The "past exonerative" tense is a witticism coined by William Schneider of the New York Times to describe the rhetorical tactic of speaking in the passive voice in order to distance oneself from blame. The tactic is most famous for being invoked by politicians.
The classic example of this usage was U.S. president Ronald Reagan's statement "...mistakes were made...", first made in a December 6, 1986, address to the nation, and then again in his January 1987 State of the Union Address to describe the actions of officials in his administration regarding Iran – obviously, but not explicitly, referring to the Iran–Contra affair, where his administration sold arms to Iran to fund the contras in Nicaragua.
Other examples: U.S. president Clinton, regarding campaign financing abuses, January 1997, SFGate
- U.S. Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales on March 13, 2007, Washington Post
- U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron describing Guantanamo Bay, Al Jazeera interview, September 9, 2011
- "Familiar Fallback for Officials: 'Mistakes Were Made'". New York Times. March 14, 2007.
- "Reagan: 'Mistakes were made'". Miami Herald. December 7, 1986.
- "Address Before a Joint Session of Congress on the State of the Union". January 27, 1987.