Senator Tim Kaine Is Officially the “Best Speller in the United States”

In a spelling bee pitting lawmakers against journalists, a politician came out on T-O-P

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The spelling competition starts in the video above around the 14:40 mark. Kaine’s moment of glory is at roughly 1:46:00. 

On Wednesday night, the National Press Club hosted the event of a century: a spelling bee pitting Beltway journalists against lawmakers, just like a showdown held by the club in 1913. Amid two hours of goading, laughter and heartbreak, nine members of Congress and nine journalists faced words such as vicissitudeshenanigans and, of course, potato.

The journalists were primed for a rematch, with their side having lost when Ohio Rep. Frank B. Willis was declared the “Best Speller in the United States” 100 years ago. And redemption was almost theirs. In the end, the competition came down to one lawmaker and one journalist. Kaine, who was much ribbed by the journalist side for correctly spelling gourmand terms such as radicchio, emerged as the champion after POLITICO’s Rebecca Sinderbrand tragically failed to identify the h in ochlocracy. Dramatically stripping off his jacket, Kaine then correctly spelled nonpareil, making it the winning word as well as a fitting description for the evening. (Disclosure: As a member of the press club, I organized the event.) He dedicated his win to “oppressed, poor male spellers everywhere.”

The event was held as a celebration of D.C. history and a benefit for the Press Club’s non-profit Journalism Institute, with roughly 400 people coming out to watch the nerdy fireworks in Washington, D.C. Alongside Kaine were Senators Chris Coons, Jeff Flake and Chris Murphy, as well as Representatives Cartwright, Connolly, DeFazio, Deutch and Eshoo.

After Flake attempted to spell shenanigans with a c-h-i, he told the crowd that given his Mormon background, surely he couldn’t be expected to know anything about shenanigans. Connolly, who sailed through early rounds and spent much of his time sassing fellow contestants, went out in a confused, crowd-pleasing attempt at spelling hydrangea–apparently under the impression that the genus of flowering shrubs commonly cultivated in Britain was a hydranger.

The journalists also had some glorious exits. Major Garrett, White House correspondent for CBS News, forgot the second c in vaccination, a mistake that the crowd made clear as they collectively sucked all the air out of the room. Garrett, lucky not to suffocate on the spot, tried to explain to the judges that the letter c is often misheard as the letter i. “Really,” he admonished them, “if you’re listening carefully.” After misspelling bureaucracy, BuzzFeed’s Kate Nocera explained that her line of work requires little orthographic mastery. “I only do GIFs and lists,” she said, “Soooo…”

Rep. Deutch, a Florida Democrat, followed Nocera and joked that “I’d be better prepared, but I was busy looking at her GIFs.” Apparently, if said in the right manner, GIFs can sound an awful lot like a double entendre. The crowd guffawed.

The bee had plenty of supporting actors, too. Singing satirist Mark Russell began the evening, thoroughly breaching decorum with jokes about Anthony Weiner (He takes his dog to the vet. The vet asks whether he would like him neutered. The dog says “yes!”). Acting as the collective straight men to the spellers’ antics were spelling bee aficionados from Merriam Webster, who selected the words, and the E.W. Scripps Company, which runs the children’s championship in Washington, D.C. each year.

When given their words by Merriam Webster Editor-at-Large Peter Sokolowski, spellers went far beyond the usual queries about derivations.

“Could CBS turn off the cameras?” Garrett asked, before his vaccination snafu.

“Could you spell that in a sentence please?” Coons asked, before missing silhouette.

“Can you use it in a limerick?” Kaine asked of exacerbate.

Though the reporters lost the individual title, again, they were declared the team winner. Each speller was awarded one point for a correctly spelled word, and more journalists remained in the competition longer, giving them a chance to rack up 38 points to the lawmakers 36 before the Virginia Senator snatched the “Best Speller in the United States” cup. Journalists vowed to stand again in a rematch—in another 100 years. “If every spelling bee had an open bar,” Kaine said about the evening, “my elementary school years would have been much more pleasant.”