Politics, Technology, and Language

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

Archive for March 14th, 2007

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.”

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