Brad Pitt becomes Dr. Anthony Fauci and Adam Sandler raps in quarantine in the latest episode of “Saturday Night Live” from home.
Dr. Anthony Stephen Fauci didn’t grow up wanting to be famous. Mostly he just wanted to make a difference. But now a lifetime of service has flicked on a searing spotlight.
Perhaps not since the late actor Jack Palance did one-armed push-ups at the 1991 Oscars at age 73 – YouTube it, millennials – has the nation been this seduced by a senior citizen.
By virtue of his calm, Brooklyn-inflected White House briefings on coronavirus that frequently if diplomatically contradict statements by President Donald Trump, Fauci, 79, has become a meme, spawned fan clubs and been lovingly parodied by Brad Pitt.
Fauci’s longtime official title is director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, a part of the National Institutes of Health. But since becoming the face of this country’s COVID-19 pandemic, the career immunologist who has battled everything from AIDS to Ebola is increasingly referred to as America’s Doctor.
And he’s in the headlines again this week, having been barred by the White House from addressing House lawmakers Wednesday on the topic of the administration’s response to the crisis. Instead, Fauci will meet with a GOP-led subcommittee on May 12.
So just who is Tony Fauci?
Interviews with friends and colleagues offer overlapping descriptions of a man as dedicated to hard work – endless hours peppered with power walks – as he is to his wife, scientist Christine Grady, and three accomplished daughters.
They describe a man who takes as much pride in his Bolognese pasta sauce (the key, one friend says, is the long-simmering time) as he does in enduring relationships. He’s a burger and beer at the bar guy, but also a public servant built for our trying times.
“Tony’s capable of elevating his game to whatever is needed, and more has been demanded of him now than in any time in his career,” says Michael Osterholm, director of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy. “In the eyes of the American public, he’s the voice we need right now, one of credibility.”
Steven Gabbe met Fauci when both were at Cornell Medical College in New York City in the late 1960s, and “the person you see now on TV is the same guy I met back then, smart and humble.”
Gabbe, emeritus CEO of The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center in Columbus, lauds his friend’s sense of humor. “I’m sure he finds it entertaining that there are bobblehead dolls of him now,” he says. “But he’s so grounded I don’t think it would go to his head.”
Fauci would be excused it if did. In a recent survey of 1,900 registered U.S. voters, Morning Consult asked respondents whom they would trust “a lot” or “some” to end social distancing. Fauci and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention topped the list among all voters with 71% trust ratings.
Three months in: A timeline of how COVID-19 has unfolded in the US
Such a high-profile status inevitably also has generated criticism.
Right-wing pundits have assailed how shelter-in-place guidelines he supported have impacted the economy, leading conservative internet TV host Bill Mitchell to tweet “this Dr. Doom Fauci is the most depressing idiot I’ve ever listened to.”
That harsh assessment has some grounding in a real issue, says Jonathan Engel, professor at the Marxe School of Public and International Affairs at Baruch College, part of the City University of New York system.
“Cost-benefit analysis is not the way Fauci thinks, he’s a physician and immunologist,” says Engel. “So that’s where the frustration in some red states comes from. You’re saving lives, but you’re also destroying lives. Someone else needs to be there to step back and think about the whole picture, but that’s not Fauci’s role.”
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Critics ask: Did Fauci ‘miss it’?
Even some fellow scientists who praise Fauci’s professional accomplishments suggest not only that he was late sounding the alarm, but that having one celebrated virus point person is dangerous.
“In January, February and part of March there was one physician on show after show, him, and while he’s great at explaining things, in terms of telling the country to get prepared, he missed it,” says Marty Makary, professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “My concern is not with Anthony Fauci as much as it is in a media and policy world that puts its faith in one person.”
If anything, Fauci’s rise highlights the fact that no one person regardless of their stature – his laurels include almost every scientific accolade short of a Nobel Prize – should hold all the reins when it comes to national and global pandemics.
“Tony’s taken on this big role in part because of the vacuum that exists,” says David Relman, a Fauci friend and professor of medicine at Stanford University.
“But what if the next pandemic destroys our food? Or a bioterror attack?” he says. “We need a new leadership system that sits inside the White House, where people have the authority to tell the Attorney General what to do, or the Federal Reserve or the Secretary of Defense, so you can move fast. Tony can’t do that. No one can. The system needs to change.”
Fauci’s current national stature indeed appears unique in U.S. history, says historian Douglas Brinkley of Rice University in Houston, citing past examples that fall short.
In the late 1700s, a yellow fever outbreak in Philadelphia caused President George Washington to flee the city, leaving in charge the preeminent doctor and fellow Founding Father, Benjamin Rush.
