Johns Hopkins Magazine -- April 1997
Johns Hopkins Magazine

APRIL 1997



There's no debating the winning tradition of the Hopkins Debate Council. Their motto: "Crush the weak, maim the stupid."

O N    C A M P U S E S

The Hopkins Hegemon
By Charles Salter Jr.
Illustration by Bob Conge

MARY FRANCES REPKO DOESN'T REMEMBER what the heckler said. She just remembers hearing him and stopping her speech, something she'd never done before, not in eight years of high school and college debate.

She was in the semifinal round of the national championships, Johns Hopkins vs. Harvard. Harvard's case was against raising the minimum wage. Now it was Repko's turn to pick their arguments apart. She was so focused on her speech that she still doesn't understand how it happened, but the heckler--a debater from Princeton whom she hasn't forgotten--distracted her momentarily and she froze. In that moment, she lost her train of thought and forgot to make a crucial point: Contrary to what Harvard said, increasing the minimum wage would not hurt people on Social Security.

Repko and her partner lost the round to Harvard, and in the process lost their best shot at the national title. That was eight years ago.

"We still talk about it," says Repko '89, who works in Washington as a legislative assistant for Senator Russ Feingold, a Democrat from Wyoming. "Absolutely, we do."

For Hopkins debaters, the debate never ends. Last fall, Repko got a call from Rebecca Justice '97 and David Weiner '97, members of this year's debate team, after they had finished second and third in consecutive tournaments. They wanted to know what they were doing wrong.

Rebecca Justice '97 was born to debate. By the end of high school, she ranked in the National Forensic League's all-time top 10. Even now, college freshmen recognize her name from the record books.
As Repko reviewed their cases and offered various strategies, she reminded them what it meant to be Hopkins debaters. They were part of a tradition where the expectations were unusually high. Instead of worrying about embarrassing their friends in a debate round, they needed to be more aggressive and intense, even ruthless, and focus on why they were there: to win.

The following week, Repko came home and found a message on her answering machine. It was Justice, who had competed in a tournament at the University of Pennsylvania over the weekend. Out of the 70 teams competing, she and Weiner came in first.

THEY CALL THEMSELVES THE HOPKINS HEGEMON. Their motto: "Crush the weak, maim the stupid." Officially, they are the Hopkins Debate Council, but that name is far too tame. They are a team, a relentless, tightknit, intimidating, and legendary team, whose sport happens to be debate.

"There are certain stereotypes associated with it, because it's intellectual--stereotypes that bring it down," says Vince Thomasino '96, who was Debate Council president for two years. "But we are one of the top national teams in the country, like no other Hopkins team except maybe the lacrosse team. We're on par with them."

The debaters have a strong case and they know it. The Hopkins program is one of the oldest in the country, and along with the Ivy League schools, the team has a strong reputation. Year after year, its members rank among the top in the nation, and, sometimes in the world.

This year the 40-member council is no different. Halfway through the season, the team of Justice and Weiner is an early favorite for team-of-the-year honors, based on points earned at five tournaments last semester. Justice, Weiner, and another senior, Ben Greenberg, are in the running for speaker of the year.

Most schools consider themselves fortunate to have one competitive team. Hopkins has several. Seniors David Feldon and Traci Beach reached the semifinals--they call it breaking--at the World Universities Parliamentary Debating Championships in South Africa in late December and early January. At Princeton's tournament, Feldon teamed up with Brendan Foley '99 to finish first, and a couple of underclassmen, sophomore John Thomas and freshman David Riordan, were the winners at Fordham University.

"Every year there is a debate hegemon, a team that kicks a lot of butt," says Chris Porcaro, a top debater at New York University. "Princeton was the team last year, and this year it's undoubtedly Hopkins."

In February, Hopkins hosted the prestigious North American Championships (North Am's), a three-day tournament with 96 teams from 41 schools from as far away as California and Canada. The Hopkins team arranged for Senator Richard Lugar (R-Indiana), a former high school and college debater, to speak at the opening ceremonies in the Shriver Hall auditorium . For the formal dinner Saturday night, the Hopkins hosts donned tuxedos for a casino bash downtown, which got rave reviews from a decidedly critical crowd.

There's no question that hosting North Am's further boosted the team's reputation, says Justice, the Debate Council's current president. But there was one drawback: The hosts can't compete in the tournament. So she'll never know if the Hopkins Hegemon would have won.

HOPKINS COMPETES IN PARLIAMENTARY DEBATE, modeled after the procedure used in the British House of Commons. It's two-on-two, the Prime Minister and the Member of Government against the Leader of the Opposition and the Member of the Opposition. Unlike the free-for-all on CNN's Crossfire or talk radio, parliamentary debate is positively civilized. At least it's structured to be that way. Each round consists of six speeches and assures equal time for both sides.

The Prime Minister speaks first. He spends seven minutes defining the case and outlining his arguments, and the Leader of the Opposition then has eight minutes to respond and outline his own position. Next, the Member of Government and the Member of the Opposition spend eight minutes apiece attacking the other side's case while reconstructing their own. Finally, the Leader of the Opposition and the Prime Minister take turns giving rebuttals, which last four and five minutes, respectively.

At some tournaments, the host school decides the subject for debate, particularly in later rounds, and the Government has 10 minutes to prepare its case. More common, though, are rounds in which the topic is left entirely up to the Government team. Knowing this, debaters prepare a few cases beforehand. They can be about anything--the right to sell genetic material, female Catholic priests, Superman's marriage to Lois Lane--as long as they have two debatable sides (No truisms like "Murder is wrong" allowed). The Opposition doesn't know the case until the Prime Minister's speech. Without any preparation, or in some instances any familiarity with the topic, its members race to outline their opposing arguments while the Prime Minister is speaking, then the Leader of the Opposition attempts to deliver a coherent speech of his own. At Harvard, Justice and Weiner were presented with the case of whether or not Orioles manager Davey Johnson should bench second baseman Roberto Alomar for spitting on umpire John Hirschbeck. "Luckily," Justice says, "David had been watching a lot of SportsCenter."

The judge is usually someone from the host school's debate team and is referred to as the Speaker of the House. He awards points based on persuasiveness, analysis, wit, and command of rhetoric. In later rounds, a panel of judges decides.

The debates are an odd mix of medieval formality and 1990s casualness. At the beginning of the round, the debaters cheer, "Here! Here!" as the Prime Minister approaches the podium and says, "Thank you, Madam Speaker, and members of this august House." When someone wants to interrupt, he rises, with one hand on his head--like a member of Parliament securing his powdered wig--and says, "On that point, sir." Some students dress the part, in three-piece pinstriped suits, with French cuffs, silver cufflinks, and pocket watches.

Ben Greenberg '97 speaks as if every thought, every fact, and every argument were rehearsed. His performance is part monologue, part stump speech, and part sermon.
But eventually the debaters loosen up. They refer to Seinfeld and college life and each other, with juicy asides, inside jokes, and insults. Some, like Hopkins's Greenberg, speak as if every thought, every fact, and every argument were rehearsed. His performance is part monologue, part stump speech, and part sermon.

Still others race through their speeches as if they're being judged on the number of words they can spit out, or deliver an outrageous, manic stream of consciousness, hoping to win points for humor. Some sound like actors unprepared for an audition.

They get absolutely no sympathy. This is debate. They get crushed or maimed.

Being on the parliamentary circuit is no small commitment. Practically every weekend there's another tournament, another road trip to Harvard or Princeton or NYU. The football and lacrosse teams have it easy; debate lasts the entire academic year.

"Part of doing well in this event is being on tour like a rock group, developing this cult of personality," says Repko, 30, who debated with Patrick Woodall '90. "You have to be there every weekend. People have to say, 'We know Mary Frances and Patrick are going to be in the elimination rounds this weekend, because they were in the elimination rounds last weekend.' It's about maintaining this sort of aura and perception. It's the rep, if you will."

Just as Michael Jordan gets the benefit of the doubt from referees, debate teams with a good "rep" have an easier time persuading judges. "Being from Hopkins definitely gives you something in the rounds," says Alex Cohen '93. "It's like having a Harvard law degree."

The Hopkins team prides itself on preparation as much as reputation. Monday through Thursday, from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m., members cram into the cozy debate room in McCoy Hall for practice rounds, as many as 20 a week. Because the group is student-run, there are no faculty coaches or advisors. The students debate each other, then critique the round. Sometimes alumni, affectionately known as "dinos" (short for dinosaurs), help out.

Not many schools on the circuit practice, but at Hopkins it's expected. Keeps the upperclassmen sharp and the novices on course.

