Political etymology

American czars: Speaker Reed, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, Frank Zarb, Bill Bennett.

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.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com