World

America's Czars: A Brief History

As the White House's point person on Ebola, Ron Klain joins a long list of policy coordinators dubbed "czars" in the media.

America's Czars: A Brief History
The White House / Pete Souza

This week, Ron Klain was named America’s so-called Ebola czar. 

It’s a title that, for most, probably conjures up images of despots in imperialist Russia. 

But the term isn’t as foreign as it sounds. Klain joins a long list of political appointees to have held the unofficial title.

We’ve had czars, so to speak, since World War I when Woodrow Wilson appointed a businessman to head the War Industries Board and the media dubbed him the nation's "industry czar.” It wasn’t long before appointing czars became a White House tradition. (Video via U.S. National Archives

Nixon had a drug czar, Clinton a Y2K czar and Bush a bird flu czar.  

In the current White House, there’s even an Asian carp czar whose job it is to coordinate the administration’s response to the invasive species. (Video via YouTube / NorthAmericanFishing)

To be clear, presidents themselves rarely use the term to describe their political appointees.

Nowhere in this White House press release will you find the word "czar" affixed to Klain’s name.

Really, the word is media slang for a White House advisor who oversees major federal policy initiatives.

The Verge calls the title “a blustery euphemism meant to inspire confidence.”

The Washington Post describes it as “a catch-all term” used to simplify an otherwise lengthy official title.

But so-called czars — while increasingly common in modern White Houses — have come under fire from politicians on the left and right who say they’re another example of presidential overreach.

Some of the same Republicans who once chided Obama for putting in place too many of these policy coordinators, are now among the most vocal advocates for having a single point person on Ebola.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN VIA CNN: “There has to be some kind of czar.”

The problem some see with czars isn’t just political. Paul Light, an expert on government at New York University, says they rarely fix the problem.

He wrote for The Wall Street Journal back in 2008, "We only create them because departments don't work or don't talk to each other … It's a symbolic gesture of the priority assigned to an issue ... When in doubt, create a czar."

Let's just hope they're better at governing than this guy.  

This video includes images from Getty Images, De Jongh Freres Neully Paris, U.S. National Archives, U.S. Department of State and Vasnetsov Ioann 4.