Kevin Drum ia curious about the etymology of the word “czar” in American politics.
During the 19th Century, Russia was a byword for despotism, so Americans used “czar” as a term of political abuse, the way we now use “dictator.” It was Speaker Thomas Brackett Reed’s opponents who called him “Czar Reed” in reference to his autocratic rule of the House of Representatives.
After the Black Sox scandal of 1919, the baseball-club owners decided that they needed to appoint a new Commissioner of Baseball with dictatorial powers. Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis got the job, and was known as “Czar Landis.” I think that was the first time the term was used with a positive connotation; by then, of course, “Czar” was no longer the title of the Russian despot.
There seem to have been various uses of the term during the thirties and forties, but as far as I can tell it was brought back into active political life with the appointment of Frank Zarb as “Energy Czar” under Nixon.
It does not appear that anyone since Landis holding the title of “Czar” has achieved anything of value. Time to retire the term, especially in connection with “wars” (i.e., the “war on drugs”). Given the fact that the last actual czar, Nicholas II, managed to lose the only two wars he fought, the title ought probably to be regarded as one of ill omen.