When President Woodrow Wilson got sick while visiting Paris during World War I, many scholars believe his physician and his wife were running the country for a spell.
“So you have moments when doctors have become the voice of the country, but nothing like this,” says Brinkley. “The straight talking Fauci is what you want to hear, much like if you go to a doctor you don’t want spin or blarney.”
Brinkley says after the coronavirus pandemic starts to recede, Fauci is likely to go down in history “as one of few scientists who are now household names.”
Some suggest Fauci enjoys this new spotlight too much. Although an NIAID press officer said Fauci was too busy for an interview, the doctor’s media appearances are frequent and varied, from network news and comedy shows to online interviews with sports icons such as basketball star Steph Curry.
Fauci Pouchys and ‘Docta Fauci’
And yet the public can’t seem to get enough. The Anthony Fauci Fan Club on Twitter has 24,000 followers and a pinned tweet that reads: “If you don’t have a crush on this man, do you even care about public health?”
New York-based singer Missy Modell rewrote the lyrics to Lady Gaga’s 2008 hit “Paparazzi” to rhyme with “Docta Fauci.” Her Instagram hit includes the line, “Tony, there’s no other superstar except for Andy,” New York governor Andrew Cuomo.
Fauci’s likeness is splashed on coffee mugs, T-shirts and even donuts. In Washington, D.C., the town Fauci calls home, Capo’s Speakeasy teamed up with a real estate company to sell Fauci Pouchy to-go drinks, cocktails in see-through sealed bags emblazoned with the doctor’s image.
At Chef Geoff’s in northwest D.C., Fauci and his wife, a nurse bioethicist at the NIH, are regulars who in pre-virus times would pull up bar stools and order Chef Geoff Burgers and beers, says owner Geoff Tracy. He posted a sign warning take-out customers, “Dr. Antony Fauci is a long time guest and he wants SIX FEET.”
“He’s a genuinely nice human being, and I deal with a lot who aren’t sometimes,” says Tracy, whose wife, CBS anchor Norah O’Donnell, has interviewed Fauci over the years. Tracy says Fauci’s sudden ascent into the pop culture firmament doesn’t surprise him. But he doubts it phases Fauci.
“My father-in-law is an infectious disease doctor, and these guys not about picking fights or the limelight,” says Tracy. “They’re about sharing information and guiding you. And no one’s better at that than Tony.”
Fauci recently told an interviewer he appreciated the way “classy” actor Brad Pitt played him on a recent Saturday Night Live stay-at-home broadcast, this after Fauci said in an interview that Pitt would be his top choice for someone to impersonate him on the show. But friends note celebrities don’t really phase him.
Stanford professor Relman, who focuses on microbiology and immunology, recalls talking to Fauci about the time U2 singer Bono, who has focused his philanthropy on Africa, wanted to discuss disease issues with Fauci.
“Tony thought it would cause too big a scene at the NIH, so he just told Bono to come over to his house,” says Relman. “Bono did, but Tony forgot that that might completely freak out his daughters, which it did. Those are just his circles. His ability to talk honestly about important matters causes people to seek him out.”
Study: Americans trust Fauci more than Trump or their own governors
Fauci’s hoop dreams dashed by height
Fauci grew up in Brooklyn the grandson of Italian immigrants. His parents ran a pharmacy. He did deliveries on his bicycle, while his older sister Denise ran the register.
In past interviews, Fauci hasn’t revealed much about his hard-working upbringing except to say that it laid the foundation for a life ultimately devoted to science and public service.
Fauci went to Regis High School in Manhattan, which required commuting for hours on buses and subways. Although a stand-out basketball player, his height, 5-foot-7, prompted him to look for a career outside sports.
For college, he attended Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, which like Regis was run by Jesuits, whose educational philosophy seeks to meld spirituality – Fauci is a lifelong Catholic – with social justice.
The experience was formative, says Eric Goosby, a distinguished professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, who met Fauci in the 1980s and has been a frequent guest at his friend’s pasta Bolognese dinners. (“He’ll call me days before to make sure I’m still coming,” he says with a laugh.)
“Tony was deeply affected by exposure to the Jesuit order, which fostered in him a self-expectation of service,” says Goosby. “This guy goes to sleep and wakes up asking, ‘Have I done everything I can do?’ It’s in his DNA.”
As is a fierce work ethic. In summers during college, Fauci worked construction. As the story goes, one job found him helping on a new building at the Cornell Medical College. Fauci vowed one day he would be an alum, and made it happen.
“That story says it all to me,” says his friend Gabbe. “He just has this powerful drive that won’t be stopped. The same thing happened when he graduated and told people he was going to the NIH to study infectious diseases. People told him they were all conquered, this was a career-killer move. