And the Best Speller in Washington Is”¦

Highlights from the National Press Club spelling bee that pitted politicians against the journalists who cover them.

Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., is the best speller in this town.
National Journal
Marina Koren
See more stories about...
Marina Koren
Sept. 19, 2013, 5:52 a.m.

In 1913, mem­bers of Con­gress and the press took a break from policy and pub­lish­ing to go head to head in a spelling bee. About 1,000 people crowded in­to the Wil­lard Hotel on Pennsylvania Av­en­ue to watch, in­clud­ing then-Pres­id­ent Woo­drow Wilson and mem­bers of his Cab­in­et. Sec­ret­ary of State Wil­li­am Jen­nings Bry­an kicked off the bee by read­ing an ode to the print­ing press. The politi­cians proved vic­tori­ous, with a mem­ber of Con­gress from Ohio tak­ing the crown of “best speller in the United States.”

A cen­tury later, the journ­al­ists fi­nally got a re­match. Nine Wash­ing­ton re­port­ers faced off against nine law­makers in a spir­ited spelling bee Wed­nes­day night at the Na­tion­al Press Club. The words, read to par­ti­cipants by Mer­ri­am Web­ster’s ed­it­or-at-large, Peter Soko­lowski, ranged from “ste­no­graph­er” and “fa­cil­it­ate” to “mel­li­flu­ous” and “ich­thy­olo­gist.” Law­makers and journ­al­ists alike joked to get out of spelling them when it was their turn at the po­di­um, with Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., once ask­ing, “Can you spell it in a sen­tence?”

The politi­cians led in the first half, but as the num­ber of con­test­ants star­ted to dwindle, the journ­al­ists tied the score. A struggle to take the lead com­menced, un­til the re­port­ers pulled ahead and stayed there. They won the bee in points, 38-36.

The cham­pi­on, though, was Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., who beat out Politico‘s deputy White House ed­it­or, Re­becca Sinder­brand. Kaine, who was an eco­nom­ics ma­jor, won the bee with “non­pareil,” which Mer­ri­am-Web­ster defines as “hav­ing no equal.”

The ac­tion throughout evoked a range of re­ac­tions from the audi­ence, from gasps and laughter to boos and groans. Here are some of the best mo­ments of the night.

The throw­back: Rep. Matt Cartwright, D-Pa., was up first. The word was “potato.” The se­lec­tion was a ref­er­ence to former Vice Pres­id­ent Dan Quayle’s spelling slipup, which fol­lowed him for the rest of his ca­reer. While mod­er­at­ing a school spelling bee in New Jer­sey in 1992, Quayle told a sixth-grader the cor­rect spelling was “pota­toe.” In Wed­nes­day night’s bee, Cartwright didn’t tack on the er­rant “e.”

The awk­ward: When Rep. Ted Deutch, D-Fla. took the po­di­um after Kate Nocera of BuzzFeed, he told the audi­ence, “I’d be more pre­pared but I was look­ing at her GIFs.” The state­ment eli­cited shocked gasps and laughter from the audi­ence. “What? She’s a journ­al­ist!” Deutch ex­plained. He was then asked to spell “etiquette.”

The polit­ic­al: When Rep. Gerry Con­nolly, D-Va., stepped up for his first word, he said, “Don’t hurt me, I’m a Demo­crat.” Later, when he was giv­en the word “icon­o­clast,” the law­maker took a jab at a rumored pres­id­en­tial hope­ful. “Icon­o­clast? You mean like Ted Cruz?”

The Mor­mon: Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ar­iz., thought “shenanigans” star­ted with the let­ter C, an er­ror that eli­cited groans and laughter from the crowd. He got a free pass, and when he re­turned to the po­di­um in the fol­low­ing round, he cla­ri­fied, “For the re­cord on that last one, I’m Mor­mon. I’m not sup­posed to know any­thing about shenanigans.” Later, faced with spelling “mal­feas­ance,” Flake joked, “Can I plead the Mor­mon thing again?”

The risque: After Fox News chief White House cor­res­pond­ent Ed Henry mis­spelled “epi­glot­tis,” Con­nolly stepped up to the po­di­um and said, “Epi­glot­tis? I thought this was a fam­ily show.”

