HIGH SCHOOL AND COLLEGE COMPOSITION TEACHERS ALWAYS RAIL against their students' use of the passive voice, and Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzalez has given us the latest and greatest example that proves their point.
"I acknowledge that mistakes were made here," he said yesterday in what sounded like a public confessional regarding the politically inspired firing of seven U.S. attorneys last year," adding, "I accept that responsibility." But no two sentences could be more incompatible and contradictory.
"Mistakes were made" has become one of the classic phrases that politicians use to show contrition without being truly contrite, and for some reason they just keep saying it. Invoking it is a bit like standing naked behind a clear glass and thinking that no one can see you, but most of us are not that dumb. We know that difference between passive and active voice.
The New York Times published an amusing sidebar today chronicling how the phrase has been used by Richard Nixon's press secretary, Bush Sr. Chief of Staff John Sununu, Bush Sr. himself when he was Vice President and was caught up in the Iran-Contra mess, and Bill Clinton, who invoked the phrase in the wake of a fund-raising impropriety in his White House days. "The nonconfessions," the Times wrote, "inspired [political commentator] William Schneider... 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.'"
That's a clever line. His point, of course, is there's nothing terribly "exonerative" about "mistakes were made." As is the problem with the passive voice construction, the phrase obscures the subject -- or the actor in the sentence.
If the Attorney General had used the active voice, as his writing teacher would have written in red ink in the margin of his composition, his sentence would have read "[name] made mistakes," and he would have had to fill in the name. And, so I would ask:
Who, exactly made the mistake, Mr. Attorney General?
You said that you "accept responsibility," but you put no subject, no actor, in the sentence "mistakes are made." You also said, referring to memos from the White House suggesting that all 93 U.S. Attorneys be fired that "I was not involved in seeing any memos, was not involved in any discussions about what was going on. That's basically what I knew as attorney general."
Was it Harriet Miers, the White House Counsel, who wrote that memo suggesting the wholesale slashing of the entire U.S. Attorney corps? Or was it Karl Rove who seemed to be trying to manipulate those who were causing problems for the Republicans? Or was it even the President himself, who, from what little even I have paid attention to this scandal -- and I think we can now call it that -- was even aware of this and may have had a hand in it? And what about Senator Domenici and Congresswoman Wilson, who phoned in their displeasure to the prosecutors prior to the election last November?
So who is the subject? Who is the doer, the actor? Who is the true instigator of this scandal? You're certainly not going to pin it all on your former chief of staff, D. Kyle Sampson, whose e-mails show he was pretty intimately involved in the back and forth with the White House on the firings. (Chief of Staff? How could someone so close to you, Mr. Attorney General, never mention such a big issue to you?)
Well, we can press and press on questions like this, and we all know that nothing will happen. We will continue to get the conspicuously evasive answers like "mistakes were made." (It belongs right up there with "I want to spend more time with my family," the famously suspicious explanation people in public life give when they announce they are leaving public life; it's what Michael Jordan said when he retired from the Bulls the first time -- and then immediately went on to play minor league baseball, putting him on the road for another five or six months).
Politicians who use it think they're dousing a fire. They should all remember the teachings of their composition teachers. Because when the rest of us hear "mistakes were made," we know the fire has only begun to burn.