Who said "mistakes were made?"
March 13, 2007 5:10 PM   Subscribe

What is the origin of the phrase "mistakes were made" - who said it, and in reference to what?

Many people have said this phrase, from Bush to Kissinger, but who started this use of passive voice? I have seen it attributed to both Nixon and Reagan, but I can't figure out the real history of this.
posted by etoile to Writing & Language (14 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
It appears to be Reagan's 1987 State of the Union address, in reference to the Iran-contra scandal.

Googled "mistakes were made" for the first link, which was near the bottom of the first page, then "iran contra mistakes were made", which was the second link on the first page.
posted by katemonster at 5:34 PM on March 13, 2007

This SFGate article gives the credit to Nixon. However, I can't find a date for that as an actual quote.
posted by crinklebat at 5:41 PM on March 13, 2007

Reagan may not have been the first person to say it, but I think he was the notable popularizer of it. My source (dad!) says that Nixon was not known for having said it.

The context was the Iran-Contra scandal. After his underlings took the fall for the scandal, it got to where he had to finally make some changes in staff and policy. But of course he wouldn't say he was culpable, wouldn't say he had made any mistake. Thus the anonymous passive voice so nauseatingly resurrected by Gonzales most recently, and his boss before him.

Reagan said it at least in the '87 State of the Union as noted above. But I think that wasn't the first time. I have seen several references that it was from December 1986 but I don't know the exact context.

Note that Reagan says HE takes responsibility... but WE didn't achieve our goals... and mistakes were made (no subject). It's like he's trying to say that someone else did it, but he'd be the big man and stop the buck. Whatever.
posted by kookoobirdz at 5:47 PM on March 13, 2007

Amusingly, more googling hasn't found me an instance of Nixon saying it, but his press secretary and chief of staff are both on the record. So, while Reagan may have popularized it in the common imagination, it was certainly no stranger to US politics before the '87 State of the Union.
posted by crinklebat at 5:53 PM on March 13, 2007

My first memory of this phrase was a Matt Groening cartoon from the "Life in Hell" series. A big rabbit looms over a little rabbit, who's standing amid a scene of utter domestic destruction. Little bunny then says, deadpan, "Mistakes were made." (Unhelpful, sorry, but it's still a great cartoon.)
posted by MonkeyToes at 6:26 PM on March 13, 2007 [2 favorites]

Annual John S. Knight Lecture, May 15, 2006, Stanford University, By Clark Hoyt,Knight Ridder Washington editor
After pummeling the newspaper for nearly a year from the White House podium, denying its Watergate revelations and attacking the newspaper’s integrity, he finally had to own up in April of 1973, when President Nixon’s top aides, Bob Haldeman and John Ehrlichman, resigned in disgrace.

“Mistakes were made,” Ziegler said of his previous denials, adopting a phrase that has since been used by other government spokesmen trying to defuse other government scandals.
posted by MonkeySaltedNuts at 6:27 PM on March 13, 2007

I swear I heard it in the mid-80s (before '87, more likely '84 or '85, but I could be wrong) in this comic strip by Matt Groenig. I can't find the date on the strip, though.
posted by ctmf at 6:41 PM on March 13, 2007

The Groening cartoon is likely a response to Reagan.
posted by kirkaracha at 7:25 PM on March 13, 2007

Speaking from my memory, it became a phrase once Reagan said it, much like when our current President said, "I'm the decider." It was something the critics lashed onto but over time the phrase remained if not the dark background behind it.
posted by chairface at 10:14 PM on March 13, 2007

erk. s/lashed/latched/
posted by chairface at 10:15 PM on March 13, 2007

The original pathological liar press secretary, Nixon's Ron Ziegler, used it frequently to deflect criticism into an amorphous universe where active voice and actual people didn't exist.

Once, when caught in a particularly outrageous lie, he invented the phrase "Yesterdays statement is inoperative."
posted by KRS at 3:54 AM on March 14, 2007

NYTimes article from today.
posted by smackfu at 6:18 AM on March 14, 2007

Another Ziegler quote: "The president is aware of what is going on. That is not to say that there is anything going on."
posted by lukemeister at 6:53 AM on March 14, 2007

Non-apology apology; more on "mistakes were made."
posted by kirkaracha at 10:12 AM on March 14, 2007

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