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.