SCOTT SIMON, host:
A dramatic moment at the Justice Department this week: Gonzales stood in the middle of the room, no lectern to conceal notes, just one man in front of a cluster of microphones to express himself about the controversy over the firing of eight U.S. attorneys across the country.
Attorney General ALBERTO GONZALES (U.S. Department of Justice): I acknowledge that mistakes were made here. I accept that responsibility. And my pledge to the American people is to find out what went wrong here, to assess accountability and to make improvements so that the mistakes that occurred in this instance do not occur again in the future.
SIMON: Mistakes were made. The phrase is a political construction that the analyst William Schneider said should be called the past exonerative tense. Its origin as a political mea culpa or non-mea culpa goes at least as far back as President Ronald Reagan's 1987 State of the Union Address in the midst of the Iran-Contra scandal.
President RONALD REAGAN: We did not achieve what we wished and serious mistakes were trying - were made in trying to do so. We will get to the bottom of this and I will take whatever action is called for.
SIMON: Every president since has found cause to use the past exonerative. The first President Bush.
President GEORGE H.W. BUSH: Mistakes were made.
SIMON: President Clinton.
President BILL CLINTON: Mistakes were made here.
SIMON: And now the current President Bush who echoed his attorney general this week.
President GEORGE W. BUSH: Al was right. Mistakes were made, and he's going to go up to Capitol Hill to correct them.
SIMON: And then again in the same press conference.
Pres. GEORGE W. BUSH: He's right, mistakes were made, and I'm frankly not happy about it.
SIMON: Saying mistakes were made is not the only way to not apologize for something. Of course, you can always say you're sorry, not for what you did -because you're not really saying that you did it - but for the fact that some people took offense. Remember the Justin Timberlake-Janet Jackson wardrobe malfunction? Here's Ms. Jackson's apology.
Ms. JANET JACKSON (Singer): I am really sorry if I offended anyone. That was truly not my intention.
SIMON: Remarkably similar to Justin Timberlake's.
Mr. JUSTIN TIMBERLAKE (Singer): What occurred was unintentional, completely regrettable and I apologize if you guys are offended.
SIMON: Sounds like they have the same public relations counsel. Then there's Jason Giambi's approach when confronted with accusations of, say, steroid use. Say you're sorry but avoid saying anything about the underlying allegation.
Mr. JASON GIAMBI (Baseball Player, New York Yankees): I want to say that I'm sorry. I feel like I've let down the media. I feel like I've let down the fans. I feel like I've let down, you know, the Yankees and also I feel like I've let down my teammates.
Unidentified Man: Have you used steroids playing Major League Baseball?
Mr. GIAMBI: I can't comment on that because of legal issues that have gone down. But, you know, like, hopefully some day, you know, I'll be able to answer that question.
SIMON: Another athlete accused of a far more serious crime might call that the if-I-did-it defense, and if you think we're going too far, I apologize if anyone was offended. Mistakes were made.
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