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Revenge of the Nerds

An inside look at the teenage subculture that spawned JFK, Bob Shrum, Michael Moore, Karl Rove, and…Brad Pitt?

Listen to an excerpt of Zach Baum debating the War on Terror (Stream | Download) and an excerpt of Jeremy Kreisberg debating torture (Stream | Download).

IT WOULD HAVE BEEN THE SPRING OF 1969, the Vietnam War in full swing, when a scrawny 18-year-old in a suit and tie and horn-rimmed glasses pushed a handcart stacked with 10 boxes into a classroom at Olympus High School, on the outskirts of Salt Lake City. Each shoebox was stuffed with four-by-six notecards pasted with evidence clipped from newspapers, magazines, and scholarly journals. As the young man and his partner unpacked their evidence on a small table at the front of the room, members of the other policy debate team looked on in horror. They'd only brought one shoebox. What they didn't know was that 99 percent of the notecards in the Olympus team's 10 shoeboxes were just props. Even at 18, the scrawny kid with the horn-rims understood the power of intimidation.

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"Rove didn't just want to win," James Moore and Wayne Slater write in their book Rove Exposed: How Bush's Brain Fooled America. "He wanted the opponents destroyed. His worldview was clear even then. There was his team and the other team, and he would make the other team pay."

Karl Rove's origins as a debater come as no surprise to anyone who has ever witnessed policy debate. Brutally competitive, the activity attracts extremely bright, fiercely ambitious misfits, many of whom go on to influential careers in politics or law. Along with Rove, alumni include presidents (Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, John F. Kennedy), speechwriters and political consultants (Ted Sorensen, Bob Shrum, Mark Fabiani), Supreme Court justices (Samuel Alito, Stephen Breyer), political gadflies (Michael Moore), and other smooth talkers (Oprah Winfrey, Brad Pitt).

There are many kinds of debate, but policy debate, conducted in teams, two against two, is widely considered the most hardcore. Interaction between teams is limited to four three-minute cross-examinations, or "cross-x." For the remainder of the debate, teams take turns reading evidence prepared beforehand. In debate parlance, each piece of evidence is called a card and consists of a quote and a source for that quote. All evidence is scrutinized for possible weaknesses before being read in an actual debate. There's total accountability within the round, meaning that an unanswered argument is considered a conceded argument. You win no points for empty rhetoric.

Aside from the spectacular speed at which debaters speak, it's this emphasis on evidence that distinguishes formal policy debate from moderated political debates, to say nothing of what passes for debate on Sunday morning talk shows. The best debaters devote all nonschool hours to research, and weekends to tournaments. (SAT scores can suffer as a consequence; parents complain that their kids are spending too much time in the library.) Inside this petri dish, a uniquely self-referential culture thrives. Debaters all share the same jargon; the same cozy familiarity with Malthus, Foucault, democracy promotion, and nuclear war; the same problems with uncomprehending parents; even physical characteristics—a certain jumpiness, a tendency to route excess energy into nervous habits, like tapping feet or flipping pens. These similarities are reinforced on the national circuit, and especially over the summer, when teams congregate at debate camp.

On Cross-X.com, a debate forum, a thread titled "You know you're a debater when…" provoked more than 500 responses, including: "You use subpoints in everyday conversation"; "You think your English Lit AP teacher is a moron because you can explain Foucault better than he can"; "When watching CNN, you think of ways to use the old guy's speech in a debate"; "You stay over at a friend's house, and in the morning, they say that you were debating in your sleep, and all you can think to say is, 'Well, did I win?'"; "You've ever yelled at a librarian."

Resolved: the United States federal government should substantially decrease its authority either to detain without charge or to search without probable cause. That's the topic for high school policy debate over the last year, one broad enough to encompass everything from Guantanamo to searches of library records to wiretapping. These issues have been hotly contested in the public sphere, but who knew that across America a new generation of citizens was also furiously arguing about them, very often more intelligently, rigorously, and ruthlessly than the rest of us?

