One advantage of being a third-party presidential candidate is that you can say outrageous things and get away with it. Still, it’s hard to imagine any Libertarian or Green Party candidate will be able to top Gene Amondson.
“If you let me shoot everybody who sells alcohol and drugs, I’d vote for it in a minute because then all our prisons would empty,” Amondson says.
Did he say shoot them?
“Just shoot ’em,” Amondson says, laughing. “You can ruin me on that one. But it’s really true.”
Gene Amondson — Preacher Gene as he likes to be called — represents the U.S. Prohibition Party. He is the national chairman as well as its 2004 presidential candidate. He is planning another bid in 2008. He wants to bring back the 18th Amendment, making the sale of alcoholic beverages illegal.
Nobody should drink alcohol, he says, insisting that the years of prohibition, 1920-1933, were the golden age of America. He is, however, somewhat skeptical that we’ll see a return to prohibition in his lifetime.
“We run not because we think we’re going to win,” he notes. “We run to make the point that only dumb people drink.”
The Prohibition Party has seen better days. A major force in 19th and early-20th Century American politics, its membership and public support has since shrunk to the point it doesn’t even merit an asterisk in national polls today.
In the 2004 election, people representing the Prohibition Party managed to make it on the ballot in two states, Louisiana and Colorado, and received 2,084 votes total. In a nation of about 300 million people, that means the prohibitionists have the support of about .000006% of the voting public.
The national party boasts only one office holder: James Hedges, tax assessor for Fulton County, PA, first elected in 2001. He’s the sole party member to hold office since 1959.
You’d think such a meager following would preclude divisions within the movement, but you would be wrong: a schism has split the party into two competing factions.
Several top officials tried to oust the longtime national chairman and 2000 presidential candidate Earl Dodge in 2003. That group, which includes Amondson, insists it succeeded in formally dumping Dodge and now runs the show. Dodge says nu-huh, they didn’t, and claims he is still the legitimate leader.
“They (Amondson’s group) have no connection to our party,” Dodge says. “They are a brand-new group and that’s all I can tell you. They are just trying to deceive people.”
It’s not a little like the scene in Monty Python’s The Life of Brian where the Judean People’s Front clashes with People’s Front of Judea. There are now two Prohibition Parties in the U.S., each claiming to be the legitimate heir to the historic party. Dodge’s faction uses the website www.prohibition.org. Amondson’s uses prohibitionists.org.
The factions don’t appear to actually disagree on any policy. Nevertheless they view each other with contempt.
“It was either (Dodge’s) way or the highway,” fumes Bill Bledsoe, nation treasurer for the Amondson faction. “He was more interested in selling political memorabilia than building the party.”
Their website takes the derision one step further, dubbing Dodge the “architect of oblivion.”
Dodge calls them “ridiculous” and is not above talking some smack in response.
“The BBC did not send a crew over here to interview (me) for a special in England because there was any doubt in their minds” over who represented the One True Prohibition Party, he notes.
Money is an issue. Bledsoe and others allege financial improprieties by Dodge involving party property and funds, all of which Dodge denies. The dispute also involves a trust fund set up in the will of an ardent prohibitionist in 1939.
“He’s very stubborn. He’s after the money,” Amondson says of Dodge, adding one last accusation: “He’s in it for the button collection of the Prohibition Party. It’s worth thousands of dollars. So he’s in it for all he can get.”
Both factions put up presidential candidates in 2004. Amondson got on the ballot in Colorado and Tennessee where he won 1,944 votes combined. Dodge only managed to make it onto the ballot in Colorado, where he won 140 votes.
“We did very poorly,” Dodge admits.
Still, he did get Colorado to list him on the ballot as the Prohibition Party candidate. Amondson ran on the same ballot as a member of the “Concerns of the People Party.”
The candidates concede a portion of their votes probably came from confused voters who intended to support someone else. Asked hypothetically if some may have voted for the Prohibition Party thinking they were voting for a Prostitution Party, Amondson laughed but didn’t rule it out either.
“Probably one or two did,” he says.
The battle is set for a rematch in 2008. Both Dodge and Amondson say they’re planning another run. Amondson says he expects to be on the ballot in five states. Ask him which states and things become a bit cloudy.
