Politics, Technology, and Language

If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought — George Orwell

Mistakes were made

Posted by metaphorical on 14 March 2007

At first, the headline really annoyed me.

‘Mistakes’ Made on Prosecutors, Gonzales Says

WASHINGTON, March 13 — Under criticism from lawmakers of both parties for the dismissals of federal prosecutors, Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales insisted Tuesday that he would not resign but said, “I acknowledge that mistakes were made here.”

The mea culpa came as Congressional Democrats, who are investigating whether the White House was meddling in Justice Department affairs for political reasons, demanded that President Bush and his chief political adviser, Karl Rove, explain their roles in the dismissals.

Why, I angrily wondered, was the Times once again taking the White House’s spin as its starting point? When I looked at the graphic accompanying the story, I got even more frustrated. Apparently, Harriet Miers, Bush’s White House Counsel and wholly incompetent appointee to the Supreme Court, had originally floated the idea of replacing all 93 U.S. Attorneys at the start of Bush’s second term.

E-mail from Kyle Simpson, a Deputy Attorney General the Department of Justice and Gonzales’s point person on the firing of U.S. Attorneys, pointed out some practical difficulties in doing that and wrote “I recommend that the Department of Justice and the Office of the Counsel to the President work together to seek the replacement of a limited number of U.S. Attorneys.”

It was quickly clear that Attorneygate is even worse than we thought. We now know many of the details of how individual Attorneys were singled out, in large part because of insufficient loyalty to the Bush administration and its more egregiously partisan projects, or to individual home-state Senators and their petty partisan concerns, whether it was not aggressively pursuing minor illegal immigrant cases, small-time marijuana wholesalers, or unprovable allegations of voter fraud.

As it turns out, though, in its headline, the Times was engaged in a rare flexing of its largely atrophied irony muscles. On the jump page the paper of record ran a brilliant sidebar that explicated the headline and poked fun at Bush officials for their wording:

Familiar Fallback for Officials: ‘Mistakes Were Made’

WASHINGTON, March 13 — Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales fell back on a classic Washington linguistic construct on Tuesday when he acknowledged that “mistakes were made” in the dismissals of eight federal prosecutors last year.

The phrase sounds like a confession of error or even contrition, but in fact, it is not quite either one. The speaker is not accepting personal responsibility or pointing the finger at anyone else.

The sidebar then cited some of the classics of the genre, including Justin Timberlake’s “I am sorry if anyone was offended by the wardrobe malfunction during the halftime performance” and John Sunnunu’s 1991 “Clearly, no one regrets more than I do the appearance of impropriety. Obviously, some mistakes were made.”

The key to these non-apologies is the passive construction, combined with noun and verb constructions designed to obscure any details of the “mistakes” in question. Orwell would have recognized these, even as I think even he would have been impressed by the novel phrase, “wardrobe malfunction.” In “Politics and the English Language” he wrote (emphasis added),

These save the trouble of picking out appropriate verbs and nouns, and at the same time pad each sentence with extra syllables which give it an appearance of symmetry. Characteristic phrases are: render inoperative, militate against, prove unacceptable, make contact with, be subjected to, give rise to, give grounds for, having the effect of, play a leading part (role) in, make itself felt, take effect, exhibit a tendency to, serve the purpose of, etc., etc. The keynote is the elimination of simple verbs. Instead of being a single word, such as break, stop, spoil, mend, kill, a verb becomes a phrase, made up of a noun or adjective tacked on to some general-purposes verb as prove, serve, form, play, render. In addition, the passive voice is wherever possible used in preference to the active, and noun constructions are used instead of gerunds (by examination of instead of by examining).

In a spirit of bipartisanship, as they say in the Beltway, the Times sidebar included Bill Clinton’s 1997 acknowedgement

that the White House should not have invited the nation’s senior banking regulator to a meeting where Mr. Clinton and prominent bankers discussed banking policy in the presence of the Democratic Party’s senior fund-raiser. “Mistakes were made here by people who either did it deliberately or inadvertently.”

I think Orwell would have especially liked the “it” in that sentence, so thoroughly indeterminate as to be ungrammatical.

The sidebar closed with one of the great coinages of our day, occasioned by Clinton’s non-apology.

The nonconfessions inspired William Schneider, a political guru here, to note a few years ago that Washington had contributed a new tense to the language. “This usage,” he said, “should be referred to as the past exonerative.”

