Alex Massie Alex Massie

Debating Larry Summers

Terrifying news. Terrifying that is for anyone reared in the free-wheeling yet genial and sensible world of British parliamentary style debate. It turns out that Larry Summers, erstwhile Saviour of the Universe, was a policy debater while he was an undergraduate. Noam Scheiber reveals all in his informative profile of Mr Summers:

Personality aside, Summers has long been associated with a certain tactical and strategic brashness. “I’m somebody who wants their errors to be of trying to do too much rather than trying to do too little,” he told Portfolio magazine last September. One early outlet for this instinct was the college debate circuit, which Summers joined while an undergrad at MIT. Policy debate was a labor-intensive activity. The best college programs–Georgetown, Northwestern, Harvard–had professional coaches and up to two dozen debaters. The teams would spend hundreds of man-hours in the library each week researching proposals they would defend in tournaments. (The national-championship-winning proposal in 1974: a cap-and-trade program for limiting sulfur-dioxide emissions.) MIT was, by comparison, a relatively small program with only intermittent coaching. Unlike their rivals at other schools, who could take less demanding classes, the students’ course loads often limited their prep time. Nonetheless, Summers was able to make himself into a top-flight debater.

Summers was known in debate circles for two qualities. The first was his unusual pace. Elite debaters in those days spoke at dizzying speeds so as to cram as many arguments and data points as possible into their allotted time. To the untrained ear, a matchup between top debaters would be an incomprehensible hum of varying pitches. But Summers spoke about 25 percent slower than most of his rivals. “He was not a speed king,” says Tom Rollins, a friend and debate contemporary.

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