The Corner

Did Ken Burns Watch His Own Documentary?

Through the magic of DVR, I just finished watching Ken Burns’s excellent three-part series on Prohibition. Yet given some of his supporting interviews, I wonder if Burns himself has actually seen his own documentary.

Last year, in an interview on, of all places, the Adam Carolla Podcast, Burns compared Prohibitionists to today’s Tea Partiers. In explaining why Prohibition is relevant, Burns said:

The real connection about Prohibition, to me the thing that there’s nothing new under the sun, is that this is the story about right-wing, single issue campaigns that metastasize. This is the story about the demonization of immigrants. This is the story about state and local governments complaining about unfunded mandates. This is the story about smear campaigns against Democrats… It’s like a Tea Party thing.

Of course, it’s exactly nothing like a Tea Party thing. Following the turn of the century, it was Progressives that pushed for Prohibition, believing they were looking out for the working people of America. The Left also believed banning liquor would help the plight of immigrants — without actually checking with those very immigrants, many of whom enjoyed drinking heavily. Prohibition was also supported by the Klu Klux Klan, who backed former secretary of the treasury William Gibbs McAdoo for the 1924 Democratic presidential nomination against Prohibition opponent Al Smith, governor of New York.

As Jonah ably points out in Liberal Fascism, the Right is always made to apologize for either real or imagined transgressions by conservatives — be it McCarthyism, Watergate, or whatever. Yet Prohibition is a living, festering example of the damage wrought by government overreach. It should hang like a millstone around the necks of the Left, as the unintended consequences were myriad: increased alcoholism, people going blind by drinking alcohol cut with paint thinner, and the thousands of bodies decorating the streets with blood at the hands of gangsters like Al Capone.

Sounds a lot like the Tea Party, right? In fact, right now, it’s the Tea Partiers that are fighting against unfunded mandates like Obamacare, another top-down program that is destined to fail.

Incidentally, it was Progressive Republican U.S. Senator John J. Blaine of Wisconsin, once a member of “Fighting Bob” LaFollette’s inner circle, that introduced the resolution to repeal the 18th Amendment. In every session he served in the Senate, Blaine introduced such a resolution, but it wasn’t until the 1931–32 session (his last, incidentally) that his resolution was adopted and sent to the states for ratification. He lost his seat in a Republican primary in 1932, and died two years later at the age of 58. My crusade to require his picture to be hung in every bar in Wisconsin remains unsuccessful.

If you get a chance to see Burns’s full documentary, it is well worth it. I hadn’t known about the wild story of millionaire bootlegger George Remus, which is almost too bizarre to believe. (According to Wikipedia, Remus is believed to be F. Scott Fitzgerald’s inspiration for Jay Gatsby, but also according to Wikipedia, Remus also holds the single-season major league home run record.)

And if you get a chance to catch the documentary, send Ken Burns a little note to tell him what’s in it.

(As a bonus, here’s a wonderful defense of drinking that appeared in the Milwaukee Sentinel in 1932.)

— Christian Schneider is a senior fellow at the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute.

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