Czar Update

| Fri Dec. 12, 2008 10:36 AM PST

CZAR UPDATE....It looks like Congress might not appoint a "car czar" after all, but here's an update on where this whole czar business seems to have come from in the first place.

The word has been used for a long time as a generic term of abuse for someone who acts autocratically, but the "_____ czar" usage is more recent. Mark Kleiman traces it back to 1920, when Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis was appointed the first baseball commissioner after the Black Sox scandal, and was given such wide ranging powers that he was known as the "czar of baseball." Apparently it caught on, and in 1926 the Milk Chamber of Commerce in New York appointed a "milk czar," while in 1933 New York Governer Herbert Lehman appointed New York City police commissioner Edward Mulrooney the state's "beer czar."

However, the modern day version, referring to a federal government appointee with supposedly vast powers, appears to date from World War II. In comments, Walsh provides us with this paragraph from the Washington Post in 1942:

Executive orders creating new czars to control various aspects of our wartime economy have come so thick and fast in the last week that it is difficult for the public to remember all of them. In rapid succession we have acquired a petroleum czar, a manpower czar, and a food czar. These, of course, were added to a long list of other super-executives directing war production, economic stabilization, price fixing, transportation, and so forth. So far as we can determine, the galaxy of czars is now complete, unless the President should decide to appoint a czar over the czars.

In particular, Donald Nelson was pretty well known as the "war production czar," and in 1943 Time magazine echoed the Post with this:

Czars were now a dime a dozen: the U.S. had Economic Czar James F. Byrnes, Production Czar Donald Nelson, Manpower Czar Paul McNutt, Food Czar Claude Wickard, Rubber Czar William Jeffers. But they were more like Grand Dukes than Czars: under their high-sounding titles, divided authority and lack of direction left them still snarled in invisible red tape.

Rubber Czar Jeffers, trying to do his job, had got all fouled up with the Army & Navy. Economic Czar Byrnes had stepped in to cut away the tangle — but no one was sure last week who would enforce the compromise he had laid down. Manpower Czar McNutt began stretching his muscles with a new work-or-fight order — and Congress promptly raised a howl. Czar Wickard was apparently frozen with fright at the horrible food prospects ahead.

Things then stayed relatively quiet on the czar front until 1973, when Richard Nixon appointed John Love as "energy czar," followed by William Simon in the same post. Since then, they've multiplied like flies. If Barack Obama puts a stop to it, I'm sure he'll have the thanks of a grateful nation.

Get Mother Jones by Email - Free. Like what you're reading? Get the best of MoJo three times a week.