n 1986, then-Vice President George H.W. Bush offered an unsatisfying, passive-voice explanation for the Iran-Contra scandal in which the Reagan administration sold weapons to Iran in order to finance an illegal war on Nicaragua.
“Clearly, mistakes were made,” Bush said.
In 2004, then-President George W. Bush offered an eerily similar unsatisfying, passive-voice explanation for the Abu Ghraib scandal, in which U.S. officials tortured detainees at an Iraqi prison:
“It’s also important for the people of Iraq to know that in a democracy, everything is not perfect, that mistakes are made,” Bush said.
In 2015, former Gov. Jeb Bush offered a practically identical, unsatisfying, passive-voice explanation for his brother’s catastrophic war in Iraq, launched under false pretenses, and bungled every step of the way.
“Let’s go to Iraq,” Bush said during the Q&A at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. “There were mistakes made in Iraq, for sure.”
One family, multiple scandals, one phrase.
I’ll have more on Jeb Bush’s unsuccessful foray into foreign policy later, but for now, it’s important to note why “mistakes were made” is such a ridiculous explanation for failure.
As long-time readers may recall, the problem with the phrase isn’t just the passivity or the historical repetition; it’s the underlying motivation that makes the passive voice necessary in the first place.
In active voice, the phrase needs a proper noun. Someone made a mistake, but the Bushes, over the course of three decades, don’t want to say who. They’re willing to acknowledge that a mistake occurred, but they’ll go no farther.
The phenomenon seems to fit nicely into the way in which modern Republicans use language. Active voice assigns responsibility; passive voice admits errors without assigning blame. It’s an accountability-free approach to governing.
In fact, it’s worth remembering that it was George Orwell in “Politics and the English Language” who explained that “the passive voice is wherever possible used in preference to the active” by those who hope to obscure the truth.
It’s also, apparently, an unfortunate Bush family tradition.