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.pa
Jon Wiener: We are trying to understand politics in Alabama, where the Republican Senate candidate, Roy Moore, is reported to have sexually molested a 14-year-old girl after luring her to his remote home in the Alabama hills. Another woman said Moore tried to rape her when she was 16 and he was district attorney in Gadsden, Alabama. That’s shocking enough for any senate candidate, especially one who’s running as an evangelical Christian. But the bigger shock is that the Republicans in the state, so far, anyway, are not rescinding their endorsements of him. All seven of Alabama’s Republican representatives in the House continue to support him. So Roy Moore remains the Republican candidate for the Senate from Alabama. Can you help us understand why?
Howell Raines: I covered my first George Wallace segregation rally in 1965, and I’ve been trying to figure out Alabama’s politics ever since. This has to be the most bizarre episode in my experience. It’s breaking out in a number of different ways. Alabama rank-and-file Republicans are in a state of shock. Fifty percent of the Republican voters in Alabama are self-identified evangelicals. They seem to be holding steady. But in the affluent suburbs around Birmingham and Mobile, there’s a kind of a soccer-mom backlash, where professionals and women are saying, “You know, this will not do.” But in those same suburbs, like the one I live in—Fairhope, Alabama—today I heard a dyed-in-the-wool Alabama Republican say he’s voting for Roy Moore, and going to put a Roy Moore sign in his yard.
On the official side, everyone seems frozen in place. There seems to be universal agreement that they’d like to have another candidate. I was at a luncheon today with about 20 Alabama businessmen, middle-aged and successful. At least four-fifths of them are Republicans. They’re almost embarrassed to talk about the race. There seems to be general support for the view that if they could get rid of him they would. What they would really like to see happen is for Kay Ivey, the Republican governor, to delay the election. She may have the statutory authority to do that. That would give the Republican Party a chance to put another nominee on the ticket—probably Luther Strange or Jeff Sessions. There’s a lot of sentiment here for Sessions to come back home. And it’s thought that he might actually be able to run a successful write-in campaign under Alabama law.
But what has got everyone stuck is that Roy Moore’s name will be on the ballot on December 12th, whatever happens. He can’t be removed from that ballot, and any votes that he gets will be counted. The nightmare scenario for Republicans is that Roy Moore gets his evangelical vote, or at least a substantial fraction of it. A write-in candidate like Sessions or Luther Strange gets a big chunk of the mainstream Republican vote. And that split among Republicans opens the door for Doug Jones, the very good Democratic candidate, to win that Senate seat. If that happens, it will be the most revolutionary election in Alabama during my lifetime.
JW: In a wonderful opinion piece in The New York Times, you wrote about “Alabama Embarrassment Syndrome.” What is Roy Moore’s place in this history?
HR: He’s probably the most extreme public personality we’ve had, certainly since George Wallace or Big Jim Folsom. But both of them were paradigms of political sanity compared to Roy Moore. When he got elected to the state Supreme Court, he installed a 5,000-pound boulder in the lobby of the Supreme Court building in Montgomery with the 10 Commandments engraved in it. Even the Alabama courts ruled that this was an unconstitutional intrusion into the judicial process, and he actually gave up his seat on the Supreme Court rather than bow to the court order to remove his boulder. That has made him a kind of folk hero in Alabama, of the sort that we haven’t seen since Wallace, probably. The thing that’s very hard for people outside Alabama to understand is the value that Alabama voters have placed since before the Civil War on a kind of romanticized defiance. There’s a knee-jerk, self-parodying, and self-destructive populism here that says, “We’re gonna show ourselves in the worst possible light, and we don’t give a damn what you think of it.”
JW: Recently you went to see Doug Jones, the Democratic nominee, in Daphne, Alabama, at the Macedonia Missionary Baptist Church. What was that like?
HR: It took me back to the ’60s. It was an integrated audience of liberal Democrats and black Christians. It’s important to realize that in the last presidential election Hillary Clinton got 750,000 votes in Alabama. That’s a lot of people here who are not buying into the general madness. Doug Jones is a legitimate hero, in my estimation. He and I grew up in neighborhoods that were side by side under the shadow of the steel mills in Birmingham. He’s 10 years younger than I am. He put two of the four Klansmen in prison, for life—the ones who killed the four little girls at 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham in 1963. And this was at a time when the FBI, the Justice Department, all the Alabama authorities had given up on ever catching these guys. They were known, but were walking around as free men because, for various technical reasons, they weren’t prosecuted.
Today Doug Jones has a really interesting way of speaking to white people in Alabama in terms that they don’t find threatening. And yet, he’s very explicit about being a four-square supporter of civil rights and of a woman’s right to choose. This is the most vigorous Democratic campaign that’s been waged in Alabama in at least 30 years.
JW: On Tuesday, December 12th, we have an election contest in Alabama between this heroic prosecutor of Klan bombers, and a former judge who stands accused of sexually abusing a 14-year-old girl and trying to rape a 16-year-old girl, when he was district attorney. Who do you think will win?
HR: I think Doug Jones has a legitimate chance of winning. That said, here’s the fact of Alabama as it has existed since the Goldwater campaign of ’64 and especially since the Reagan campaign of 1980: There are white Republicans in this state who simply would never vote for a Democrat, no matter what. The best-case scenario for Doug Jones, which could make him the winner, is that they will stay home rather than vote for this despicable character. Doug Jones has to have two things: He has to have a strong black vote, and he has to have a strong vote of white, suburban, cross-over Republicans.
I still live in the New York area, I’m up there in the summers, and the moment that Roy Moore got the nomination in September to run as the Republican senatorial candidate, before any of this sexual scandal broke, I told my wife, “We’ve got to go back to Alabama immediately. I have to be there for this election.” For me, it’s a deep immersion in the Alabamaness of Alabama. If Doug Jones is successful, it is finally a new day in Alabama. If Roy Moore wins, then it means that we’re still mired in the same old swamp. And believe me, the swamps in Alabama are a lot stickier than the ones Trump rages about in Washington.