Tell me, if you please, does the name Wayne B. Wheeler ring any bells for you? It didn’t for me, either, until I read Daniel Okrent’s fascinating book Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition.
Wayne Wheeler died in 1927, less than a paltry 100 years ago. At that time, the editors of the Washington Post wrote: “No other private citizen of the United States has left such an impress upon national history.”
Wheeler was the leading figure in the Anti-Saloon League (the ASL) and was the single most influential person behind the passage and 14-year reign of the 18th Amendment: Prohibition. During most of that time he wielded such power that he could walk into almost any office in our nation’s capitol—of congressman, senator, or, yes, president—and command an audience. One of the surest ways for an elected official to lose his office was to adopt a position Wheeler and the ASL did not approve. Hence the verdict of the Washington Post. And yet . . .
Following Wheeler’s death, the ASL began to fall on hard times, and, for a number of reasons, Prohibition itself was repealed. In his book, Okrent reports that from 1935 to 1975, Wheeler’s name appears in the Post only twelve times, four of those in the obituaries of others who had fought for the amendment and three times in reviews of books on Prohibition.
After 1975, Wheeler’s name disappeared from that paper. As Prohibition was bounced out, so was even the memory of Wayne Wheeler. Even American history texts telling the story of Prohibition “leave out the name of its author.” In the eight decades since Wheeler’s death, Okrent writes that his “legacy” has been present in the tactics of almost every single-issue political movement that has arisen in our nation, but almost no one remembers his name. The nation still has the hangover from Prohibition, including among much else, the national income tax, organized crime, and, on a less pernicious note, NASCAR. But the name of Prohibition’s “author” has almost completely vanished. I find that remarkable, and cautionary, on a number of levels.
Fame really is fleeting. If you have a choice, far better to be famous with your family and a few true friends than with the masses.
Power not only corrupts, it blinds. I don’t know that Wheeler was corrupt, though his cause led to a national orgy of hypocrisy and corruption, but his life was, it seems to me, a very sad one. Zealots are by definition given to “unbalanced”lives. They are good people to avoid and almost always do less lasting good than “ordinary” people whose influence for genuine good is less loud but far more real.
No matter how important our “cause,” it’s a tragic mistake to forget to go home and have a life.
No issue—no matter how worthy or unworthy—deserves the place of God in our lives, but most issues will clamor for it.
And regardless of what the verdict of history is on our lives, only one Judge’s opinion counts. The others will soon fade away.