Czars in Their Eyes

Boris Godunov, czar of all Russia, 1598-1605

It’s been a big month for the czars.

The White House has appointed Ron Klain as Ebola czar. Not capo or boss, but czar, the Russian term (also transliterated as tsar) related to Latin Caesar and German Kaiser.

What’s with American English and czar, concept and word? Is it ours now, or do we still need to mark it off in some way?

HuffPo and The Washington Times deploy the term in roman font without typographic qualification. NPR has taken a more circumspect view, at least in its online form, where we’re told “White House Appoints an Ebola ‘Czar’” —with scare quotes around czar as if that word were the scariest part of the announcement. Kathryn Schulz’s recent New York Magazine article is entitled “America’s Strange Love Affair With the Word Czar,”  where italics become the signifier of emphasis and linguistic difference.

In recent decades the White House has been the locus of much czar-making. Since FDR there have been budget czars and car czars, climate czars and drug czars. America’s history with the word czar, however, stretches back into the 19th century, back at least as far as 1872, and the appearance of a work entitled The Struggles (Social, Financial and Political) of Petroleum V. Nasby, republished two years later as The Moral History of America’s Life-Struggle.

The title page of Moral History  announces illustrations by Thomas Nast, a preface by Charles Sumner, and an extraordinary quotation from the late Abraham Lincoln: “For the genius to write like Nasby, I would gladly give up my office.” One is grateful that Lincoln couldn’t and didn’t.

“Nasby” was the humorist David Ross Locke. His book, a satirical account of American political life (there must be other kinds, but at the moment it’s hard to imagine what they might be), is written in the sort of dialect transcription we tolerate (sort of) in Mark Twain and shrink from elsewhere.

The “Prefis” begins “Uv the makin uv books there is no end.” It goes on from there.

Here is Locke on the arrival of President Andrew Johnson in Albany, N.Y.:

“There wuz a immense crowd, but the Czar uv all the Amerikas didn’t get orf his speech here. The Governor welcomed him, but he welcomed him ez the Cheef Magistrate uv the nashen, and happened to drop in Lincoln’s name. That struck a chill over the party, and the President got out uv it ez soon ez possible. Bein reseeved ez Chief Magistrate, and not ez the great Pacificator, ain’t His Eggslency’s best holt. It wuz unkind of uv Governor [Reuben] Fenton to do it. If he takes the papers, he must know that His Mightiness ain’t got but one speech, and he ought to hev made sich a reception ez wood hev enabled him to hev got it off. We shook the dust off uv our feet, and left Albany in disgust.”

That phrase—“the Czar uv all the Amerikas”—feels in tune with at least one contemporary strand of angry antigovernment sentiment.

The 1870s reference to Lincoln and czar would come to look somewhat different. In 1881, just 16 years after the American president was felled to the cry of “Sic semper tyrannis,” Czar Alexander II, who had emancipated the serfs 20 years earlier and survived several attempts on his life in the intervening years, was finally the victim of an assassin’s bomb. A generation later the Revolution dispatched the last czar and his family.

David Ross Locke’s 19th-century usage, however, isn’t really dependent on the history of Boris Godunov and his ilk. The satiric reference  points us in the direction of grandiosity, real or ironically conceived, rather than autocratic control.

But that was then. Today the word czar has become so degraded  that it fits almost anything.

Beyond the Beltway, and with more or less irony, almost any position in middle management can be advertised as czar (website czar, direct-mail czar, and so on), which is a rather grandiose way of saying that one has direct reports and a budget. There is probably a hamburger-bun czar at a fast-food establishment within driving distance of where you are.

And so the devolution of czar from Russian emperor to almost anybody, including just us folks on campus.

At Virginia Commonwealth University, the position of campus czar turns out to be not a euphemism for provost or head football coach but only an ad placed by Cheerwine, a soft-drink company. To be this particular kind of czar one must “be outgoing, enjoy socializing with people, and have good communication and organization skills.” Probably not Nicholas II’s strong suit.

Look around your own campus. You might find an ID czar, a buildings-and-grounds czar, an alumni-outreach czar. The person overseeing Greek life could be czar of all the rushes.

I think I’d better stop there.


You can follow me on Twitter @WmGermano

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