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Dry and Mighty

Earl Dodge could use a drink. That is, if he believed reports that a daily alcoholic beverage or two drastically reduces the risks of coronary artery disease. But Dodge, who is recovering from multiple bypass surgery, is the last guy to have a cool one for his health's sake.

"Alcohol is a poison," says Dodge from the couch of his working-class home in west Denver, his post-surgery staples and scars covered by a rumpled dress shirt. "Why would I want to put a poison in my body?"

A devout Christian and Southern gospel buff who makes his living selling vintage political buttons, the 66-year-old Dodge takes his disdain for drink to religious heights. He is the chairman and designated driver for the National Prohibition Party, the same party that helped make alcohol illegal back in 1919.

His name may ring a bell with Colorado voters, who've seen it at the bottom of the ballot in the last four presidential elections. He'll be there in 2000 as well, having again accepted his party's nomination for president at its national convention on June 29.

Held in Pennsylvania and attended by 39 teetotalers, this year's event proved an exciting one for Dodge, who beat a surprise last-minute attempt to nominate another candidate in a 9-8 vote. His opposition had sought to elect Independent Party of America member Gary Van Horn in an effort to broaden the party's reach.

The close vote, Dodge says, was a result of two factors. First, some members may have considered Dodge physically unfit for running a campaign, and second, he says most of his supporters had left the convention early, figuring his election was a done deal.

But Lee McKenzie, the NPP member who brought Van Horn to the convention, wonders about that assessment. "I notified everyone at the start of the convention that I would present a challenger," says McKenzie. "It's not like everyone didn't know this was going to happen."

McKenzie's goal was to elect Van Horn and then to convince the Independent Party of America to adopt the Prohibition Party's stance on drinking, thus broadening its chances.

McKenzie agrees with Dodge's assessment, however, that the close vote was in no way a sign that the NPP is softening its stance. "The fact that I was re-elected shows that the party believes as I do," Dodge says, "that the alcohol issue is the key issue and that we're not going to abandon it or tone it down to get more votes."

Gaining more votes might be a nice change for Dodge, who in the 1996 presidential election received just 1,300 votes from the four states where his party was on the ballot. This showing, coupled with the fact that most Americans consider the NPP an extinct oddity from the nation's bone-dry past, makes it clear Dodge's odds at gaining the White House are slim. But, as Dodge proved at his convention, he's not about to water down his beliefs just to improve his chances.

"We believe that the social impact of the use of alcohol on Americans is greater than any other substance or any other activity that has ever been invented," Dodge says without a hint of the fire and brimstone one might expect with such sentiments.

"It's the chief cause of crime in America and the chief cause of broken homes, and in terms of economics, the cost of all this to the country is staggering," he adds. "No pun intended."

If this wasn't enough to knock a tippler from his bar stool, Dodge offers a prediction that surely will. "Twenty-five years from now," Dodge dreams, "alcohol will be as socially unacceptable as cigarettes are today."

If this sounds like Dodge has been in the sauce after all, it's a valid enough concern for those in the business of producing alcoholic beverages. Over the past few years the rise of the so-called "neo-prohibition" movement--a loose alliance of temperance-minded groups that includes civic and church organizations, Mothers Against Drunk Driving and politicians--has helped turn public policy against drinking with laws that have raised the drinking age in some states, lowered the blood alcohol limit for driving and made it harder for liquor stores and bars to open in some neighborhoods.

"The neo-prohibitionist movement is not something to be shrugged off or taken lightly," says David Edgar, director of the Boulder-based Institute for Brewing Studies, which represents craft brewers and microbrewers. "They're very well-organized. There's a lot of talk in the air that once they're done with tobacco, alcohol is next."

Rick Berman of the American Beverage Institute, a Washington, D.C., lobbying organization that represents restaurants and bars, agrees.

"We do see what's being called de facto prohibition," he says, "where there are more and more constraints and restrictions on the consumption of alcohol. Instead of trying to ban the product, groups are working to ban the use and consumption of it in certain situations."  

