What? A Boondoggle Without a Czar?

Last night, in his speech to the nation, President Bush announced that a group of inspectors general would be watching over the federal government’s rebuilding of the Gulf Coast, keeping an eye out for patronage and corruption. That may be well and good, but as various pundits suggested after the speech, no hurricane effort feels complete without another quintessential element of the federal-appointee shuffle.

Specifically, a Czar. (Or even a Czarina.)

Last night while analyzing the president’s speech on “The Charlie Rose Show”, George Stephanopoulos jumped into the fray, pointing out the striking lack of czarship. “[T]he president definitely did not announce that czar that a lot of people had been calling for,” said Stephanopoulos. “Maybe Tommy Franks, former General Tommy Franks, maybe Rudy Giuliani, maybe even Colin Powell. The president stayed away from that tonight.”

But the pundits didn’t.

“I think there are many Senators who would like to see a czar,” said David Gergen on CNN’s “Larry King Live.” “There is no czar in this speech, nobody who is going to take charge of this effort, a General Franks type figure or a Jack Welch type figure who is going to take charge.”

Not that the lack of immediate czardom should come as any surprise. After all, prior to the president’s speech, administration officials had tried to shoot down the czar-guessing game before it got started. Yesterday morning, for instance, Dan Bartlett appeared on CBS’s “The Early Show.”

“Is the president going to name a czar tonight?” asked host Harry Smith. “Somebody to oversee this massive reconstruction effort down there?”

“Well, Harry, you’re right,” replied Bartlett. “This is going to be a massive effort and it’s going to require the commitment of not only the federal government, but all of America, and President Bush is going to speak about that tonight. There has been a lot of speculation here in Washington about czars [but] that really won’t be the focus of tonight.”

Repeat after Dan: No czar, no czarina, not now, maybe not ever.

But apparently reporters at the nation’s top daily papers weren’t listening. Sure enough, this morning, the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, and USA Today all dwelt upon the czar vacuum and speculated about the potential ascension of various czars-in-waiting.

Like others, the New York Times passed along conjecture that perhaps General Tommy Franks or John Welch, former chief executive of General Electric, might head up the hurricane relief effort. However, in so doing, the Times conspicuously avoided the “cz” word, noting instead that the president did not appoint a “lead rebuilding official.”

Lead building official? Feh! Who wants one of those —or, for that matter, a secretary, minister, or director—when you can have a czar? The word itself carries with it the iron-fisted heft of an earlier era, as though the appointment of a “hurricane czar” might result in some ruthlessly efficient Slavic prince periodically descending on Louisiana to behead various lethargic bureaucrats with Ivan-the-IV-like fury.

But wait. In lieu of a permanent czar, the New York Times has reported, the reconstruction effort will be headed by — Karl Rove?

Over at Talking Points Memo, Joshua Micah Marshall wonders how long it will take journalists to give a long, hard look at Rove’s new role. Marshall writes,

“Who will be the first and who will be the last to broach the subject of whether the president’s chief political operative should be in charge of the largest domestic reconstruction effort since the Civil War?”

That, may we suggest — and not whether to call Rove czar or Svengali or Rasputin — is the real question the press should be raising.

Felix Gillette

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Felix Gillette writes about the media for The New York Observer.