“Mistakes Were Made”

If you’re the nation’s top cop, you know it’s a bad day when pundits compare you to Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake.

Under fire from solons of both parties for the controversial dismissal of eight US attorneys, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales met the press. Were the dismissals politically motivated? Who suggested them and why? Inquiring minds wanted to know.

Gonzales assured his critics he would get to the bottom of this. Mistakes were made, he explained.

Admitting mistakes can be constructive. The problem, of course, was Gonzales’ ambiguous undertone. Was it honest confession or artful sidestep?

Confession or Sidestep?

Maybe mistakes were made means, Somebody messed up royally. We’re investigating thoroughly, so please sit tight. We’ll name names soon.

Or it could mean, I know who botched this. But I don’t want to point the finger directly at me or my colleagues, so I’ll throw up a vague camouflage.

Maybe Gonzales meant the former. Critics cried foul. The New York Times called it an “astonishingly maladroit…Nixonian…dodge.”{1} Administration inconsistencies about who-did-or-knew-what-when did not help quiet skeptics. Who would take responsibility? Ghosts of Janet, Justin and the 2004 Super Bowl reappeared.

Timberlake’s press agent announced back then, “I am sorry if anyone was offended by the wardrobe malfunction during the halftime performance.”{2} Jackson told a press conference, “If I offended anybody, that was truly not my intention.”{3} William Safire has identified a special verb tense for similar nonconfession confessions: “the past exonerative.”{4}

True Confessions

What did Gonzales mean? I don’t know; I’m still watching. But the “mistakes were made” flap illustrates the need for guidelines for fessing up when warranted.

How about, I was wrong; I’m sorry; please forgive me?

That’s seldom easy. Its risky. Makes you vulnerable to your enemies.

Duke political science professor Michael Munger observes that many politicians seem reluctant to admit faults: “I wonder if some capacity for self-delusion is a requirement for being a politician.”{5} Munger also notes that business star Henry Ford was reputed to have exemplified the doctrine, “Never apologize, never explain.”{6} Literary giant Ralph Waldo Emerson claimed, “No sensible person ever made an apology.”{7}

Reminds me of the editor who, when asked by an exasperated reporter if he’d ever been wrong, replied, Yes. Once I thought I was wrong, but I wasn’t.”

Could big egos that drive success be rendering some folks relationally and ethically flawed?

Plastic Buckets

My second year in university, I swiped a plastic bucket from behind the lectern in the psychology lecture hall. It had been there every day during the semester. No one wants it, I convinced myself. It deserves to be taken. I used it to wash my car.

Two years later, I considered a biblical perspective: If we say we have no sin, we are only fooling ourselves and refusing to accept the truth. But if we confess our sins to … [God], he is faithful and just to forgive us and to cleanse us from every wrong.{8}

That bucket kept coming to mind. I needed to admit my theft to God and make restitution.

My booty long since lost, I purchased a new bucket and carried it sheepishly across campus one afternoon. Finding no one in the psychology building to confess to, I left the bucket in a broom closet with a note of explanation. Maybe a janitor read it. My conscience was clear.

We all probably have some plastic buckets in our lives, observed an associate. If you do, may I recommend honesty for easier sleeping? Oh, and if you happened to be the owner of that bucket I stole, I was wrong. I’m sorry. Please forgive me.


1. “Politics, Pure and Cynical,” (Editorial), The New York Times, March 14, 2007; http://tinyurl.com/yvnjyd, accessed March 18, 2007.
2. John M. Broder, “Familiar Fallback for Officials: ‘Mistakes Were Made’,” The New York Times, March 14, 2007; http://www.nytimes.com/2007/03/14/washington/14mistakes.html, accessed March 18, 2007.
3. Robert J. Bliwise, “We Apologize: The Sorry State of Remorse,” Duke Magazine 90:3 May-June 2004; http://www.dukemagazine.duke.edu/dukemag/issues/050604/apologize1.html, accessed March 18, 2007.
4. Diane Hartman, “Watching My Language” (Book Review of William Safire’s Watching My Language), Denver Post Online, “September 14” (no year given); http://extras.denverpost.com/books/book23.htm, accessed March 18, 2007.
5. Bliwise, loc. cit.
6. Ibid.
7. Ibid. It is unclear from the text whether Munger or Bliwise supplied the Emerson quotation.
8. 1 John 1:8-9 NLT.

