Anthony Fauci: Frenemy of the People, First of Two Parts
"I’ve always wanted to be involved with diseases that were very, very serious,” Fauci once said. “I would rather be involved with patients who have fatal diseases than those with diseases that are just an annoyance. That just happened to be my bent. I wanted to be where the action was.”
(From an April 16th, 2020 interview with Anthony Fauci by Wall Street Journal reporter Ben Cohen)
For several days now we've been treated to lengthy afternoon briefings from the president's task force on Coronavirus. Our head of state is typically flanked on either side of the lectern by task force members, who at times have been so crowded their shoulders nearly touched. In our new age of pandemic dread, one explanation for their confidence is that they are all being regularly tested for Covid19 and all remain negative. We've heard that anyone with close contact with the president is routinely tested.
Their immediate audience, whose faces look as wary as those of battered children, is a skeleton crew of White House correspondents. The journalists sit in alternate rows six feet apart. Their stress is nearly palpable when the camera locks on their faces. They are working the story of their lives, of all our lives, struggling to get at the truth. They each know that the questions they ask may result in a brutal, insensible drubbing by the president on national television. On a recent Saturday, for instance, Trump bullied NBC's reporter Peter Alexander mercilessly for posing the softball question: what would Trump say to comfort frightened Americans? Trump berated Alexander for being a"terrible reporter" and asking a "nasty question." The president told Alexander that he liked to call NBC's parent company (Comcast)"Concast." Get it? "Con?" Alexander's physical reaction seemed almost to resemble a snail retreating into its shell, his cellphone held up as if a tiny shield from the torrent of abuse.
More recently, Trump told a CBS news reporter at his briefing to "relax" and "keep your voice down," before launching into an attack on her qualifications, telling her, "You ought to be ashamed of yourself." Weijia Jiang was simply trying to clarify Trump's distinctions between the so-called federal stockpile and states' access to this stockpile. Trump never answered her question.
I have sympathy for these reporters who worked hard to get their coveted White House beats but who've learned to pose their questions in staccato knowing with near certainty they will be cut off by Trump before they finish, that the chances of their queries actually being addressed is near zero. Trump rants at them for failing to begin their questions with the words, “Congratulations, Mr. President.”
Over the space of three years, this president has managed to reduce the press corps to a mostly fearful, often sheepish group who don't act like reporters are supposed to act.
There have been finer times to be a reporter, times to be proud of the profession. In 1973 and 1974—the Watergate era—a handsome, dark-haired Texan named Dan Rather, assigned to the White House by CBS, inevitably posed the most trenchant, unapologetic questions to Richard Nixon and his press secretaries. When Rather stood up, notebook in hand, to ask a question, his colleagues' eyes fell upon him with anticipation typically reserved for star NFL quarterbacks. Everyone knew he was fearless. In the moment between Rather's bold questions and the awkward, stunted replies, the country seemed to hold its breath as if in awe of Rather's pluck. Rather and his CBS bosses went to the top of Nixon's enemies list. It was, in my view, a golden era of journalism. Indeed, Rather's counterparts in the newspaper world, Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, together with Rather, raised the prestige of journalism to what was probably a high point in U.S. history. They ushered in a period when idealistic college students overran journalism schools. In the spring of 1974, for example, the University of Texas' journalism school received 4,000 applications.
Maybe one day history will look kindly on the performance of journalists in the Time of Trump. Maybe college students who care about justice and civil rights will be inspired once more to join the fray as professionals. But I'm dubious. I see few inspiring tough guys or gals in the current tableau. I've read Trump's approval polls have risen since the since the briefings began, a chilling revelation. Whether true or not, Trump, himself, has bragged that his TV ratings are better than "The Bachelor."
Unable to seriously engage him in Q & A, the defeated networks and cable news channels have begun to return to their own programming while Trump rambles and hurls insults at reporters. As punishment for the break aways, Trump recently forbade the scientists on his task force, including the greatly admired Anthony Fauci, from appearing independently on CNN, specifically, a cable network he loathes. It's a sad state of affairs during the worst worldwide public health crisis of the last century.
Journalism aside, Trump has retreated from his early-March position that the pandemic is a "hoax" to the pandemic is the problem of individual states to insisting that he has the power to bring an end nationwide to shut-downs and shelter-in-place orders. He was advised by New York’s governor Andrew Cuomo that he is not a king. Trump has since reverted to his position that states can call the shots and has even promoted demonstrations against shelter-in-place orders in some states, tweeting "Liberate Minnesota," etc. Against recent CDC "guidance," Trump claims face masks are optional. He, who must meet with "dictators" and other world leaders, wouldn't be caught dead in a mask while sitting behind the Resolute desk in the Oval Office, he says.