“Tennessee, Florida, Colorado, Louisiana and I don’t know what the fifth one will be,” Amondson says. “I can’t remember. It could be Tennessee. Probably Tennessee.”
Not that it matters much since Amondson, who lives on a small island near Seattle, WA, says he’s not sure if he’s going to campaign in those states. Travel is a bit of a problem since he has to take a ferry to get off the island. And there’s not much point in doing that because he’s not certain he’ll have events to go to. Most of his speaking is done at places like Rotary Club meetings and churches, he explains.
“I have to go where the churches want me and I don’t have the right contacts,” he explained.
This news comes as a bit of a surprise to Bledsoe, the treasurer.
“I’ve never heard that he wasn’t going to travel outside of his hometown,” Bledsoe says. “He did it last time. He didn’t come to Florida, but he came to Alabama.”
Bledsoe then pauses. “I think it was Alabama.”
Dodge doesn’t share his campaign plans but does say he’d rather somebody else ran instead of him.
“I often tell people I’ve been picked to run six times on the basis of my good looks, my intelligence and the basis that nobody else was willing to do it — mostly the latter,” Dodge says.
It has been a long time since the days when the party could actually make Washington tremble.
History remembers the prohibition movement as one of the wackier episodes of 19th and early-20th century America. The prohibitionists — mainly protestant evangelical groups like the Women’s Christian Temperance Union — had decided that alcohol was the root of all evil, and only by outlawing it could a good, decent Christian nation emerge.
Politically, their vehicle was the U.S. Prohibition Party, founded in 1869. Anti-alcohol sentiment was on the rise, and the party steadily grew in power. On Jan. 16, 1920, it used its populist muscle to browbeat politicians into ratifying the 18th Amendment, causing an entire nation to go “dry” overnight.
The triumph did not last, because transforming millions of law-abiding Americans into criminals overnight turned out to be bad domestic policy. Few obeyed the laws, and common hoodlums like Al Capone and Lucky Luciano suddenly had a lucrative new market to exploit. Prohibition essentially created organized crime as we know it.
Deciding the experiment was a failure, a thirsty nation repealed Prohibition on Dec. 5, 1933, then headed immediately to the nearest bar to celebrate.
Most history books end the story of Prohibition there, giving the impression that the party conceded defeat and disbanded. But, like the marooned Japanese soldiers who continued “fighting” WWII into the 1970s, the Prohibition Party has continued to contest every presidential election since the law’s repeal, ever striving to bring it back.
The party has steadily shrunk to the point where its membership appears to consist of a handful of 60- and 70-something religious fundamentalists who, as the schism shows, can’t even get along with each other.
“We picked Gene (to be our candidate) because he seemed to be the most personable person available,” says Executive Secretary Jim Hedges. “He has, for lack of a better word, a stage presence.”
Scheduling an interview with a presidential candidate usually takes a lot of negotiation and many phone calls. Not so with Amondson. A Google search turned up his e-mail address, and about half an hour later he agreed to an hour-long interview on the following day.
“I have all the time in the world,” he explains.
His campaign headquarters? He doesn’t appear to have one. It turned out that the phone number was for a local public library where Amondson spends a lot of his free time.
Once on the phone, Amondson is a fountain of fascinating, little-known facts about alcohol and prohibition.
On people drinking to unwind: “Trying to drink responsibly is like trying to teach a pig to eat with a spoon. The idea just doesn’t work … it’s just too addictive. It’s too risky.”
On home brewers: “They are just as much idiots. I drink near-beer all the time. I like Sharps the best. There’s no reason you can’t find a near-beer that isn’t as good as any of them.”
On the effects of alcohol: “Alcohol cuts off the flow of oxygen to the brain. It causes you to be temporarily retarded. And we know that retarded people have more fun. Well, if you need to be retarded and have fun, you need a shrink, not a drink.”
On alcohol and STDs: “Alcohol is the biggest spreader of AIDS in America. You go to Alaska where they all start drinking — miners, loggers and fishermen — they all go to bed together and the next year they have oodles of cases of AIDS.”*
*(According to the Kaiser Family Foundation’s website, Alaska has 3.9 AIDS cases per 100,000, well below the national average of 14.)
> He asserts that Jesus Christ did not actually drink wine, even at the Last Supper. That’s just a mistranslation. It was actually just grape juice. Wine, he says, is not kosher.
