New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie at a press conference Thursday. (AP Photo/Mel Evans) New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie at a news conference Thursday. (Mel Evans/AP)

It only took a couple  sentences into his annual state of the state address Tuesday afternoon for embattled New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) to join an illustrious group of American leaders — including Ulysses S. Grant, Richard M. Nixon, Alberto Gonzalez and Ronald Ziegler — who used the phrase “mistakes were made.”

To be fair, Christie improved on the time-honored dodge, by saying “mistakes were clearly made” in the scandal that’s been dubbed “Bridgegate” for the massive four-day tie-ups of the George Washington Bridge in Fort Lee, N.J.

Nonetheless, he deserves to be included in the ranks, compiled by Wikipedia,  of those who, when faced with allegations of wrongdoing, deflected them with what  political consultant William Schneider called  the “past exonerative” tense. Former Nixon speechwriter and commentator William Safire defined it as “[a] passive-evasive way of acknowledging error while distancing the speaker from responsibility for it.”

The most famous usage, of course, was May 1,1973, the day after Nixon’s top aides John Erhlichman, H.R. Haldeman and John Dean resigned. That was when Ziegler, then White House press secretary, apologized to The Washington Post and reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein.

“We would all have to say that mistakes were made in terms of comments. I was overenthusiastic in my comments about The Post, particularly if you look at them in the context of developments that have taken place.” 

Christie didn’t use another equally important phrase: “Lessons were learned.”

Well, he could save that for later.