"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. The acknowledgement of "mistakes" is framed in an abstract sense, with no direct reference to who made the mistakes. A less evasive 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 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 1945-1947 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 nationâs senior banking regulator to a meeting where Mr. Clinton and prominent bankers discussed banking policy in the presence of the Democratic Partyâs 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 â" 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 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.
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.
- List of political catch phrases
- Non-apology apology
- Non-denial denial
- Spin (public relations)
- 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.is (archived 2012-12-09)