Intrigued, I recently took a train up from Manhattan to the New York state championships at Albany High. The team I had come to see, Edgemont High, from about an hour north of Manhattan, was one of the favorites to win.

Neatly dressed in crisp khakis and a blue oxford shirt, with close-cropped hair and swooping eyebrows that give him a surprised, almost avian look, Zach Baum is one-half of the Edgemont team. Jeremy Kreisberg, similarly attired in clothes that he is gradually dieting his way out of, is his friendly but formidable partner. Baum and Kreisberg—who've worked together since Baum's last partner graduated in June 2005, an eternity in teenage time—seem ideally matched, and often refer to themselves as if they were an old married couple. Baum is a debating machine. His focus, as he ruefully admits, can at times seem almost autistic, or—given the fierceness of his eyes and the intensity of his manner—perhaps Vulcan. He's an encyclopedia of evidence but can bungle the simplest social interaction. "In life I kind of rely on Jeremy," he says, "but in debate it's pretty opposite."

Endlessly affable, and visibly more comfortable with himself, Kreisberg brings a much-needed sense of perspective to Edgemont. Where Baum is cocky, Kreisberg is modest; when Baum gets obsessive, Kreisberg offers the big picture. He is, in a way, Baum's apologist. They've been researching this year's topic since they attended debate camp at the University of Michigan in 2005.

"Your success is proportional to what you put into it," Baum tells me during a lull before a match. "And we put so much into it." He withdraws two finger-thick files from one of four enormous Rubbermaid tubs. The files are organized in anticipation of specific arguments that specific teams all across the country are known for running. One file addresses an argument granting the courts the power to hear appeals from Guantanamo detainees. Another addresses an argument in favor of banning polygraphs at the Department of Energy. "These are Zach's children," Kreisberg says. Baum nods. "All of these are 100 percent original research," he says. "I didn't get it from anywhere else."

Buying evidence from college teams or debate websites is common, and generally considered perfectly ethical—it's not the origin but the quality that counts. (Baum cites a college debater who made $1,000 selling a single file that addressed a rapidly changing political climate to high school debaters the week before a big tournament.) Edgemont, along with the rest of the debate world, follows a voluntary disclosure policy. If an opposing team asks what line of argument Kreisberg and Baum will take in an upcoming debate, they'll gladly turn it over. The idea is not, as in a court of law, to catch your opponent off-guard, but rather to marshal as much substantive evidence as possible, in the interests of stimulating a more exacting debate.

"I think that's the beauty of this activity," Joshua Gonzales, an assistant debate coach from Michigan State, tells me. "There's much less demagoguery and far more substance, and substance benefits everyone a good deal more. That might be something that the left can take away from this: There are substantive reasons to pursue the policies they want that are highly defensible, and I think actually probably appealing to the vast majority of the country. No matter how much passion or anger the current administration or conservatives or Fox News might stir up in them, over time better ideas triumph if they have committed, effective, and consistent advocates. I hope, at least. The reason I do it is, fingers crossed, that's the sort of people we're training here."

Edgemont's coach, David Glass, who cowrote this year's debate topic, elaborates: "These kids are the people who are going to be running things in 20 to 30 years, and if I can help get a few of them to think responsibly, then cool. I mean, look at what Karl Rove is able to do." Glass pauses, then adds, "He just does not care about the truth. That kid had a bad coach. Or no coach."

Later in the season, when Glass, who has coached debate for more than 25 years, was inducted into the debate coach hall of fame, he expanded on this point to an audience of 300 kids: "We went through an election where gay marriage apparently was considered to outrank in importance the fact that we're at war, the fact that there's an all-time-high budget crisis… Because there was a clever debater, all of a sudden gay marriage was more important.… You have a choice. I'm sure you've all seen Star Wars. You can either decide to defend the dark side of the force, or you can defend the light side… You really have the ability to set agendas way beyond what you might right now believe."

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