Are Presidential Comparisons Odious?

by Bob Schwartz

Lydgate - Horse, Sheep and Goose
Comparisons are odious.

This phrase, roughly meaning that comparing people and situations can be unhelpful and counterproductive, is centuries old. It is variously attributed, but as good a source as any seems to be medieval British writer John Lydgate. It comes from his poem The Debate of the Horse, Goose, and Sheep (1436–37).

(For those concerned that this blog just makes stuff up, be assured that scholarly authorities have been consulted. Maura Nolan’s John Lydgate and the Making of Public Culture (2006) was not read in its 290-page entirety, but it was used. Consider this pertinent passage:

Lydgate’s debt to Gower in this passage is obvious; though he has clearly read both Isidore and Higden’s accounts (and possibly Bromyard’s as well), he takes from the Confessio Amantis the notion that the vagaries of Fortune constitute the lesson of the exemplum, a lesson he later directly applies to present-day rulers, ‘‘wise gouernours of euery londe and region’’ (65, lines 25–26). Note: Lydgate makes a similar point in ‘‘The Debate of the Horse, Goose, and Sheep,’’ dated 1436–37 by Pearsall ( John Lydgate (1371–1449), 51), telling his readers that ‘‘thees emperours . . . with ther victories & triumphes’’ (lines 638–39) are subject to Fortune and fall. The political message is explicit: ‘‘Beth war, ye pryncis, your suggettis to despise’’ (line 643). See MacCracken, ed., Minor Poems of John Lydgate, part 2, 539–66)

(Please feel free to show off to your friends and colleagues who wonder if your liberal arts degree, if you have one, is worth anything. Knowing that “In the fifteenth century Lydgate was the most famous poet in England, filling commissions for the court, the aristocracy, and the guilds. He wrote for an elite London readership that was historically very small, but that saw itself as dominating the cultural life of the nation” should impress them.)

About Presidents and odious comparisons: In the many crises of his presidency, including the most recent, President Obama has endured more comparisons than perhaps any other President. Just in the past few days, we have heard about Woodrow Wilson, George W. Bush, Lyndon B. Johnson, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter, John F. Kennedy, and in this very blog, Harry Truman.

Comparisons are natural for a few reasons. It is an office that has been held by a relatively small number of people over more than two centuries, and so how you do the job is defined as much by what others did as some sort of abstract definitions and expectations. There is also the flawed logic: the United States is the greatest country in the world, the President is the leader of the United States, therefore the President is the greatest leader in the world. At moments yes, but please check history, the sometimes impossibility of situations, and the nature of imperfection of all powerful humans. Finally, Obama is so unlikely, if not unlike any of his predecessors, that you almost want to jump to comparisons.

My best attempts to find out what the horse, sheep and goose were debating about six centuries ago, and what it has to do with comparisons, have come up empty. So I do have had to make this part up. If the debate was about which one is superior—whether a horse, sheep or goose is better—the answer is elusive and equivocal. This is in no way to cut the current President the slightest bit of slack, as readers of the blog already know. But the presidency is not a single job, even in more stable and simple times, which these are not. So compare away, but don’t let those comparisons obscure clear thinking and distract us with reveries (or lingering antipathies) about this leader or that. That would be odious, in a country and world with odium enough.