Few professions have the intrinsic, desperate, soul-crushing need to be right like journalists and politicians. So, naturally, stakes are high in the quest for glory at the National Press Club’s annual “Press vs. Politicians” Spelling Bee.
The battle to the death at 7:30 p.m. on September 17 is the sixth installment of a new tradition started in 2013. The bee was first held in 1913 with Woodrow Wilson in attendance, and was resurrected on its hundredth anniversary by the Club’s Young Members Committee as a way to honor the history of the Press Club. The event is open to the public, tickets can be purchased here.
Pitting DC’s most storied “frenemies” against each other in a battle of exactitude has become quite popular, says Press Club spokesperson Brennan Hoban. Last year, roughly 500 were in attendance to watch media members and politicians resurrect the skills they’ve replaced with spell check and hardworking interns.
This year’s representatives from the fifth estate include Alexandra Petri and Josh Dawsey from the Washington Post, John Donnelly from CQ Roll Call, Daniella Cheslow from NPR, Zoe Tillman from Buzzfeed, Alex Gangitano from The Hill, and Eric Geller from Politico. Those coming from Capitol Hill include Reps. Jamie Raskin, Ted Deutch, Don Beyer, Katie Hill, Jennifer Wexton, Chris Pappas, and Deb Haaland.
The bee is marketed as a fun event to raise funds for the Press Club’s Journalism Institute — the philanthropic arm of the Club that raises money for journalists imprisoned or detained overseas. But 2015 bee champ Congressman Don Beyer says competitors come ready to take home the giant champion belt at the end of the night. In the past, Beyer has released smack videos of himself practicing to spook the competition, but he hasn’t had much time to train this year.
“Every year that I lose I’m tempted to go try to find the coaches that the [Scripps] kids use,” he says. “But then my self-discipline goes away a week later, and I don’t spend the whole year preparing for the spelling bee [like I should].”
As unofficial captain of the politicians for the Bee, Beyer says he’s had trouble recruiting Congressional members, as some campaign managers fear exposure of the inability to correctly spell “appropriations” might affect future election results. Perhaps a bit of an overreaction, but one can’t be too careful after former Vice President Dan Quayle disappointed elementary school teachers around the nation by infamously correcting a 12-year-old’s spelling of “potato” to P-O-T-A-T-O-E in 1992.
It’s easy to cast judgment as an armchair spelling champ, but viewers at home might not appreciate the stressful conditions of the bee. It’s hosted by the same people who run the Scripps National Spelling Bee, where prodigious middle schoolers remind viewers of their own ineptitude by spelling words like “bougainvillea” and “pendeloque” with their eyes closed. Press Club contestants are held to the same rules as the national spelling bee, and in the past winning words have included “somatotype” and “apostasy.”
“Even a person who could stand in front of 5000 people and give a rip-roaring speech gets pretty shaky and insecure before these two 13-year-old judges with the little bells,” Beyer says.
Unlike Scripps’ spelling-savvy middle schoolers, contestants at this Bee are given the additional challenge of spelling correctly while liquored up, a feat most of us can’t even achieve with autocorrect to guide our thumbs’ drunken keyboard mashing. Beyer thinks having a drink or two to take the edge off can help, though. Tim Kaine apparently had a major upset in 2013 when he single-handedly took down the majority of the press competitors with a full glass of bourbon in hand, winning on the word “nonpareil.”
But stories like Kaine’s are quickly disappearing into the mist of lore. It’s been two years since the politicians took home the title, and the record stands 3-2 overall in favor of the press. Last year, Washington Post columnist Alexandra Petri smoked the competition, destroying a tricky section of words with Dutch origin and ultimately winning with the word “gallica.”
Petri is coming back again this year, and could not be reached for comment on her plans to defend her title. Beyer, though, had strong words of warning for the reigning champ.
“Alexandra, you’re going down,” Beyer says.