Mistakes were made
"Mistakes were made" is an expression that is commonly used as a rhetorical device, whereby a speaker acknowledges that a situation was handled poorly or inappropriately but seeks to evade any direct admission or accusation of responsibility by using the passive voice, which allows for the deletion of the agent (the person who made the mistakes). The acknowledgement of "mistakes" is framed in an abstract sense, with no direct reference to who made the mistakes. An active voice construction might be along the lines of "I made mistakes" or "John Doe made mistakes." The speaker neither accepts personal responsibility nor accuses anyone else. The word "mistakes" also does not imply intent.
The New York Times has called the phrase a "classic Washington linguistic construct." Political consultant William Schneider suggested that this usage be referred to as the "past exonerative" tense, and commentator William Safire has defined the phrase as "[a] passive-evasive way of acknowledging error while distancing the speaker from responsibility for it". While perhaps most famous in politics, the phrase has also been used in business, sports, and entertainment.
Its notoriety has increased in recent years and it was even used by Craig Wright in 2009 as the title of a comedy. Despite this, its usage is still widespread and, in the opinion of one commentator, "the type of evasive and corrupted language for which [Ron Ziegler] was repeatedly pilloried for using as Nixon's press secretary is not only accepted, but heartily and shamelessly embraced as a norm of political and social conduct."
Notable political usages
- U.S. President Ulysses S. Grant, in his December 5, 1876 report to Congress, acknowledged the scandals engulfing his administration by writing that "mistakes have been made, as all can see and I admit it".
- U.S. President Richard Nixon used the phrase several times in reference to wrongdoings by his own electoral organization and presidential administration.
- On May 1, 1973, White House Press Secretary Ron Ziegler stated "I would apologize to the Post, and I would apologize to Mr. Woodward and Mr. Bernstein" (referring to Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of The Washington Post). He continued, "We would all have to say that mistakes were made in terms of comments. I was overenthusiastic in my comments about the Post, particularly if you look at them in the context of developments that have taken place." The previous day, White House counsel John Dean and Nixon aides John Ehrlichman and H.R. Haldeman had resigned, as the Watergate scandal progressed.
- On January 27, 1987, U.S. President Ronald Reagan used the phrase in the State of the Union Address while discussing contacts with Iran in what came to be known as the arms-for-hostages scandal within the Iran-Contra affair. He said, in part: "And certainly it was not wrong to try to secure freedom for our citizens held in barbaric captivity. But we did not achieve what we wished, and serious mistakes were made in trying to do so. We will get to the bottom of this, and I will take whatever action is called for."
- CNN and The New York Times reported U.S. President Bill Clinton's January 28, 1997 admission that "mistakes were made" with respect to Democratic Party fundraising scandals. "[Clinton] 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."
- Speaking in London in April 2002, former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger commented on the refused request of a Spanish judge to question Kissinger in an investigation of war crimes and crimes against humanity in the matter of Operation Condor, stating "it is quite possible that mistakes were made."
- On December 4, 2005, U.S. Senator John McCain commented about the Iraq War: "I think that one of the many mistakes that have been made is to inflate the expectations of the American people beginning three years ago that this was going to be some kind of day at the beach" and then referring to the president "he admitted that errors have been made." The show's host, Tim Russert, pressed for specific culpability: "Isn't that the president's failure? He's the commander in chief." Senator McCain responded: "Well, I — all of the responsibility lies in everybody in positions of responsibility. Serious mistakes are made in every war. Serious mistakes were made in this one, but I really believe that there is progress being made, that we can be guardedly optimistic ..."
- In October 2006, in regard to an air strike killing about 70 Afghan civilians, Gen. David Richards said that "in the night in the fog of war, mistakes were made."
- In a November 2006 Vanity Fair article, Richard Perle used the phrase to refer to the Iraq war, claiming that "mistakes were made, and I want to be very clear on this: They were not made by neoconservatives, who had almost no voice in what happened, and certainly almost no voice in what happened after the downfall of the regime in Baghdad."
- On March 14, 2007, Alberto Gonzales used the line to explain the firing of eight U.S. Attorneys, for which Gonzalez received significant criticism. He later resigned.
- In March 2009, Jamie Dimon, chief executive officer of JPMorgan Chase, said in a CNBC interview that "[w]e know mistakes were made", referring to controversial bonuses paid to executives of the company after it received taxpayer-funded support via the Troubled Asset Relief Program.
- On May 10, 2013, the Internal Revenue Service, in a statement apologizing for the improper targeting of conservative groups for audits during the 2012 U.S. presidential election, said that "[m]istakes were made initially, but they were in no way due to any political or partisan rationale."
- Broder, John M. (2007-03-13). "Familiar Fallback for Officials: 'Mistakes Were Made'". The New York Times. Retrieved 2007-03-20.
- William Safire, Safire's Political Dictionary (2008), p. 431.
- Harrington, Thomas S. (2012-03-11). "“Mistakes Were Made”: One-Time Object of Derision Now a Core Template of Our Social Behaviors". CommonDreams.org.
- CBS News, Feb. 10, 2003 "Watergate Press Secretary Dead At 63"
- Address Before a Joint Session of Congress on the State of the Union, January 27th, 1987
- CNN January 28, 1997 Clinton Takes Sharp Questions On Fund-Raising
- CNN April 24, 2002 Kissinger: Mistakes were made
- MSNBC Meet the Press, December 4, 2005
- CNN, October 28, 2006 "General: 'Mistakes' made in Afghanistan strike"
- Vanity Fair interview with Richard Perle
- "CNN.com". CNN.
- "Obama, Bank Leaders Discuss 'Toxic Assets'". National Public Radio. March 27, 2009. Retrieved January 7, 2010.
- "IRS Apologizes for Targeting Conservative Groups". Politico.com. May 10, 2013. Retrieved May 10, 2013.
- A Political Sidestep: Mistakes Were Made NPR: Weekend Edition
- "Mistakes Were Made" NPR: On The Media, March 16, 2003
- Georgetown University, Project Description, January 2007, by Andrew Bennett: "Where Mistakes Were Made:" The Politics and Psychology of Blame for Iraq