Of course, public health officials know face masks are the first line of defense, given the highly transmissible lethal agent in circulation. CDC lied to the nation about their importance for weeks out of a concern that hospital employees didn't have enough of their own masks to care for Covid19 patients. Is there such a thing as a worthy lie when so many lives are at stake? We've seen that CDC "guidance" tends to be influenced as much by the agency's desire to suppress public panic and address economic forces as by science. Certainly, those imperatives were operative in the disappearing of ME. Call it chronic disingenuousness--just a fact of life where CDC is concerned.
A consistent star of these televised briefings has been someone other than the president, however. In fact, he has become a folk hero to people who watched in dismay as Trump and the men he appointed to head federal health agencies fumbled a pandemic that may result in over 100,000 U.S. deaths in the near future and possibly more in the distant future. He is the anti-Trump, the apparently competent leader we deserve and long for, the person hailed as willing to speak truth to power. He is the 5' 7" Anthony Fauci, an unlikely captain of his high school basketball team, now l'éminence grise in the field of virology.
The plaudits have been endless in the press, on TV, and among cultural figures like late-night TV hosts. According to science journalist Ed Young, writing in the Atlantic, the 79-year-old Fauci has become, in the ghastly spring of 2020, a "household name." Vanity Fair calls him "an infectious disease guru." He's made appearances, the magazine reports, on "Barstool Sports' Pardon My Take, hung out on Desus & Mero, and chatted with NBA superstar Stephen Curry on Instagram Live." Fauci is working hard to bring the message of social distancing and the like to Gen Zers, "...exactly the demographic we needed to reach in order to contain the novel coronavirus, according to experts," notes Vanity Fair.
Should it be surprising that a press corps accustomed to being personally attacked and disrespected, to being rendered impotent to counter a president's obvious lies, goes gaga when the dapper, well-preserved Fauci steps up to the lectern? He answers reporters' questions directly and tersely, without attitude or rude commentary. On several occasions, Fauci has stood not two feet away from Trump and contradicted him. In a recent interview with Science, Fauci was asked how he felt about the president's unscientific portrayals of reality. "I can't jump in front of the microphone and push him down," Fauci responded, but he went on to say that if Trump’s ramblings veered from the scientifically supportable, there would always be time to repair the damage at the next briefing.
Recently, I noticed a coffee shop has been able to resume paying its employees’ salaries by selling T-shirts with Fauci’s likeness. “In Fauci We Trust,” appears under Fauci’s chiseled face.
Remarkably, given the president's penchant for firing anyone who strays from whatever line he's pushing, Fauci is still standing at this writing. He may now be too admired even for Trump to fire. And, for reasons I'll discuss shortly, Fauci may be invulnerable to being fired by Trump, anyway.
An update: since I wrote the above paragraph, Trump has re-tweeted a tweet that called for Fauci’s firing. The press reacted, sounding alarms; a few hours later, Trump tweeted he had no intention of firing Fauci. So, even if Trump wants to get the popular Fauci out of the way, he's probably been advised by cooler heads that ejecting Fauci from the presidential briefings just now would cause an uprising.
Since the president’s briefings began, Fauci has showed his zeal for viral containment and generally proved his mettle at a time when the U.S. was sorely unprepared for the kind of disaster scientists have been warning governments about for decades.
For those who have suffered from myalgic encephalomyelitis for any length of time, an intellectual and emotional conflict presents itself. One wants to applaud Fauci's commitment to "flattening the (Covid-19) curve" and his breezy public dismissals of the president's disinformation. Simultaneously, one feels compelled to seize this unique moment of Fauci's household name-status to shout to the heavens about the incalculable suffering and even deaths that can be laid at Fauci's well-heeled feet. The spread of ME around the globe gives lie to Fauci's science bona fides the way Trump's wayward claims about the "Chinese virus" reveal the president's never-ending bigotry.
Let's get real. When it comes to the US government's early and persistent dismissal of ME, Fauci has been the architect, the puppet master, the man behind the curtain. From the early 1980s, Fauci has engaged in relentless and successful efforts to stymie discovery around ME, as well as silence its victims under a torrent of ridicule. He has quietly waged his own disinformation campaign that’s resulted in millions losing their most productive, presumably rewarding years to severe illness. His actions have indirectly caused, I have little doubt, thousands if not tens of thousands of suicides. The suffering, physical and psychological, has been immense, unfathomable. That suffering has hardly been limited to patients; it has changed families, impeded children's upbringings, ended educations, driven once-devoted friends away, cost huge losses to the workforce, the economy and the culture.
You may not have been familiar with Fauci's machinations or even his name prior to the emergence of Covid19. Suffice to say, his role in the ME pandemic has been less than passive. It has been proactive, aggressive and mostly secretive. His political skills are apparent to anyone who watches the Covid-19 briefings. He has been just as effective in rendering ME toothless as he has been at promoting containment of Coronavirus. He's managed to stay out of his ME victims' line of sight by pulling strings in the background. Until Covid19 and a mentally spastic president pushed him onto a prime-time platform, that’s been his style.
