Monday, September 21, 2009

Article Of The Week

There may be no more incisive a political analyst than the Philadelphia Inquirer's national political columnist Dick Polman, true to form on Sunday with "Suddenly, they're czar-struck." And he does it, impressively, without once using the word "hypocrite." Polman explains

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.

Yes, this is one of the newest causes celebre of the right-wing media, though you'd hardly know it, given that the likes of Limbaugh, Beck, and Hannity appear to be poster children for ADD as they seamlessly flit from issue to issue in their assiduous avoidance of fact or context.

And so it is difficult to pin down the number of czars in the Obama administration. Politifact took up the issue in June, when it counted 28. Now, however

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.


Polman cites the criticism of Obama's czars by two Repub senators, Tennessee's Lamar Alexander, whohas called them "an affront to the Constitution," and Utah's Robert Bennet, who claims they are "undermining the Constitution." Unfortunately, they have a record- Alexander as commending "Bush on the Senate floor for appointing an AIDS czar and a manufacturing czar" and Bennet as urging President Clinton to appoint "a Y2K czar." (Yep, we sure needed that one!)

If the tradition of referring to special advisors as "czars" traces to the days of Richard M. Nixon, the practice of actually appointing "their own policy loyalists," as Polman puts it, goes back to the Andrew Jackson administration. In reality, Polman notes, they rarely have the "major influence on public policy" claimed by GOP TV and invariably "lack the clout to force anyone to do anything." Quite a departure from a real tsar of czarist Russia, who was "a male monarch or emperor, especially one of the emperors who ruled Russia until the revolution of 1917." Rather, the very presence of numerous czars- 32, 27,000, an infinite number or whatever the opinion makers on the right are claiming today- precludes the possibility of any one of them having much power. (And one individual, such as a President or his chief of staff, may himself maintain control in part by preventing concentration of power elsewhere.)

Of course, czar-mania does have its particular propaganda value to the right, with the term raising visions of Russian communists, even if the Bolshevik Revolution did sweep those autocrats from power. But the irony doesn't stop there.

One of the abiding tenets of the conservative creed is hostility toward the media, which it consistently, if inaccurately, brands as "liberal." And as a "liberal" outpost, the media must be continually doubted, as reason gives way to a self-serving cynicism.

Yet, the right unflinchingly accepts the term "czar," when the Obama administration rarely has used the term and usually takes pains to avoid it. The moniker is one first used the press and has been kept alive by the press for decades. Still, consrvatives have latched on to it with a zeal which would be commendable if it were descriptive, accurate, or original. Which raises a question: with conservatives on the street characteristically force-fed false information by their heroes in the media, are the latter being manipulated by a mainstream media they disdain- or are they once again putting on a show?

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