Why Do We Say That?

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This passive, evasive way of acknowledging error while distancing the speaker from personal responsibility for the act goes back farther in American history than one might expect. A few examples from earlier this year:

“McDonald’s . . . admits mistakes were made in letting the public know about the [non-vegetarian] ingredients in the fries and hash browns.” (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution )

“No one can say that he served in an administration that did not make mistakes. . . . It is quite possible that mistakes were made.” (Henry A. Kissinger)

“If in hindsight we also discover that mistakes may have been made as regards prompt removal of priests and assistance to victims, I am deeply sorry.” (Cardinal Edward M. Egan of New York)

A presidential precedent for the excuse comes from Bill Clinton, who fended off questions about Democratic fundraising at a press conference on January 28, 1997, by saying, “Mistakes were made here by people who did it either deliberately or inadvertently.” A decade earlier, during the Iran-Contra scandal, President Ronald Reagan said in a radio broadcast on December 6, 1986, that, “it’s obvious that the execution of these policies was flawed and mistakes were made.” Public figures abroad also have ratified the usage. For example, the Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu responded to news on April 21, 1997, that he would not be indicted in a political influence-peddling scandal with the concession that “mistakes were made.”

Long before Clinton and the others, however, President Ulysses S. Grant also found occasion to employ this evasive construction. In a note to his final report to Congress, on December 5, 1876, Grant alluded to the scandals that had marred his Presidency but carefully sidestepped responsibility for them. He said only that “mistakes have been made, as all can see and I admit.”

Given the phrase’s long, unhappy history, perhaps it is finally time, as spinmeisters are also wont to say, to move on and put this one behind us. It’s a mistake.