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For a young Elizabeth Warren, ‘a firecracker questioner,’ debate was a ticket to another life

Elizabeth Warren, at left with high school debate partner Karl Johnson, was an outstanding high school debater.
Elizabeth Warren, at left with high school debate partner Karl Johnson, was an outstanding high school debater.(Northwest High School 1966 yearbook)

Ted Siff had made it to the final of the Bellaire Debate tournament in Texas, practically the Rose Bowl of the high-octane world of high school debate in the region, and victory was within his grasp.

All he and his partner, his twin brother, Joe, had to do was beat a team they’d never heard of from Oklahoma City. They had prepared all through the summer of 1965, and as their opponents — a boy in a three-piece suit and a 16-year-old girl with straight brown bangs — slid into their desks, the Siffs felt confident.

That changed when the girl opened her mouth. Everyone had to debate the same anodyne topic, but she laid out a case they had never even considered. When the Siffs tried to rebut it, her questions flew like bullets.

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“I remember this 16-year-old girl who was a firecracker questioner, rapid-fire questioner,” Siff said. “Those were new questions, those were new arguments. . . . We were stunned.”

The Siffs lost. It was decades before they realized who had beaten them: Liz Herring, a young-for-her-grade high school senior who was about to blaze her way out of Oklahoma on a college debate scholarship and start a winding path to becoming US Senator Elizabeth Warren.

Fifty years later, now a presidential candidate instead of a lanky teenager in a homemade wool jumper, Warren is hoping to deliver another command performance in Miami Wednesday night, when she will squeeze on stage with nine other candidates for the first Democratic debate. Warren has been rising in the polls, and the debate is a chance for her to lock in her status as a top contender for the party’s nomination.

Though the candidate debates of her political career bear little resemblance to her high school debates, Warren continues to use the lessons she learned. Above, a 2012 debate with Senator Scott Brown.
Though the candidate debates of her political career bear little resemblance to her high school debates, Warren continues to use the lessons she learned. Above, a 2012 debate with Senator Scott Brown.(Jim Davis/Globe Staff/File)

The televised smackdowns that shape politics today are dramatically different from the formal academic debate that Warren excelled at as a teenager. They are barely debates at all. But the skills she honed back then — particularly her ability to quickly and surgically deflate her opponents’ arguments — could serve her well on a crowded stage where every candidate will only get a few minutes to speak.

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If she succeeds, it will not be the first time she has used debate to advance to something bigger. For Warren, debate was a ticket to an education when her family could not pay for college. It put her on equal competitive footing with male students at a time when young women were expected to defer to men. And it rewarded her relentless work ethic, helping her to develop a zeal for research and persuasion that powered her rise through academia and then politics.

“One of the things about debate that makes it so much fun, you can do as much work as you want; there is no stopping point,” Warren said in an interview in her spare Washington condo. “You can read forever, right?”

Over time, debate became much more than Warren’s high school hobby. It was a proving ground and a place to channel her early ambitions, but it also played a role in the conflicts that defined her early life. It led her to reach for more than her parents wanted for her, rocketing her into college before she chose to get married and walk away.

“It was definitely not the smartest move I ever made,” Warren wrote later of her first marriage.

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Warren found her way into the cutthroat world of debate as a freshman, when she joined the rigorous program at her well-to-do public high school, Northwest Classen. The elite Oklahoma City team regularly produced state champions and even once sent scouts to spy on rival debaters in nearby Seminole. Anything for an edge.

“It wasn’t physically bloody but you get pretty mentally bloody,” said Terry Farmer, who debated on the team with Warren.

Debate was a refuge for Warren, a world where she fit. She has described herself as feeling “miserable,” plain, and out-of-place in her giant high school. She was the sort of student who preferred slinging answers on a high school quiz show to shaking pom poms in the football stands. Speech and debate, filled with ambitious and intellectual students consumed with questions that reached far beyond their horizons in Oklahoma City, gave her a niche. She had a connection with an older member of the team — Jim Warren, the man she would later marry — and filled her evenings and weekends with practice and tournaments.