As a freshman, Cohen practiced against Hopkins upperclassmen Aaron Seeskin '93, Desmond Arias '93, Ted Niblock '92, and Simon Whang '92, who were among the top debaters in the country. "They beat the crap out of me, embarrassed me, and made me feel like an idiot," Cohen says. They taught him how to debate. That same year he went on to reach the semis at Yale and the finals at Providence College.

Debaters have a certain persona, says Repko, and she can spot them 100 yards away. They are confident, eloquent, opinionated, intense, quick-witted, and theatrical. For starters. They are not mildly interested in politics and economics and history and philosophy. They are consumed. They know their Supreme Court rulings and their Middle East accords. Many wind up attending the best law schools in the country. Most are men.

On the current Hopkins team, Greenberg is strong on medical and domestic policy cases; Feldon on domestic and the Middle East; Justice on foreign policy; and Weiner on constitutional law. "He remembers every case, every opinion, who wrote the opinion, and who said what," Greenberg says. "If I had to pick who would wind up on the Supreme Court some day, I'd say David [Weiner]."

David Riordan's gift is not so much what he says, but how he says it. His teammates kid him that he's all style and no substance, criticism that slides right off. "The key is sounding like you know what you're talking about," says Riordan, one of several talented freshmen on the team. He can be pretty convincing.

"You have to like yourself a lot to be able to stand up in front of a group of people and talk," says Thomasino. "To be good, you have to have an indefatigable ego, because debate teaches you humility."

Rebecca Justice was born to debate. As silly as that sounds, it's true. Her grandfather, after college, got a job teaching at Logansport High School in Logansport, Indiana, and founded the school's debate team in the 1930s. Her grandmother was one of his debaters.

When their children were old enough, they were expected to join the Logansport team, and they did. Rebecca grew up hearing about Uncle Sam, who finished second in the nation one year in extemporaneous speaking; Aunt Amy, who was ranked in the top 10, and the rest of the Justice forensics clan: Aunt Liz, Aunt Margaret, Uncle Jonathan, and her father, Robert. In those days, he preferred football and track to debate, but he went on to become a circuit court judge. Everyone calls him Justice Justice.

It was a given that Rebecca would debate, too. She was on the Logansport varsity for four years and qualified three times for Nationals, twice in both foreign extemporaneous public speaking and policy debate. By the end of high school, she had amassed so many points that she ranked in the top 10 on the all-time National Forensic League list, going back to the 1940s--and first in the Justice family. Even now, college freshmen recognize her name from the record books.

After four years practicing and researching and competing, she thought she'd skip college debate and focus on academics. But the Hopkins team kept after her. Every fall the admissions office gives seniors the names of freshmen who debated in high school. The more she heard about the team and its successful program, the more interested she became.

Now Justice--"Xena, Princess Warrior" to her teammates--is one of the seniors carrying on Hopkins's proud tradition. She recruits freshmen and pushes them in practice rounds. She encourages them to take courses in international relations, which is her major. And every Thursday before a tournament, she goes to the library and reads the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Wall Street Journal for case ideas.

Her opponents expect as much. "I surf the Internet on the Middle East at 3 a.m. the night before a tournament because of Rebecca," says Porcaro, her NYU rival. "She still beats me on foreign policy, but it's made it closer."

AFTER JOINING THE JOHNS HOPKINS DEBATE SOCIETY in 1884, Woodrow Wilson, a graduate student at the time, helped found the Hopkins House of Commons, a group similar to the one he had started eight years earlier at the school that later became Princeton. The Hopkins House, all men in those days, debated among themselves. "The debates, at times, have grown very warm," boasted the group's entry in the 1889 yearbook, "and on several occasions the debaters, overpowered for the moment by excitement, have indulged in means, stronger than words, to enforce their arguments."

An annual interclass debate, begun in 1898, pitted three juniors against three seniors and generated a lot of interest on campus. The president of the university spoke, the glee club performed, and the students partied afterward. The debates themselves centered around policy issues, such as "Should immigration to this country be furthered?" and "Resolved: The policy of territorial expansion is detrimental to the interests of the United States." Faculty, along with local lawyers and judges, decided the winner.

In 1902, Hopkins and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill engaged in one of the first intercollegiate debates. Although Hopkins lost, the schools made it an annual event. The first triangular debate followed soon after with Hopkins, Washington and Lee, and Pennsylvania College. A collegiate circuit was beginning to emerge, and before long Hopkins's varsity team was boasting of its "superiority in debate" over Brown, Virginia, and North Carolina. Even then, debate alumni were active with the team; John French, an 1899 graduate and an English professor at Hopkins, was the coach.

