Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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September 5, 2009

CZAR TALK.... When President Obama's most over-the-top detractors attack him as a "dictator" or having "authoritarian" ambitions, the evidence is illusory. They'll point to imaginary "civilian security forces" or insane FEMA "camps" for conservatives. The talk is just an elaborate paranoid fantasy from right-wing activists looking for excuses to rationalize blind hatred.

But then there are those pesky "czars."

On his Fox News show today, Glenn Beck featured one of his patented spooky-music video packages, this time fearmongering about the Obama administration's "czars." "He has 37 czars to oversee and advise him directly," said Beck. "Never before have there been so many executive posts that were not confirmed by Congress and who answered only to the president."

Unlike most of the unhinged accusations, this one at least has the kernel of truth -- there are "czars" in the Obama administration. (There were also "czars" in the Bush and Clinton administrations, but those apparently don't count.) And because these "czars" exist, they've become quite a contentious point for many conservatives and their congressional allies.

It's the details that Beck and his followers either don't understand or pretend not to notice.

For one thing, they keep insisting Obama has done something unprecedented. He hasn't. During the Bush/Cheney years, the White House created new czars for almost every conceivable policy challenge. In the span of about six years, Bush oversaw the creation of a "food safety czar," a "cybersecurity czar," a "regulatory czar," an "AIDS czar," a "manufacturing czar," an "intelligence czar," a "bird-flu czar," and a "Katrina czar." It was such a common strategy for Bush that it quickly became the butt of jokes. Newsweek satirist Andy Borowitz suggested in 2007 that the White House needed a "lying czar" to "oversee all distortions and misrepresentations."

There is, as far as I can tell, no evidence of Beck or his allies criticizing Bush's proliferation of "czars," or equating the trend with authoritarian tendencies. If there was some consistency to their thinking -- a tall order, to be sure -- it'd be easier to take their whining seriously.

For another, Beck and other far-right Republicans continue to say these "czars" are "not confirmed by Congress" and answer "only to the president." In Grown-Up Land, that's wrong -- many of the "czars" at issue here were vetted by Congress and subjected to Senate confirmation.

Moreover, some of these "czars" only deserve the title in the most colloquial sense. In the State Department, for example, the administration has an official who works full time on shaping a policy on the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay. This hardly sounds outrageous, but the job is usually referred to as the "Guantanamo closure czar."

Beck has also argued that Obama has more "czars" than his predecessors. That's largely true. But let's also remember that some of these new "czars" only exist because they're working in response to new efforts and/or challenges. Previous administrations didn't need a "TARP czar" before, because TARP didn't exist. The "stimulus accountability czar" wasn't needed before there was a stimulus. The "car czar" wasn't needed before the collapse of the American auto industry. These are temporary gigs, not a new, permanent layer of bureaucracy.

And when it comes to Beck's segment yesterday in particular, Matt Corley noted that the argument included "czars" that are part of Congress, not the Obama administration. Beck also showed a photo collage of the "czars" that included one guy twice, presumably to make the collage look bigger.

Something to keep in mind the next time this is used as "proof" of the president being "dangerous."

Steve Benen 11:10 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (27)

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Comments

I've never thought it was a good idea to call these people "csars". Whether it was in the Clinton,Bush or Obama administration, it makes sense to have someone overseeing the process of governing and making sure the policies are carried out effectively. It makes sense to have someone accountable, but it makes no sense to call them something so easily demagogued.

Posted by: Atlliberal on September 5, 2009 at 11:19 AM | PERMALINK

Atlliberral: I have always wondered why a government that is supposed to be a democracy or at least a democratic republic, would use a term that applies to authoritarian rule. Do we call school principals the czar/csar of the school? CEOs of corporations, though they probably have the power of a czar in many cases? It makes no sense, yet I never hear any objection or correction to the use of the term. Why?

Posted by: st john on September 5, 2009 at 11:34 AM | PERMALINK

Advance footage of the next Glenn Beck show, where he reveals the shocking disposable paper products conspiracy. "Do you run out of Kleenex, toilet paper, and paper towels at the same time? You know it's true!!!"

