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 has 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: A lot of people everywhere are now saying, “Thank you, Alabama!”
Howell Raines: It took us years to throw off the dead hand of George Wallace. It feels good to me—a native son who has criticized the state, but always loved her—to see national gratitude raining down on Alabama.
JW: How much credit do you give Doug Jones for winning, as opposed to Roy Moore losing because he was such a terrible candidate?
HR: I don’t think Doug Jones could have won without having run an almost perfect campaign. I don’t think Doug Jones could have won without being the kind of Alabamian that Alabama voters are comfortable with. He’s the son of industrial Birmingham. He’s a Klan prosecutor. He’s a man of firm principle, but he has the humility and cultural finesse that is required of a progressive candidate to succeed in Alabama. In some degree, Doug Jones is the man we’ve been waiting for. I hope this is the doorway to a long future for him.
JW: The exit polls show that the white evangelicals voted for Roy Moore, whites without college degrees voted for him, rural whites voted for him. The Republican Party stuck with Roy Moore, despite his being the worst candidate in memory.
HR: They were conflicted. The Alabama Republican Party is like the National Republican Party: It’s torn by class conflict, between blue-collar Republicans and blue-blood Republicans. The massive white vote for Roy Moore was the old Wallace-bloc vote, rural people, blue-collar folk, traditional anti-corporate populists, and, most importantly, people with a deeply ingrained cultural conservatism, a deep commitment to religion, and a deep reflexive racism. The people at Roy Moore rallies made me feel sad, because these are the Alabamians who have been repeatedly misled for generations on the race issue. They exist with very poor jobs and poor medical care, and yet they can’t make the connection between their state in life and the bad people they put in office.
On the other side, you had the Alabama that’s struggling to be born. It is more diverse, one-quarter black, an increasing number of Asian-Americans, many of them working in the sciences in Birmingham, a growing Hispanic population, and a demographically changed white upper middle class. That’s the key. The suburbs of Birmingham, Montgomery, Mobile, and Huntsville put Doug Jones in office. These are people, despite Alabama’s rustic image, who are highly educated. Many of them work in the sciences or in technical fields. They have the same cultural profile as their counterparts nationally, probably on everything except religion. That was the swing factor. Those suburban Republicans, particularly young, married women with families, read Roy Moore correctly. The women defecting from the Republican party that many of their husbands voted for, are the reason Doug Jones won.
Plus, that massive black vote, which was especially inspiring to me as a student of the civil-rights movement. That’s the voting power that changed the South in the ’60s, and created biracial legislatures and installed black mayors in Birmingham. Even in the Obama surge, we haven’t seen anything this powerful in Alabama. That is a real tribute to Doug Jones and to the national Democrats, like Corey Booker and John Lewis, who came down here and campaigned effectively, without scaring the white folks off.
JW: Let’s talk about Trump, who endorsed Roy Moore. He carried the state by 28 points just a year ago, but the Alabama exit polls on Tuesday showed that Trump’s job rating is now 48 percent approval and 48 percent disapproval. Trump has lost a lot of support in Alabama.
HR: Journalists worry about “missing the lead.” In the Alabama election, the lead maybe should be the shrinking and fracturing of the renowned Trump base. It was as strong here as anywhere in the country. That 48 percent approval rating on Tuesday is really remarkable.
JW: The campaign that Doug Jones ran didn’t focus on the allegations of sex offenses by Roy Moore. He ran a campaign where health care was the number-one issue, the thing that Alabama actually needs. Did Roy Moore talk about health care—or education, or infrastructure?
HR: No, just about Jesus, and God. I attended his last rally, with Steve Bannon on election evening. I had to drive a couple hundred miles to get there, but I’m really glad I saw it, because I think I saw the end of something.
JW: How did Bannon go over with the core Roy Moore supporters?
HR: That is, again, one of the unexpected features of this election. I think he hurt Moore. He gets up among these relatively small crowds that Moore was drawing, and looks down on these 200 people, modestly dressed, and works the room like a standup comic among the rubes. He boasts about getting into Georgetown and Harvard, when Joe Scarborough, who attended University of Alabama, had to settle for going to school in Tuscaloosa, because he couldn’t pass the Ivy League entrance exams. Bannon radiated a kind of condescension.
The other thing that’s very striking is Senator Richard Shelby’s announcement that he couldn’t vote for Roy Moore. [He’s Alabama’s senior Republican senator.] That is very unusual. Republican members of Congress in Alabama never speak out on political issues that have an ethical component. What that said to the average Alabamian didn’t need to be spelled out by Shelby. His implicit message was that the sophisticated business leadership of Alabama, as represented by the Mercedes and Honda and Airbus plants, want you to send this guy away. I think that was like driving the silver spike into Dracula’s heart.
JW: There was one statistic in the exit polls that bothered me: Although 57 percent of women supported Doug Jones, 63 percent of white women voted for Roy Moore, despite the numerous women who charged him with sex crimes and sexual harassment. Who are these white women?
HR: The facile answer is that these are the same white women who voted for Trump rather than Hillary Clinton. There are mystifying events in politics, and that is a tremendous one. Still, you’re looking at 60 odd percent, rather than 80 percent of white female support for Roy Moore; that is progress. There’s a feminist energy out there. These are suburban women, and older women in the churches, who are basically defying their husbands’ political wishes.