A question posed to me by Tom Schelling (see the post above for the relevant substantive discussion):
Since when did the term “czar” get to be a general-purpose and unjudgmental term for someone given absolute and somewhat irregular authority over some institution or policy area? “Czar” used to be a pejorative, reflecting the image of Russia as the archetype of tyranny; when people around the turn of the last century called Speaker Reed “Czar Reed,” it was as if they were calling him “Fuerer Reed” or “the Ayatollah Reed.”
Here’s my guess, which I offer for the criticism of those who know more. The first non-pejorative use of “czar” was in reference to Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis’s role as Commissioner of Baseball following the Black Sox scandal of 1919. Landis was given virtually autocratic power in order to reassure the public and strike fear into anyone in baseball who might think about corrupting the game as Shoeless Joe Jackson and his teammates had corrupted it. In that context, the title “czar” made a kind of sense: organized baseball wanted a terrifying ruler.
I’m not familiar with subsequent uses of “czar” before the unfortunate case of the “drug czar.” Anyone who can fill in the history is invited to send a note.
Update: Several readers pointed to the various czars of the Nixon and Ford Administrations, including James Schlesinger, William Simon, and Frank Zarb as Autocrats of All the Energies. So that’s two topics — energy and drugs — where despotism was tried and failed.