Posted by: Jennifer on September 5, 2009 at 11:40 AM | PERMALINK

RE: the czar thing: if memory serves me correctly, the first one we ever had was a "Drug Czar" appointed, if I'm not mistaken, by Reagan. I think Gambling Junkie William Bennett served as Drug Czar for a time? Or maybe he was Morality Czar...I don't entirely remember.

In any case, the "czars" were a thoroughly Republican creation.

Posted by: Jennifer on September 5, 2009 at 11:57 AM | PERMALINK

The big Beck talking point re these czars, though, one that's been repeated mindlessly by wingers visiting us here this week, is that a number of these czars (sounds so Russian, doesn't it?) are self-described communists. No one ever produces a cite for this. I guess Glenn having sobbed this out is all the proof they need.

Posted by: shortstop on September 5, 2009 at 12:07 PM | PERMALINK
In any case, the "czars" were a thoroughly Republican creation.
Which explains the comfort with using an authoritarian term...

My impression (admittedly, formed while young and not paying much attention) is that the "drug czar" was created during a moment of hysteria when everyone "knew" we were "losing the drug war" (whatever that meant). A common complaint was that we were "losing" because our efforts were diffused across many different agencies -- DEA, FBI, local police, etc. The "drug czar" was supposed to oversee these efforts in a cross-turf sense and make sure everyone pulled together.

I would bet real money that no one within government called the position "czar" until pundits had hit upon it first.

Posted by: Bernard Gilroy on September 5, 2009 at 12:08 PM | PERMALINK

BTW, you really should check out that link I posted in my first comment above. It sums up conservative conspiracy theories about as well as anything you'll ever see.

Posted by: Jennifer on September 5, 2009 at 12:15 PM | PERMALINK

Enough, already, with the Czars, or Tsars.

What I want is a President. One who will LEAD! I thought that's who I worked to get elected last year. So far, I don't see a leader. I see someone who is fast becoming The Capitulator in Chief.
Don't get up on Wednesday and tell me the Public Option is gone. Because then my support will join it. GONE!
President Obama, if you wonder why your poll numbers are tanking - IT'S THE DEMOCRAT'S, STUPID!!!

Posted by: c u n d gulag on September 5, 2009 at 12:19 PM | PERMALINK

How far back does the tradition of policy czars go? High Roller Bennett seems to be the first as Drug Czar in 1989, so at least back to Papa Bush.

Posted by: Gangis Khan on September 5, 2009 at 12:25 PM | PERMALINK

Jennifer -- the concept, as far as I know, originated with Nixon's Energy Czar in 1973. But your point is still well-taken.

Atlliberal and st john -- "czar" is a nickname for the post, not the official title, so this isn't a case of democratic government using an authoritarian term. The perpetuation of "czar" is largely the fault of our idiot press, which dubs anyone who is given a mandate to coordinate policy in a specific area a "czar."

And I disagree that the term is "so easily demagogued"; if it was, we would have seen it done before. We've had so-called "czars" criticized plenty of times in the past as unnecessary or ineffectual, but we've never had the term itself attacked as implying something sinister. The problem is not that the term is so easily demagogued, it's that we've never before had an opposition that was so breathtakingly dishonest and batsh*t insane that they would make up attacks on commonplace executive staff positions or ordinary governing actions.

I would have thought we would have learned by now that there is no point to avoid saying things that will particularly provoke right-wing attacks. The only way to do that is to say nothing at all. Which is exactly their goal.

Posted by: Redshift on September 5, 2009 at 12:25 PM | PERMALINK

Bernard seems to be in agreement.

Posted by: Gangis Khan on September 5, 2009 at 12:27 PM | PERMALINK

In the span of about six years, Bush oversaw the creation of a "food safety czar," a "cybersecurity czar," a "regulatory czar," an "AIDS czar," a "manufacturing czar," an "intelligence czar," a "bird-flu czar," and a "Katrina czar."

IIRC, Bush also appointed a "war czar," who was promptly never heard from again.

Posted by: UberMitch on September 5, 2009 at 12:33 PM | PERMALINK

I have always wondered why a government that is supposed to be a democracy or at least a democratic republic, would use a term that applies to authoritarian rule

It's because it gives Republicans a woody to think about vicarious dictatorship. That is the only reason the term was ever used.