And the jokes: After Nocera mis­spelled bur­eau­cracy in the first round, she ex­plained, “I only do GIFs and lists.” Re­u­ters cor­res­pond­ent Toby Za­karia went with word­play be­fore tack­ling “cir­cuit­ous,” ask­ing Soko­lowski, “Can you spell that back­wards please?” And Flake, who had pre­vi­ously spelled “mal­efi­cent,” in­cor­rectly, told Soko­lowski that his iPhone re­por­ted the cor­rect spelling was ac­tu­ally wrong. The lex­ico­graph­er countered, “Get a bet­ter dic­tion­ary.”

The politi­cian con­test­ants also in­cluded Rep. Peter De­Fazio, D-Ore., Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Cal­if., and Sen. Chris­toph­er Murphy, D-Conn. Oth­er journ­al­ist par­ti­cipants were Howard Fine­man of The Huff­ing­ton Post, Ma­jor Gar­rett of CBS News and Na­tion­al Journ­al, Meredith Shiner of Roll Call, Ash­ley Southall of The New York Times, and Kar­en Tu­multy of The Wash­ing­ton Post.

What We're Following See More »
In Dropout Speech, Santorum Endorses Rubio
2 days ago

As expected after earlier reports on Wednesday, Rick Santorum ended his presidential bid. But less expected: he threw his support to Marco Rubio. After noting he spoke with Rubio the day before for an hour, he said, “Someone who has a real understanding of the threat of ISIS, real understanding of the threat of fundamentalist Islam, and has experience, one of the things I wanted was someone who has experience in this area, and that’s why we decided to support Marco Rubio.” It doesn’t figure to help Rubio much in New Hampshire, but the Santorum nod could pay dividends down the road in southern states.

Rubio, Trump Question Obama’s Mosque Visit
2 days ago

President Obama’s decision to visit a mosque in Baltimore today was never going to be completely uncontroversial. And Donald Trump and Marco Rubio proved it. “Maybe he feels comfortable there,” Trump told interviewer Greta van Susteren on Fox News. “There are a lot of places he can go, and he chose a mosque.” And in New Hampshire, Rubio said of Obama, “Always pitting people against each other. Always. Look at today – he gave a speech at a mosque. Oh, you know, basically implying that America is discriminating against Muslims.”

Cruz Must Max Out on Evangelical Support through Early March
2 days ago

For Ted Cruz, a strong showing in New Hampshire would be nice, but not necessary. That’s because evangelical voters only make up 21% of the Granite State’s population. “But from the February 20 South Carolina primary through March 15, there are nine states (South Carolina, Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Kentucky, Mississippi, and North Carolina) with an estimated white-Evangelical percentage of the GOP electorate over 60 percent, and another four (Texas, Kansas, Louisiana, and Missouri) that come in over 50 percent.” But after that, he better be in the catbird’s seat, because only four smaller states remain with evangelical voter majorities.

Rubio Now Winning the ‘Endorsement Primary’
2 days ago

Since his strong third-place finish in Iowa, Marco Rubio has won endorsement by two sitting senators and two congressmen, putting him in the lead for the first time of FiveThirtyEight‘s Endorsement Tracker. “Some politicians had put early support behind Jeb Bush — he had led [their] list since August — but since January the only new endorsement he has received was from former presidential candidate Sen. Lindsey Graham.” Meanwhile, the New York Times reports that fueled by resentment, “members of the Bush and Christie campaigns have communicated about their mutual desire to halt … Rubio’s rise in the polls.”

Carly Fiorina Will Not Be Allowed to Debate on Saturday
1 days ago

ABC News has announced the criteria for Saturday’s Republican debate, and that means Carly Fiorina won’t be a part of it. The network is demanding candidates have “a top-three finish in Iowa, a top-six standing in an average of recent New Hampshire polls or a top-six placement in national polls in order for candidates to qualify.” And there will be no “happy hour” undercard debate this time. “So that means no Fiorina vs. Jim Gilmore showdown earlier in the evening for the most ardent of campaign 2016 junkies.