Sizing Up Four Decades of Dr. Fauci

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Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease specialist, told my colleague Sheryl Gay Stolberg on Sunday night that he would soon step down as director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

Given that he has led the place for nearly four decades, his retirement from government service is huge news in the world of infectious disease — once a relatively sleepy corner of medicine, thrust into the forefront of American politics with the onset of the coronavirus outbreak in January 2020.

Since then, more than a million Americans have died from the virus, and nobody has played a more prominent role in handling it — and combating misinformation about it — than Fauci. At the height of the pandemic, when more than 2,000 Americans were dying each day, it was Fauci who went on camera to tell us how to stay safe and when it all might end.

In the process, Fauci often had to contradict the advice and mistaken musings of the president himself, Donald Trump. He was vilified on the right, with the Oval Office and those around it calling for him to be fired. And he was lionized on the left, complete with signs in urban neighborhoods saying “Thank you, Dr. Fauci,” takeout cocktails in his name and even bobblehead dolls.

Fauci is more than just a pandemic talking head, of course. Over his 38 years in the federal government, he has played a central role in devising strategies to stop other diseases, notably AIDS, and his expertise was essential in speeding the development of the first generation of Covid-19 vaccines.

To capture what his legacy means, I exchanged messages today with Sheryl, who knows Fauci as well as any reporter in Washington, as she was catching a flight in Peru. Our conversation, edited lightly for length and clarity:

Fauci was a leading figure in not just the fight against the coronavirus but also diseases like Zika and, of course, AIDS. What do you think he’ll be most remembered for — his battles against Donald Trump, or the other stuff?

I think Fauci will be remembered for the twin infectious disease outbreaks that have, in a sense, served as bookends to his public-service career: AIDS and the coronavirus pandemic.

Both times, he became controversial. But they turned out very differently for him.

During the early days of the AIDS epidemic, as so many gay men were dying, they were also protesting Fauci, calling him a murderer and a killer. He brought them into his fold and befriended many of them. He would be the first to tell you that it changed him; it made him more sensitive to the patient’s point of view.

Fauci is a master of navigating Washington’s nexus of science and politics. But even he couldn’t escape the polarization of Donald Trump. With Covid, I think he will simply be remembered as a polarizing figure — a hero and a brilliant scientist and public servant to some, but a symbol of bureaucracy run amok to others.

Fauci has been criticized as a media hog, to the point where he was spending hours of his day talking to reporters and television hosts about the coronavirus pandemic. Do you think he has mixed feelings about spending so much time talking to the press, as opposed to working in a lab or in more of a backstage role?

Mixed feelings? No. Fauci LOVES talking to the press. He considers himself good at it, and, as best I can tell, he never (or at least rarely) turned down a speaking request — except when the Trump White House barred him from accepting them.

When President Biden brought Dr. Ashish Jha on as his coronavirus response coordinator, I asked Fauci if he thought he would scale back his speaking requests. He told me in no uncertain terms that he would continue to do as much television as he pleased. Part of this comes from his feeling that he is a good communicator and he has an obligation to get public health messages out. But part of it, I am convinced, is because he enjoys it.

The cult of personality around Fauci was really quite something. I remember a bar in Washington selling a drink called a Fauci pouchy during the height of the Covid outbreak. Was that kind of thing ultimately helpful or hurtful to his cause?

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Fauci told me — and I believe — that he never paid much attention to the cult around him. At the height of it, there were Fauci socks, Fauci votive candles, Fauci you-name-it. There was even a Fauci bobblehead. (OK, I confess, I have one; the money went to charity to acquire masks for health workers.) In the end, I’m not sure if it was helpful or hurtful. Probably a wash. In such polarized times, the critics would have found something else.

So much of public health and fighting pandemics is about communicating with the public — and Fauci took that role very seriously. Yet I wonder if his communication style was the right fit for the social media era, where bits of what you say can easily be taken out of context, sliced and diced and misinterpreted — perhaps willfully so. What do you think?

I agree with you, Blake. I think Fauci was not a perfect messenger in the age of social media. He uses words like “multifactorial” that are hard to understand and can be off-putting. He has sometimes strayed off message and has had to walk back what he says. And his omnipresence was a disadvantage at times, because he would say one thing one way in an interview and say it a slightly different way in another — leaving the public to parse his words.

Why did he put up with Trump? Did you ever ask him about that?

I have asked him many times about Trump, and he never, ever directly criticized the president. He had harsh words for the president’s people — particularly Peter Navarro, Trump’s trade adviser, who once published an Op-Ed in USA Today saying that Fauci had been “wrong about everything.” But Fauci has a very deep respect for the office of the presidency and a strong ethos of wanting to serve. He did say that he felt it was his duty to publicly correct the president when Trump said things that were inaccurate — and that caused him trouble with the president. I think he felt that it was his duty to do the best he could under the circumstances. But I know that it was not easy.

What do you know about his forthcoming memoir, and what do you think he’ll say about how the federal government performed during the pandemic? More than a million dead is not exactly success, but at the same time, it’s tough to lay that on any one person’s shoulders.

I don’t know much about his memoir, but I suspect it will trace the whole arc of his career — his growing up in Brooklyn; his education at a Jesuit high school (he is not a tall guy, as most people know, but he played on the basketball team!), which instilled in him an appreciation for public service; his early days as a doctor; his experience with AIDS, which abruptly changed the course of his career; and his other work, including, of course, his work on Covid-19.

I don’t think Fauci is one to write a kiss-and-tell, but I would be interested to see if he gives a more unvarnished opinion of Trump and the other presidents he has served. I think he’ll acknowledge the government’s failings with respect to the pandemic; he told me yesterday, on the eve of his retirement announcement, that he is not happy we are still seeing 400 deaths in the United States a day.

I also think he will try to use the book as a kind of call to public service. He told me that more than anything, he wants to “inspire the younger generation.”

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Is there anything you think we’re missing? Anything you want to see more of? We’d love to hear from you. Email us at [email protected].

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