jerk reaction by a Congress in the thrall of a very powerful and well-organized coalition of "drys."

Putting this to current day, I'm reminded of the Public Company Accounting Reform and Investor Protection Act of 2002 (better known as Sarbanes-Oxley, or the knee-jerk reaction to Enron, Worldcom and Adelphia) and the so-called "Defense of Marriage" proposition (the right-wing conservatives' reaction to the idea of gay marriage). It seems as though few have learned from the Prohibition lesson that things are rarely black and white. Come to think of it, politicians these days are STILL beholden to a handful of special interests.

What really made this book for me, however, was Okrent's lively writing style. He presents the topic with humor and quips, far from the didactic style of many history books. I also liked how Okrent put the entire thing in context -- the fact that, for example, Prohibition likely wouldn't have come into being had it not been for women's suffrage or income tax was highly interesting.

This is my first "detailed" study of Prohibition, and this is a great introduction to the topic.
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on August 19, 2013
What did the Ku Klux Klan, the women's suffrage movement, William Jennings Bryan, Henry Ford, Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Eleanor Roosevelt all have in common? They all favored passage of the 18th Amendment, which criminalized the sale of alcoholic beverages.

It is now nearly universally concluded that the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was one of the worst fiascos ever foisted upon our country; moreover, that it was brought about solely by fundamentalist Christians.

The last part is a myth (and to be fair, heavy drinking was a problem in the late 19th-early 20th century). If not, then why would the above groups, who differed on so many other issues and in other respects would find each other repugnant, favor the policy of prohibition? And then, just 15 years later, how did the 18th Amendment become the only one in our nation's history to be repealed? Attached to that, why did the American populace so heavily reverse itself on this issue?

All of these questions demonstrate what a fascinating piece of history prohibition was. And author Daniel Okrent provides the answers in his wonderful book, "Last Call."

Okrent begins by telling the story of how prohibition got started: beginning in the mid-19th century, various church movements and organizations began to lobby for it, albeit with little success.

It wasn't until the turn of the century that the movement really began to pick up steam. This was largely due to the fact that those who favored temperance got organized. Supporters also latched onto an anti-immigrant backlash: most turn-of-the-century immigrants were Irish and German, and were heavy beer drinkers. Additionally, there were brazen appeals to racism.

Once it became law, however, Okrent notes that enforcement was much easier said than done, for a number of reasons:

First, two of the presidents who were in office during this era (Woodrow Wilson and Calvin Coolidge) were ambivalent at best about enforcing it. As for Warren Harding, who died in office in 1923, some in his cabinet members were involved in bootlegging. So were many other politicians at this time.

Second, there were loopholes in the law. For instance, there was a religious exemption for Orthodox Jews; coincidentally, this era saw a large conversion rate to that religion.

Third, just as many opponents of prohibition (most notably former president William H. Taft and essayist H.L. Mencken) rightly predicted, criminal elements would prosper because of it. Okrent records that immediately before the 18th Amendment took effect, Mencken sold his car and used the proceeds to purchase massive amounts of adult beverages.

Fourth, many Canadians started wineries and breweries, smuggled their goods over the borders, and made large fortunes.

Fifth, all of this led to greater corruption in politics. This could be subtle, as when police stationed at the docks would fine bootleggers, who merely counted those fines as part of their production costs. But the corruption could also be overt, as when gangsters such as Al Capone and Meyer Lansky virtually controlled local law enforcement.

So then, what killed prohibition? Okrent gives a number of factors:

First, the aforementioned mob bosses were rightly seen as the direct result of the 18th Amendment. There is little chance that such flamboyant criminals (especially Capone) would have been nearly so successful (and brazenly so) without a nationwide anti-alcohol policy. As this era wore on, more and more people came to that conclusion.

Second, activists like Pauline Sabin began to see the deleterious effects of prohibition. Once a supporter of the 18th Amendment, Sabin especially made it fashionable for women to be politically active in this cause.

Third, publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst tired of prohibition. In the late 1920s, he instructed his newspaper editors to flout the hypocrisy of dry politicians when they were caught with alcohol. This was done to marvelous affect, and helped to reverse public opinion on this policy.

Fourth, when Herbert Hoover was elected president in 1928, he badly misread his mandate: instead of focusing solely on the fact that he was elected to continue the economic policies of his predecessors, he thought it was because prohibition was more popular than it actually was. In his inaugural address, he devoted much heated rhetoric on why anti-liquor laws needed to be tougher, when in fact Americans were tiring of it.

All of that to say, when the stock market crashed in October 1929, the perception that Hoover was out of touch with the nation was magnified even more. So when 1932 rolled around with no end in sight to the Great Depression, Franklin D. Roosevelt acutely read the public mood, and ran on a platform of repeal (though he had a history of waffling on this issue).

"Last Call" captures each of these episodes well, which makes it such a compelling read.
Additionally, there are some interesting anecdotes; for instance, Okrent also makes a compelling case that contrary to popular myth, Joseph Kennedy was not involved in bootlegging at all; that such claims only came about in 1960 when his son ran for president.

All told, "Last Call" should go down as one of the best volumes written on this subject. If I do have one criticism, it is this: there is a very heavy reliance upon quotations from that era. While this is helpful in some respects, it makes Okrent's prose a little too choppy.

That once criticism aside, however, I highly recommend "Last Call."
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon October 23, 2014
The ability to make Prohibition law is one of the most fascinating political and historical stories in American history. Getting the 18th Amendment passed through both houses of Congress, then 3/4 of the states, required a bizarre cobbling of alliances, from progressives to evangelicals the KKK - first to pass it, then to get it repealed.

Okrent does a brilliant job bringing to life the characters who so passionately pleaded both sides of the case, and those who became heroes and villains in Prohibition's wake. While addressing the rise of mafia, he dispenses with all the romanticism that other authors like to evoke from that era - instead giving a grim, real-life account of the repercussions of the New America. Never sensational or hyperbolic, but also never accepting of the violence or corruption.

Last Call deals far more with the politics of Prohibition than other books I've read on the subject, and does so with wit and a cast of characters that keep the reader engaged like few authors can. Short chapters and high-stakes storylines make this as much a can't-put-down drama as any good suspense novel, and I spent several nights up much later than I should've been reading "just one more chapter".
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