Life in czarist America

It looks as though the United States may acquire yet another czar. Both President Bush and his Democratic challenger, John Kerry, have endorsed the findings of the 9/11 commission calling for the establishment of a national intelligence director.

"Before Washington moves too quickly to bring the nation's intelligence agencies under the command of one person, let's first decide not to call that person the 'intelligence czar.' "

That's how the Monitor editorialized immediately after the commission's recommendations were released.

But, alas, too late! Even before legislation establishing such a position makes its way through the Capitol Hill grinder (by way of the talk shows and op-ed columns), people have begun to speak of "the new intelligence czar," or "intel czar" for short.

Surely I'm not the only one who finds this odd - that when the US has a serious problem, e.g., with defective intelligence, it turns to someone we start calling a "czar." Not to sound uptight or anything, but exactly how does that fit with government of, by, and for the people? (Cut to scene of Ivan the Terrible being grilled by Patrick Leahy at a Senate confirmation hearing. Ivan was used to being the one doing the grilling, and he used a real grill.)

Senator Kerry and others are even calling for an intelligence czar "with clout," or even "real clout." Silly me, I thought "clout" came with the territory for a czar. I mean, otherwise what's the point?

We have been here before. The "intel czar" is the latest in a dubious dynasty that seems to extend as far back as the Romanovs, and wider.

The US has a "drug czar," for instance. It's not just headline writers at tabloid newspapers who call him that; that's how he's identified on the White House website. Did you miss the nomination of Albert Frink Jr. as the US manufacturing czar? Or the imminent retirement of Jack Valenti as the country's "movie czar"? The European Commission is there, too, with a culture czar (since she's a woman, some would call her a czarina) trying to ensure that European film and television productions don't get blown off the map by Hollywood.

"Czar" is a Russian form of "Caesar," as in Julius. That ought to be enough to give people pause right there. The Caesars were, especially toward the end, not exactly the embodiment of the Jeffersonian ideal. The Russian czars, too, what with their pogroms and all, would seem to be of limited value as role models for a democratic society. The term "czar," by the way, is also often rendered in English as "tsar." The "ts" is pronounced rather like the "zz" of "pizza," only with a little more intensity, like that little energy-burst noise a fluorescent light sometimes makes when it's switched on.

Speaking of energy, it's worth noting that America's czarist era seems to have begun in earnest with the tenure of the late William Simon as head of what was then the Federal Energy Office. This was in 1973, under President Nixon, as the country reeled from the Arab oil embargo. Simon was widely known as the country's "energy czar," a title that became further entrenched in the case of Gerald Ford's man for the job, Frank Zarb, whose name made for alliteration that proved irresistible. Nowadays, even with Energy a full-blown executive department, Secretary Spencer Abraham is referred to as the nation's "energy czar."

Even Russia has a drug czar nowadays, and even a deputy drug czar, who was quoted in Pravda last year as saying that US soldiers stationed in Afghanistan are developing drug addictions. Hmm. The Russia of the czars - isn't this where we came in?

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