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 not specifying the person who made the mistakes, nor any specific act that was a mistake. The acknowledgement of "mistakes" is framed in an abstract sense, with no direct reference to who made the mistakes, or the nature and extent of the mistakes. A less evasive construction might be along the lines of "I made mistakes" or "John Doe made mistakes"; a similar active existential construction might be "mistakes happened". 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 scientist 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". A commentator at NPR declared this expression to be "the king of non-apologies". While perhaps most famous in politics, the phrase has also been used in business, sports, and entertainment.
Despite some mockery of the phrase, its use 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."
- In October 1995, the U.S. Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments released its final report, indicating that "wrongs were done" in some of the experiments, including a top-secret test from 1945 to 1947 in which 18 people were injected with plutonium without their knowledge or consent.
- 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, United States Attorney General 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 alleged 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."
- On January 14, 2014, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, during his State of the State address, said "mistakes were clearly made" in reference to the George Washington Bridge lane closure scandal.
- On May 12, 2015, potential 2016 Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush could not fully commit to an answer when asked if he would have voted to authorize the Iraq War in 2002, using the phrase "simple fact is, mistakes were made" on Sean Hannity's radio show. He was lambasted by both liberals and conservatives for his answer.
- In the BBC documentary 'Blair & Brown: The New Labour Revolution' (Episode 4, 45:00), released on October 4, 2021, Tony Blair said of the lack of a proper plan after the invasion of Iraq: "Noone can possibly dispute there were serious mistakes made."
Parody, comedic, and other usages
An early parody of the phrase appears in Matt Groening's Life in Hell cartoon strip. Groening draws a looming shadow of the rabbit named Binky, towering over his one-eared son, Bongo, who has clearly made a total mess of the house. Bongo uselessly says: "Mistakes were made."
Playwright Craig Wright wrote a 2006 episode for ABC's drama series Brothers & Sisters, called "Mistakes Were Made, Part One" (with Jon Robin Baitz). He expanded the gag into a one-man play starring Michael Shannon, Mistakes Were Made, performed off-Broadway in 2009, to mixed reviews.
The phrase was also used in the multiplayer portion of Call of Duty: Black Ops referring to a player dying in a variety of ways not caused by an enemy player, such as falling from a great height, being crushed or the negligent use of grenades.
- Pullum, Geoffrey (2014-07-01). "Fear and loathing of the English passive". Language & Communication. 37: 60–74. doi:10.1016/j.langcom.2013.08.009. hdl:20.500.11820/2b1fc568-b53f-43ad-ba54-721d82f045e6. ISSN 0271-5309.
- 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.
- Memmot, Mark (May 14, 2013). "It's True: 'Mistakes Were Made' Is The King Of Non-Apologies". NPR. Retrieved 17 July 2014.
- Harrington, Thomas S. (2012-03-11). ""Mistakes Were Made": One-Time Object of Derision Now a Core Template of Our Social Behaviors". CommonDreams.org.
- "Watergate Press Secretary Dead At 63" CBS News, February 10, 2003
- Address Before a Joint Session of Congress on the State of the Union, January 27th, 1987
- "Clinton Apologizes For The Wrong Done In Human Radiation Testing" Chicago Tribune, October 4, 1995
- CNN January 28, 1997 "Clinton Takes Sharp Questions On Fund-Raising"
- "Kissinger: Mistakes were made" CNN, April 24, 2002
- NBC News Meet the Press, December 4, 2005
- "General: 'Mistakes' made in Afghanistan strike", CNN, October 28, 2006
- "Interview with Richard Perle". Vanity Fair.
- "Gonzales: 'Mistakes were made' in U.S. attorneys' firings". CNN. Archived from the original on 20 March 2007.
- "Obama, Bank Leaders Discuss 'Toxic Assets'". National Public Radio. March 27, 2009. Retrieved January 7, 2010.
- "IRS Apologizes for Targeting Conservative Groups". Politico. May 10, 2013. Retrieved May 10, 2013.
- "Chris Christie State of the State: Mistakes were made". Newsday. January 14, 2014. Retrieved January 14, 2014.
- "Jeb Bush Now Won't Say Whether He Would Have Invaded Iraq, Where 'Mistakes Were Made'". Huffington Post. May 12, 2015. Retrieved May 12, 2015.
- Tony, Blair. "Blair & Brown: The New Labour Revolution". BBC iPlayer. Retrieved 13 February 2022.
- "So long Akbar, farewell Jeff: A few thoughts on the end of Life in Hell". 23 June 2012.
- Isherwood, Charles (27 February 2011). "A Producer, His Telephone and Desperation". The New York Times.
- 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 at archive.today (archived 2012-12-09)