Tuesday, April 29, 2008

James J. Unger

Upon opening my copy of The Washington Post this morning, I was saddened to learn of the passing of James J. Unger, who was debate coach at Georgetown University during my high school and college years.

The Post's obituary begins:

James John Unger, a highly successful debate coach at Georgetown and American universities who also was a past director of the National Forensics Institute and an innovative argument theorist, died April 3 at his home in the District. He was 66.

The cause of death is pending, said Leigh Fields of the D.C. medical examiner's office.

Mr. Unger was a national champion debater at Boston College, from which he graduated in 1964, and coached debaters while at Harvard Law School, where he received a degree in 1967. The next year, he became Georgetown's coach. His teams were ranked first in the national coaches' poll five times.

In a 1970s poll of leading intercollegiate coaches and debaters, he was named Outstanding Debate Coach and Outstanding Debate Judge of the decade.

"He had a steel-trap mind, and he taught you strategies that guaranteed steel-trap success," said Thomas M. Rollins, a lawyer and former Georgetown debater.

Rollins understates the case. Although he was of slight physical stature and was nicknamed "The Duck" in reference to his anatine visage, Unger's intellect made him an intimidating presence, especially among the high school students who attended the Georgetown Forensics Institute each summer. He was treated with godlike deference by many of the younger debaters.

The Post article continues:

Instantly recognizable on the Georgetown campus thanks to his usual three-piece suit, bow tie and walking cane, Mr. Unger was, in Rollins's words, "relentless in pushing an argument and in testing any position that you took."

Some people considered him difficult because of that relentlessness -- in debate and elsewhere -- but Rollins said he found him to be "an incredibly kind and generous guy." He recalled that Mr. Unger once bought him a plane ticket home to Houston so he could try to patch up a fractured romance.

Unger also could wield a wicked sense of humor. Here's an example.

When I was coaching at the Georgetown debate institute in 1982, I took seriously the notion that the institute itself was for teaching and honing skills. During the tournament that ended each session of the institute, I would, after judging a round of debate, give a brief oral critique of the debaters and their performance, explaining why I voted as I did.

After the preliminary rounds were over, all of the debaters, coaches, and judges gathered in the lobby of the Walsh Building on Georgetown's East Campus, so that we could find out which teams had made it to the elimination rounds. Mr. Unger would announce the teams and the judging panels for each round.

As we were milling about, one of the other coaches, Bill Foutz -- who had been a champion debater at Harvard -- rushed up to me with an agitated look on his face. He grabbed me by the collar and pushed me against the wall, saying, "If you give another third affirmative rebuttal to make one of my teams lose, you'll be sorry."

I was caught by surprise and tried to laugh it off, though in truth I was frightened as hell. (Just to explain to lay readers: There are two negative and two affirmative rebuttals in a debate round. A "third affirmative rebuttal" is when a judge expresses his own arguments against the negative in an effort to justify voting for the affirmative team.) By this time a crowd had gathered around us and we were the sole focus of attention.

Moments later, Mr. Unger entered the room and began his announcements for the octofinal rounds.

After naming two teams and a room for a debate, he continued: "The judging panel will be Mr. Foutz" -- murmurs in the crowd -- "Mr. Sincere" -- the crowd began to go oooh! -- "and Mr. Glass. Obviously, Mr. Glass will chair the panel." Everyone -- except, perhaps, for me and Bill Foutz -- laughed.

When we got to the classroom where the debate would be held, Bill and I sat on opposite sides of the room, with David Glass (who was, I think, then at the Bronx High School of Science) sat between us as a DMZ. The round had a few more spectators than usual. Fortunately, the three of us agreed on the outcome, and we all voted the same way. A few minutes after the match ended, Bill Foutz apologized to me for his outburst and everything was calm again. Sometimes debaters and debate coaches get caught up in the anxiety and intensity of competition, and this was one of those moments.

Another example of Unger's wry humor requires some background.

The high school debate topic the previous year (1981-82) was "Resolved: That the federal government should establish minimum educational standards for elementary and secondary schools in the United States." I came up with the idea, based upon research I was doing in the real world -- if the world of Washington think tanks can be described as "real" -- that we should write a case about civil defense education in elementary and secondary schools.

The problem with this idea was that there was little, if any, information available about civil defense education. (There was some material from the 1960s, but nothing recent and little that was usable by debaters.) But I was convinced this could be a winning case.

So I asked Professor Unger, "What do you do when something is topical but so obscure that there is nothing written about it that you can use as evidence for inherency?" He replied that there was not much to do in that situation, other than to intensify your research and find the evidence you need.

My solution: since I had already had one article published on the topic of civil defense -- appearing in the Washington Star on October 10, 1980, months after I submitted it and based on research I did during the summer 1980 forensics institute -- and had subsequently become an officer in the American Civil Defense Association, I could just write another one, with a focus on education, that could be used as evidence to support our case.