By the 1930s and '40s, the team was traveling to 20 or more tournaments a year, at Duke, Harvard, Princeton, and elsewhere. The debates were no longer the "monotonous combats" they had been early on, the team declared in the 1939 yearbook, but rather "verbal bombasts." In 1949, the debates were entertaining enough to put on local television and radio.

Over the years, the program has survived periodic declines in membership, funding, and talent. The Johns Hopkins University Debate Tournament, one of the first such events, has been going strong since 1951. Although historical records are incomplete, Hopkins has clearly had its share of quality teams. In the early 1970s, the school qualified five teams for Nationals for four straight years, the sort of success the Debate Council has come to expect.

IN LATE JANUARY, a week before classes resume after Intersession, the Hopkins team has come to Washington, D.C. with high hopes. The 51-team field in the George Washington University tournament isn't as big or as competitive as those they've faced elsewhere. So it's no great surprise that by Saturday afternoon two of the four remaining teams are from Hopkins. Justice and Greenberg (Weiner is busy writing his senior thesis). Feldon and Riordan.

In the back of the auditorium, they high five, then get down to business. What case should they run? Should they Gov or Opp?

Hopkins sophomore John Thomas gives Justice the scouting report on the University of Virginia team of Matt Adams and Dave Abbott. "Adams has a tendency to lose his train of thought, so ask him lots of questions," Thomas says. "If you can joke around, Abbott gets uptight."

Hopkins wins the coin toss and chooses to oppose--it's usually easier to disprove than prove a case. During the 10 minutes the Government has to prepare, the Hopkins debaters speculate about everything from the judges' bias (apparently, the Virginia team is better friends with the judges from George Washington) to Virginia's case.

"I'll put money on it being Gingrich," says Greenberg. "Congress should have censured Gingrich. That's it."

"Dude," says Thomas, "watch for Clinton being sued."

In the first five rounds, Greenberg and Justice have debated, among other things, whether the U.S. should deliver a batch of F-16s that it sold to Taiwan; whether the government should regulate children's beauty pageants; and whether Israel's Binyamin Netanyahu should continue negotiating with the PLO's Yassir Arafat.

And now, not Gingrich or Clinton, but the right to marry. Virginia contends that states should be able to prohibit people who have not paid up on alimony or child-support from receiving a state-sanctioned marriage. Adams says the state has a right to sanction marriage and that it's in the state's interest to make dead-beat dads pay up. Think of the children, he says.

Greenberg insists that the Supreme Court hasn't allowed states to regulate marriage in the past, so why start now? And what's preventing dead-beat dads from getting a common-law marriage or marrying out-of-state?

For every persuasive point, there is a compelling counterpoint. Those watching the debate knock on desks or chairs, offering Parliamentary-style applause. As planned, Justice peppers Adams with questions, and Greenberg cracks some good lines. But just when Hopkins seem to have the crowd, Adams or Abbott recovers.

Thomas sits in the first row, his Yankees cap on backwards, anxiously rubbing his goatee and glancing over at the judges. During Abbott's speech, he spies one of them rapping a desk. Bad news.

"This has gotten very tight," he whispers. "Come on, Rebecca."

Maybe it's Justice hammering that the state shouldn't "transgress on the ultimate right of self-determination and liberty." Or Greenberg strolling downstage and saying, "Let's be honest, guys. The Elvis Presley Chapel of Love is $69 round-trip on Southwest. It's cheaper than paying alimony." In the end, the judges side with Hopkins, 3-2.

The finals aren't nearly as close. Justice and Greenberg trounce a hybrid team called Dartvard, made up of two prep school friends, one from Dartmouth, the other from Harvard. The final score: 12-1. That gives Hopkins first place and four out of the top 10 teams.

It's another good showing, another chapter in a season true to the Hopkins tradition. The debaters have crushed and maimed, not just winning the tourney, but dominating. They head back to Baltimore with more hardware for the trophy case in Garland Hall, and a few more reasons for Repko, Thomasino, and the other dinos to be proud.

Once again, Justice--along with the rest of the Hopkins Hegemon-- prevails.

Charles Salter Jr. is a freelance writer living in Baltimore.