“She just took to it like ducks to water,” said a close high school friend, Katrina Harry Cochran. “She was just immediately noticed.”

Back then, the all-white high school’s gleaming display case overflowed with giant debate trophies that towered over smaller football ones, recalled Chuck Bruton, another debater. High school assemblies were sometimes called solely to congratulate the team on its latest win.

“If you’re on the debate team in Northwest Classen, you’re a pretty big cheese,” Bruton said.

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But, despite achieving the highest level of distinction possible for high school debaters, Warren didn’t feel like any kind of star at the time. Her teammates remember her as funny and whip-smart, but she was embarrassed by her family’s financial struggles. She worried her mother would never let her apply for — much less attend — college, and she couldn’t pay for the demanding debate training programs that many of her teammates went to each summer.

“The kids who could afford it went to debate camp,” she said. “I spent the summer with a job.”

That didn’t stop Warren from aiming for the top spot on Northwest Classen’s elite debate squad. At the beginning of her junior year, after a summer taking odd sewing jobs and reading Time magazine cover to cover to keep up with the news, Warren faced off with a teammate who had spent the previous weeks prepping at a nearby college debate program.

The coach watched closely as Warren ripped Joe Pryor to shreds, snagging his spot on the A team. “Her focus was like a laser,” Pryor recalled. “She came loaded for business. I mean she was ready.”

Now, Warren officially led the team’s roster with another junior named Karl Johnson. They went on to rack up trophies, including the Oklahoma state championship their senior year.

Warren and opponent Geoff Diehl debated in October 2018.
Warren and opponent Geoff Diehl debated in October 2018.(Michael Swenson for The Boston Globe/File)

Fellow debaters described Warren’s style as a sort of polished brutality. She could tear her opponents’ ideas apart but managed to do so without ever appearing mean or aggressive — a big “don’t” for female debaters at the time.

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“She learned early that you can’t be too strong because everyone thinks you’re a bitch if you’re a girl,” Farmer said.

Women were rare in the top echelons of debating, and often had to win over skeptical rivals or judges or simply perform better than the boys to get the same scores, a pattern of unfairness that Warren remembers vividly. “Most of the teams we debated were two guys and they’d walk in and do the eyeball roll,” Warren said. “Oh, a girl-boy team.’”

“So there was a lot of, ‘prove yourself.’ ”

The depth of her research stood out so vividly that her rivals and teammates recall it 50 years later.

“She was very, very detailed and I wouldn’t necessarily call it brutal, but you felt a certain sense of brutality when you were out of your league on something,” Pryor recalled.

That fierce command of the facts required dogged practice and deep research. Warren and Johnson plopped on her family’s couch three or four nights a week, sometimes late into the night, combing through documents and refining their arguments. They tore through the local libraries, sent off to congressional committees, and once even contacted George Romney — the father of Mitt Romney who served as governor of Michigan and the executive of an automobile company — seeking information to buttress a case. They wrote down useful nuggets on 3x5 note cards, which team members lugged in metal carrying cases so heavy that some wore fur-lined gloves to protect their hands.

“The top debaters were always in an arms race to get the best information and make the best arguments,” Warren said.

But Warren came to learn that quotations and data points weren’t enough. She needed to “take people through the argument — here’s why, here’s what you know,” Warren said, sounding almost like she were describing the seemingly endless stream of policy plans that has come to define her presidential run.

One day while studying together, Warren and Johnson had a breakthrough, the kind of thrill only a debate nerd can appreciate.

They were building a case for requiring compulsory arbitration in labor disputes, which was the topic for all debaters that year. Unions were strong in 1960s America, and the logical path was to form their argument around the idea that arbitration should be required because labor had too much power. But as they did their research, the partners realized the data were leading them somewhere else entirely. Union membership had begun to erode and imports and automation posed a threat to their ranks. A new idea occurred to the duo : What if they argued that compulsory arbitration was needed because management — not labor — had too much power, and needed to be forced to the table?

