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"Mistakes Were Made": A Short History

Mark Knoller is a White House Correspondent for CBS News.
In taking responsibility yesterday for the missteps in the firing of those U.S. Attorneys, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales acknowledged that "mistakes were made."

He didn't say that he made the mistakes – but that he takes responsibility for them.

And he said steps were being taking so that "the mistakes" don't happen again.

If that kind of linguistic gymnastics sounds familiar, it should.

Referring to mistakes in the abstract is a common practice for those at the highest levels of the U.S. Government.

A quick search of presidential statements shows that every recent U.S. president has used that phrase in one form or another to acknoledge errors in policy, judgment or action.

Most recently, President Bush spoke those words in his address to the nation early this year to explain why a new strategy on Iraq was needed.

"Where mistakes have been made, the responsibility rests with me," he said. He didn't say he made the mistakes, or that mistakes were definitely made, but if they happened, the buck, though not the blame, stops at his desk.

In responding to questions about the flawed Administration response to Hurricane Katrina, Mr. Bush said it again.

"If there's any mistakes made at the Federal level, I, of course, accept responsibility."

We heard that phrase during the Clinton years too.

Responding to a question about U.S. military presence on the Japanese island of Okinawa, then-President Clinton said:

"And where mistakes have been made, we've tried to correct them, and we will continue to do that."

Again, after the blunder in which the U.S. mistakenly bombed China's Embassy in Belgrade in 1999, Bill Clinton said:

"A series of very bad mistakes were made, and a tragic accident occurred."

The phrase helped the first President Bush out of some tight spots too.

Asked to explain earlier U.S. support for Iraq's Saddam Hussein during his war with Iran, Mr. Bush the elder said:

"So, if there was a mistake made, in trying to move them along a more civilized path by having contacts as we did, fine."

The first presidential use of the phrase over the last 25 years can be attributed to Ronald Reagan.

In his State of the Union speech in 1987, admitted to missteps in the Iran-Contra Scandal, President Reagan told the nation:

"We did not achieve what we wished, and serious mistakes were made in trying to do so."

There are plenty of other uses of that phrase in recent history.

If I left out an important one, I readily admit "mistakes were made."

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