James Unger, 66; Debate Coach at Georgetown, AU

James Unger served as debate consultant to NBC, ABC, the Associated Press and UPI.
James Unger served as debate consultant to NBC, ABC, the Associated Press and UPI.
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By Joe Holley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 29, 2008

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.

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.

Mr. Unger recruited nationwide and selected only the top high school talent to compete for a position on the Georgetown squad, which had about 20 students. He insisted that they report to campus a month before fall classes began to prepare for the season, and most spent school holidays honing their competitive skills for about 30 debates a season. He also required prodigious amounts of research.

In the late 1970s, Mr. Unger's "policymaking" approach to debate strategy became standard practice for debate teams at the high school and college levels.

"Jim is regarded as a pacesetter in terms of theory and technique of debate," University of Kentucky debate coach J.W. Patterson told The Washington Post in 1978. "He is regarded as one of the two or three best coaches in the nation. If there is any criticism of Jim, it is that his teams are over-coached, but they always acquit themselves well."

In 1985, Mr. Unger became director of forensics at American. He led its National Forensics Institute summer program, which brought thousands of high school students to Washington to study competitive speech. He retired from AU in 1996.

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."

Mr. Unger also was a wily and tenacious tennis player.

The Cleveland native had epilepsy for much of his life. He hated taking anti-seizure medication, his friends said, because it left him groggy. That reluctance might have contributed to his death, Rollins said.

There are no immediate survivors.

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