Virtually every leading contender for president is a septuagenarian. Even the one millennial on the Las Vegas debate stage last night, Pete Buttigieg, is arguably a boomer in spirit. Where, one might ask, are today’s young leaders? There are plenty, of course, dispersed throughout lower offices in America. But I want to share with you a special glimpse I got of tomorrow’s leaders. I spent Presidents’ Day weekend with hundreds of them, and the experience made me more hopeful about the country than anything else in recent times.
Some of you may know that on many weekends, I volunteer as a parent judge at high school speech tournaments. I do this in part to support my boys, both of whom compete; I do it also because I was an avid speech competitor in high school myself and want to give back to the program that helped make me who I am. I credit that public speaking experience, more than any other, with teaching me not just oral communication skills, but also poise and self-confidence. It is what helped me overcome my pathological shyness and my discomfort with strangers. I wasn’t much for sports, but when I was a senior, I earned the distinction of best orator in my home state. And, for good or ill, I haven’t shut up since. Thus, perhaps, a future prosecutor and podcaster was born.
Last weekend was the annual Harvard national speech and debate tournament in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Thousands of students from scores of schools all over the country came to the frigid New England campus to do their poetry readings, perform their dramatic bits, deliver their orations, and debate the issues of the day. From morning til night, an army of overdressed kids trudged the crosswalks between the storied buildings in Harvard Yard. In the early hours, at home base in the science center, you could see some competitors literally speaking to walls, animatedly rehearsing their pieces.
Let me give you a sense of what I saw judging a number of preliminary rounds. In the category of original oratory, students deliver from memory a ten-minute speech they have written themselves. Just to write and memorize and fluently deliver a talk of that length with no props, no podium, and no notes is an impressive feat for the average 16-year-old. Though performances and talent naturally varied, to a person, the speeches were mature and thoughtful and deeply reflective. One talked eloquently about how people express anger, how such expression is viewed through a biased gender lens; women often discriminated against for showing passion, men lauded for it. Another held forth on cancel culture. Another talked about the impossible and absurd cultural standards we set for beauty in America, cleverly making Barbie her rhetorical foil throughout. They explored complex themes of self-worth, stereotypes, and suicide. There was also simple wisdom from these kids. As one said, “We can be brave even when we are afraid.”
The hardest speech category, in my opinion, is something called extemporaneous speaking. I was much too chicken to brave this category in high school, which fact I once told my sons, and I suspect that is precisely why they both chose “extemp” as their signature competition event. Here is the harrowing format: each round is based on a broad topic (e.g., American politics, the economy, foreign policy, technology, and the like). Within the broad topic, a competitor is given a choice of three questions to answer. After that, they have a total of 30 mins to prepare a well-reasoned, fact-filled, soundly-sourced answer, to be delivered in a smooth seven-minute speech, with citations and without notes. The questions are often complex and obscure. Consider some of the questions that the kids in my rounds had to address:
Will there be an economic recession in 2020?
Will the coronavirus outbreak threaten the US-China trade deal?
How would Judy Shelton shape the direction of the Federal Reserve?
Will the USMCA be a substantial upgrade over NAFTA?
What steps should the US take to reduce Iranian influence in the Middle East?
Seven years later, has Abenomics worked?
- What steps should Taiwan take to thwart Chinese attempts to take control of the island?
Good Lord. How many of these could you answer competently, even with a half-hour heads up? I confess I did not know the first thing about Judy Shelton, but was pleased to be educated by the teenager who drew that especially tough question. Compare these pointed questions with any asked at last night’s debate. The degree of difficulty is no different. What inspires and impresses me is not just that these kids are already so worldly, but that they have chosen this as their thing to do. Consider what it takes to be up to speed and thoughtful on every issue of domestic and international policy, to voluntarily subject yourself to such an ordeal, and prepare to be judged on your performance. That’s something else.
One point of personal pride. I found fascinating the viral video of Amy Klobuchar and Tom Steyer whiffing on the name of the Mexican president, which clip also showed Mayor Pete giving the correct answer, “Lopez Obrador.” How terrible a flub was not knowing that name? At the debate last night, Klobuchar implicitly conceded it was bad because she claimed it was momentary forgetfulness, rather than ignorance (watch the video and judge for yourself). Last Friday night at the tournament, I asked my older son if he knew who the president of Mexico was. As I later tweeted, straight up he said, “Lopez Obrador. AMLO [Andres Mauel Lopez Obrador]!” He then proceeded to give me chapter and verse about him and his policies. He was aware of the viral clip and wasn’t being boastful; he stressed that everyone who does “extemp” knows AMLO, of course must know AMLO, given that US-Mexico relations could always come up as a competition topic.
And that quite struck me. My son and his classmates are not running to be the leader of the free world, not yet anyway; they’re just trying to reach baseline preparedness to be competent at a high school speech tournament. And they took care to be so prepared.
They’re just kids. But their diligence and dedication inspire me. They are too young to lead us yet, but I can’t wait.