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The Poison Ivy League Part 60-The National Championship, 2005

May 3, 2011

Though its results have no bearing on the Team of the Year race, Nationals was (and is) the most important individual tournament of the year; the most competitive contest and best judged competition; prelude to the swan song every senior hopes to belt in Finals. As the fruits of an individual tournament subject to every whim of fortune, however, the results of Nationals were often surprising. Sulla C’s irrational protestations to the contrary, victory did not always go to the most accomplished team of the season; some luck was involved. That very year in a break to octo-finals, the higher-ranking seed lost every round but one to a numerically humbler counterpart.

The contest that year was to be held at Wesleyan, whose senior members were close friends with Sulla A. If ever there were an advantageous battleground for him to prove his mettle, this was it. This fact was not lost on Kimel’s former roommate, who thirsted for a title with an intensity that doubtless surpassed the combined passions of Harvard A’s helmsmen, already assured their honors. If Kimel was an enthusiastic improviser and natural athlete, Sulla A was a deliberate and calculating machine, his every humble merit augmented by years of professional training, a grueling regimen molding him for this moment and none other. His Spartan single-mindedness doubtless rubbed off on Sulla B. With a less disciplined partner, he might never have overcome his initial awkwardness and become the sparkling wit into which he’d evolved by senior year. Already assured a place at Yale Law School, Nationals was all that was left in the year that mattered professionally to the Russian giant.

For Kimel, as interesting a distraction as the results of Nationals might have been, the debate year was already over. TOTY had been won by hard work, negotiation, pagan rites, and intrigue, and he and his fellow Triumvirs were rewarded by the knowledge that theirs was a struggle that would not be forgotten. It was even immortalized on an APDA-wikipedia, the brain-child of Lepidus and his greatest legacy to the circuit—a treasure-trove of data with more information about APDA’s past than APDA’s own official website. First-place TOTY was a victory with an asterisk, to be sure, but that little star led to a most interesting footnote. By its singular conclusion, Kimel’s career had become a part of APDA’s history.

Besides, TOTY had never been won by a team from Harvard before, and 6th place SOTY, which Kimel also won, was a better showing than that of anyone else from his school in recent memory. For all of these reasons, Kimel allowed himself the luxury to be weary—perhaps to ask for more would be hubris. Besides, he had other matters on his mind that, suddenly, seemed altogether more important than the illusory triumphs of college debate rounds and the sea of plastic trophies he now had the burden of packing and misplacing.

At the end of the second night, before the break was announced, senior speeches were delivered. Vespasian and Kimel were perhaps most memorable—Vespasian for his wit, and Kimel for being alternately haunting and ridiculous. The Triumvir quoted Tennessee Williams about “the long parade to the graveyard,” waxing lyrically about how recently it was that he’d watched senior speeches as a humble sophomore. Now he was already a participant; time flies and destroys all things (that he never saw a single senior speech before his junior year was beside the point). He then thanked Arianna, Scott, and Jason, one for her exemplary commitment to the club, one for being his best friend, and one for his position as the temporary partner of his labors. He concluded by calling Jason the Willy to his Wonka, and immediately realized that the ghost of Dahl just had a joke at his expense. Everyone had enough respect to clap at the conclusion of this valedictory, though a third of the room had never stopped its conversation once, even at the height of the speech. No one else was treated with more courtesy, though.

In his heart, Kimel doubted that his connection to anyone but Scott would last the summer. He knew well that he was everyone’s acquaintance and no one’s friend, and soon, he would be thousands of miles away besides. A world war might as well have decimated his class—every now and then in the future, he might glimpse a former face and inquire, “oh, did you survive Guadalcanal after all?” before going back to assuming that everyone’s experiences had ended with his own experience of them. Kimel thought to himself as he returned to his seat that he might as well have been addressing a collection of hideous grinning masks in some Venetian peddler’s cart.

The next morning, out-round pairings were announced and a gasp went out—Harvard A was paired against Havard B. The collective mutter pleased Kimel’s vanity, but he was disappointed by the news. The Sullas had performed poorly during in-rounds and subsequently plagued everyone involved with a difficult octos draw. At least, for once, he won a coin-flip. Opposition was the obvious choice. Jason and he held three strong cases in reserve for prospective future rounds, including a gem for Finals about God’s existence. Octo-finals was to be a three-judge affair headed by Marcus, but Kimel, wary that the Wesleyan dino on the panel might have been biased toward the Sullas, suggested that the number be raised to five, a request that was immediately granted without any ceremony or complaint.