It's a meaningless liberty to Dodge, however. "Are people really free with a drug like alcohol in society? Sure, if I'm a beer drinker I have freedom to drink, but I run the risk of becoming addicted, and then I'll be a slave," he says. While he estimates his actual party membership at around 1,000, Dodge says there are about 100,000 Americans "who would consider themselves party Prohibitionists," people who would vote NPP if Dodge could only get his name on their ballots.

Election laws that stand in the way of third parties are a bigger deterrent to his group's success than pro-alcohol forces, Dodge insists. "In California, a person can get on the Democratic or Republican ballot for governor with 5,000 signatures. To run as a third party, you need three-quarters of a million signatures."

And although its symbol is a twin-humped camel ("It goes a long time without a drink," Dodge chuckles, "and when it does drink, it drinks water"), the NPP is not a one-issue party. Its 1996 platform covered a range of issues, from balancing the budget and reforming ballot laws to right-to-life measures and states' rights. Historically, Dodge says, the NPP has been on the forefront of populist issues such as right-to-work laws and the voting and civil rights of women and minorities. "The alcohol problem" is mentioned last in the 1996 platform guide.

But in Dodge's office--which doubles as NPP headquarters and a museum of sorts to Prohibition--pamphlet titles include "What's Wrong With Beer," "God Drinks No Alcohol," and a sarcastic tome called "The Hidden Blessings of Alcoholic Beverages."

Dodge, who has written and illustrated many of these tracts himself, admits those Americans who continue to enjoy alcohol may deem the NPP and its allies kooks. "I hope those people realize that we're a bunch of nuts who care," he says. "We care about America's health."

According to Dodge, a likable, fatherly gent who invites guests to join him in prayer, alcohol has a hand in the deaths of 250,000 to 400,000 people each year. He consider studies touting alcohol's health benefits "bogus," attributing any health benefits in wine and beer to properties of grapes and grains. Among his own circle of friends, those who imbibe "are less healthy, less happy and less successful than the people who don't drink," and he brushes off the suggestion that a daily drink or two might have kept him off the operating table.

But an expert on alcohol use and health says it certainly could have. "There is no question in anybody's mind that the moderate use of alcohol reduces the possibility of heart attacks and the possibility of the most common form of strokes," says Dr. Morris Chafetz, founder of the National Institute on Alcohol and Alcohol Abuse and head of the Health Education Foundation. There's not a study I know of that says non-drinkers live longer than moderate drinkers. It's the other way around."

"Prohibition allowed the capitalization of organized crime," Chafetz continues, "and we have to remember that the only amendment to our Constitution that has ever been repealed was the 18th Amendment that produced prohibition. Alcohol has been around for over 4,000 years and done far, far more good than harm."

But Dodge invokes Abraham Lincoln to counter this notion. "Lincoln was a great exponent of prohibition," Dodge says. "He once said that the chattel slave traffic and the liquor traffic were the twin evils of civilization. Had he lived, there may well have been no Prohibition Party, because once the slave traffic was done away with, his next objective was to abolish the liquor traffic."

Instead, the Prohibition Party gained political ground in the early 1900s, electing officials to local, state and even a few national offices. The group's efforts peaked in 1919, when the federal government passed the 18th Amendment making alcohol illegal.

Thanks to Prohibition, Dodge says, "we had whole groups of people who never knew what it was to see drunks laying on city sidewalks when they went to shop. Never knew what it was to see wild parties going on." He says that until the Depression, the Prohibition era was "the most prosperous in our nation's history."

Today, Dodge says his party isn't calling for a return to Prohibition, since public sentiment wouldn't support it. Instead, party members are lobbying legislators and spreading the P-word to the general public.

"We're a party of convictions," he says. "And if we believed that we could compromise moral principles and be more successful, we'd be just like the other parties. Our principles are not for sale. I tell people the only way I'm going to get into the White House is on a guided tour, but I won't be ashamed because I was never elected president.  


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