Howell Raines is a legendary figure in journalism, an Alabama native who joined The New York Times in 1978 and was executive editor of the paper from 2001 to 2003. He’s also published a novel, two memoirs, and an unforgettable oral history of the civil-rights movement, My Soul is Rested. This interview has been edited and condensed.
Jon Wiener: Alabama votes on Tuesday. The most recent polls show a tight race between Republican Roy Moore, accused of sexual assault of a 14-year-old girl, and Democrat Doug Jones, the civil-rights attorney who put the men in jail who bombed that church in Birmingham in 1963 and killed four black girls. The Washington Post poll of likely voters has Doug Jones at 50 percent and Roy Moore at 47. Do you think that’s about right?
Howell Raines: It is right in the sense that this is a very tight race. All the polls have trouble estimating turnout. This is the most competitive and theatrical race we’ve had in Alabama since 1970, when George Wallace defeated a New South progressive named Albert Brewer by running the most racist campaign in Alabama history. What is being tested here, put most bluntly, is whether the swing voters in Alabama would rather send a suspected pedophile to the Senate than vote for a Democrat.
JW: You’ve been reporting from northern Alabama, Trump territory—what did you find?
HR: I’m just back from what should be the heart of Roy Moore country: Winston County. It’s virtually all-white, and famous for its political history: It tried to secede from Alabama when Alabama seceded from the Union. It was overwhelmingly pro-Union in its politics, and as a result of that Union heritage was for many years the only Republican county in Alabama—back before Goldwater and Reagan made the GOP the white person’s party throughout the Deep South.
One of the reasons I wanted to go there was my grandfather was a postmaster and justice of the peace in that county; he died around 1970 and he’s buried in Winston County, so I think I had some street cred there—because my grandparents are buried in the Baptist cemetery in Arley, Alabama. Winston is famous for being pretty tight-lipped and having that old Appalachian-mountain suspicion of outsiders, but I found a lot of folks ready to talk. The most interesting thing that happened to me on my trip was in driving across the entirety of Winston County from east to west on two-lane roads, I saw only one Roy Moore sign. One elected official in a small town there told me he thought the wives of some local residents had made the husbands take the Roy Moore signs off the front lawn. It’s a fraught situation in regard to how much the sexual allegations will hurt Moore. I think they have dampened and suppressed the Republican vote, possibly enough to allow Jones to win—if he gets a substantial black vote.
JW: We were alarmed at a report last week in The New York Times from Selma, in the heart of the Black Belt, where the story reported that in interviews with 10 African Americans at a strip mall near the Walmart, six of the 10 said they were not aware that a Senate race was underway. Ten is certainly a tiny sample—but that still seems alarming, doesn’t it?
HR: Yes. And there are other anecdotal indications from around the state that the interest in the black community is not what one would expect or what Doug Jones would hope for. I think there are a couple reasons for that. The most important one is that the church-based voter-turnout organizations in the black community that were built up by the civil-rights movement have gradually over time withered. They were a tremendous force in the ’70s in integrating the Alabama legislature. The other factor that no one seems to know how to measure is that there are some conservative black evangelical ministers who are drawn to Moore because he is an ardent anti-abortion candidate. If I could visit 25 black churches next Sunday morning, I think I could make some prediction about black turnout. We are well into the 21st century, but race and religion are still the dominant factors bearing on Alabama politics.
JW: We feel like these charges of sexual crimes are overwhelmingly significant, but that Washington Post poll found that Roy Moore’s alleged sexual conduct was not the biggest issue in Alabama. When they asked likely voters, “What’s the most important issue to you?,” 41 percent said “health care,” and only 26 percent said “moral conduct.” Fourteen percent said “abortion,” and nothing else really counted.
HR: I read that 40 percent figure as a plus for Doug Jones. It shows that there has been some public education on the health-care issue, simply because so many Alabamians, particularly rural Alabamians of both races, have to have Medicaid coverage for their families and for the elderly who they are responsible for taking care of. The previous governor, who has been driven out of office by scandal, Robert Bentley, was adamantly opposed to taking Medicaid funds from the federal government, funds that Alabama was actually entitled to. He said that was because he, as a physician, didn’t want to have any hand in government-funded health care. I think it plays into Jones’s emphasis on what he calls kitchen-table issues. He says, “Let’s not argue about history and old divisions, or even about party. Let’s look at what we need to do to help middle-class families economically and on health care,” and things like that.
JW: What about the 26 percent who say “moral conduct” is the most important issue for them?
HR: Roy Moore has been hurt—I think quite seriously—in the affluent white Republican suburbs of Birmingham, Mobile, Huntsville, among what is sometimes called the soccer-mom constituency. These are Republican housewives from prosperous families who have young children, and when you drive around their neighborhoods, the lawns are coated with Doug Jones signs. The other constituency that I discovered up in the hill country, and this is in a county that voted 90 percent for Donald Trump, where I detected some erosion for Roy Moore on the sexual-scandal issue among older churchwomen. This would be women, say, 50 and up and in many cases probably 65 and up. Erosion in those two female constituencies who normally vote Republican is a very serious problem for Roy Moore.
But 70 percent of the Roy Moore supporters say outright that they disbelieve the eight women who have said he pursued them sexually when they were in early to late adolescence and he was in his 30s. I think the white Republican Trump men of Alabama are in denial about these charges. In Arley, Alabama, the local coffee shop has a 12-seat table called “the Liar’s Table,” and the men of the community gather there every morning to argue politics and talk Alabama football and drink coffee. “Liar’s Table” is said humorously in that community. I talked to three men from that group, all strong supporters of Roy Moore. Two were aggressively pushing the line that these young women had been paid to lie—presumably by some sinister outside liberal force. One of the men said, “All this was 40 years ago, so what does it matter now?” Another added, “Back in those days, groping was okay.”
JW: So what’s going to happen on Tuesday?
HR: I think this is going to be a really important election historically. In virtually every important election since the 1840s, Alabama has chosen personalities who were bound to embarrass Alabama on the national stage. Alabamians are acutely aware of that, but there’s a defiant streak in Alabamians that says, “We don’t care what you think of us, we’re gonna do what we want to do.” If Doug Jones wins, this will be the first time Alabamians have chosen to avoid embarrassment with their vote.