Fauci's NIAID colleague Stephen Straus, a scientist whose original interest at NIAID was herpesvirus simplex II, attached himself like a barnacle to ME beginning in 1983, publishing his first paper on the subject the following year. Straus is typically thought of as Enemy Numero Uno because he was for at least fifteen years the public face of NIH on the matter of ME. Straus proved himself willing to lie about and misrepresent the reality of ME. He was also the scientist whose specious theories journalists based their faulty stories on for years and years, generating a permanence of opinion about ME that has yet to abate fully. Nevertheless, on closer examination, all indicators point to Fauci as the mastermind.
Once ME began its spread, Fauci sought to protect his anti-ME asset Straus. He quietly backed Straus at every turn and worked to prevent the outrage of ME sufferers from damaging Straus’s hegemony. Once, Fauci took Straus by the hand (figuratively) and together they stepped into a town car that whisked them from Bethesda to Capitol Hill. Their appointment was with Republican Congressman John Porter. The latter was seen (mistakenly, it turned out) as a champion of ME. Fauci undertook his mission after a press release about one particularly egregious Straus paper was sent by NIAID to an unprecedented 500 news outlets in the country. (One wonders--at whose orders?) Based on unblinded, open-ended interviews with a group of 21 ME patients hospitalized at the NIH Clinical Center, Straus claimed ME sufferers had a higher incidence of mental illness than the rest of the population. Perhaps you can imagine the headlines that followed. If you had ME at the time, it felt like a mass burial. Within days, Porter himself was buried in letters from distraught ME patients and their representatives pleading for Straus' firing. With Straus as his exhibit A, Fauci bullied Porter into telling his constituents to lay off Straus.
By most evidence, one may conclude Straus was merely Fauci’s errand boy, the obedient scientist who could be counted on to deliver the death blows to an "annoying" disease that wasn't immediately fatal, one guaranteed by its very nature to piss off Fauci. One might also characterize their relationship as a folie a deux, delusional buddies on a mission. For purposes of history, it didn't matter that they were wrong about ME because they had all the power and money in the world to steamroll the press and Congress.
My mother, who was a tall woman, used to warn me about what she called "small man's disease." Short men, she claimed, often harbored a grudge against women that went way beyond the standard patriarchal sexism to which all women become accustomed. They could be gratuitously hurtful, wolves in sheep's clothing. It's hardly a phenomenon science can support, but in my many decades, I have found her warning justified. Imagine someone with small man's disease who found himself with not only the power but a sense of justification, of righteousness, to turn his back on a disease because it was annoying, not where it's at. In the process, the lives of tens of thousands and then millions of women's lives were destroyed. Men with ME? Fauci's collateral damage, if he thought about it at all.
Is it churlish to choose this moment to deconstruct Fauci's bad intentions and actions--just as he lends a steadying hand to the confusion emanating from the Administration? Maybe so. On the other hand, given all eyes are now trained adoringly on him as if he was a modern day George Washington, or the smart, brave Dad we can all look up to, maybe this is the absolute right time to enumerate his multiple, prolonged malfeasance in an older pandemic of decades duration.
Suffice to say, beginning in the early 1980s when worried doctors began to write and publish descriptive case studies about the new disease they were seeing in their practices, an effort long considered to be the government's early warning system for emerging diseases, Tony Fauci has defined the U.S. government's response. His effort subsequently influenced health agencies throughout Europe, Australia, India, Japan and China. He is the reason ME has been starved for funding by NIH, is not taken seriously and is mostly forgotten even though it has reached a worldwide burden of 65 million (statistic courtesy of UC San Diego's Robert Naviaux).
Fauci has committed so many grievous actions regarding ME, in fact, I feel a sense of overwhelm deciding in what order and what to include when enumerating his harm. Taken cumulatively, his misdeeds are breathtaking. At every turning point in the history of the pandemic that began sometime in the late 1970s or early 1980s in tandem with AIDS, Fauci has stepped in to prevent scientific discovery, refused investigators cash to pursue the cause of the disease and created an environment promoting and perpetuating the lie that the disease was a psychiatric condition of women who couldn’t compete in the marketplace. In Straus’ words, “Women with histories of unachievable ambitions…and poor coping skills.”
Fauci has been stunningly heavy-handed in his efforts to protect those within the government who promoted the re-framing of an obviously transmissible disease as a personality disorder and promoted all the other fraudulent, data-less drivel that spewed from the mouths of government scientists and doctors during the 1980s, 1990s and well into the current century.
I suspect that Fauci's obituaries, which until Covid-19 would have labelled him the nation's greatest AIDS scientist, would now lead with his leadership role in educating a nation, in spite of a trucculent, oppositional president, on how to navigate the historic Coronavirus pandemic. Nevertheless, if his obituaries were penned even twenty years from now, they could very well lead with his most tragic and monumental scientific disaster: disappearing the ME pandemic, which allowed the disease to become endemic, spin out of control for decades and permanently destroy millions of lives.
More to come: Fauci's Dark Legacy