Op-Ed Contributor: Roy Moore’s Alabama (NYT)

Op-Ed Contributor: Roy Moore’s Alabama

http://nyti.ms/2BPFut6

I have closely studied Winston County history and have long been proud of my ancestral ties. I wanted to explore whether traditional Republicanism could fully explain how the Old South’s most independent thinkers became Trump zombies willing now to send a plausibly accused pedophile to the Senate rather than a Democrat.

This political contest has blasted away middle ground that once existed here in Arley.

In my memory, the symbol of that vanished comity was the hickory tree in the yard of my grandfather Robert Cyle Walker, a Republican justice of the peace whose farm is now a well-groomed city park.

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Robert Cyle Walker and Martha Loudella Fell Walker on their wedding day.

Not long before he died, Carl Elliott of Jasper, a liberal Democratic congressman who earned the first John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award in 1990, told me about being guest of honor at “watermelon cuttings” in the shade of my grandfather’s hickory tree at election time. It was the way that “Judge” Walker let village Republicans who looked to him as a local political sage know that Mr. Elliott was one Democrat they could support without offending their — and my — Unionist ancestors.

The hickory tree, which stood hard by the unpaved road at the northeast corner of my grandparents’ front yard, is gone. So is the bipartisan flexibility it symbolized in the alliance of an anti-Wallace Democrat like Mr. Elliott and my grandfather, a conservative populist Republican. Like much of Appalachia, Winston County had very few slaves, and black people now account for less than 1 percent of the residents. A visiting Canadian journalist wrote recently that folks here are tight-lipped around outside reporters. The Walker graves in the Baptist cemetery give me dirt-road cred, but I didn’t push too hard. These people fear being depicted as “total rednecks” and argue urgently that they do not fit the stereotype. Neat brick bungalows have replaced ramshackle farmhouses. The community center conducts weekly yoga and aerobics classes, and the literary society convenes once a month.

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A propane business marks the land where the author’s mother’s house once stood.

Credit
William Widmer for The New York Times

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The Walker family headstone at Meek Cemetery in Arley.

Credit
William Widmer for The New York Times

But if you scratch this hard North Alabama soil, you’ll find Native American arrowheads and a secret dissent, like the patriotism that led rampaging Confederate guerrillas to loot the farms of Winston men who joined the Union Army. Lost Cause historians at the University of Alabama watered down the radical nature of Winston’s devotion to the Union. A misleading statue in Double Springs, showing a soldier in a uniform that is half Union and half Confederate, disguises the fact that Winston provided more troops to the Union Army than to the Confederate. Records in the National Archives show that my great-great grandfather, Hial Abbott, who farmed near here, was a key figure in a local underground that sneaked mountain boys through the Confederate lines to enlist for the North.

In Arley, women are the rebels in the current election. “All those women who are coming forward, they’re not making it up,” a female civic leader told me over coffee within sight of the “liars’ table.” This gender division exists in the household of Mavinee and Odis Bishop. Mrs. Bishop greeted me at the door saying, “Your grandfather married us 72 years ago when my husband was home from the war.” Mr. Bishop, a veteran of the Battle of the Bulge, said he had drifted over to the Democrats when Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal paid him and his jobless friends to work on the kind of infrastructure projects promised by candidate Trump. But he sees modern Democrats as detached from common folk. He’ll vote for Mr. Moore and intends to “sway” his wife from her plan to support Mr. Jones.

“No, he won’t,” Mrs. Bishop said in that firm Free State way as she stepped in from the kitchen.

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Odis and Mavinee Bishop, of Arley, in their front yard. They say they will vote for different candidates this week.

Credit
William Widmer for The New York Times

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Cows grazing near a highway in Winston County.

Credit
William Widmer for The New York Times

There in a nutshell are the swing factors that will determine this election. Upper-income suburbs in the state’s major cities are covered with Doug Jones signs, foreshadowing a powerful Republican soccer-mom rejection of Mr. Moore’s purported predation. Older Republican women whisper about lobbying their female friends to do the unthinkable and vote for the Democrat.

But since the racial revolution of the 1960s, Alabama has been a state in which officeholders and most community leaders avoid taking a stand on issues with ethical implications. No important Republican officials have followed the lead of the state’s dignified, ultraconservative senior senator, Richard Shelby, who said outright that he cannot vote for Mr. Moore. There’s not another white Alabama Republican in Congress with the gumption to defy President Trump’s endorsement or even protest when Steve Bannon scorched their party in an incendiary speech here last Tuesday.

The White House and the Republican National Committee hope such visitations will shore up the shaky Moore effort in Mobile and Alabama’s southern tier. Mr. Moore didn’t help himself on the Gulf Coast by holding a rally recently where the music was led by an evangelical preacher who had been found guilty of trying to obstruct an investigation into allegations that his son molested children in Honduras.

The other swing factor, of course, is race. Mr. Jones, a former federal prosecutor, needs a strong black turnout in Birmingham and the Black Belt to go along with disaffected Republicans who are now putting up a fresh batch of “G.O.P. for Jones” signs in their yards.

Alabama, as the only ex-Confederate state never to elect a modern senator or governor who was both progressive and never imprisoned, has seen more bizarre campaigns than any other state. Alabama’s much-ridiculed preference for officials regarded as unfit by the rest of the nation is embedded in tradition, but Mr. Trump’s success argues that this is now a national tic. He won with the tools that have cast spells on Alabama voters for two centuries: race, religion, hysterical oratory, intimidation of critics and economic three-card monte dealt by big-business hand jivers.

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Fog settling onto County Highway 25 in Winston County, Ala.

Credit
William Widmer for The New York Times

In a sense we are all Alabamians now, wincing when sophisticates abroad satirize our willingness to be beguiled by abnormality. Electing Mr. Jones, who is admired nationally for prosecuting racial crimes, would be a cultural watershed for Alabama voters and a sign that the Trump base will fracture with unexpected ease. Deep in their bones, Alabamians know that if Roy Moore goes to Washington, the wardrobe department at “Saturday Night Live” will surely accommodate them by finding a cowboy vest, a tiny pistol and a Girl Scout dress, and they’re prepared to feel very put upon.

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December 10, 2017 at 05:12AM

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