As Kimel and Jason waited impatiently for the Sullas to complete their preparations and begin the round, everyone took turns guessing what Harvard B would run. In deference to Sulla A’s reputation since sophomore year, by now unjust, most spectators suspected a tight case. Kimel doubted this, however, and Vespasian correctly surmised that Harvard B might run an old Opp-choicer about whether a just legal system would permit absolute prohibitions on double-jeopardy. When the Sullas indeed ran this very case, Harvard A’s choice was assured: there should be no absolute ban on double jeopardy. In other words, it should be possible to send someone to trial twice for the same charge. The fact that technology could reveal new sources of evidence after many years’ passing suggested that this was the correct side of the issue.

In the following round Sulla A and B were at their most magnificent; they must have been pleased that their performance was taped, for their talents were never shown off to greater advantage. To be sure, Kimel and Jason thought of many strong arguments to bolster their side of the issue: that there existed concrete harms to lunatics walking the streets, that new sources of evidence might become available over time thanks to future technology mandating new trials, and that the DA would try someone twice very rarely because it was an expensive process and doing so would seem inept without good reason for a second trial. It was all to no avail—the strength of Harvard A’s opposition only served to make Harvard B’s triumph seem all the more hard-fought and neatly-won.

Ultimately, the Sullas had three advantages on their side. First, there was the question of who would decide what cases were to be revived over time. Kimel suggested the DA should do this, but the Sullas had pre-prepared reasons to prove why this would be unreasonable and inflated the importance of the point. In the second place, Harvard B emphasized to strong advantage the significance of the degradation of evidence—in Kimel’s world, an innocent victim to a tyrannical DA could not salvage evidence that might have saved him decades after a purported crime was committed. Both of these points were answered by Harvard A to some extent or other during the round, but they paled before the third and most important reason for the Sullas’ triumph. Simply put, the pair dominated the room’s sentiments. They spoke more assuredly and with greater passion and fluency than Harvard A and justly won over the crowd.

Kimel congratulated his teammates on their victory before it was announced, which Jason considered to be bad form. For his part, Sulla A smiled and said that he’d already been leaked the result—he was advancing to quarter-finals on a 4-1 decision. It was at least a comfort to Kimel that seemingly every strong team at the tournament also lost their octo-final round, including Seneca and Antonina from Princeton, Crassus and Pompey, Lepidus and Antony, Sappho and Metella, and Piso and Plancinus. Petronius and Josephus too soon joined the ranks of the defeated.

Hannibal survived late into the game, presaging a promising career. Kimel made a point of congratulating him after the tournament and confiding that his accomplishments augured great things for Yale’s debate program. The future record-breaker was so self-assured and magnificently arrogant that he could not help but be successful. Since he never lost a round to Hannibal, Kimel’s vanity was intact enough for this prediction to have been delivered earnestly and in high spirits. The University of Chicago too lasted long in the competition, despite one of the participants being a relative novice to the activity. (After slaughtering this team in semi-finals, Sulla B smilingly told Kimel that the round reminded him of their octo-final pairing in difficulty. Kimel nodded and made it a point to smilingly throw his recent night with Verginia into the conversation).

Soon, it was down to two, the pairing that everyone predicted after the drop heard round the world in octo-finals: Licinius and Cato versus the Sullas. On Government, the Sullas ran the case that the Harvard faculty ought not to have taken steps to formally admonish Larry Summers for his comments about the possibility that women might be worse than men at math and science for innate reasons. It was an eloquent round on an open topic and made for a memorable video-tape. Everyone spoke nicely, and Sulla A’s PMR was delivered with just enough heartbreaking intensity to prove to the audience how much he wanted to win, but not necessarily that he should. In the event, it was a split decision—a single vote decided the issue.

