‘Top Line’ at the Movies: Ken Burns’ ‘Prohibition’ and History’s Repetitions

VIDEO: Ken Burns: Prohibition Meant to Be a Magic Bullet

Legendary director Ken Burns turns his lens on “Prohibition” for his latest documentary, a three-part, 5 1/2-hour film that premiered on PBS last week.

The film is about the oft-misunderstood 13-year period — from 1920 through 1933 — where the manufacture and sale of liquor was illegal in the United States.

It’s also about larger truths in American politics – as the nation watched a “magic bullet” spectacularly misfire — with lessons emerging that are newly relevant today, Burns told us in an interview for ABC’s “Top Line.”

“I learned more on this project than almost any other project I’ve gotten involved in,” Burns said. “It’s about single-issue political campaigns — wedge-issue campaigns that metastasize with horrible unintended consequences. Sound familiar? It’s a story about the demonization of recent immigrants to the United States and, as always, African-Americans. Sound familiar? This is the story of the loss of a civil discourse and smear campaigns during presidential election cycles. Sound familiar?”

“This is about a debate about the role of government in people’s lives, about unfunded congressional mandates, about warrantless wiretaps — I mean, all of a sudden I’m working on a project, and I’m going, OK, did I just abandon history? Or am I talking about current events? That’s the story.”

Burns told us that among the many things misunderstood about Prohibition was what it actually meant for the ability to get a drink in the United States in the years between the enactment of the Eighteenth and the Twenty-First Amendments.

Official Washington was particularly guilty of hypocrisy during that time period, he said.

“It was easier to get a drink during prohibition than after they repealed it, because once government came back in and regulated, there were opening and closing hours. You couldn’t sell to minors. Kids could walk into a speakeasy and get a drink,” he said.

“It’s one of the great ironies that it was harder to get a drink when they repealed it. This is the center of hypocrisy,” he said. “The president of the United States, Warren G. Harding, has a bootlegger come to the White house twice a week to fuel his whiskey cabinet when he’s in support, publicly, of prohibition. … This was corruption from the top down. And finally at the end it sort of crushed of its own sort of hypocrisy.”

The period also empowered women politically, setting the stage for women’s suffrage and broader involvement by women in politics. And it speaks to larger truths about the American spirit, Burns said.

“It is symptomatic of human nature,” he said. “We’re prurient but we’re also puritan. We’re Saturday night and we’re Sunday morning.”

Turning to modern politics, Burns – a strong supporter of President Obama in 2008 – said he’s confident the president can recover in time for 2012.

“All you have to do is look to see where we were four years ago to understand that Hillary Clinton had basically doubled up Barack Obama’s lead,” he said. “The No. 1 for the Republican nomination at this time was Rudolph Giuliani, followed by Fred Thompson. We have a fluid scene.”

“I think that the president will be reelected. I think it will probably be narrower than before. But a lot of it has to do with the ever-changing, unpredictability of things — which eventually then historical documentary filmmakers got get to make films about.”

We filmed the interview at Washington’s Jack Rose Dining Saloon, with the proprietiors bringing a Prohibition feel by breaking out some whiskey that was bottled during Prohibition – and were available for sale in the United States during that era for “medicinal use” only.

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