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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