As Kimel waited, bored, for the results of the final round, he suddenly felt a strong urge for Cornell to win the round. It was a strange sensation, and one he’d never felt before—so long as anyone’s victory did not upset his TOTY chances, he was rather happy for his peers’ successes, as a rule. What was the source of this pettiness against two voices that had matured in the same nest as his own, then? Why should he derive satisfaction from seeing Sulla A brought within an inch of what he wanted most and then have it torn from him? TOTY had been won. Why should Kimel begrudge the Sullas this particular victory? It was not that he thought Cornell deserved to have won the round. He wasn’t paying enough attention to know. It was not that he hoped Cato should finally win a tournament, a feat he’d never accomplished despite appearing in the final round of two National Championships two years running. It was not that he begrudged his loss to the Sullas in octo-finals. He himself had openly conceded the round, whatever its outcome, before he’d even heard the judges’ decisions. Nor was jealousy the culprit, that the Sullas should have been there on stage in place of him.

No, if the human heart can be read and summarized in a paragraph, the answer might be this: that Kimel was the type of man who loved those people who loved him and who admired those voices that expressed admiration for his own, and he had never achieved real emotional intimacy with any of his teammates. So everything that transpired between them remained a game of sorts, a competition for honors in which even his closest ally was an opponent. Besides, in so many words, hadn’t Sulla A told Kimel to deliberately lose TOTY “for the good of the team” with a straight face at PC? Why should this sort of showing inspire loyalty? Harvard B’s victory at Nationals would overshadow TOTY. That’s what counted. Hence the secretly crossed fingers for Cato; hence the pettiness. In a world of sinners, what is a sin but a virtue?

The news that the Sullas were National Champions was, however, far from devastating for Kimel when it broke—indeed, it wasn’t even unpleasant. From the team’s perspective, it provided a valuable photo opportunity before a trophy of vulgar size. Now, Kimel was happy for the Sullas. His former thoughts had been transitory things, phantoms, illusions. He was a consummate sportsman in the company of like-minded friends of equally illustrious accomplishment. And anyway, he was too dispassionate to care very much about debate. Too much passion about anything was un-aristocratic.

For the third year running, Kimel finished as the highest speaking debater from Harvard (at 5th), and the highest placed SOTY (at 6th, tied with Terentius, top speaker at Worlds). Crassus was First Place Speaker of the Year, and Sappho, in a victory pleasing to everyone who believed her to be underestimated (that is, those with taste) claimed First Place Speaker at Nationals. The debate year concluded with some final honors for our hero: a financial bonanza at the Triangular Debate Contest two years running, and even victory at Incest-fest, which Kimel did not take in the least bit seriously (he ran the case “it’s raining men” and tried to prove its truth through Parmenidean metaphysics.) But he made it to finals somehow and concluded his career by annihilating Sulla B and Arianna on a case about whether “Amadeus” deserved to win the Best Picture Oscar. Kimel analyzed the movie well, describing in eloquent detail the mediocrity of the celebrated Salieri and the infuriating genius of the friendless Mozart. Whatever the final vote-count, the round was no contest; Sulla B and Arianna only had “The Year of Living Dangerously” on their side, and no one in the room (and certainly not Sulla B) had even seen that movie, and subsequent research proved that it wasn’t even up for the prize that year.

Search the record-books, and you will find that Crassus won TOTY twice and Antony SOTY once. No one has appeared in more final rounds than Crassus, and Hannibal broke all time TOTY-point records. (Interestingly, none of these men ever won Nationals.) Brian Fletcher’s record isn’t so impressive anymore. No one but those on the scene remember the greatest voices of past classes. Only all-time records stand out over time, and, fortunately for Kimel, occasional oddities, like the year that by some miracle produced three TOTYs or, according to the jealous, none at all.

In Harvard’s greatest year of competitive excellence on APDA, Kimel was in the eyes of many the school’s most eloquent competitor, one who combined, at his best, an infuriating but charming self-assuredness with a skill for intelligent improvisation and original analysis. Only those who knew him more closely suspected a fascination for Machiavellian politics that gradually evolved into rudimentary skill, and fewer yet his almost maniacal sensitivity toward real and imagined slights to his reputation. There were those who considered his warm nature a façade. Wiser eyes saw that most of his walls were really windows. But a single point is sure. From parodies in APDA newsletters to newspaper articles to long online debates about his TOTY arrangements to articles on APDA’s wikipedia to this very project, no debater’s career likely spilled so much ink, though in fairness to the gods of justice who are the final arbiters of all debate rounds, he himself did a great deal of the spilling.

(See the Epilogue for the Conclusion)

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