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The Poison Ivy League Part 12: Agrippina Versus Livia

May 3, 2011

The 2002-2003 TOTY race had heated up by Christmas time. Yale A lost the final round of Fordham by a single vote to Yale B, which must have brought rivalries on that team to a boiling point. To Yale’s credit, however, Kimel remembered seeing Tiberius, Livia, Germanicus, and Atticus helping each other to prepare for out-rounds, or more accurately, hearing Livia say that this was so. The Fordham tournament was a low point of the season for Kimel. He performed badly and literally had to sleep on a floor in an off-campus residence. Sulla A and Sulla B were partnered together at went 4-1, winning four in-rounds out of five. They might have made it to out-rounds, had they not spoken a 241/26 between them. Compare this score to Yale A’s 259/15. It was so unusually low that they themselves would often joke about their experience at the tournament in the years to come. It’s interesting that Sulla B’s first impression of Sulla A and Kimel as prospective partners were bound to such difference experiences of success during in-rounds.

The MIT tournament has always been a favorite for Harvard debaters. It is traditionally one of the largest competitions of the year, and the proximity of the campus usually ensures a large field of home-grown participants. It was also, you might remember, traditionally the first tournament at which novices from Harvard were allowed to compete, though Scipio quietly abolished this rule. Kimel’s partner was Rufus, who irritated him when he said that he was voting for Sulla A for President.

The only team from Harvard to break to out-rounds were Agrippina and Claudia. Kimel formed an enthusiastic cheering section for them as they progressed from quarter-finals to finals. Agrippina gave a particularly sound thrashing to Stanford A in semi-finals, an ambitious duo who could never quite make it to the final round of a tournament of any size. Stanford ran the case that the sales tax should be abolished because it is regressive and inherently affects the poor more than the rich. There literally wasn’t much more to the reasoning of the case. In addition to other arguments, Agrippina brought up the fact that many developing countries rely on sales taxes generated from the pockets of tourists, which was an original angle to the case to which the other team had no response.

Claudia was a strong, confident speaker whose self-assurance could be intimidating to other teams. Cato from Cornell joked that to hear her speaking made you feel like you were being sentenced to death by a hanging judge. Her accent was no impediment to the delivery of punches. She is without question the strongest debater Kimel ever saw to speak without a British or North American accent.

As for Agrippina, if she had taken the activity more seriously, she might have become one of the most successful debaters on the circuit. A comparison with Livia would be instructive, which is no small compliment to Agrippina, since Livia was in many people’s opinion the best technical debater of her senior class, male or female. Nonetheless, she spoke in a high-pitched voice that could even be unpleasant to hear unless you were used to it. Agrippina’s voice by contrast was crystal clear and more carefully controlled in tone. Livia would concoct many quick, strong arguments in her speeches to bombard her opponents and hinder them from addressing all of them. Agrippina’s points were fewer, but more quietly observant and accessibly presented. Accessible is the key word—she once broke out into peals of laugher in a round where she had to answer the argument “you can’t give a pony to the pope” (God only knows how that came up in a round) and even coaxed the judge and the other team into laughing along with her. It’s hard to imagine Livia doing that. Agrippina’s beauty would also have been no impediment to success, which sounds like a sexist argument, but is nonetheless true on a circuit composed primarily of undersexed men, or at least ones who don’t mind sacrificing their weekends to the gods of rhetoric. Livia was also beautiful, but her piercing, mocking intelligence supplied her with a harder edge. She was all-business in rounds, meticulous and cooly logical.

Whatever the case, Agrippina made it clear that she was too cool for debate. She was always deliberately above it all, which Kimel found irresistible at the time. She only attended two or three tournaments the entire season. He was still blindingly grateful to her for the previous year’s Wellesley tournament, his reason for debating, and he was invariably thrilled whenever she joined the team on a trip. Some time after the tournament, he even delivered online flowers to her in celebration of her admittance to Harvard Law School; it’s the thought that counts. In the final round, she ran Josephus’s case (Josephus was another sophomore on the team) that Santa Claus should give gifts to bad children. Kimel delivered an excellent humorous floor speech and was strongly applauded by the large audience, the highlight of the tournament for him, but Germanicus of Yale B stole the show with his speech that included a hilarious quip about getting dysentery for Christmas in third world countries. Yale A won the round and consolidated their position at the top of the TOTY board. But Yale B and MIT A were not quite beaten yet.

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