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. It is a construction that other officials, from Richard M. Nixon’s press secretary to Ronald Reagan to John H. Sununu and Bill Clinton, have used when someone’s hand was caught in the federal cookie jar.
It is similar to a form of apology often heard here and in Hollywood, perhaps most memorably by Justin Timberlake’s press agent after the 2004 Super Bowl halftime incident involving Janet Jackson. “I am sorry if anyone was offended by the wardrobe malfunction during the halftime performance,” the agent said.
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.”
General Peter Pace has also joined the ranks of the users of this tense in his attempt to explain his views about gays in the military; he is retreating to the safe haven of “I should not expressed my personal views on the matter.” He goes on to say that it’s not an apology, though; that keeps him in good stead with the hard-core homophobes in the service and the Congress, and he isn’t caving in on his personal views, in spite of the fact that he’s in the minority among Americans and most of the rank and file in the military. I’m sure he sees it, as Captain Louis Renault would say, as “a wise tactical retreat.”