Brittle and Awkward

April 22, 2015 10:19 a.m.

There’s a fascinating little piece in the Times today looking at Ted Cruz’s life as college debate wunderkind as a foreshadowing of his presidential campaign and later public persona. Is past prologue? Believe it or not, yes!

Jason Horowitz finds a young ideologue who was extremely bright when it comes to logical reasoning and brain puzzles but awkwardly short on what psychologists now call emotional intelligence – with the latter often undermining the former in his quest for ultimate debate glory.

The overall picture fits with the almost unanimous recollections of college friends I went back and spoke to as Cruz rose to prominence since 2012. One of the things I often gets pressed on with Cruz is, people ask, “You keep saying he’s so smart. He doesn’t seem that smart to me.”

In the last few decades psychologists have developed a considerably more refined theory of intelligence. There’s logical reasoning, word puzzle intelligence that Cruz unambiguously strives at. Then there’s creative intelligence, emotional intelligence and numerous other intelligence spectra.

The latter one was one which consistently seemed to be Cruz’s undoing in the wonderful world of college debate. He was a guy who could build air-tight arguments that muscled debates in directions he could dominate. But humor wasn’t his forte and more notably it was something his opponents often used to throw him off balance or undo him.

Judges and opponents were, the article reports, put off by his “emotional zeal” and grandiosity.

A few choice passages …

Regarded as a powerful speaker who depended on overly prepared, or “canned,” cases, Mr. Cruz could be foiled with humor. His emotional zeal, no matter which side he was arguing, rubbed more experienced judges the wrong way. So did his stilted speaking style and standoffishness on the debate world’s vibrant social scene, where kegs flowed at Friday night parties. His raw ambition sometimes soured the student judges, as well as the audiences who voted in championship rounds, on him.

One new fact I didn’t know. “When his peers learned of his intention to run for president of the parliamentary debate league, they held a late-night meeting in a hotel to recruit a protest candidate, who eventually won.”

Then this …

“Nobody was better at setting traps,” said Austan D. Goolsbee, a Yale debater who became a leading economist for President Obama. He recalled Mr. Cruz’s attempts to control debates with carefully constructed arguments that always seemed to anticipate his opponents’ rebuttals.

But Mr. Goolsbee and other top debaters on the circuit who frequently beat Mr. Cruz discovered it was easy to get under his skin, especially with humor. “It would unravel him,” Mr. Goolsbee said.

And then this, just this …

Mr. Cruz’s own attempts at humor sometimes missed the mark. In one debate, he proposed a method to detect infidelity, in which God should “give women a hymen that grows back every time she has intercourse with a different guy, because that will be a ‘visible sign’ of the breach of trust,” according to a recollection by David Kennedy published in a Harvard debate team reunion booklet in 2001.

What better way to endear Cruz to female debaters or just normal people than an odd speculation/fantasy about a new feature of women’s bodies in which a part of the female anatomy (the mechanics and location of which at least the younger Cruz appeared not to fully understand) regenerated to notify guys they were cheatin’ hos? How good is that?

The debate circuit is rife with stories like this. Here’s a portion of one unprompted email I got from a one-time competitor not long after Cruz took office …

Now, to be fair, Ted was an excellent debater. [Redacted]

But Ted never quite got to the top because the best Princeton debaters (Bob Ewing, Chris Ray, Shawn Halpert, and Stacy Stoller) chose not to debate with him. As I said, he was a horrible person.

This is a really good article because it shows where Cruz came from and also how his antagonists then and now exploit these weaknesses. The Times inevitably has to pull its punches. But the story is there, albeit it somewhat muted and between the lines.

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