Why Czars?
July 15, 2009 6:16 AM   Subscribe

Could folks smarter than me elucidate for me the whole current U.S. administration's "Czar" fetish? I'm looking for precedent or other historic rationale on the use of the term "czar" in U.S. politics. Could anybody more in the know help out?

I've looked around and all I can find are anti-Govt or anti-Obama editorials going SQUEEEEE Czar bad! Czar bad! I appreciate it is likely a symbolic gesture, but in my short life span I've had no recollection from Reagan up until now of a president actually naming "czar" posts.
posted by cavalier to Law & Government (14 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Drug czar was the first usage.
posted by zamboni at 6:17 AM on July 15, 2009

Well, I think it's supposed to denote some sort of supervisory/coordinator power that crosses traditional departmental boundaries of authority.

But it squicks me out the same way "the Homeland" does, which I think started getting popular during about the same (late Clinton) era.

(Ford also started making weird nazi-looking cars about that time, which is probably when the secret invisible reptile/alien/baldwin government seized control of everything.)
posted by rokusan at 6:24 AM on July 15, 2009

Well, as the Wikipedia article zamboni links to says, it was actually first used for an Energy Czar in 1973.

Colloquially, I worked at a company where people in certain positions were called Czar. It was an informal, US company.
posted by OmieWise at 6:24 AM on July 15, 2009

(And wikipedia gives me the lie! First _published_ usage. That'll learn me to rely on mere memory.)
posted by zamboni at 6:26 AM on July 15, 2009

Next came the Reagan administration, in 1982, and the appointment of a Drug Czar, recommended by Joe Biden, who is given credit for coining the title, Drug Czar. The Clinton and Bush II administrations both continued the Drug Czar position. The Obama appointee for that position is Gil Kerlikowske.
Clinton also appointed an AIDS Czar during his presidency.
Bush II continued with a Drug Czar and then added a Cybersecurity Czar in 2001, a Regulatory Czar in 2003 along with another AIDS Czar. Bush also added a Faith-based Czar.
In 2004, Bush appointed a Manufacturing Czar. Then in 2005, Bush added a Katrina Czar, a Bird Flu Czar, an Intelligence Czar, a Copyright Czar and finally a War Czar in 2007.
Also, with the disbursement of the TARP funds, Bush appointed a TARP Czar.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 6:46 AM on July 15, 2009

I remember the first time I heard it was in the Reagan administration and thought it was a weird cold war thing. It made some sense from that perspective because it was sticking it to the commies by showing that we supported the czar. Maybe that is the reason that we "won the cold war" and the wall fell.
posted by JJ86 at 6:47 AM on July 15, 2009

Obama's appointed a lot of Czars, but so did W. And I don't remember the Republicans griping back then. Another case of IOKIYAR.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 6:48 AM on July 15, 2009


It's not an actual title, it's just a media shorthand.
posted by nax at 7:18 AM on July 15, 2009

Titles in the US are tricky. There's a set of titles that are simply not legal to use (e.g. "Princes" are not permitted), and certain titles that have requirements to them. "Secretaries" (i.e. Formal executive branch cabinet positions) are subject to confirmation by the Senate (known as "Advise and consent"). Similar with "Commissioners". Other positions must be elected, rather than appointed.

I think that the term "Czar" came out of a need to put something short and to the point on the people that the President drafts to help with these large, coordinated projects, but are only informally (at least as a matter of law) part of the cabinet. A lot of words that people would have used were just not available. And besides, what better way to stick a thumb in the eye of the Soviets during the Cold War than to invoke spectres of the government they deposed in 1917? :)
posted by Citrus at 10:00 AM on July 15, 2009

in my short life span I've had no recollection from Reagan up until now of a president actually naming "czar" posts.

I remember it throughout my life, certainly including the Reagan administration. But if you read the Slate article linked above, it says it started to become a regular term in 1890. So it is not any recent administration that coined it.
posted by mdn at 11:23 AM on July 15, 2009

This Slate article cites uses of the term in a political context dating back as far as FDR.
posted by Lazlo at 9:59 PM on July 15, 2009

Yeah, Joe Biden may get credit, but it's undeserved -- people spoke (albeit rarely) of Nixon's drug czar, for instance, according to what's available on Google News Archive. And the czar term itself has a much longer history, which is why the media used it (especially in headlines, where four letters counts).

There has been an Obama administration reliance on them that is somewhat expansive, but I don't think the objections are really substantive.

"the Homeland" ... I think started getting popular during about the same (late Clinton) era

Homeland Security was a phrase that was recommended by the Hart-Rudman Commission on National Security in the 21st Century, which met in the late 90s and formulated the idea of a Homeland Security Department. It remained obscure and without a mandate until dusted off after 9/11.
posted by dhartung at 10:42 PM on July 15, 2009

I know this addition is a little late but it seems to be one of the most valid reasons. Slate missed this one. From a Universal Press Syndicate article I found in the June 19, 1935 Milwaukee Sentinel, there was a front page article called, "Wallace Gets AAA Czar Role in House Vote". The article states that the House passed the Agricultural Adjustment Act which gave the Secretary of Agriculture Henry A. Wallace extreme and almost "dictatorial powers". Wallace was to be put in "...supreme control of production, prices, and marketing of major food commodities...". He was to be given complete dominance over farmers and food prices.


Granted this may not be the earliest use in US politics but it does speak about a huge amount of power being given to an appointed position which obviously follows through to today's uses.
posted by JJ86 at 8:47 AM on September 29, 2009

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