Dick Polman, 10/21/2014 [Archive]

Why are Americans So Czar-Struck?

By Dick Polman

Let's take a break from our Ebola freakout and debate something a bit more benign - like word usage. For instance, why do we keep using czar?

Last Friday, seemingly within seconds of Ron Klain's ascent to the new post of Ebola response coordinator, the press headlines were dubbing him the "Ebola Czar." Which I suppose was to be expected, given the fact that, during the past five decades we've referred to dozens of White House aides as drug czars, energy czars, science czars, climate czars, terrorism czars...you name it. At one point the Obama administration had an auto bailout specialist, and that was fun, because everybody got to call him the car czar.

But seriously, let's think about this. Why have we allegedly civilized Americans appropriated a word that dates back to despotic imperial Russia (its original spelling, tsar), a word that was synonymous with tyrannical rule?

If we want to be exotic, why not use pasha or sultan? Does anyone know anymore what the czars were really like? Ivan the Terrible burned down the city of Novgorod and killed all its inhabitants in an effort to halt the spread of bubonic plague (which made him a lousy Plague Czar). Peter the Great ordered the torturous execution of his own son, and was reputedly fond of beheading people. And the 19th-century czars were particularly gifted at launching murderous pogroms against the Jews.

And yet, the word somehow came westward. It popped up, apparently for the first time, back in 1832, when President Andrew Jackson's allies denigrated banker Nicholas Biddle by calling him "Czar Nicholas" (this was during the Russian reign of Nicholas I). It surfaced again in 1866, when a political humorist denigrated President Andrew Johnson by dubbing him "Czar of all the Americas."And again at the turn of the 20th century, when a copy editor at The New York Times sought a synonym for the word autocratic in order to describe House Speaker Thomas Reed. He settled on czar.

That sounds about right. Czar is a handy media label that fits snugly in a headline.

Real czars had the power of life and death over their humble subjects, whereas American czars are powerless coordinators who must cajole and coax recalcitrant agencies into getting along, but no matter: Once a foreign word enters the language, it tends to lose its true meaning. Which is what happened five decades ago, during the 1973 oil embargo, when Richard Nixon tapped a guy named John Love to tackle the crisis - and Love was quickly dubbed the "energy czar." As was his more prominent successor, William Simon. Simon's aides delighted in calling him "your czarship." That's when the term really took off.

I guess things could be worse, like calling Ron Klain the Ebola Lord or Ebola Khan or Ebola Ayatollah. And it's quicker and niftier to say czar instead of calling him what he really is, the Ebola interagency implementation manager. Just like it's facile to say that Liz Sherwood-Randall is Obama's WMD czar - as opposed to what she really is, the White House coordinator for defense policy, countering weapons of mass destruction and arms control. No harm done, I suppose, as long as Klain's czar tag doesn't prompt Americans to assume that he can merely wave a scepter and keep the death toll at one.

But since we're so willing to indulge in exotic nomenclature, I'll confess that I've long been partial to wizard. And if a future president taps someone special to honcho the cleanup of toxic waste dumps, I'm staking a claim right now. I want to be the first to dub that person The Wizard of Ooze.

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Copyright 2014 Dick Polman, distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate.

Dick Polman is the national political columnist at NewsWorks/WHYY in Philadelphia (newsworks.org/polman) and a "Writer in Residence" at the University of Philadelphia. Email him at dickpolman7@gmail.com.

This column has been edited by the author. Representations of fact and opinions are solely those of the author.

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