Now it's just convenient for them to mewl like babies about it.

And, you know, a 'czar' can't be a communist by definition. The Communists destroyed the Czars.

Posted by: cld on September 5, 2009 at 12:35 PM | PERMALINK

Maybe we can lobby the admin to simply call 'em bosses or machers or something that'll serve as shorthand for the longer official job title yet will not raise too many europhobe or russophobe or rushophile hackles. Hmmm...how about "mavericks"?

Posted by: docdave on September 5, 2009 at 12:37 PM | PERMALINK

You do realize, don't you, that Beck's reason for being is to spew increasingly insane charges against the Obama administration? This is the same man Olbermann was ridiculing for his analysis of the Communist symbols in the decorations of Rockefeller Center. You didn't know that John D. Rockefeller was a commie, did you? No, neither did anyone but Beck. Before that, he was decoding the OLIGARH-Y.

Observers differ on whether Beck is an evil genius pretending to be insane, or actually insane and being used by Rupert, et al. to keep the whackos cranked up. But it is certain that he spews nonsense. Daily.

I'm expecting that next week he will accuse Obama of being responsible for the way hot dogs come in packs of 10 and buns come in packs of 8.

Posted by: biggerbox on September 5, 2009 at 12:40 PM | PERMALINK

The usage goes back at least as far as Nixon, who had an energy czar, William Simon. Needless to say, 'czar' is never part of the job title, just a gimmick someone in the press thought up back in the day.

If someone raises the czar issue with you, patiently refute them--then refuse to further discuss politics with them until they educate themselves, and stop consuming paranoid right-wing propaganda.

Posted by: kth on September 5, 2009 at 12:47 PM | PERMALINK

Beck's purpose is actually to so discredit the idea of weird conspiracies that whenever anyone hears about the actual weird conspiracies Republicans cook up they simply won't believe it.

ref. The Family.

Posted by: cld on September 5, 2009 at 12:51 PM | PERMALINK

At least we can all rest easy knowing that, since the Swiffer WetJet has all but killed off the sponge mop, we won't have to hear Beck ranting about the sponge-mop-replacement-sponge-head conspiracy. Those of you who are old and ever owned a sponge mop will know what I'm talking about. And that was a REAL conspiracy.

Posted by: Jennifer on September 5, 2009 at 1:00 PM | PERMALINK

"czar" in this context is a word made up by the media, not the administrations that created these appointments. Which, as noted, go back to Nixon, if not farther.

Posted by: g on September 5, 2009 at 1:28 PM | PERMALINK

You forgot Obama's Pony Czar. You know? The dude that gives you your pony when you enlist in ObamaCare.

Posted by: Chopin on September 5, 2009 at 1:39 PM | PERMALINK

If there was some consistency to their thinking...

Steve, there's tremendous consistency in their thinking:

Republicans good.
Democrats bad.
Full stop.

Posted by: PonB on September 5, 2009 at 1:55 PM | PERMALINK

Czar is a media term. Special advisers go way back, much further than Reagan.

Posted by: ebbolles on September 5, 2009 at 2:11 PM | PERMALINK

Redshift is correct. The first policy czar dates to 1973, under Nixon.

Posted by: K on September 5, 2009 at 3:17 PM | PERMALINK

No fan of Beck but the distinction that is being lost here is that we keep adding czars when we already have cabinet secretaries, with executive and legislative experience that should be handling these matters. The end result is more bureaucrats, blurring the lines of responsibility and accountability and coming up with more muddled policy. Name a successful initiative created by one of these czars? Its window dressing that gives the illusion of working on a problem but ultimately it winds up with no substance.

Posted by: aline on September 5, 2009 at 4:20 PM | PERMALINK

If you were so against czar when the evil dictators Regan and Bush had czars, then why now are they ok? Face facts, all you can do is lash out and ape your political party's talking points. As intelligent as you try to appear, you only demonstrate your inability to think for yourselves. Here you are taking the word of the author who does not even know which political party Beck belongs to. All he knows is Beck does not agree so he must be one of those republican things. Enjoy marginalizing yourselves


Posted by: Watchman on September 6, 2009 at 11:14 PM | PERMALINK

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