The word that must not be spoken

Al Kamen
Columnist April 4, 2012

Washington’s newest dirty word is “conference.”

Thanks to the clowning and magic tricks by the General Services Administration at a posh Las Vegas resort (the one that led to the resignation this week of the agency’s chief and two of her top deputies and the ouster — “administrative leave” — of four officials involved in planning the ritzy event) the word may now be verboten among the agencies.

Al Kamen, an award-winning columnist on the national staff of The Washington Post, created the “In the Loop” column in 1993. View Archive

On Wednesday, for example, the Department of Homeland Security boasted of its successful “2012 National Fusion Center Training Event.” A “training event” sounds like serious business. Not to be confused with a “conference,” which, thanks to the GSA, now conjures up images of conga lines and taxpayer-funded decadence.

Funny, though, that the very same DHS event held last year was billed as the “National Fusion Center Conference.”

Oh, what a difference a year makes.

And as a helpful guide to government conference — oops, scratch that — event planners, we offer these synonyms so you might label your next gathering appropriately:

●“Annual meeting.” Using the word “annual” conveys a sense that it’s just a routine event. Nothing to see here, people . . .

●“Seminar.” Makes us think of lecture halls and trying to stay awake. So boring, no one will notice.

●“Symposium.” Implies lots of deep thoughts and has a certain air of gravitas about it.

●“Forum.” Sounds Roman, which makes us think of togas, which makes us think of “Animal House.”

Well, maybe avoid “forum,” too.

The art of the answer

In this town, reporters sometimes ask government briefers questions they can’t immediately answer. They’re often told, “I’ll get back to you on that.”

At some places, such as the Pentagon or the State Department, the briefers — or usually the people working for them — will indeed get back, within a few hours, via e-mail. At the White House, maybe they will, often they won’t.

But whether the response actually answers your question, well, that’s another story.

Take, for example, a question a reporter asked State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland on Tuesday about whether department officials will be “meeting with the Muslim Brotherhood delegation that is currently in Washington.” (Some of the Egyptian delegation met Tuesday with White House officials, our colleague William Wan reported.)

A pretty straightforward, yes-or-no question. “We’ll get back to you,” she said.

And here’s the e-mailed response.

Answer: The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace is hosting a conference in Washington titled “Islamists in Power: Views from Within” on April 5.

Okay, that’s a fact. And some Brotherhood members will be there. So the answer is yes? Ah, not so fast.

Some of the conference participants will meet with State Department officials while in town.

So the answer is surely yes? Maybe “Some of the conference participants” is code for “Muslim Brotherhood.”

Deputy Secretary [William] Burns will meet with Vice President for Studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace Dr. Marwan Muasher and some of the participants in the Carnegie conference on April 4.

Wait a minute. Marwan Muasher? Jordan’s former ambassador to Israel and to Washington and a former World Bank official? Hardly known to be a member of the Brotherhood. So maybe the answer is no?

Some of the Carnegie Endowment conference participants will also meet with Under Secretary for Economic Growth, Energy, and the Environment Robert Hormats and Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffrey Feltman.

Any further questions?

Who’s on second?

Now that the suspense of the GOP nominating race is over (prediction: the eventual winner rhymes with “schromney”), we’re desperately in need of more political intrigue. Which brings us to Veepstakes, the new parlor game in which we speculate on who will be Mitt Romney’s vice-presidential pick.

One way to look at the question is to check in with the bookmakers. Paddypower , which gives odds on all manner of political bets, today opened betting on possible choices for No. 2 on the Romney ticket. As of this posting, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) is the top choice, with betters predicting his selection at odds of 11-4.

Rubio is followed by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (5-1) and Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell (6-1). After that, it’s New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez and Rep. Paul Ryan at 9-1 and Sens. Rob Portman and Rand Paul at 10-1.

Sorry, Herman Cain. Your odds are a long-shot 100-1.

With Emily Heil

The blog: washingtonpost.com/
intheloop. Twitter:@InTheLoopWP.

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