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were made public

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. 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.

Notable political usages

  • 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".
  • 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." 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, 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.
  • On March 14, 1994, the New York Times reported that Mrs. Hillary Rodham Clinton conceded to Time and Newsweek magazines that "mistakes were made" by her and the president when handling what was to become the Whitewater controversy. "When asked by Time if she and the president had made mistakes, Mrs. Clinton responded: 'My goodness. We made lots of mistakes. We never should have made the investment, for one.' In the interview with Newsweek, Mrs. Clinton, using similar language, said: 'Clearly there were lots of missteps along the way. I'd be the first to say that, and obviously I wish there weren't because this thing has gotten blown so out of proportion.'
  • CNN and The New York Times reported President Clinton's January 28, 1997 admission that "mistakes were made" with respect to Democratic fund-raising 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, 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, 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 January 10, 2007, in a speech describing a new approach to the war in Iraq, President George W. Bush said that "where mistakes were made the responsibility rests with me." In contrast, he used the active voice, rather than the passive voice, when he stated "I am the decider."
  • 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.

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