Perhaps what’s most frustrating about the final years of Dr. Anthony Fauci’s career in government service is that it didn’t have to end this way. Fauci undoubtedly brought a great deal of intellect, dedication, compassion, and hard-earned experience to his career in public health, and the controversies of the past years shouldn’t obscure that.
But once the Covid-19 pandemic turned Fauci into a celebrity — complete with his own prayer candles, action figures, and associated merchandising — it was as if his worst instincts were unchained. Fauci’s public statements grew more strident and his dismissal of his critics more arrogant. By November 2021, Fauci started contending that he had become the walking and talking embodiment of science itself: “It’s easy to criticize, but they’re really criticizing science because I represent science.” La science c’est moi.
No doubt, Fauci attracted more than his share of unhinged criticism. But the national media loved to focus on the unhinged conspiracy theorists and garden-variety nutjobs and death threats against Fauci, because it helped discredit the much fairer, much more legitimate questioning of Fauci’s advice and decision-making.
One of Fauci’s first pieces of advice during the pandemic was to discourage Americans from wearing masks, declaring in a March 8 interview with 60 Minutes, “There’s no reason to be walking around with a mask. When you’re in the middle of an outbreak, wearing a mask might make people feel a little bit better, and it might even block a droplet, but it’s not providing the perfect protection that people think that it is. And, often, there are unintended consequences — people keep fiddling with the mask and they keep touching their face.” The problem isn’t that Fauci changed his mind as masks became more widely available; it’s that he never really addressed his previous declarations that they were ineffective — declarations that apparently he didn’t believe. Fauci didn’t create the anti-masking sentiment in American life, but his quick reversal fed the suspicion that wearing masks was more about public perceptions than empirical evidence.
Those who were paying close attention noticed that Fauci kept shifting his assessment of the percentage needed to reach herd immunity from the virus. In December 2020, Fauci admitted to the New York Times that he finessed his public statements, based on what he felt the public was ready to hear: “In a telephone interview the next day, Dr. Fauci acknowledged that he had slowly but deliberately been moving the goal posts. He is doing so, he said, partly based on new science, and partly on his gut feeling that the country is finally ready to hear what he really thinks.” This did not align with Fauci’s much-celebrated reputation as a straight shooter.
Fauci’s emails suggested he had a symbiotic relationship with adoring reporters. He offered evasive answers about U.S. taxpayer money financing gain-of-function research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. He offered a full-throated defense of gain-of-function research, which looks a little different in the aftermath of a global pandemic that killed millions.
With Fauci, a discerning audience grew to doubt they were getting the full truth, as opposed to what he felt the country should hear at any given moment. Wait a few weeks, and Fauci may well conclude that the country needed to hear a different message.
As our Michael Brendan Dougherty laid out in a cover piece in May 2021, “whatever Fauci’s prior career achievements, he has shown in the COVID-19 pandemic that he is not the disinterested expert he claims to be. He survives in Washington not just because he launders politics through science and has an affable demeanor but because he’s also a cutthroat in the media game. Even when his critics are right, they get cashiered, and Fauci wins more public accolades.”
Fauci wasn’t single-handedly responsible for all the federal and state governments’ failings during the pandemic. But considering his gargantuan public reputation and ubiquitous media presence, he could have done more to point out that participating in a protest over George Floyd was no less or more dangerous than any other outdoor activity in the summer of 2020, or pushed for reopening public schools earlier, or rebuked stupid examples of pandemic-preparation theater such as outdoor mask mandates, declarations that visiting the beach was a life-threatening risk, and the arrest of paddleboarders off the coast of Malibu.
We heard altogether too much from Fauci during the last three years, which is partly his fault and partly that of our country’s felt need for a scientist who can play the role of an oracle. When we hear from him next, let it be at a House hearing about reforming public health.