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Trying to recapture a little of the glory

I’m just going to go ahead and tell this story, because there’s news about him, and it’s a blog. You know? I feel awkward about telling it, though, for reasons that will become clear shortly.

The year was 1991. The American Parliamentary Debate Association was going through the tail of a phase in which humor and improvisational technique was highly rewarded. In addition, we whiled away the time between rounds (whilst those who ran the tournament hand-tallied the results and chose pairings) by holding a competition in Public Speaking, which was neither more nor less than improvised stand-up comedy. There was a phase, somewhat later, when the ability to prepare cases (and respond to prepared cases), a wide knowledge base and logical clarity were the more valuable skills. And several phases, back and forth, I’m sure, over the years since then. At the time, though, we argued silly cases with utmost gravity, and serious cases with outrageous silliness, and deep philosophical cases with pop culture references, and debated pop culture itself, with both utmost gravity and outrageous silliness.

For those unfamiliar with APDA, teams are given a general resolution, and then the offense (or government) team has ten minutes to make a case from that resolution. The resolution could be something like Let your yea be yea and your nay, nay, and the case could be, oh, the US should withdraw from the UN. Or that steeplechase racing should be banned. There is (or was, at the time) a great deal of leeway. The more competitive, then, can come up with cases beforehand and adapt them to whatever resolutions they find. The Princeton team, particularly, was known for having a file of cases that they had already run in practice rounds several times. My alma mater, on the other hand, was known for coming up with a case in the ten minutes between the announcement of the resolution and the commencement of the round. Often terrible cases, but fresh ones. Instead of using our practice time to polish up cases to run in competition, we used that time running even more terrible cases that we knew we couldn’t possibly have run in competition. Often whilst balanced on a Bongo Board. We did share a few ideas (Draft the elderly! Eschew time travel! Abolish the penny! Shoot Orin Scrivello!) but we prided ourselves on never running a case more than once. My partner and I had to come up with the actual details of the case, the presentation of it, the analysis, all in ten minutes. That was what made it fun.

That is also, quite likely, why I didn’t win as many rounds as the Princeton folk. There’s nothing more depressing and embarrassing than reliving the sole time in my life that I achieved real (if small-scale) public success, like Bruce Springsteen’s speedballer, but they really were my Glory Days. I was never at the very top of the rankings, no, and I never won a tournament—or even made finals—or semi-finals—until my last tournament, but I took home a gavel nearly every weekend of 1990-1991. I was someone to be reckoned with. Those who drew my team would know that they would be arguing a new case, and a wide-open case, but possibly a bizarre and disorienting case. Particularly in that final year when I became enamored of the six-things-in-a-box style case, the canonical example of which is that you, the judge (or speaker) were given a choice of six objects to be stranded on a desert island with (a knife, a cookbook, a solar-powered radio, a sewing kit, a guitar or the Riverside Chaucer), our case being that you should choose—well, whichever one we picked to run on, and the opposition should pick a different one.

OK, one more bit of truly pathetic Glory-Days-ing: I did have one case prepared, and almost got to use it. It was a variation on the six-things-in-a-box case that I was becoming known for, setting the time-space parameters such that we would suppose the tournament had chosen to hold that round in a hot-air balloon high above the earth. Sadly, as the round begins, we discover that the balloon is leaking, and even after releasing the ballast, we will need to toss one of the five persons (the speaker and the four competitors) plunging to a hideous doom to save the lives of the remaining four. The case would propose that the leader of the opposition team should be sacrificed, with three independent levels of analysis. I swear I would have run that case had we lost the coin toss before the final round of Nationals, but instead Princeton ran that the US should intervene militarily to support the Kurds in Northern Iraq against Saddam Hussein. Ah, well.

We’re getting to the story I wanted to tell now. I promise.

Sometime in that Spring of 1991, I was in the finals of the Public Speaking competition for the tournament, and decided to break into song, as I did from time to time. These competitions, by the way, while technically extemporaneous, also provided the opportunity to work in prepared material. We had a couple of people who did stand-up gigs and could do a few minutes from that. I wasn’t disciplined enough to work out much material in advance, but I did some filking, the way you do, and had written a couple of verses of “You’re the Top” with various inside-APDA references, and was waiting for a chance to use it. I don’t remember exactly where I was when I did—I’m inclined to say Yale, which was late in the year, and a big tournament, and I seem to remember it was a big tournament late in the year. But it was more than twenty years ago, and frankly this whole story, like all stories of glorydays, should be assumed to be half true, half faulty memory, and half embellishment to make it a better story. And it’s a better story at Yale, I have to say, because the fellow this story is about won first speaker at Yale according to a website that is also half true, half memory and half embellishment.

See, this fellow I’m talking about was a tremendous competitor, a Princeton man (with all that entails), and in some ways the typical example of the Princeton debater. He was very smooth, very knowledgeable, and very practiced. He wanted to win, and although I must say he played fair (if I remember correctly, he used to say he would just as happily argue the other side of any case he ran, and sometimes ran the other side in another round later in the day) rounds with him were less light-hearted and fun than they might have been. And, probably simply by coincidence, I used to win rounds against him regularly. His case or mine, whoever I was partnered with (he and Dave Panton were partners all that year and the next; I never settled to a partner), even rounds my team ought to have lost turned out our way.

Which is why I ended the first verse with the line: I’m bound to lose/I’m Panton and Cruz/I’m slop/But if baby I’m the bottom, you’re the top!

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


Given his trajectory--from respectable APDA debater to being endorsed by Sarah Palin--it's pretty clear that wanting to win too much isn't good for you.

Awesome anecdote, btw!

I skimmed that "half true" link, and noticed not only Ted Cruz's name, but also Austan Goolsbee's.
Never before have I been such a believer in the statement that those folks you pal- and play around with in college include some of the Leaders of Tomorrow...

My "oh-that-reminds-me" post became a bit of a downer. I put it up over at my much-neglected blog.

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