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
Add to Briefcase
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 »
Some Members Seek to Wrap Up Russia Investigations by Year’s End
19 hours ago

"A growing number of key Republicans are sending this message to the leaders of the congressional committees investigating potential Trump campaign collusion with the Russians: Wrap it up soon. In the House and Senate, several Republicans who sit on key committees are starting to grumble that the investigations have spanned the better part of the past nine months, contending that the Democratic push to extend the investigation well into next year could amount to a fishing expedition."

Trump: Marino Withdrawing Nomination for Drug Czar
1 days ago
Doesn’t Express Confidence in Marino
Trump to Declare Opioid Emergency Next Week
2 days ago

After initially promising it in August, "President Trump said Monday that he will declare a national emergency next week to address the opioid epidemic." When asked, he also "declined to express confidence in Rep. Tom Marino (R-Pa.), his nominee for drug czar, in the wake of revelations that the lawmaker helped steer legislation making it harder to act against giant drug companies."

Manchin Asks Trump to Drop Marino’s Nomination for Drug Czar
2 days ago
McCaskill Will Introduce Bill in Response to “60 Minutes” Scoop
2 days ago

In the wake of Sunday's blockbuster 60 Minutes/Washington Post report on opioid regulation and enforcement, Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) has introduced legislation that "would repeal a 2016 law that hampered the Drug Enforcement Administration’s ability to regulate opioid distributors it suspects of misconduct." In a statement, McCaskill said: “Media reports indicate that this law has significantly affected the government’s ability to crack down on opioid distributors that are failing to meet their obligations and endangering our communities."


Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.