I do find all the talk about czars fascinating. If you read through newspapers and magazines in the 1920s and 1930s, you’ll find that the word “dictator” was used pretty much exactly the way we use czar today (though obviously that wasn’t its only usage). “Dictator” had a negative connotation back then, but not solely negative. We had a “dictator for steel” and a “dictator” over at the NRA and elsewhere (and countless notables begged FDR to become a “dictator”). For obvious reasons, “dictator” went out of fashion by the 1940s. The use of czar seems to have filled its place. You can see the appeal as pretty much no one has a living memory of life under the Czars. It has a romantic sound and people don’t know its roots in the word Caesar (ditto Kaiser). Americans wouldn’t tolerate a “car king” or “car dictator” or even a “car Caesar.” But “car czar” sounds both ironic and quaint.
But it seems to me that “czar” came in fairly late (the first mention of an “energy czar” in the NYT was in 1973. First mention of “drug czar” was 1983). Was there a word that came between “dictator” and “czar” in Beltway parlance? I feel like I should know the answer to that.