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Mass-Debating: A Better Method

A scene from "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee", photo by Joan Marcus from Playbill.com

A Presidential Spelling Bee is the perfect forum for a pre-primary debate. Which candidate can overcome a grueling series of 11-letter words and be crowned the champion, and which will insist there are two 'u's in nuclear?

There they stood, cluttered on the stage and lined up like good little children, eager to show America and the world why they deserved to win: The guy from Arizona taking his last stab at a national victory before he's too old to compete; the dorky one from New York using his past successes as a stepping stone; the dark horse from Connecticut who, let's face it, seemed doomed from the start to remain in the darkness. While it was an exhibition of courtesy and propriety, one couldn't help but ponder the behind-the-scenes machinations that brought each of them to this stage: the weeks, months, even lives spent in preparation of a momentary opportunity to rise above the crowd of challengers.

I'm speaking, of course, of the Scripps National Spelling Bee. I missed its original airing in March 2007, but recorded it so that I could watch without ABC's shameless barrage of commercials. (They ran a full set of ads between every round; by the time the field winnowed to two spellers, the ad-to-word ratio was a numbing 4-to-1. Who knew so many companies considered "spelling bee fans" to be their target demographic?)

Photo of 2008 Scripps National Spelling Bee contestant

from Spelling Bee.com

The Bee sat unwatched atop the DVD player throughout the summer because every time I had a night free to watch, some presidential candidate debate trumped my enjoyment of watching dozens of children too small for the "E ticket" rides at Disneyland displaying their disconcerting ability to spell words of which even Noah Webster would question the existence. But when I finally settled in and watched the bee, while I handicapped the contestants and selected my favorites, I realized that in the viewing toss-up between spectacular feats of spelling and partisan politics, I had been making the wrong choice.

The Bee offered genuine dramatics with a constant sense that the arrival of an obscure Gaelic word could change the field completely, while the debates played like a scripted reality show with the frustrating caveat that none of the players would be voted off; the Bee provided a steady series of astounding performances (in my eyes, accurately spelling "schuhplattler" qualifies as astounding), while the only astonishing aspect of the debates was how creatively the candidates rearranged the phrasing of their stock talking points. Sure, there wasn't much personality on display at the Spelling Bee, but that was the only way it resembled the debates.

How would presidential candidates fare with spelling the name of the Prime Minister of Libya, has been referenced by a minimum of 32 spellings in various press outlets, including Qaddafi (New York Times), Khadaffi (The National Review), Qhaddafi (The Utah Statesman), Gaddafi (Time), and Qadhafi (The National Review and Time)?

The Bee proved more entertaining because it lacked the inherent flaws of the 10-candidate debate. First, the battle for equal time: every candidate wants an opportunity to deliver the most memorable sound byte of the debate, and that can't done if someone else is talking; evenly distribute the available screen time and each candidate has about six minutes, barely enough time to explain to the nation that you are an actual Senator, and not that guy from the TV show.

Second, the media skews the debates for ratings, so the perceived leaders (a ranking apparently based on how much money they have thus far raised) get significantly more camera time than their lesser known opponents. (One debate actually featured a question, posed to the other candidates, that asked about Barrack Obama's qualifications: I doubt any of the candidates wanted to use any of their precious six minutes to discuss an opponent.) Third, with so many of the candidates using the debate as a marketing tool to pitch their nearly-identical brands, the semantic repetition was excruciating.

While a debate between two candidates who reside on different sides of the aisle can still be a resounding snore (with regard to the Bush-Kerry debates, let's just say, Lincoln-Douglas it wasn't), having a full squadron of suits rephrasing the party line is even further from must-see TV. After an hour-plus of that ubiquitous half-thumb-protrusion from a clinched fist and yet another irrelevant jab at George W. Bush (even the Republicans see him as fair game these days), I'm certain Tommy Thompson isn't the only person saying, "I could not wait until the debate got off so I could go to the bathroom."

As I watched the Bee, I was impressed by its efficient dispatching of less-capable participants and realized that a Presidential Spelling Bee is the perfect forum for a pre-primary, everyone-gets-a-microphone debate. The concept is quite simple: Let's dispense with the oft-displayed warm-hearted back stab (“My distinguished opponent makes an excellent point, especially considering what a vapid press-whore he has shown himself to be”) and labored efforts to score a one-liner laugh and have an actual contest: Which candidate can overcome a grueling series of 11-letter words and be crowned the champion, and which will insist there are two 'u's in nuclear?

You’re probably asking, "Who cares if a Presidential candidate can spell?" (Exactly the question Dan Quayle wishes you had asked in 1992 while the nation tarred and feathered him for his infamous misspelling of "potato.") It’s a good question: The ability to spell is esoteric knowledge compared to, say, having a strong grasp of world affairs, and in America, we don’t even have an expectation that our President will have a strong grasp of world affairs. Plus, poll after modern poll fixates on which Presidential candidate would be better company for a night at the bar, and when was the last time you were concerned that your drinking buddy knew the correct vowel pattern for Albuquerque?

2008 Republican presidential debate in New Hampshire

But the advantages of the Presidential Bee have little to do with spelling:

Candidates will be required to answer the question.

Politicians too often think that filling the post-question silence with words is equivalent to answering a query, so if there’s a topic they wish to avoid, they shift the focus to some issue that they hope will strike a chord with the voter, pretending that a diatribe against illegal wire tapping will be well received even if the question involved national health care.

