The Good Word

Czar Wars

How did a term for Russian royalty work its way into American government?

When Benjamin Franklin wanted to describe our national indifference to royal pomp and circumstance, he would compare Americans to a London porter whose heavy load once jostled Czar Peter the Great. When told he had just bumped into the czar, the porter responded: “Poh! We are all czars here!”

Emperor Nicholas I of Russia, a true czar.

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Franklin’s porter could have been describing the incoming Obama administration. Already Tom Daschle has been tapped for “health czar” and Carol Browner for “climate czar.” Adolfo Carrión is expected to be the “urban affairs czar.” There’s also been talk of a “technology czar” and a “copyright czar.” Plans for a “car czar” recently fell apart on Capitol Hill, but Obama and the incoming Congress will try, try again in the new year.

This efflorescence of czars—those interagency point people charged with cutting through red tape to coordinate policy—has people wondering: Why do we use a term from imperial Russia to describe bureaucratic troubleshooters?

Czar first entered English back in the mid-16th century, soon after Baron Sigismund von Herberstein used the word in a Latin book published in 1549. The more correct romanization, tsar, became the standard spelling in the late 19th century, but by that time czar had caught on in popular usage, emerging as a handy label for anyone with tyrannical tendencies.

On the American scene, czar was first bestowed on one of Andrew Jackson’s foes: Nicholas Biddle, president of the Bank of the United States. Jackson vehemently opposed the centralized power of the bank, which he called a “hydra of corruption,” and his clash with Biddle exploded into the “Bank War” of 1832-36. One of Jackson’s staunchest allies in this fight, Washington Globe Publisher Frank Blair, dubbed Biddle “Czar Nicholas”—a potent image at a time when Russia’s Nicholas I was at the height of his repressive nationalist regime. (Jackson’s opponents fought fire with fire, calling him King Andrew I.)

After the Civil War, journalist David Ross Locke (writing under the moniker “Petroleum V. Nasby”) lampooned Andrew Johnson’s mishandling of Reconstruction, anointing him “the Czar uv all the Amerikas.” But it wasn’t until 1890 that the “czar” label became an American political staple. Republican House Speaker Thomas Reed incensed Democrats by disallowing a favored stalling tactic of the minority party: not responding to a quorum call. When Reed pushed through a rule that allowed the speaker to count members as present for the quorum even if they didn’t respond, Democratic congressmen erupted with cries of “Czar! Despot! Tyrant!”

The “Czar Reed” image stuck; the speaker would be known as “czar” for the rest of his career, after which time an even more potent House speaker, Joe Cannon, would inherit the title. As Reed’s biographer William A. Robinson observed, the nickname “had no pleasant connotations” at the time. “In 1890, it brought to the mind the Russian autocrat himself,” along with images of “the Cossacks, Siberia, and the knout” (a whip used for flogging).

That would all change after the Russian Revolution deposed the last real-life czar in 1917; painful images of imperial repression quickly faded to the background and Communist leaders became the new dictatorial icons. Accordingly, kinder, gentler “czars” made their way into American public life. When Kenesaw Mountain Landis became the first commissioner of baseball in 1920, “czar of baseball” worked just fine for the headline writers. New York had its “boxing czar” (Athletic Commission Chairman William Muldoon) and its “beer czar” (Alcoholic Beverage Control Board Chairman Edward Mulrooney). And when Nicholas Longworth served as House speaker in the late ‘20s, he distinguished himself from his predecessors Reed and Cannon as the “genial czar.”

The newly benign term evolved again during World War II, when Roosevelt expanded the government rapidly and appointed a host of brand-new federal overseers. The Washington Post reported in 1942 on the sudden rush of “executive orders creating new czars to control various aspects of our wartime economy,” and a cartoon from that year shows “czar of prices” Leon Henderson, “czar of production” Donald Nelson, and “czar of ships” Emory S. Land all cramming onto one throne.

In the postwar era, the rise of the “czar” has accompanied the expanding role of the executive office in promoting policy initiatives; the term tends to be used when presidents create special new posts for the individuals charged with pushing those initiatives through. Nixon succumbed to czarmania, appointing the first “drug czar,” Jerome Jaffe, in 1971 (long before William Bennett took the mantle in 1988). But it was the title of “energy czar” that got the most attention during those days of OPEC embargoes and gas rationing. Though John A. Love first held the title in 1973, his more powerful successor William E. Simon really got the “czar” ball rolling. Doonesbury cartoonist Garry Trudeau found the “czar” title fitting, depicting Simon imperiously asking for his “signet ring and hot wax.” Simon, for his part, enjoyed the sendup and took pleasure in colleagues calling him “your czarship.”

Now we hear that the Obama team doesn’t like czar either. No wonder: Even now, the word evokes either old-fashioned despotism or latter-day caricatures of tin-pot tyrants. But it’s safe to say it’s not going anywhere, as long as that compact word keeps doing its job, glibly condensing bureaucratic mouthfuls.

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