Mistakes Were Made

I’ve been trying to think this morning about famous speeches in which political leaders forthrightly or candidly acknowledge mistakes or miscalculations, accept responsibility for them, and then proceed to announce changes in personnel and policy designed to correct for those mistakes. What I’m most interested in are speeches of this type which enhance the political prospects or reputation of the leader giving the speech.

Most of the examples I’ve thought of so far are cases of leaders making such speeches well after they’re already in a hopeless political situation, where the speech is just a waypost on a downward spiral, and where it arguably just serves as an invitation to the vultures circling to come and feast on the corpse.

I’m having a hard time thinking of leaders discussing serious error prior to serious political pressures or as a foward-looking political tactic that recoups their advantage. However, I’m wondering whether it is hard to think of such examples for almost the same reason that it is hard to study the history of failure or error. Perhaps there are cases where a successful acknowledgment of a mistake coupled with a substantive change in policy and personnel defuses an incipient political crisis to the extent that we largely forget about the incident later on?

One candidate that I’ve looked at and discarded as fitting what I have in mind include Kennedy’s address after the Bay of Pigs fiasco, which has not even the smallest admission of failure or miscalculation in it, and has more than a little resemblance to some of the current Administration’s approach, that after making serious mistakes, one merely escalates the rhetoric and the accompanying policies.

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8 Responses to Mistakes Were Made

  1. Walt says:

    What about Reagan’s Iran-Contra speech? It had an admission of error, reversal of policy, and personnel changes. As far as his reputation, it didn’t turn night to day, but it got him out of the worst of a downward spiral.

  2. Doug says:

    Nixon’s “Checkers” speech? Don’t know if there’s admissions of error or any such, but that one springs to mind in a US context. If you know a UK government or history expert, that person might be able to help on speeches that accompanied major cabinet re-shuffles.

    What about Joschka Fischer’s move in favor of intervening in Kosovo? That wasn’t necessarily an admission of error, but it was a fundamental change in the Greens’ foreign policy. This was attacking a country that the Nazis had also attacked in WWII; it was an admission that there were values that could trump pacifism. If Fischer had not persuaded his party, the government would have fallen.

  3. SamChevre says:

    Well, it’s not a famous speech–but it’s a fairly famous decision: Lincoln replacing McClellan as commander of the Army of the Potomac is the one that came to my mind.

  4. blumsha says:

    Khrushchev’s repudiation of Stalin?

  5. Timothy Burke says:

    The Iran-Contra speech is a pretty good example, though Reagan kind of admitted personal responsibility in a non-admitting way–but yeah, I think that qualifies.

    Khruschev’s “secret” speech is a very interesting example. Not sure it helped him politically?

    Lincoln’s replacement of McClellan is a good example of a mistake-conceding example, though obviously Lincoln was holding McClellan to be the main “mistake-maker”.

    Parliamentary systems (re: the UK) are going to have more examples of this sort of thing, I think, where it has to be done to try and stave off a potentially devastating vote of confidence.

  6. eb says:

    What about FDR’s second inaugural, when he asks how well the country has done in the past four years and, instead of taking what would seem to be the usual incumbent route of focusing on all the great things that have happened, he focuses on what the nation has failed to achieve?

  7. Endie says:

    The current UK Labour administration has made commonplace the public admission of qualified failure, followed by an assertion that lessons have been learned and all will be different from now on. Such a degree of cynicism has been bred by this that I suspect it would be hard to pick out an example that could be said to have worked.

    The conservatives, however, have done rather better. Boris Johnson, writer, newspaper editor and conservative MP, is known for repeatedly making terrible gaffes, followed by wryly humourous admissions of mistakes (only this month he offered to add Papua New Guinea to his “apology world tour” after a statement regarding headhunters and violence). He has been fired, had affairs, and insulted entire cities, yet his willingness to own up to his mistakes in public statements seems to leave him a little more popular each time.

    How about de Clerk in 1996? Though, since it’s your area then I suppose that if it is applicable then you would already have thought of it.

    And then there is the erstwhile mayor of Washington, Marion Barry. Again, rather out of my purview, but didn’t he manage to get re-elected after his (rather grotesque, to European eyes) apology?

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