And that's what I did. I submitted the article to several newspapers, and it was published in the New York Tribune (a sister newspaper to The Washington Times), just days before the institute tournament. We inserted the appropriate quotations into the case (not citing me by name), held others in reserve for second affirmative and rebuttals, and moved forward.

The case was relatively successful, with two of my teams making it into the elimination rounds. After the last round that one of the teams lost, they told me that my qualifications as a source had become an issue in the debate. The judge from that round added: "Your boys defended you valiantly, but they lost on other issues."

This is a long tale meant to be background of something that happened a couple of years later. As it was told to me, late one night while preparing for a tournament, members of the Georgetown debate team had hit a brick wall, unable to find the evidence they needed to complete a brief they were working on. Professor Unger popped up and said, "Well, why don't we just pull a Rick Sincere?" -- meaning, why not write an article and get it published in a reputable newspaper or journal? I don't think they ever followed through on that suggestion, but just the idea that my name became associated with a new debate tactic was enough to warm my ego.

The Post also notes, almost in passing:
Mr. Unger also was a wily and tenacious tennis player.
Indeed, during the summer and in good weather during the rest of the year, one could find Jim Unger on the tennis courts that once lay between New South Hall and Lauinger Library. (Those courts have been replaced by Village A, an apartment complex for Georgetown students and faculty.) Here is a brief film clip of Mr. Unger playing doubles on a cloudy day with his tennis partner, James M. Copeland, who was then debate coach at Marquette University High School in Milwaukee.

video


Copeland and Unger were more than tennis partners. For several years, they collaborated on a book, published annually, called Second Thoughts, with the subtitle of each edition referring to that year's interscholastic debate topic. The book contained chapters on debate theory and the topics themselves, but most interesting were the transcripts of debate rounds (usually from one or more of the summer debate institutes) with interstitial comments from the co-authors. They analyzed and critiqued the debate style, the arguments, and the evidence in as thorough a fashion as one could imagine.

(The edition of Second Thoughts published in 1974 was important in my own life, because it was my first encounter with the publishing world. Mr. Copeland assigned me the job of typing up his notes on a form provided by the publisher. [This was long before word processing on computers was even a dream for regular folks.] Not only did I improve my typing skills, but I learned about the requirements for typesetting and I was able to absorb the argument and discussion that would not be available to other readers for months to come.)

It's no wonder that, when presidential debates were revived after a 16-year hiatus in 1976, that Copeland and Unger were chosen by the Associated Press to be judges for the debates between Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford and between Bob Dole and Walter Mondale.

The Post obituary refers to this stage of Professor Unger's career:
Mr. Unger served as a debate consultant to NBC and ABC and to the Associated Press and United Press International.

In a 1992 debate, he gave high marks to the studio audience. "The people are the winners," he said. "The quality of the ordinary folks asking relevant questions is superior to the politicians trying to answer them."

Four years later, he credited Republican Robert J. Dole with raising the ethics issue in his presidential election debate with Democrat Bill Clinton but faulted the former Kansas senator for not following through. Mr. Unger said that Dole resorted to "shorthand rhetoric" and "catchy phrases" without explaining their importance.

In a 2000 vice presidential debate between Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, then a Democrat, and Dick Cheney (R), Mr. Unger declared Cheney the winner in a close contest because he came across "as a person and as a professional."
The Post ends by saying that there "are no immediate survivors," but this is only true in a narrow, technical sense. Professor Unger leaves thousands of survivors in the form of students he taught and faculty he hired, many of whom have had extraordinarily successful careers in the public and private sectors (I could list several dozen law professors alone, not to mention prominent attorneys, physicians, engineers, and politicians).

A number of these survivors -- friends, colleagues, students -- have been posting memories on a site called eDebate. A comment attributed to Bill Smelko said, in part:
For many of us who debated in the mid-late 1960’s and 1970’s, Jim Unger was an imposing intellectual giant whose love of competitive success was exceeded only by his capacity to grow debate as an activity, and encourage in student competitors an abiding love of and for the activity. Many of today’s finest coaches and teachers at the High School and College levels can trace their roots directly to Professor Unger and/or the Georgetown Institute of the early-late 1970’s.

