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The Poison Ivy League Part 5-Characters of Two Different Sorts…

May 3, 2011

There used to be a good-intentioned rule on the Harvard debate team to the effect that everything that was said at elections was supposed to be kept secret. Everyone who ran for office had to stand a public interrogation. Then, when they left the room, the voters would debate the candidates’ vices and merits and usually follow the advice of senior members of the team after everyone had been thoroughly roasted. No matter how stringent the rules against divulging what was said behind people’s backs, however, they were invariably broken, since if there is any moral at all to this story, it’s that in a society of people who spend their leisure time listening to their own voices, there are few secrets.

Scipio had beaten out Fabius for the position of President. They would have made very different kinds of leaders. Scipio was bookish, effete, and borderline anti-social. He spent most of his free time with his girlfriends. Fabius was gregarious, loud, and one of the largest “personalities” on the circuit. He was dating a girl on the Amherst team, Messalina, with a personality in size to rival his own. Scipio seemed to be a safer choice for President insofar as he was less potentially abrasive than Fabius, but it is unclear who would have made the better captain.

Fabius was the type of debater who thought he never lost a round. When he was clumsy with his words, he could be inadvertently insulting. For example, he once asked the intensely competitive members of Kimel’s class if they wanted him to rank them in terms of talent. He also delighted in making brutal fun of people in his extended social circle. But these details of his personality, which could easily have been flaws in a lesser man, seemed somehow endearing in Fabius to those who knew him well. He was ultimately a fair-minded and practical person who would have made a good President—the ambiguities of his character were perhaps worse-suited to the role of Tournament Director, which he won. Scipio as President proved to be an instructive example in the exercise of power, and readers can ultimately decide for themselves if he was an effective helmsman for the team or not. Kimel considered his greatest flaw to be that his high-minded idealism sometimes clashed with a tendency to play favorites. While he seemed shy and modest, Kimel guessed that beneath the surface, he enjoyed the power that came with his seniority on the team and was not only comfortable in the role of the elder statesman, but luxuriated in it. Anyway, many debaters’ personalities seem like a mixture of the self-important and the absurd in rough sketches of their characters, but people were seldom entirely what they seemed.

One of Scipio’s first Issues with a capital I as President was to do away with creaky old traditions on the Harvard team, like favoring people who had found success at debate for positions as Members at Large. Now, novices who, though perhaps less talented, either showed more “dedication” or were members of an ethnic or gender minority would be favored. The upshot of this decision is that neither Sulla B nor Kimel were named Members at Large, while people less qualified than they were given positions, some of whom never debated again in their lives. Both Sulla B and Kimel had firmly committed themselves to more participation in the following year and we were very disappointed at the news.

To Kimel, the situation seemed like playing favorites while making pretensions at impartiality, particularly since Scipio went on to appoint Sulla A the Room Manager, traditionally the position given to the next President. In fact, Scipio even said as much to Sulla A, joking with him about the implications of his appointment. And later that year, when Sulla was compelled to duck into a food carousel to retrieve something in a locked kitchen, Agrippina went so far as to say that the next President should always have to do as much as a hazing tradition. This blatant favoritism irritated Kimel so intensely that he made a mental commitment to beat Sulla out for President the next year. They were at least equal in power as speakers at that point, and Kimel was determined that his commitment to the team be proved. More honestly, he enjoyed prestige and being the center of attention. But Sulla was equally determined to become President, and was a better player at the political game than Kimel was, at least then.

Agrippina’s quip about Sulla should have been a hint to Kimel that not all was well between him and her. She knew exactly what she was saying, and that he had just lost the Member at Large election besides. But he idealized her in those days and still looked forward to the opportunity of debating with her again at a tournament the next year, an imbecilic hope.

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