I Think About This a Lot is a series dedicated to private memes: images, videos, and other random trivia we are doomed to play forever on loop in our minds.
Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign feels almost quaint in light of everything that’s happened since, but he was a remarkably inept candidate. This is a man who once installed a windshield on a dog crate so that he could make the family’s Irish setter ride on top of their Chevy for the entirety of a 650-mile drive to Canada. He actually said, “I like being able to fire people,” and, struggling to relate to blue-collar workers, he told a Detroit audience, “I drive a Mustang and a Chevy pick-up truck. Ann drives a couple of Cadillacs, actually. And I used to have a Dodge truck.” Compared to the meticulously composed Barack Obama, Romney was lampoonishly gaffe-prone in an era when people thought Republican voters cared about gaffes. Remember “binders full of women”?
Pundits made a cottage industry out of pouncing on “Romneyisms,” but there was one coinage for which he deserves some credit. Seemingly whenever he was in Michigan, his place of birth, he would tell the crowd that the state is where “the trees are the right height.” Bloggers were baffled. “Mitt Romney Won’t Stop Talking About Michigan Trees” “What’s the Deal With Mitt Romney and Michigan Trees?” “Just Why Does Mitt Romney Love Michigan’s Trees?” “Michigan Tree Experts Stumped by Romney Claims.” Romney’s campaign was full of phony appeals to the Everyman voter, and this unusual observation was seen as yet another wooden attempt to appear human. For me, though, that line is pure poetry.
Romney’s remark is more like one of Seidel’s quasi-simple NYC odes than an Ashberry abstraction, but I can understand how “the trees are the right height” could puzzle journalists expecting a stump speech. But with context clues and a bit of reader generosity, the impressionist profundity of the statement becomes clear. A lot of politicians have delivered more important speeches, but Romney’s was the first to sound like something out of a book I’d want to read.
A poem can do many things — protest, evoke a mood, tell a story, etc. — but one of the most poignant is to make the reader consider the mundane anew. When Romney says that Michigan is where “the trees are the right height,” he’s describing the landscape of his childhood. In one more explicit version, he goes on to add, “The grass is the right color for this time of year, kind of a brownish-greenish sort of thing. It just feels right.” Foliage is not math; there is not a correct answer for “How brownish-green should the grass be this time of year?” The impossibility of such a thing is what gives his line its power. What Romney is doing — perhaps more colorfully than he intended — is emphasizing the imprint left by childhood. Our idea of how the world should be is deeply connected to how the world was when we were young. The things so constant that they become ambient backdrops end up shaping our adult life. I think this is kind of the point of Proust and The Godfather, but somehow Mitt Romney is the one who taught me this lesson.
My dad was a landscaper when I was growing up, which, if anything, made me pay attention to plants slightly less than most people did. I remember being antsy to the point of tears waiting in his truck all the times he had to check out a job site on the way home from wherever. I was mostly concerned with skateboarding, forever on the lookout for decidedly unnatural constructs like curb cuts and wax-stained ledges, the Kilroy-like indication that a fellow traveler had been there. The only time I noticed trees was when their sheddings made the ground impassable.
That all changed when I heard Romney’s words. Now I can’t stop thinking about the landscape of my childhood.
I mean this in a very literal sense. I’m from suburban San Diego, so it’s eucalyptus and manzanita, palm trees and iceplant, surrounding incongruous lawns. In the decade I’ve lived in New York, environmental changes — drought especially, and longer, hotter summers — have challenged Southern California’s greenery. Many of the plants that dominate the region are nonnative species. Think of iceplant, a succulent from South Africa, as a sort of California kudzu. Endless swaths of it were planted along hillsides and highways as a ground cover during the state’s 20th-century growth spurt, before invasive species were a topic of concern. Its roots strangle and suffocate other plants and, ironically, facilitate erosion.
Today there is a movement to remove iceplant, just as water-intensive grasses are being replaced by rock gardens and fescues. Eucalyptus and palms have been hit by invasive beetles, but cactus is bigger than I remember. Every time I visit my parents, I’m struck by how Southern California increasingly resembles the desert it always was.
Mitt Romney seems like someone who’s learned you can’t go home again. Rather, in 2018, he became a Utah resident and ran for the U.S. Senate, easily winning the seat formerly held by retiring Republican Orrin Hatch. Once a devoid of charisma, Romney has become a sort of elder statesman of conservatism — a voice of reason crying crocodile tears over Donald Trump’s “public character” while supporting the majority of his policies. It’s a role that’s earned him praise from the center-right Establishment, but I don’t buy it. In my mind, he’ll always be the bumbling campaigner of 2012, the man who wouldn’t stop talking about the trees.