What follows is an entry on the history of a non-apology apology from "Safire's Political Dictionary" by one-time Nixon speechwriter, one-time New York Times columnist, all-time lexicographer William Safire.
mistakes were made: A passive-evasive way of acknowledging error while distancing the speaker from responsibility for it.
Politicians have had frequent occasion to lean on this crutch, a linguistic construction creatively described by William Schneider, at the American Enterprise Institute, as the past exonerative.
President Ronald Reagan took general responsibility in his 1987 State of the Union address for selling weapons to Iran in order to obtain the release of hostages, but sidestepped the rest of the Iran-contra scandal (using profits from the arms sales in an effort to overthrow the government of Nicaragua), saying, "we did not achieve what we wished, and serious mistakes were made in trying to do so." Lt. Col. Oliver North, convicted of ordering the destruction of documents in trying to conceal this activity, had his conviction overturned because Congress had given him limited immunity. The bemedaled Marine said later: "I'm not ashamed of it. People say 'Mistakes were made.' But I'll also tell you lives were saved."
President Bill Clinton resorted to the same passive, impersonal admission in January of 1998, replying to questions about improper Democratic party fundraising activities with the bland "Mistakes were made here by people who did it either deliberately or inadvertently." In March of 2007, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales tried to defuse complaints about the firing of eight U.S. prosecutors, saying: "I acknowledge that mistakes were made here."
The unapologetic apology can be softened even further by prefacing it with a hypothetical "if." Anonymous aides to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice denied in 2005 that she had admitted to German Chancellor Angela Merkel that the U.S. had abducted a German citizen by mistake. Instead, they insisted that Ms. Rice "had said only that if mistakes were made, they would be corrected."
A blame-spreading refinement is to cast the apology in the more distant present perfect tense. PLO leader Yasir Arafat took this tack when fending off criticisms in 2004 by Palestinian legislators, conceding that "Some mistakes have been made by our institutions." Connecticut's ex-governor John Rowland downplayed his admission of guilt to a federal corruption charge the same way, telling the press that "Obviously mistakes have been made throughout the last few years, and I accept responsibility for those."
A skillful further refinement is the subordinate-clause admission or error, compounding passivity and present-perfection with a conditional "whatever," as in this sentence of a George W. Bush speech urging Americans weary of war in the fall of 2006 to stay the course: "Whatever mistakes have been made in Iraq, the worst mistake would be to think that if we pulled out, the terrorists would leave us alone."
The artful dodge of the impersonal apology has roots. President Ulysses S. Grant, fondly remembered by grammarians for his activist self-description, "I am a verb," appended a note to his final annual report to Congress on December 5, 1876, acknowledging the scandals that had plagued his two terms in office with the words, "Mistakes have been made, as all can see and I admit."
A disarmingly honest way of admitting error was shown by New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, criticized in the 1940s for closing the elite Townsend Harris High School: "I don't make many mistakes, but when I make one it's a beaut!" It takes the wind out of the sails of criticism.
When the lexicographer admonished a political figure for using the much-ridiculed "mistakes were made," he replied, not for attribution, "lessons were learned."