Where politics and faith dance in the shadow of the windmill.

The Memory Landscape of Willard Romney

It was one of those awkward moments, made all the more so by its very earnestness: Mitt  Romney spoke of his love for Michigan. Before the campaign leaves the State, perhaps its time to unpack his love, and why it fell so short.

For the record, here’s part of what he said:

“A little history — I was born and raised here. I love the state. It seems right here. Trees are the right height.

“I like — I like seeing the lakes. I love the lakes. Something very special here. The Great Lakes but also all the little inland lakes that dot the parts of Michigan.

The words are made even the more awkward by a peculiar little hand twitter on “inland lakes,” but rather than dwell on the failure, a better question is to ask, what was he trying to communicate in the first place? What did he hope to connect to? Even the bad — especially the bad or disastrous communications come packed with intention. Disasters are rarely accidental.

So let’s  scrape away the phrasing. Underneath, this is a landscape those in Michigan recognize: the country dirt roads shadowed in summer; the way the big trees hug the state highway, the mix of sumac, elms, and chestnuts at the hedgerow; the dark rhythm of old oaks etched with new snow; the last blaze of yellow on a football Saturday.  These are not the trees of our North, but those nearby, near our towns, nestled by the lakes left by glacier with names like Gun, Chippewa, Big Star, and Murray, Silver, Crooked, and Whitmore. While commentators look at our Great Lakes as the dearly loved, it is this other, inland landscape that’s interesting.

These are the kettle lakes, the leftovers from the great glaciers, folded in by the gently rolling landscape of moraines and modest hills.  We do not have escarpments or towering heights. We lack the great defining rivers. Nor is ours the fertile prairie landscape of Indiana or Ohio. These are the lakes close to home, the Saturday destination in a landscape before interstates. Their shorelines often partially undeveloped, dotted with little resorts of small cabins that offered working men and women (and executives) a place to go on the weekend, a refuge.

Romney is on to something, his words point not to the present, but to that earlier time, when he was the teen, when this landscape was not yet consumed by development. It is, as his reference to cars indicates, the landscape of Mitt’s remembered youth.

Mitt’s earnest awkwardness arises then, with his memory. The repeating, the turning back to his themes — this is the language of emotion that does not have the words; the words that seem so inadequate to convey the lost time and its rich associations.

But if memory betrays him, there is another rhetorical betrayal tucked into his words.

These trees are, he says, “the right height.” A puzzlement to many.

The weight of “right” packs the message. These are trees appropriately scaled to the human, the trees of small towns, old neighborhoods and of course the beaches. This is not the right of some absolute measure or norm, nor is it the right of comparison suggesting that some tree or shrub is somehow wrong.

This is the right of being fit, fit for human habitation.

One can see why Romney and his writers chose this word, too. The “right sized  trees” are proportioned, modest — like the conservative vision of government, perhaps.

This is a word, an idea that is profoundly a part of the mid-century Midwest culture. There is little room for airs, a world that prizes practicality and humane, settled values, a world marked by its network of small towns and distributed manufacturing. If its social world is conservative, its politics are of a different order, one more modest, too.

This is the landscape that nourished moderation of a George Romney, a William Milliken, on his better days of a Gerald Ford, and even of Peter Hoekstra in his first run.

A right that is appropriately scaled stands at a distance from the radicalism of the present age. Its modesty has always stood at suspicious distance from that of great wealth. In contrast to today, the appropriately scaled, this “tree of the right height” is not only the sign of conservative settled values (and it is), it is also profoundly egalitarian.

The modesty of the right height stands in tension with the immodest claims of cultural warriors or celebrants of wealth. As such it creates the tension with Romney himself; judging, betraying him by his own words.


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