Will: Alabama rolls toward a high-stakes skirmish
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – But for the bomb, the four would be in their 60s, probably grandmothers. Three were 14 and one was 11 in 1963 when the blast killed them in the 16th Street Baptist Church, which is four blocks from the law office of Doug Jones, who then was 9.
He was born in May 1954, 13 days before the U.S. Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education school desegregation decision. He was 16 when he attended, at this city's Legion Field, the Alabama Crimson Tide vs. University of Southern California Trojans football game, in which USC's Sam Cunningham, an African-American all-American, led a 42-21 thumping of the home team, thereby (so goes the much-embellished but true-enough story) advancing the integration of the region through its cultural pulse, college football. Roll Tide.
As a second-year law student Jones cut classes to attend the 1977 trial of one of the church bombers, "Dynamite Bob" Chambliss. In 2001 and 2002, as U.S. attorney, Jones successfully prosecuted two other bombers. Was there resentment about this protracted pursuit of justice? No, he says as he nurses with tea a voice raspy from campaigning, because after 9/11 intervened, punishing domestic terrorism was not controversial. Today, this son of a steelworker stands between Roy Moore – an Elmer Gantry mixing piety and cupidity: he and his family have done well financially running a foundation – and the U.S. Senate seat vacated by Jeff Sessions.
Moore campaigns almost entirely about social issues – NFL protests, the transgender menace – and the wild liberalism of Jones, a law-and-order prosecutor and deer and turkey hunter who says he has "a safe full of guns." Jones' grandfathers were members of the mineworkers and steelworkers unions: Birmingham, surrounded by coal and iron ore, was Pittsburgh – a steel city – almost before Pittsburgh was. He hopes economic and health care issues matter more.
Evangelical Christians who embrace Moore are serving the public good by making ridiculous their pose as uniquely moral Americans, and by revealing their leaders to be especially grotesque specimens of the vanity – vanity about virtue – that is curdling politics.
Another public benefit from the Moore spectacle is the embarrassment of national Republicans. Their party having made the star of the "Access Hollywood" tape president, they now are horrified that Moore might become 1 percent of the Senate. Actually, this scofflaw, twice removed from Alabama's Supreme Court, once for disobeying a U.S. Supreme Court ruling, is a suitable sidekick for the president who pardoned Joe Arpaio, Arizona's criminal former sheriff. Even after Donald Trump conceded that Barack Obama was born in America, Moore continued rejecting such squishiness.
Absentee ballots are already being cast. Assuming that the Republican governor does not shred state law by preventing the election from occurring Dec. 12, Republicans' Senate majority might soon be gone. It has been 21 years since a Democratic Senate candidate won even 40 percent of Alabama's vote. It has, however, been even longer – not since the George Wallace era – that the state's identity has been hostage to a politician who assumes that Alabamans are eager to live down to hostile caricatures of them.
Nothing about Moore's political, financial or glandular history will shake his base, unless the credible accusations of serial pursuit of underage girls are suddenly overshadowed by something his voters consider serious, such as taking sides in the Alabama-Auburn game. Jones' hopes rest with traditional white Democrats (scarce), Republicans capable of chagrin (scarcer), and African-Americans. They are 27 percent of this state in which "civil rights tourism" (the 16th Street church, Selma's Edmund Pettus Bridge, Martin Luther King's Montgomery church, and more) is economically important.
This month, Virginia's African-Americans turned out for Gov.-elect Ralph Northam, a Democrat who, like Jones, invited voters to take a walk on the mild side. Approximately a quarter of Alabamans live in the metropolitan area of Birmingham, which has had an African-American mayor since 1979. National Democrats are helping Jones, but delicately. They rashly treated a Georgia special congressional election as a referendum on the president, and want to avoid that mistake in a state Donald Trump carried by 28 points.
Turnout to the August Republican primary and the September runoff was about 18 and 14 percent, respectively. Next month's election will occur during many distractions, midway between Thanksgiving and Christmas and, more important, 10 days after Armageddon – the SEC championship game. Perhaps an Alabama victory would make the state hanker for a senator worthy of its football team. If so: Roll Tide.