“Mistakes are made.”
Embattled New Jersey Governor Chris Christie took refuge in some form of this traditional rhetorical dodge at least eight times in his Thursday news conference, called to respond to the release of emails showing a senior aide in his office ordered traffic jams on the world’s busiest bridge in apparent retribution against a Democratic mayor.
Speakers use the expression, labeled by The New York Times a “classic Washington linguistic construct,” when they want to acknowledge that a situation was handled inappropriately but seek to evade any direct admission of responsibility. The phrase is uttered in the passive voice, an abstraction which deletes the agent, the person who made the mistakes. The active version of the construct would go like this: “I made the mistakes,” or “My aide made the mistakes.”
Political analyst William Schneider refers to the phrase as “the past exonerative,” a new tense in the English language. The phrase has been used by many business, sports, and entertainment figures who have been caught with their hands in the cookie jar. But politicians find the dodge particularly useful as it sounds like a confession but isn’t. The speaker, in this case the governor, neither accepts personal responsibility nor points a finger at anyone else.
Christie several times said some variant of “I am responsible for what happened” or “ultimately I am responsible for what happens under my watch.” But that’s an obvious phrasing of his role as the governor, the boss of all workers in New Jersey. It is not an admission of any wrongdoing on his part.
Richard Nixon’s Press Secretary, Ron Ziegler, raised the phrase “mistakes were made” to an art form as he tried to explain away his bosses lies about the ever-intensifying Watergate scandal. One commentator points out that “the type of evasive and corrupted language for which [Ziegler] was repeatedly pilloried for using as Nixon’s press secretary is not only accepted, but heartily and shamelessly embraced as a norm of political and social conduct.”
Christie’s avid embrace of Ziegler’s “corrupted language” is not the only similarity between the lane closures and Watergate. Both involved petty forms of political action and retribution. Watergate quickly became a scandal because of the coverup; the lane closings appear to have harmed Christie in a similar way, though his knowledge of who ordered what and when he knew it is still not clear.
Then there was Christie’s Nixonian “I’m not a crook” moment when he answered a question about whether the bridge closings confirm the oft-repeated accusation that he is a political bully. “No, I’m not,” the governor said. “Politics ain't bean bag, OK? And everybody in the country who engages in politics knows that. On the other hand, that's very, very different than saying that, you know, someone's a bully. I have very heated discussions and arguments with people in my own party and on the other side of the aisle. I feel passionately about issues… But I am not a bully.” [Emphasis added]
Just as Nixon’s repeated attempts to contain the Watergate investigations failed, Christie’s news conference will not end the questions and doubts. The frequent use of “mistakes were made” will not get the governor off the hook.
Christie repeatedly said Thursday that he believed — at least until the day before — that the lane closings were due to a traffic study. But the press had been reporting for weeks that no study could be found nor evidence discovered that anyone had ordered such a study. Moreover, two of his appointees to the agency that operates the George Washington Bridge resigned over the lane closings weeks ago. Did that not prick his interest? Was the governor on some long vacation and not reading the papers?
Christie differs from Nixon in one important respect: The governor has a sense of humor. But that can be harmful, as his attempt last month to dismiss the lane closings with a joke shows. “I worked the cones,” he said. “Unbeknownst to anyone, I was working the cones.”
The people caught in a traffic jam caused by an act of political retribution surely fail to see the humor in that crack (not to mention the people whose lives may have been endangered or even harmed).
Even the governor knows the time for jokes is over. The emails that came out Wednesday show him either to have been misled by his staff (which calls into question his judgment about people) or to have misled the public.
Christie’s explanation? He was duped.
That won’t wash for a politician with national aspirations.