Make no mistake, the acting commissioner of the IRS put himself in historic company Tuesday by writing in USA Today that “mistakes were made” when his agency singled out for extra scrutiny some conservative groups.
No less an authority on language than the late William Safire, in his Safire’s Political Dictionary, devoted an entry to the oft-used phrase — describing it as “a passive-evasive way of acknowledging error while distancing the speaker from responsibility for it.”
Political analyst Bill Schneider declared it to be the “past exonerative” of choice for the political class.
Seeing it used again set us off on a search of the phrase’s origin and history.
As On the Media has reported, “the magical construction was popularized during Watergate by Nixon spokesman Ron Ziegler.” In 1973 he apologized to The Washington Post‘s Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, for example, saying that “mistakes were made in terms of comments” that the White House had made about the Post and the reporters.
It famously came up again in December 1986. President Reagan conceded that “mistakes were made” by his administration when it sold arms to Iran and shipped the proceeds to Contras in Nicaragua. Reagan used the phrase again a month later, in his 1987 State of the Union address.
President Clinton, a Democrat, proved in 1998 that Republicans aren’t the only ones who know a good non-apology apology when they hear one. Asked about a fundraising scandal, he responded that “mistakes were made here by people who did it either deliberately or inadvertently.”
Republicans picked the ball up again during George W. Bush’s administration. As Safire wrote, Bush added a “skillful refinement … the subordinate-clause admission or error, compounding passivity and present-perfection with a conditional ‘whatever.’ ” Speaking of the Iraq war, Bush said in 2006 that “whatever mistakes have been made in Iraq, the worst mistake would be to think that if we pulled out, the terrorists would leave us alone.”
A year later, Bush’s attorney general grabbed for the verbal lifering. “Mistakes were made” in the firing of U.S. attorneys, Alberto Gonzales said.
But where did all this begin?
We turn again to Safire:
“The artful dodge of the impersonal apology has roots. President Ulysses S. Grant, fondly remembered by grammarians for his activist self-description, ‘I am a verb,’ appended a note to his final annual report to Congress on December 5, 1876, acknowledging the scandals that had plagued his two terms in office with the words, ‘Mistakes have been made, as all can see and I admit.’ “
If you know of earlier references, please tell us. And if there are any errors in this post … well, you know what we’ll say.