“It hit both of us; there’s just kind of this moment when you look at each other,” Warren said. “We both said, ‘Want to try the argument?’ ”

It was a unique case, a curveball that derailed well-prepared teams like the Siffs at Bellaire, and Warren is still proud of it 50 years later. “You’d watch people’s heads snap,” she said, her eyes lit up. “Like, you knew what the argument was supposed to be, and it wasn’t the one we were making.”

On the debate stage, Warren had a banner year: winning numerous trophies and going all the way to nationals in the extemporaneous speaking category. But life with her parents in their two-story home was far less happy. Warren fought bitterly with her mother over her desire to go to college rather than stay home, get work, and marry. Once, she wrote, her mother slapped her, demanding to know why she felt she was so “special” that she had to go off to college when no one else in her family had.

Debate provided a way out. Warren pored through college booklets, looking for scholarships. Her mother wasn’t happy but she couldn’t object when Liz won a debate scholarship to George Washington University and headed east at 17, a young debater with a reputation to live up to.

“I remember people saying, ‘Oh, Liz Herring got the debate scholarship and she’s coming,’ ” said William Toutant, another freshman on GW’s prestigious debate team that year. “I think there were very high expectations for her.”

When she got to Washington, Warren threw herself into her new life with the same intensity she had used to debate her way out of Oklahoma. She found time to join a sorority and win a campus fund-raising contest that earned her the title of “Miss Class of 1970.” She jumped into debate — even telling the school newspaper she wanted to be a debate coach — and an older student from Oklahoma named Andy Mason became her debate partner and boyfriend. Her teammates remember her as a whirlwind, with Mason trying to settle her down.

“She’d come in and she’d be either upset or wanted to do something or was intense, and Andy would be, ‘Oh now Liz, don’t you worry about it,’ ” said John Warner, another member of the team.

But Warren never became the debate star in college that she was in high school. By sophomore year she felt strapped for cash and knew she couldn’t balance debate practice with a job. She converted her debate scholarship to an academic one, and decided to focus more on her goal of becoming a teacher for young children. “It didn’t seem that hard to make the shift,” she said.

She left college entirely after her friend from high school, Jim Warren, graduated from Stanford and promptly asked her to marry him when she was home for the summer. She had used debate to forge her own path, but ultimately ended up returning to her mother’s playbook — for a while, at least.

“My mother thought it was a great idea,” Warren said dryly.

Now running for president, Warren frequently references the “twisty-turny” road she took into politics — from promising debate champion, to restless homemaker, to Harvard professor — on the campaign trail. She finished college at the University of Houston, had two kids, and went to law school, before becoming a law professor at Rutgers the age of 29. Warren divorced her husband around the same time, marrying fellow law professor Bruce Mann shortly after.

But she found her way back to debate as an academic, and later, a politician — when she blew her rivals out of the water in 2012 to become the Democratic nominee for Senate. When she faced Senator Scott Brown, a Republican, in a series of debates, she was relentless in tying him to national Republicans, hammering the point again and again to erode his contention he was an independent-minded moderate.

“She’s a formidable debater,” said Colin Reed, Brown’s campaign manager in 2012. “Our goal was just to fight her to a draw.”

One debate club skill that particularly paid off for her against Brown was what is called the “affirmative rebuttal” — the first and critical parry to the other team’s main argument. And so when Brown came after her claim to Native American heritage or her past corporate law work, Warren was ready to pounce.

Warren has lost plenty of battles, too, and she said her high school debate years also taught her how to bounce back from the crush of defeat.

“You’ve given everything you can and then the judge would critique the four kids face to face, and then turn to one side and say, ‘I’m giving you the win and you the loss,’ ” Warren said.

Either way, she had to be ready to go right back out for the next debate.

“I learned you can lose,” she said, “and get back up.”


Jess Bidgood can be reached at jess.bidgood@globe.com. Follow heron Twitter @jessbidgood. Liz Goodwin can be reached at liz.goodwin@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @lizcgoodwin.