The Washington Post

The word that must not be spoken


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:
intheloop. Twitter:@InTheLoopWP.

The Freddie Gray case

Please provide a valid email address.

You’re all set!

Campaign 2016 Email Updates

Please provide a valid email address.

You’re all set!

Get Zika news by email

Please provide a valid email address.

You’re all set!
Show Comments
New Hampshire has voted. The Democrats debate Thursday. Get caught up on the race.
The big questions after New Hampshire, from The Post's Dan Balz
Can Bernie Sanders cut into Hillary Clinton's strength in the minority community and turn his challenge into a genuine threat? And can any of the Republicans consolidate anti-Trump sentiment in the party in time to stop the billionaire developer and reality-TV star, whose unorthodox, nationalistic campaign has shaken the foundations of American politics?
What happened in New Hampshire
Spending per vote
John Kasich is running one of the most cost-efficient campaigns, bested only by Donald Trump. Ben Carson, however, has spent a lot for a fourth-place finish in Iowa and eight-place finish in New Hampshire. Data is available through the end of December.
Upcoming debates
Feb. 11: Democratic debate

on PBS, in Wisconsin

Feb 13: GOP debate

on CBS News, in South Carolina

Feb. 25: GOP debate

on CNN, in Houston, Texas

Campaign 2016
What happened in N.H.

To keep reading, please enter your email address.

You’ll also receive from The Washington Post:
  • A free 6-week digital subscription
  • Our daily newsletter in your inbox

Please enter a valid email address

I have read and agree to the Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.

Please indicate agreement.

Thank you.

Check your inbox. We’ve sent an email explaining how to set up an account and activate your free digital subscription.