How to own up without owning up

"Mistakes were made": A passive-evasive way of acknowledging error while distancing the speaker from responsibility for it.

Carolyn Grant

Turkish deputy prime minister Bulent Arinc hasn’t resigned. Nor has Senator Mike Duffy, though he is suspended. But Alison Redford did. So I’m batting .333, which is not a bad average in Major League Baseball. I speak of last week’s column where I discussed the political problems of these three rather disparate politicians, all under public scrutiny for one thing or another.

The former Alberta premier Redford resigned as MLA this week saying she wanted “to start a new chapter in her life”. A new chapter is a noble goal. And I’m sure the timing of her resignation had nothing to do with the fact that the Alberta auditor general’s report on spending in Redford’s office was released 24 hours later. It has been mentioned that Redford’s resignation letter fell back on the old political chestnut, “mistakes were made”. Not once did she say, “I made mistakes.” Nope, mistakes were made. Could have been by Redford, but then again, maybe not. They were just made, the mistakes. Perhaps made by phantom airline passengers.

I do find it enjoyable observing just how gullible politicians think we are.

Also this week, former London, Ontario mayor and federal Liberal cabinet Minister Joe Fontana was sentenced to four months of house arrest and 18 months of probation for fraud-related charges, committed while a member of the Liberal cabinet. Mr. Fontana was good enough to say, “I made a big, big mistake.” Doesn’t make it any better, but at least it wasn’t “mistakes were made”.

But that got me thinking about “mistakes were made”.

The linguist William Safire defines it thusly: mistakes were made: A passive-evasive way of acknowledging error while distancing the speaker from responsibility for it.

It seems such an obvious dodge, that you wonder why anyone would think the public would buy that this kind of parsing absolves someone of responsibility somehow.

Yet some pretty smart people have used it and obviously thought it would work.

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, for example. Up to mid-2013, he was considered the front runner for the Republican presidential nomination, which is not small potatoes. But then a scandal surfaced, involving a couple of the guv’s top aides ordering the closure of some lanes on a busy commuter bridge and causing massive gridlock, all to pay back a political vendetta. Of course the truth came out and Christie had to acknowledge that something about the situation stunk.

“Mistakes were made,” he said, manfully owning up while not owning up at all.

I decided to consult the oracle on “mistakes were made”. Google coughed up 36,700,000 results in .71 seconds, including the information that the phrase was used by Ulysses S. Grant, and there followed numerous other uses by Gerald Ford, Ron Ziegler (Nixon’s press secretary) Henry Kissinger, Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush (who neatly summed up the entire debacle in Iraq with “mistakes were made”) British PM David Cameron, the Catholic Church (!) and countless others.

So it seems we, the gullible public, perhaps do buy into it. At least an apology was made, we must reason, so it’s okay. Mr. Fontana’s use of “I made a mistake” is notable by comparison but we shouldn’t laud him too much as he was only speaking the truth. He did make a mistake and he’s paying for it. As is Alison Redford, though she will only admit “mistakes were made”. I wonder how long it will take before we hear that phrase in relation to the tailings pond breach at Mount Polley Mine. I’m betting not long at all.

By the way, if there are any inaccuracies in this column, “mistakes were made”.

Carolyn Grant is Editor of the Kimberley Daily Bulletin