If you live in New Hampshire and you've seen Mitt Romney speak, you've probably heard him refer to Irving Stone's book Men to Match My Mountains. It's a book, Romney likes to explain, that his parents used to teach him American values as they reverently gallivanted around America's national parks, or some such thing.
Later in life, The Washington Post reports, Romney learned that Stone pulled the title of his book from the turn-of-the-century poem, "The Coming American," by Sam Walter Foss. As the story goes, a man Romney describes on the campaign trail as a "fellow" or "homeowner," told him about Foss's poem, and then proceeded to recite it by heart. Romney has since taken to reciting the lines himself while campaigning.
Bring me men to match my mountains,
Bring me men to match my plains.
Men with empires in their purpose,
And new eras in their brains.
Here is America (itself!) speaking grandly about the need for innovators and empire builders, and implying that great entrepreneurial feats are the metaphorical equivalent of those most impressive elements of American geography. It's a powerful piece of poetry -- a clarion call for the strong men of 1890s America (sorry, women -- you weren't included) to build a strong nation, and a fitting choice to inspire today's Americans to fight their way out of a recession.
But Romney 's little literary story isn't as pure as it seems. The Post reported that the poetry-reciting "homeowner" Romney refers to was actually -- and you can't make this stuff up -- Bill Koch, of the billionaire industrialist Koch brothers. This got me thinking: if I were a Koch brother, and wanted to justify, or even celebrate, my leviathan-like amassment of personal wealth and power, I couldn't think of a better poem to do it.
Along those lines, it's hard not to view Romney's use of the poem as a potent piece of propaganda (to use some of Foss's alliteration). It works to reframe one of Romney's perceived weaknesses -- that he's rich and out of touch with the average American -- as a strength; pushing the narrative that there's nothing wrong with being successful like I am! America is crying out for us to do so!
It might be easy to forget, hearing Romney read Foss's incantatory lines, but I think most Americans believe there is a marked difference between innovating and growing the American economy on the one hand, and amassing personal wealth and power, at times at the expense of others, on the other.
And it can be easy to forget, if you're following Romney's campaign, that there are more "American" qualities than just entrepreneurialism and ambition. Some, I would argue, that are far more "American." I'm no Koch brother, but if Romney is looking for a poem that really captures what this country is all about, he could, I don't know, try this one. But that wouldn't be on message, would it?