10 Responses to “Mistakes were made”

  1. It seems history repeats itself…

    http://www.opinionjournal.com/editorial/feature.html?id=110009784

    J. Kaiser

  2. http://thinkprogress.org/2007/03/08/podesta-rove/

    Replacing most U.S. attorneys when a new administration comes in — as we did in 1993 and the Bush administration did in 2001 — is not unusual. But the Clinton administration never fired federal prosecutors as pure political retribution. These U.S. attorneys received positive performance reviews from the Justice Department and were then given no reason for their firings. — Clinton’s former chief of staff John Podesta

  3. digglahhh said

    Pardon me if I just happen to be using this individual case to lash out at the Bush bashing.

    So what? How surprising is this? Are we still edifying ourselves by “exposing” Bush’s treachery? Bush is a horrible, horrible man. We know that. Some people just think that it is more important to get a tax cut or something so they don’t care. Some people are just obsessed with wanting to “play with our toys in the sand,” as George Carlin put it back when he was talking about the Gulf War.

    He stole two elections, violated just about every human rights code ever written, virtually re-instituted COINTELPRO and violated Posse Comintatus. FEMA is building concentration camps in the Midwest, for Christ’s sake. Is there anything that still “shocks” us?

    I mean, if the wildest of the wild conspiracy theories were true, and George Bush was a reptilian shape shifter who worshiped Satan and feasted on blood at human sacrifices, would that even shock us? Okay, maybe a little… but only if he did it and Cheney didn’t.

    Branding Bush as a callous, profiteering war monger only serves to create a fall-guy. Remove Bush from office and we’re rosy again, or maybe remove the Republicans.

    The main difference between George Bush and most of the other leaders we’ve had is his lack of couth (I mean he’s obviously morally worse, but more in scope than in stark contrast). In that respect, something can be gained from Bush’s presidency if we attempt to develop a perspective as opposed to bashing Bush in isolation. Bush’s brazen disregard of compassion, ethics and honesty should be used as a window to expose the truly insidious nature of American party politics and the class warfare it carries out. But it’s not.

    That’s why there’s no huge backlash for bashing Bush. When we isolate the evil into one man we play right into the hands of the greater power structure. They can continue to operate at full tilt with a perfect patsy to absorb all the criticism.

  4. Fascinating…I don’t know any other group or person that so obsessively analyzes current events and new stories from such a unique linguistic perspective. The insights you provide into this developing scandal are paramount to the understanding of why it is such a scandal in the first place.

  5. Thanks David, thanks very kind of you to say.

  6. Digglahhh, I’ll concede that the differences between Gore and Bush weren’t perfectly clear in the 2000 election, but surely in hindsight they’re blindingly obvious. Likewise, Clinton was a thoroughly mediocre president who screwed up, among many many things, the entire telecommunications system of the U.S. But you have to reach well into the 19th century to find a president as bad as Bush, and you many not be able to find one even there so willing to end democracy itself. The differences are far more than couth.

  7. digglahhh said

    Well, we don’t even have to go back before my first day on earth to get to Ronald Reagan. So maybe he wasn’t worse than Bush. But perhaps we can draw from your argument about innovation versus discovery here. How did our society and political freedoms erode to the point that this administration was able to do what it did? Did this administration invent the political climate, the culture of fear, jingoism, the corporate takeover of the legal system and so forth? Or was it first to the patent office, so to speak? The preconditions for today’s environment were set before Bush; Reagan, especially, was quite the “enabler” to say the least. Is attributing all this to Bush that much different from crediting Reagan with winning the Cold War?

    What about the “Plan for the New American Century?” Was this climate not something “in the making” more or less? Certainly 9/11 provided a golden opportunity to kick it up a notch. But how many of the most egregious attacks on our civil liberties that have become public knowledge in the last few years have not been carried out clandestinely for decades upon decades? This administration capitalized on the opportunity to convince some of the public that some of these actions were for their own good, enabling disclosure, under the guise of “invention.”

    The crux of the argument is that Bush vs. all other presidents is a largely false, unhealthy, and somewhat myopic dichotomy. Bash Bush all you want, that’s fine, but let’s try to retain a little more perspective so that we don’t lull ourselves (well not us, but those in the embryonic stages the awakening) back into ignorance once this administration gone. Fight the disease, not the symptom.

  8. ClaireDePlume said

    Happy Ides of March.

    Eh, too Bush Bashers?

  9. John said

    “the passive voice is wherever possible used in preference to the active”

    I wonder if Orwell was being intentionally ironic here.

  10. I’ve always assumed he was.

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