It’s tough to have a sane political discussion in the United States these days, when seemingly every matter of American life is filtered through the fervor of partisan polarization. Anything or anyone backed by one side becomes sainted and infallible to its supporters, only to be automatically reviled, attacked, and besmirched by the other in response, obliging a further doubling down on the first position in turn — with the whole process often having little to do with reality. Just look at Anthony Fauci.
Fauci, who has effectively been the voice and face of US public health and medical science these past two years, this week announced he’ll be retiring as director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) after serving in the position for nearly forty years. The news immediately sparked the reactions you’d expect.
From the Democratic side came the warm tributes to Fauci as a “hero,” a “once-in-a-century public health leader” who “always spoke to science,” and the implacable leader who refused to step away and “patiently offered the country his most informed advice,” despite everything lined up against him. Republicans, meanwhile, have vowed to investigate Fauci and called him a “coward.” “Someone needs to grab that little elf and chuck him across the Potomac,” said Florida governor Ron DeSantis. “Fuck you,” argued conservative podcaster Megyn Kelly. And, of course, every one of these insults spurs counter-recriminations on the other side.
Readers may be shocked to hear that Fauci’s legacy isn’t nearly as cut and dried as any of these partisan talking points. We can acknowledge that the man had an extremely difficult job, especially in the early months of the pandemic, when he was forced to guide the public health response under a president who was determined to ignore and deny the pandemic, virtually going to war with scientists in his own administration.
But that doesn’t let Fauci off the hook. There’s a reason why trust in the president’s chief medical advisor, while still high, took a hit over the past year, and while the ceaseless barrage of right-wing media attacks explains some of it, it doesn’t tell the whole story.
The fact is that throughout the pandemic, Fauci repeatedly gave the public faulty or misleading information. Most famously, he told 60 Minutes in March 2020 that “right now in the United States, people should not be walking around wearing masks.” Granted, that was during a period of deep scientific uncertainty about the virus, where a lot of authorities got a lot of things wrong.
Maybe more damaging was Fauci’s later admission that this wrong advice was motivated by the need “to save the masks for the people who really needed them, because it was felt there was a shortage of masks” — in other words, he had intentionally given the public false information for what he saw as the greater good. This later statement was doubly inexplicable given that emails later unearthed showed Fauci privately giving the same advice to a former health and human services secretary around the same time. But whatever the truth, the damage was done.
This was far from the only such instance. In another notorious episode, Fauci admitted to the New York Times he was setting and revising the threshold of vaccination needed for herd immunity not based on science, but on his own calculation of the American public’s appetite to get shots:
When polls said only about half of all Americans would take a vaccine, I was saying herd immunity would take 70 to 75 percent. Then, when newer surveys said 60 percent or more would take it, I thought, “I can nudge this up a bit,” so I went to 80, 85. I think the real range is somewhere between 70 to 90 percent. But, I’m not going to say 90 percent.
Fauci worried that using that particular figure might end up being discouraging for the public, he explained to the paper.
It was emblematic of how Fauci saw his role: not of a scientist dispassionately doling out critical public health information, but increasingly as a political figure calibrating his advice to who was in power and what he felt the national mood was.
So while in April 2020 he was telling Anderson Cooper the country “really should be” putting in place the kind of national stay-at-home order that other countries used to prevent mass death and infection, by that November — after the supposedly science-listening Joe Biden had won the election, and had preemptively ruled out doing such a thing — Fauci suddenly preferred “to not see us have to resort to a lockdown,” and that the country could “turn this around without it.”
When epidemiologist and short-lived Biden advisor Michael Osterholm that November called for the nation to shut down for four to six weeks while financially underwriting workers and businesses — what had been the consensus liberal position when Trump had been president — Fauci used his platform to stop the idea in its tracks. “If we can do the public health measures, we wouldn’t have to do that,” he said. Confusingly, months later Fauci would praise Australia for its use of stay-at-home orders, lamenting the shockingly high infection and death numbers in the United States that had been produced by the very approach he had advocated half a year earlier.
This was a habit of Fauci’s, publicly weighing in on Biden administration policy to lend the imprimatur of simple, scientific fact to what were in reality political choices. When Biden was pushing to reopen schools in his first hundred days despite pushback from teachers’ unions, Fauci backed it all the way, claiming it was “safe enough” to get kids back to school, and that “it’s less likely for a child to get infected in the school setting.” He was the administration’s point man for (unsuccessfully) trying to convince teachers to drop their objections and safety preconditions, and even went further than Biden officials would, saying outright that teachers didn’t need to all be vaccinated to reopen schools.