© Copyright 2007 Rusty Wright

Veep Logic?

When you’re the Vice President of the United States and your office uses farfetched arguments to defend your policies, maybe it’s time to review your logic.

Dick Cheney’s aides have supported his office’s refusal to comply with an executive order because, they’ve said, the Veep is not part of the government’s executive branch. Huh? Seems his duties as president of the Senate, part of the legislative branch, exempt him from executive orders.

The White House now has backed off Cheney’s approach and welcomed him back into the executive branch—but he still doesn’t have to comply.

Confused? Amused? Disturbed?

Civics Lesson

I’ve forgotten more of my early education than I care to admit, but I do remember junior high school civics class: Executive, legislative, and judicial. President and VP are executive branch, Congress is legislative, Supreme Court is judicial.

In 2003, President Bush amended an existing executive order about classified information in light of post-9/11 security concerns. Executive branch entities are to report to an oversight agency about how they handle classified material.

Bush’s order applies to executive agencies and any other entity within the executive branch that comes into the possession of classified information. {1} You would think that includes the Office of the Vice President, but Cheney’s office has refused since 2003 to comply.

Logical problems with the dual-role argument are legion. Cheney in the past has invoked executive privilege to maintain secrets. Surely having legislative branch duties does not negate one’s executive branch status. Can a student disobey school rules because s/he also participates in community service projects?

Cheney’s Gift to Jon Stewart

Recently the dual-role logic made headlines. Administration critics howled. Humorists roared. “Cheney’s gift to Jon Stewart,” remarked one journalist friend. The Comedy Central’s Daily Show TV anchor joked that Cheney was establishing himself as the fourth branch of government. {2}

Congressman Rahm Emanuel of Illinois proposed cutting funding for Cheney’s office and home. “He’s not part of the executive branch. We’re not going to fund something that doesn’t exist,” said Emanuel according to the Chicago Tribune. “I’m following through on the vice president’s logic, no matter how ludicrous it might be.” {3} The funding cut narrowly failed in the House.

TheWashington Post noted that Emanuel also opposed Cheney’s participation in the congressional baseball game because “he would remake the rules to his liking.” {4}

Now a White House spokesman says the dual-role argument is not necessary. He says the executive order explicitly gives Cheney the same standing in the matter as Bush, who issued and enforces the order, so the subordinate oversight agency has no authority to investigate Cheney. {5}

That huge sigh you hear is America relieved that a constitutional crisis has been averted. The internal dispute was passed on to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, who, of course, has his own critics.

The Question Remains

But the question remains, what are we to make of a high government office that would use such unreasonable reasoning in the first place? Are its leaders naive? Desperate? Covering up something? Blind to the obvious?

The entire episode hints of George Orwell’s Animal Farm: All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.

Cheney’s distorted logic involves focusing on his lesser legislative responsibility and minimizing his major executive responsibilities. Another adept social critic, Jesus of Nazareth, once rebuked some legalistic leaders for majoring on the minors and minimizing what’s important. “Blind guides!” he called them. “You strain your water so you won’t accidentally swallow a gnat; then you swallow a camel!” {6}

Cheney seems to—or seems to want us to—strain the gnat and swallow the camel. Is it a wonder such tenuous logic makes observers suspicious?


1. George W. Bush, Executive Order: Further Amendment to Executive Order 12958, As Amended, Classified National Security Information; The White House, March 25, 2003; 6.1 (b);www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2003/03/20030325-11.html, accessed June 29, 2007.
2. “The Daily Show: Non-Executive Decision,” nynerd.com/jon-stewart-on-dick-cheney/, accessed June 29, 2007.
3. Leora Falk, “Emanuel seeks to cut funding for Cheney’s office, home,” Chicago Tribune, June 26, 2007; tinyurl.com/2mmdzt; accessed June 29, 2007.
4. Dana Milbank, “The Cheese Stands Alone,” The Washington Post, June 26, 2007, A02; tinyurl.com/ywffjo; accessed June 29, 2007.
5. Jim Rutenberg, “White House Drops Vice President’s Dual-Role Argument as Moot,” The New York Times, June 28, 2007; www.nytimes.com/2007/06/28/washington/28cheney.html?ref=washington; accessed June 29, 2007.
6. Matthew 23:24 NLT.


2007 Probe Ministries