Michael Gerson: Why Anthony Fauci is the greatest public servant I have known


HR King
May 29, 2001
American political disagreements have often come down to us in the form of vivid dyads. Alexander Hamilton vs. Thomas Jefferson. Stephen A. Douglas vs. Abraham Lincoln. Franklin D. Roosevelt vs. Arthur H. Vandenberg.

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One such conflict over the past few years has been Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) vs. Anthony S. Fauci, the longtime head of the department of infectious diseases at the National Institutes of Health.

I am not referring here to any moral or intellectual equivalence between the figures. Their inequality, in fact, is a central part of the story. Paul’s contempt for expertise, his spread of conspiracy theories, his use of oversight as ambush — all this indicates a performative approach to governing. Reality does not ultimately count; the play is the thing. And Paul has found an audience among ideologues who demonstrate their fidelity by taking some extra poison in their pudding.

The single most shocking fact to come out of the recent pandemic has been the unfair self-apportionment of pain and death. People in majority-Republican counties experienced 73 more deaths from covid-19 per 100,000 people than those in majority-Democratic counties. There are a variety of explanations. One is certainly the use of high office to discourage the most basic means of self-preservation during a deadly disease outbreak. Imagine if it had been Democratic public authorities encouraging Republican self-victimization. But it was Republican officials who did it — and found it an effective method of self-publicization.
Michael Gerson: The GOP celebration of covid ignorance is an invitation to death
On the other side has stood Fauci. In more than 50 years at the NIH, Fauci has been accustomed to scientific debates in which disagreements emerge as the result of seeking different methods in the pursuit of the same goals. But Paul and his co-ideologues have left the assumption of shared objectives in tatters. And this has constituted an attack on the very idea of public service — the notion that true experts can make a career in seeking the common good.
Fauci plans to step down in December after half a century in government
For Fauci, it has been a professional and moral commitment that politics should stop at the human biome’s edge. This does not imply that scientific experts are perfect. To the contrary, the purpose of the scientific method is to organize failure into deeper insight. But it does mean that scientific truth is not relative — or determined in the political realm.

In attempting to demonize Fauci, his critics gained a fundraising target. And that, by their own lights, is the definition of political success. But seldom has the choice of an attack been more of a self-indictment. Fauci is not only a symbol of public health orthodoxy; he has done as much as any scientist to turn medical innovation into humanitarian progress.

For generations, Fauci has applied a low-key excellence to fighting domestic AIDS, tropical infectious diseases, global AIDS and Ebola. His role in the creation of the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief has helped save tens of millions of lives and built medical infrastructure across the developing world. His focus and public investment have brought us to the verge of vaccines against malaria, one of the world’s deadliest parasites.
Fauci is a symbol of sorts. He demonstrates what can happen when a nation at the height of its power employs the finest scientific minds of their generation to the pursuit of public health goals few believed were possible. The result has been a golden age of public health, motivated by an American belief in human dignity.

This is not the kind of reputation to be dented by political attacks or internet rumors. It is a legacy praised each day by the chorus of millions of breaths that would otherwise be silent. A vast chorus of the nearly lost.
As someone who worked for a few years with Fauci during George W. Bush’s administration, I saw how he pushed for new ideas and new funding: by expressing his passion for the scientific project itself. He is the ultimate explainer. In briefings, he did not conspire to make himself seem smart. He made those he briefed feel they had spent a few minutes looking out on a vast landscape of innovation.
Robin Givhan: Fauci carried all our angst and anger with patience and decency
Fauci assumes that everyone is rational and thus persuadable. That is not quite true. But when he described to me the shifting shell of sugars that surround and protect the AIDS virus, or how mRNA vaccines work, it left a few impressions. First, how something that can kill you can be so fascinating. But also how much Fauci’s friendship felt like mentorship. The greatness of his calling rubbed off a bit. And one was left with the infection of his mission.
Fauci’s forthcoming retirement as director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases will cost Americans, and people around the world, far more than they realize. But he will ever remain the greatest public servant I have known.


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