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05 April 2012

"Mistakes have been made"

President Nixon's Press Secretary, Ron Ziegler, may have been the politician most notable for deploying what has become a clich├ęd understatement in politics: "mistakes were made." Following the resignations of John Dean, John Ehrlichman, and H.R. Haldeman, Ziegler held a press conference. This conference was remembered in his obituary.
"I would apologize to the Post, and I would apologize to Mr. Woodward and Mr. Bernstein. ... 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," he said at the time. "When we are wrong, we are wrong, as we were in that case."
"Watergate Press Secretary Dead at 63," CBS News
Later, President Reagan would use the phrase to brush off Iran-Contra misdeeds. President Clinton would do the same in the wake of a Democratic fund raising scandal, and Senator John McCain would describe missteps in the conduct of the Iraq War with the phrase.

The phrase is used as the title of a Broadway satire, a book about self-deception by psychologists Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson, and a recent novel about the 1990s Seattle Grunge scene: Tyler McMahon, How the Mistakes were Made (2011).

Near the end of eight years in office as President, Ulysses S. Grant used a variation of the phrase in his last State of the Union Address. He admits error, denies intent, and shifts the blame to the advice he received from members of Congress. What else would one want to extract from a non-apologetic apology?

The third paragraph:
Under such circumstances it is but reasonable to suppose that errors of judgment must have occurred. Even had they not, differences of opinion between the Executive, bound by an oath to the strict performance of his duties, and writers and debaters must have arisen. It is not necessarily evidence of blunder on the part of the Executive because there are these differences of views. Mistakes have been made, as all can see and I admit, but it seems to me oftener in the selections made of the assistants appointed to aid in carrying out the various duties of administering the Government--in nearly every case selected without a personal acquaintance with the appointee, but upon recommendations of the representatives chosen directly by the people. It is impossible, where so many trusts are to be allotted, that the right parties should be chosen in every instance. History shows that no Administration from the time of Washington to the present has been free from these mistakes. But I leave comparisons to history, claiming only that I have acted in every instance from a conscientious desire to do what was right, constitutional, within the law, and for the very best interests of the whole people. Failures have been errors of judgment, not of intent. (emphasis added)
Grant, State of the Union Address, 5 December 1876
Every political speech should begin thus. It may be worth suggesting, that the phrase "history shows" always leads to a self-serving fabrication, and one that often defies the evidence. Even so, in this instance, who can argue with Grant that every administration has made errors? But, historians have often suggested that Grant's administration was particularly riddled with corruption. It's not the presence of errors that Grant must defend, but their scale. The same might be said concerning how we entered the Iraq War.

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