Model Moralist

Wayne Wheeler had a mission

Since handing in his pencil five years ago as the New York Times’ first public editor, Daniel Okrent has turned to the past. His 2003 book on Rockefeller Center was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in history; his latest effort, Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition, excerpted in this issue, will be published this month. His wife calls him “a serial obsessive,” says Okrent. “I find a subject that interests me and I say, ‘Gee, do you think I can get somebody to pay me to spend the next three to five years learning more about it?’”

The chapters Okrent adapted for Smithsonian (“The Man Who Turned Off the Taps”) take up the question of how something as unpopular as a prohibition against alcohol could become law—and via a constitutional amendment no less. The answer, he says, can be expressed in two words: Wayne Wheeler.

Wayne who? “Today nobody has ever heard of Wayne Wheeler,” Okrent admits, “but in the 1920s he was hugely influential—on the front page of more newspapers, probably, than any other non-officeholder in the country.” After Prohibition’s repeal, Wheeler was forgotten. But not his influence.

“I think without Wayne Wheeler, there’s no Karl Rove, there’s no James Carville,” says Okrent. “I think he really was the model of the political tactician who knew how to get what he wanted through the entirely legal, if not always seemly, use of minorities to create majorities.”

Is there a moral to this story? “I think it’s that the political passions of the American people run in cycles. At any given time, whether you’re on the left or the right, you may say that this country is in terrible shape because the other guys have taken over and they’re destroying everything. Then, it passes. Prohibition is a classic example of that. As late as two years before repeal, there were many smart people saying Prohibition is here to stay. It’s permanent. And it was not remotely permanent. These things change.”

This month we are proud to launch a new magazine, Smithsonian Presents Travels With Rick Steves, a collaboration with the popular travel expert who shares our interest in the history and culture of notable destinations. In the première issue, Steves reveals his 20 top favorite places in Europe. As he says: become a traveler rather than a tourist.

Travels is available May 4 at selected newsstands and bookstores, or through or at (212) 916-1300.

Get the latest History stories in your inbox?

Click to visit our Privacy Statement.