“A Favorite Fallback for Foulups: ‘Mistakes Were Made'”

Broder, John M.

The New York Times, March 14, 2007

p. A16

“Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales fell back on a classic Washington linguistic construct . . . when he acknowledged that ‘mistakes were made’ in the dismissals of eight federal prosecutors last year. The phrase sounds like a confession of error or even contrition, but in fact, it is not quite either one. The speaker is not accepting personal responsibility or pointing the finger at anyone else.

“It is a construction that other officials, from Richard M. Nixon’s press secretary to Ronald Reagan to John H. Sununu and Bill Clinton have used when someone’s hand was caught in the federal cookie jar.

“It is similar to a form of apology often heard here and in Hollywood, perhaps most memorably by Justin Timberlake’s press agent after the infamous 2004 Super Bowl halftime incident. ‘I am sorry if anyone was offended by the wardrobe malfunction during the halftime performance,’ the agent said.

“In 1991, Mr. Sununu, then the chief of staff to President George Bush, was caught violating various White House travel rules. He retreated behind the language of obfuscation. ‘Clearly no one regrets more than I do the appearance of impropriety,’ he said. ‘Obviously some mistakes were made,’ he said.

“Mr. Reagan used the same construction in 1986 in describing the Iran-contra affair, in which officials in his administration sold arms to Iran to fund the anticommunist rebels in Nicaragua.

His vice president [George H. W. Bush] said that he supported Mr. Reagan’s policies but agreed there might have been a few flaws in the execution. ‘Clearly, mistakes were made,’ he said.

“Just 36 hours into his administration Mr. Clinton used that terminology when he withdrew the nomination of Zoe Baird as attorney general. In January 1997, he acknowledged that the White House should not have invited the nation’s senior banking regulator to a meeting where Mr. Clinton and prominent bankers discussed banking policy in the presence of the Democratic Party’s senior fund-raiser. ‘Mistakes were made here by people who either did it deliberately or inadvertently,’ he said.

The nonconfessions inspired William Schneider, a political guru, to note a few years ago that Washington had contributed a new tense to the language. ‘This usage should be referred to as the past exonerative.'”