“If Jesus drank wine, he wasn’t really bright because it is so addictive. Well, Jesus was Jewish. Jewish people were not allowed to drink anything that was given to ferment,” Preacher Gene explains. “So Jesus being Jewish, [he] was not allowed to drink any alcohol.”
Preacher Gene also expresses some reservations about his own religion.
“There were five religions of the world, and the only one that says you can drink alcohol is the new Christian church. Why would we be so stupid, know what I mean? The other religions were smart enough to be against alcohol,” he says.
Throughout the interview he expresses frustration with Catholic and Protestant churches alike for being “dead” on the alcohol issue. On the other hand, he does have an admiration for the Islamic faith, which is one of few religions that forbids alcohol and levels harsh penalties.
“Sharia (Islamic) law is a terrible thing but our laws are terrible too, where we just turn (drinkers) back out on the streets and then they kill us with drunk driving and murder and rape our children and everything else. So there is not perfection in either one,” Amondson says.
But what about the fact that most Islamic countries don’t appear to be very happy places, what with their lack of democracy, lack of civil and human rights, and oppressive laws for women and religious minorities?
“Yeah, they have their problems too. But there are places where there is Sharia law,” he says. “Whatever this country was, it brought in Sharia law, they got rid of the Christians and Jews and our laws and just let everybody go. Their country was one of the highest crime countries and after they did that — even though we can point to Sharia and a couple of stonings of a couple that is having adultery as terrible — but their country’s crime went down and they did not have to lock their doors. But that never hits the media’s eye, that they got rid of crime too. Of course they had some bad stuff too.”
This correspondent is too dumbfounded by the response to ask exactly what Preacher Gene meant by “got rid of the Christians and Jews.”
It might not come as a surprise to learn that Islamic groups have supported prohibitionist causes in the past. That was decades ago though, long before 9/11, Amondson adds.
So would he be willing to accept a speaking invitation to an Islamic group and ask them for campaign contributions today?
“I would, yeah. I really would,” he says without hesitation.
Earl Dodge, at 74 years of age, says he has never touched alcohol in his life.
“Not one drop. Never had any reason to. Never had any desire to,” he says.
How does he know he wouldn’t enjoy it if he’s never tried it?
“When I go by a tavern and the door is open, the smell is enough to make me sick,” he says.
Asked how he might respond to those who think he is just against having fun, he laughs.“Well, they don’t know me very well. I am father of seven, grandfather of 19 and great-grandfather of seven so far. I enjoy life to the fullest. I teach Sunday school class.”
Prohibitionists bristle at the argument that prohibition failed in the 1920s. Au contraire, they say, it was a roaring success. In case you didn’t know, all those history books are falsifications, and the media — well, even now they are whores to Big Alcohol’s advertising dollars — and both are poisoning people’s minds.
Treasurer Bledsoe clears up the misconceptions:
“Sure they had more places called speakeasies. Most of them were already there, they just went by another name. For example, when the campaigns were going to institute prohibition, the public was promised there would be no more saloons. So they just changed the names to lounges or bars. What’s the big deal? It’s deceptive to the public. It’s lying to the public.”
But isn’t it the case that a lot of drinking went on after prohibition became law?
“No. No, wait a minute. If they are not manufacturing it, how are they going to drink more? It only takes a third-grade education to figure that out. They didn’t have the capability of making as much illegally as they did in the distilleries,” he explains.
It’s kind of a revelation: People stopped drinking in the 1920s because there was no alcohol to be had. It wasn’t like there were illegal distilleries across the land, secret importation from Canada and other countries and people making it in their own bathtubs. F. Scott Fitzgerald just had a really low tolerance for seltzer water. And Capone? Why, he was just bootlegging lemonade.
The prohibitionists realize that they’re totally marginal in today’s politics. But they still hope for the day that the tide will shift back in their direction. And — who knows? — it might.
“Anybody who comes along now, I advise them to just lay low. We’ll keep you on the mailing list,” says Hedges.
Amondson finds hope in the current crusade against smoking, which demonized tobacco until the public began to voluntarily turn away from it, making legislative restrictions easier.
“I think you will see more of a trend towards not drinking,” he says. “As people don’t drink, there will be more support for restrictions. I fully expect that someday alcohol will be a thing of the past.”