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
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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.

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