By Dick Polman
The latest fit of conservative paranoia is that Barack Obama, the alien in our midst, seeks to transform America into Mother Russia, crafting a new totalitarian state that will be run by his own private army of policy “czars.” The lunacy never ends.
Yes, the Republican right has suddenly discovered the word czar — roughly 36 years after it was first used by the press as a nickname for Republican Richard Nixon’s in-house energy guy, a Republican named John Love. The word has been popular for decades, in part because, frankly, it fits snugly in a headline. The word actually makes no sense in the American context — after all, the real czars ordered pogroms — but it has become a thumbnail descriptive for the scores of policy mavens hired by virtually every president since Nixon.
The word was rarely if ever cited as prima facie evidence of a president’s evil intent — until now, naturally. With strong assists from Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck at Fox News, Republican politicians are suddenly complaining that these policy hires are “an affront to the Constitution” and that Obama “has more czars than the Romanovs” (the Mother Russia insinuation, courtesy of John McCain).
Obama-haters are a tad confused about some of the particulars — many of them think the president is a communist, whereas the czars and the Romanovs were fierce foes of the communists — but emotion does tend to trump the intellect. And if they can get some mileage while yelling “czar,” nothing else matters. Not even the obvious fact that their entire lament is riddled with hypocrisy.
For instance, conservatives complain that Obama has hired roughly 32 policy people who can be described as czars, largely because, according to the right’s criteria, these White House officials were not confirmed by Congress, or because they supposedly lack formal titles, or because they answer only to Obama. (Beck admitted recently on his Web site that “the number is somewhat in the eye of the beholder.”) Yet, by employing the same loose criteria, the roster of so-called czars in the George W. Bush administration totaled roughly 36.
Amnesia is sometimes rampant on the Republican right, so perhaps this partial list might spark some memories. President Bush hired — among many others — a science czar, cybersecurity czar, regulatory czar, weapons czar, bailout czar, bird-flu czar, AIDS czar, intelligence czar, Afghanistan czar, war czar, terrorism czar, drug czar, faith-based czar, food-safety czar, Mideast-peace czar, manufacturing czar, and Katrina-cleanup czar. (Using the GOP’s criteria, that list could easily include Karl Rove, the top domestic-policy adviser who dodged congressional subpoenas; and even Dick Cheney, a duly elected veep who, by withholding crucial energy-policy information from the public, at times appeared to behave like a czar.)
Yet, in all those years, there was nary a cry about imperial Russia from the president’s congressional cheerleaders, nor from his fans on Fox.
Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander is the guy who called Obama’s czars “an affront to the Constitution,” but, in 2003, he lauded Bush on the Senate floor for appointing an AIDS czar and a manufacturing czar. Robert Bennett, one of Alexander’s colleagues, has assailed Obama’s czars as “undermining the Constitution,” yet, a decade ago, he told CNN that Bill Clinton needed to get up to speed on the cybersecurity threat by appointing what he called “a Y2K czar.”
And during the final year of the Bush era, 175 House Republicans (along with 20 senators, including Alexander) voted for a bill to create a new White House job, an Intellectual Property Enforcement Coordinator. In translation, that’s a czar.
Nor do they seem very schooled in American history; the fact is, presidents in both parties dating back to Andrew Jackson have hired their own policy loyalists. Jackson had his “kitchen cabinet.” Calvin Coolidge employed Herbert Hoover as a virtual relief czar after the Mississippi River burst its levees and devastated the land. Franklin D. Roosevelt hired a number of in-house economic wonks to fight the Depression.
The Republican right insists that Obama’s czarist tendencies are different, that his whole intent is to evade congressional scrutiny. Fox News, which characterizes Obama’s America as “Land of the Czars,” recently showed photos of 30 czars and asserted that “they don’t have to be confirmed.” That bit of reportage was as overblown as Fox’s graphic of a czarist crown atop the White House. The fact is, nine of those Obama advisers were confirmed by the Senate, and two were appointed to posts created by congressional statute.
Fox also has warned that the czars have “a major influence on public policy,” while failing to mention that they typically have less power than your local alderman; because they seek to coordinate policy among turf-conscious agencies, they lack the clout to force anyone to do anything. (That’s one reason Tom Ridge was so frustrated while serving as Bush’s terrorism czar.)
Will facts such as these dampen the ire of those who perceive Obama as a closet czarist who perhaps is bent on replacing “The Star-Spangled Banner” with the mournful marching music from “Dr. Zhivago”? Of course not. On the other hand, we’ll know that the czar message has lost its sting if they suddenly start insisting that the high number of White House Sturmfuhrers is proof of closet Nazism.
X Dick Polman is a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.