These things simply don't happen in a spelling bee. Not once during the event did second-place finisher Nate Gartke say, "Videlicet. Videlicet is from Latin, meaning 'clearly' or 'precisely', and the fact that I know that is in no way a credit to the modern public school system which has systematically removed languages and arts from the academic syllabus. Why is it so hard for our leaders to recognize the short-sightedness of lowest-common-denominator testing methods that ensure every child follow the path of least resistance toward a meaningless diploma? Videlicet."

If a candidate is asked to spell "sovereignty", they won't be allowed to stammer through various forms of the word with the pretension that they are answering the question; they'll have to spell it, and since most of us learn to spell using the dictionary, we’ll have a small assurance that they also know what the word means.

Candidates will be required to have a modicum of understanding about other nations.

Contrary to common misconceptions, success in a spelling bee is not a matter of rote memorization: Spelling involves understanding word origins, which requires an understanding of which languages influenced other languages, which in turn requires an understanding of geography and history. (It's not mere coincidence that several of the 2007 Scripp’s finalists also excelled in geography contests.) Perhaps knowing that a particular term is derived from Greek is not an essential qualification for leading a nation, but at least someone with that level of intellectual curiosity will also know that people from Greece are not called “Grecians.”

Candidates will not have the opportunity to blow themselves out of proportion.

During the Spelling Bee, I noticed that none of the kids began their turn by saying, "While my opponent obviously succeeded in spelling 'amphipneustic', my experience as a three-time state spelling champion and two-time National spelling bee semi-finalist demonstrates that I have faced high-pressure situations without backing down, exactly the type of composure and strength we should expect from a Scripp's champion. I'm sure the judges will see this, irrelevant to my forthcoming performance on 'cyclazocine'." At a Spelling Bee, what matters is what you can do right now -- not what you've done in the past.

Candidates will be forced out of their comfort zone.

During a standard-format debate, it doesn't matter if the questions are posed by Anderson Cooper or some t-shirted gun-nut on YouTube, the same topics are covered in every debate, and each candidate’s handlers have formulated, edited, and polished the ideal response to every expected question, thereby limiting the need for any dangerous improvisation. This type of preparation simply wouldn’t work for a Spelling Bee.

The debate will have an actual winner.

Have you ever stayed tuned to a Spelling Bee after the final word is successfully completed and heard members of various factions of the spelling community discussing who won the bee? Of course not: Spelling bees have an undisputed winner, and subjective, partisan autopsies are unnecessary. Yet after the presidential debates, every news station features an assortment of pundits who rehash the event ad nauseum, regurgitating the sound bytes that support their declaration of a victor. Wouldn't it be nice if once in a while we could celebrate an uncontested winner?

Since there are no 12-year-old home-schooled presidential candidates (and I've never seen anyone other than a home-schooled pre-teen successfully spell a final-round Scripp's word), the Presidential Bee would require adjustments of the word list. I suggest the language be culled from both international current events and political history, requiring that candidates have read recent newspapers (and not simply received a verbal recap from an aide or CNN's Headline News), as well as essential historical documents.

For instance, early rounds could feature words such as emoluments, quorum, and suffrage, each culled directly from the United States Constitution, regarded by many to be among the most essential political documents ever written. (And disregarded by others to be “just a goddamned piece of paper!” But hey, you say to-may-to, I say to-mah-to.)

As each round passes, topical contemporary words would be added; vocabulary like Kyrgyzstan, Janjaweed, and Hezbollah. Frankly, it will be great fun to watch Mit Romney wrestle with "Hezbollah", as his years spent in a region that barely acknowledges the existence of the 18th letter of the alphabet may have him instinctively compensating for the accent by ending the word with "e-r". (I can make that joke: I was bohn there.)

“But wait,” some might protest, “I've seen that word written as 'hizballah'. And 'hezbullah', too. Which would be considered right?” Indeed, we need to consider that English translations of foreign words tend toward the subjective. For example, the Prime Minister of Libya has been referenced by a minimum of 32 spellings in various press outlets, including Qaddafi (New York Times), Khadaffi (The National Review), Qhaddafi (The Utah Statesman), Gaddafi (Time), and Qadhafi (The National Review and Time.)

While any of those spellings will be accepted in the Presidential Bee, viewers will get additional insight into a candidate by their mannerisms as they answer: If a candidate rattles off "Qhaddafi Q-H-A-D-A-F-F-I Qhadaffi", the audience will have a sense of that speller's comfort with the subject matter; if the response is delivered with the confidence of a fourth grader who immediately made a paper airplane with the word list ("K-um-H? A-D-A-F-F? Y?”) then the audience will get to see whether that speller flinches at the cruelly piercing “ding” that signals the end of a player's Bee participation.

I'm not suggesting we use the Bee to decide the actual presidency: America has both a popular vote that often indicates a victor and an Electoral College that allows the Supreme Court to decide a winner, fine traditions both. But for one of those large, single-party debates, the Spelling Bee Primary offers a genuine variation from the tried and tired Q&no-A format, a chance for one candidate to flex their etymological might and present a real-time televised political coup, emerging from the clutter of podiums as the undisputed Presidential Bee champion.

As for the other candidates?

Ding.

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