The phrases “public servant” and “public service” are exhausted to the point of meaninglessness. They’re tics. They roll off politicians’ tongues as readily as requests for money, suggesting that adulation and power aren’t the more potent draws to elected office. They’re invoked in regard to other government workers, as if decent paychecks and generous pensions weren’t a significant lure.
But if anyone ever deserved to be described in those terms, it’s Anthony Fauci. That was true before the coronavirus. It’s truer now — despite the times when he has revised his message on how to deal with it, despite assessments of the pandemic that didn’t bear out and despite Republicans’ efforts to use all of that to turn him into some bespectacled Beelzebub.
Shocker of shockers: Fauci isn’t perfect. But he has been perfectly sincere, perfectly patient, a professional standing resolutely outside so many of the worst currents of American life. More than that, he has been essential. We owe him an immeasurable debt of gratitude, not the mind-boggling magnitude of grief that he gets.
If anything, that grief has grown more intense of late. It was on garish display during a House hearing just over a week ago, when Rep. Jim Jordan, doing a fan dance for Fox News, tore into Fauci as a doomsday addict less intent on saving people’s lives than on scrapping people’s liberties.
“Dr. Fauci, when is the time?” Jordan, an Ohio Republican, asked, meaning the moment when we can all start behaving as if nobody’s getting infected or dying anymore. (For the record, on a given day, more than 60,000 Americans are still testing positive for the coronavirus and an average of 700 lose their lives to COVID-19.) “In your written statement, you say now is not the time to pull back on masking, physical distancing and avoiding congregate settings. When is the time? When do Americans get their freedom back?”
Jordan noted angrily that “15 days of ‘slow the spread’ turned into one year of lost liberty.” He made that sound like Fauci’s fault, when the truth is that if more people, including Jordan and many of his constituents, had taken the “slow the spread” period more seriously, the year that followed it would probably have been much less brutal and significantly less deadly. But they were often too busy railing against Fauci to reform their own conduct.
Jordan isn’t some grandstanding outlier. He’s an emblem and instrument of widespread fury within his party, where the demonization of Fauci hasn’t just survived Donald Trump’s presidency but metastasized since its end.
“Fauci” was a dirty word uttered from the stage of the Conservative Political Action Conference in Florida in February. “Fauci” is a dirty word prevalent in conservative publications. In Breitbart News several days ago, Fauci was dismissively referred to as America’s top “public health celebrity.” “Fauci Fallacies at All-Time High” was a recent headline in The Washington Free Beacon. In the span of one week this month, National Review published articles titled “Anthony Fauci Has Worn Out His Welcome,” “Anthony Fauci’s Misadventures in Fortune-Telling” and “Another Dismal Sunday-Show Circuit for Dr. Fauci.”
Just a few days ago in The Washington Post, Dan Diamond mentioned Fauci antipathy in the opening paragraph of a report about people who refuse to get vaccinations against the coronavirus. The message from one focus group of such people, he noted, was that “if you’re trying to win over skeptics, show us anyone besides Dr. Fauci.”
Philip Bump, one of Diamond’s colleagues at the Post, correctly observed that “Fauci has become what Trump always wanted him to be: the scapegoat for unpopular government recommendations.”
But it’s even bigger and weirder than that. “He doesn’t work for us,” writer Naomi Wolf said on Fox News on Monday, referring to Fauci and reacting to a $1 million prize given to him by a philanthropy in Israel as a recognition of his, yes, public service. She cast the money as evidence that he was “so conflicted” and not sufficiently guided by concern for the “public health of the American people.”
There’s a lot of this out there, and all of it is out there. We live in times that are viciously partisan and oratorically sloppy — but Fauci is neither.
He’s consistently cool, answering the rants of Jordan and others with expert insights and logical analyses.
He’s generally cautious, and the people constructing score cards of his correct and incorrect predictions disingenuously conflate him with Oscar-pool contestants placing bets on best supporting actress. Fauci was giving his best educated guesses, based on what was knowable at that juncture. His guesses evolved as his — and our — education improved. Informed guidance like his is better than no guidance at all, and information isn’t static.
Over 3 1/2 decades as the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Fauci, now 80, has advised and earned the trust of Republican and Democratic presidents. He managed somehow to correct Trump and yet not be replaced with a sycophant who would have fed the former president’s delusions and further endangered Americans’ lives.
That’s more than public service. That’s magic. And he was thanked for it with death threats, issued not just to him but also to his family, and with a piece of mail that, when he opened it, sprayed an unidentified white powder all over him. He sat there covered in it while a hazardous materials team swept in.
“My wife and my children were more disturbed than I was,” he told The New York Times’ Donald McNeil in an interview in January. “I looked at it somewhat fatalistically. It had to be one of three things: A hoax. Or anthrax, which meant I’d have to go on Cipro for a month. Or if it was ricin, I was dead, so bye-bye.”
Why didn’t he say bye-bye to this awful role and the nonstop vitriol, given how much he’d contributed to the country from the AIDS epidemic onward and given that most 80-year-olds like him are taking it just a tad easier?
“I always felt that if I did walk away, the skunk at the picnic would no longer be at the picnic,” he told McNeil, referring to his ability to challenge the happy talk of Trump administration officials who wanted simply to wish the coronavirus away. “Even if I wasn’t very effective in changing everybody’s minds, the idea that they knew that nonsense could not be spouted without my pushing back on it, I felt was important. I think in the big picture, I felt it would be better for the country.”
He felt correctly. That assessment would be self-aggrandizing only if it weren’t true, just as his many media interviews would smack of preening if there weren’t such clear educational purpose to them. The key to his temperament — and to the greater measure of humility than of hubris in it — lies in how, even now, he talks about Trump. Although Fauci has ample cause for venom, there’s little trace of it in his words. He faults Trump without mocking him. That shows a discipline that’s rare. I never achieved it.
Sure, Fauci won a $1 million prize, but he didn’t agitate for it, and there isn’t a doubt in my mind that during many points over the years, he could have left government for the private sector, traded on his stature and connections, and become an exponentially wealthier man. He refrained from that as surely as he has from the pettiness that most of the rest of us can’t resist.
“He has no other ambition or agenda than the health of the country and world,” wrote Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson, who, as a senior official in the George W. Bush administration, became acquainted with Fauci.
I understand — and personally feel — any American’s frustrations with the continued caveats regarding masks and gatherings and such. But it’s Fauci’s mandate to urge the safest possible behavior. I understand how maddening it can be to get different answers at different times. But uncertainty is the nature of this beast.
I don’t understand the rage at a remarkable public servant, and I’ll let Gerson have the last words on that. “Fauci is practicing epidemiology,” he wrote. “His critics are practicing idiocy. Both are very good at their chosen work.”