Bear in mind that at this time, infections among kids had sharply risen overseas thanks to a new variant, leading experts to warn officials to take greater care with school reopenings. At the very time Fauci was putting his public standing behind the administration’s reopening plans, in fact, the governments of Israel and the United Kingdom had closed theirs due to a surge in cases.
But that wasn’t even the most outrageous of his public interventions on policy. As activists and experts tried to drum up pressure on the administration to waive vaccine patent rights and so get more affordable vaccines in the hands of poorer governments — something the administration still hasn’t done, and reportedly didn’t even really try to do — Fauci poured cold water on the idea.
In early May, Fauci told the Financial Times he was “agnostic” about how get more vaccines to the developing world, but seemed to come out against a patent waiver. “Going back and forth, consuming time and lawyers in a legal argument about waivers — that is not the end game,” he told the paper. Then he told MSNBC’s Mehdi Hasan that he was “agnostic about the TRIPS waiver,” while claiming it would take a year and a half to get the fruits of the policy, something fiercely contested by experts, including Moderna’s former director of chemistry. The next day, he repeated again, this time claiming he was “certainly not against anything that can get doses of vaccine quickly into the arms of people in the developing world,” but that, regarding the waiver, “if you wait for that to happen, a lot of people are going to die.”
What explains Fauci’s reluctance to put his considerable authority behind the waiver? One can only speculate whether it had something to do with his close relationship to oligarch Bill Gates, a prominent opponent of the idea, with whom the NIAID director admitted he spoke to every two weeks, and with whom he sought to partner on getting vaccines to the rest of the world.
In fact, for anyone who bothered to read through the thousands of pages of Fauci’s redacted emails that were released last year, it was impossible not to notice all the shoulder-rubbing he did with corporate executives and other members of the country’s richest circles. When private equity titan David Rubenstein got in touch to see if Fauci would speak to an audience of “Washington’s business and government leaders,” he was enthusiastic. “I always like to do things with David Rubenstein,” he told his special assistant.
Or consider his response to outreach from billionaire Michael Milken, the “junk bond king” sentenced to a decade in prison for fraud and racketeering that helped trigger the savings and loan crisis of the 1980s and 1990s. “I’ve worked with him over many years, and though he is a somewhat controversial figure, he has certainly helped NIH [the National Institutes of Health] in many ways,” then NIH director Francis Collins told Fauci about him. Milken, Collins relayed, wanted to use his “deep connections in the private sector” to help with the COVID vaccine effort and find a “pharma partner.”
“Milken can help in a number of ways, including directly supporting the VRC [NIAID’s Vaccine Research Center],” Fauci wrote back. “Also, as we start looking for pharma to step up with us, his connections could be helpful.” Collins ended up giving Milken both Fauci’s email and his cell phone number.
To be fair to Fauci, his solicitation of help from ultrarich operators like the scandal-plagued criminal Milken points to an issue with public health funding that’s bigger than just him. But given this, it’s little wonder that on several key questions around pandemic policy, Fauci ended up more aligned with business voices than with scientists.
The thing is, there’s no need to paint Fauci as either a hero or a villain. He was put in a tough position by the pandemic and Trump’s handling of it, and has no doubt made important scientific contributions over his long career, including in the development of treatment for HIV/AIDS (though even on that issue, his record is far from the simple lionization he gets today).
But we do have to acknowledge that, laudable motives or not, Fauci made serious mistakes over the course of the pandemic, including, by his own admission, deliberately misleading the public on several key matters. We can debate whether it’s the role of public health officials to massage science and health advice to their read of the political realities — I’d argue that it’s not — but at the very least, having publicly admitted to misinforming the public and so discrediting himself as a messenger of cold, hard, scientific facts, Fauci should’ve fallen on his sword and resigned. A noble lie isn’t that noble if you’re not willing to suffer the consequences for it.
The fact that he didn’t — and the fact that he wasn’t gently nudged out the door by an administration that desperately needed to create some kind of common public reality around the virus — speaks to the perils of the celebritization and cult of personality of public figures in this era of hyperpolarization.
Maybe in an alternate universe where this isn’t a problem, both Fauci and Ruth Bader Ginsburg would have ended up retiring when it made the most political sense, instead of staying on to enjoy the public adulation and media celebration their offices afforded them. Maybe. But at this point, we’ll never know.