The number of debaters who Professor Unger helped on their way to law school and graduate programs includes former debaters from not just Georgetown, but also from a variety of colleges and universities across the country. I was very lucky to have met Jim, been judged by him often, known him as a mentor and also to have been his friend. I last saw Jim during a visit to the GDS Tournament a couple years ago and even then, as his health was deteriorating, my visit with him was memorable for me because of his unfailing sense of humor and ever present memory of great times past and of the great people who he called friends.
One of these friends, Dr. Arthur Kyriazis of Philadelphia, posted some of his own memories at a eDebate. This one stood out for me:
Were it not for Georgetown Debate Institute, and Prof. Unger, I would never have improved at debate, and without improving at debate, I would never have gotten into Harvard, and without Harvard, my whole life would have been different. Consequently, it's fair to say that Georgetown and Unger opened the first set of doors that set me on the path that led me to Harvard, to law school and later to success in life.
Elsewhere on the same site, in a post dated April 4 (a day after Unger's death but weeks before it was reported in the Washington Post), Laurence Tribe wrote:
For most of us during the crucial decade and a half starting in the mid-1970s - the decade in which many of us came of age or settled into our lifetime careers - Jimmy Unger WAS debate, debate as high art, debate as ritual, debate as relentless analysis, debate as bloodless battle. He lived it, breathed it, epitomized it, enjoyed it, perfected it, practiced it, and made it a permanent part of our lives. For all of that, and for the inestimable wit and twinkling wisdom that Jimmy exuded for so many years, we will all owe him a huge and permanent debt. May his memory live forever in and through those of us who cared about him and who were lucky enough to be his friends.
The outpouring of memories on eDebate is amazing. John Bredehoft (who was Bill Foutz's debate partner at Harvard, and who attended the Georgetown Institute the same two years that I did, during high school) adds:
For those of us who entered the debate community in the 1970s (my debating years extending from 1972 through 1980), Jim Unger was at first a remote overarching presence, then a valued and respected colleague. He was unexpectedly witty, occasionally sardonic, but never cruel or intentionally disheartening. We admired his brilliance and his intellectual honesty (while at the same time, as high school students at the Georgetown summer institute, conspiring to evade his parietal
rules). My life as it is today would be unthinkable without having debated; my debate experience would have been unthinkably different, unthinkably inferior, without Jim Unger's enthusiasm. I did not know him as well as many but I am saddened beyond words by his passing.
David Glass (whom I mentioned above) has a lengthy post explaining why Unger was so important in the development of academic debate, both theory and practice. (The split between "hypothesis testing" and "policy making" as debate paradigms may be too much to explore here, now, but I recommend Glass's analysis to those with deeper interests.) He concludes:
As a person, Unger was quite idiosyncratic. Some people loved him; others could not abide him. I always found him to be incisive, independent of mind, and unexpectedly hilarious. I still remember this small incident during the elimination rounds of a high school tournament that he was running. In those days a large audience watched the final round (people stayed for it, and the audience was filled for this particular final). Most of the students found him to be rather intimidating, but when he asked this one kid to call the coin before this round, the kid said "headsies". Everyone looked at Unger expecting him to cringe or something. But Unger just walked over to the coin, looked up at the kid and called out "tailsies"… cracking up the audience… I guess it is just surprising when you find out that a supposed giant is a normal person…. He was always there for me…. when a play I wrote was produced, he was in the audience; when I needed some advice on career alternatives, he was there. I did not debate for him, but I felt as though I was one of his students. He was a good mentor, and a true friend.
It has been more than 20 years since I last encountered Professor Unger. That would have been when I judged a few rounds at the National Debate Institute at American University -- as it turns out, the last time I was engaged in the debate world in any formal way at all. Still, learning about the death of James J. Unger makes me feel sad. The culture of high school and college debate is diminished by his departure.

4 comments:

Bob Gibson said...

Rick,
Thanks for your fascinating, warm recollections about Mr. Unger, a generous and fine debate teacher I remember fondly from a summer debate instutute at Georgetown. Attending his institute was one of the best memories I still have from my several years of high school debate.
Bob Gibson in Charlottesville

MelanieNYC said...

I attended a summer workshop at American for debate in the late 80s. Mr. Unger was a force of nature...what a wonderful tribute...thanks for sharing...
Melanie

Matt Towery said...

My name is Matt Towery and I was part of the 1978 Pace Academy debate team of "Towery and Schwartzman." To those who were around in that era, they might know of my friendship with Jim Unger and the fact that I originally enrolled at Georgetown, but immediately left when Jim decided to take the year off. I never returned to debate. For the few who may have followed my career I may seem the very essence of the GOP/Conservative world. In fact, I am not.I have remained an open-minded and, I hope, reaonable person--both in my past roles in elected office and now as a pollster/journalist. I owe much of this to Jim. He was our hero and mentor. To think that those whose life he touched spans every end of the political spectrum and all types of vocations is truly amazing. In researching for a column I read of his death tonight. I join you in sadness in his passing and deeply appreciate your tremendous tribute to his life. My best to all friends from the past. Yours, Matt Towery

John M. Bredehoft said...

Rick, I just stumbled across this and appreciate your kind comments about Dr. Unger. I'm sorry I missed the confrontation between you and my late, best friend Bill Foutz -- occasionally intimidating! Thank you.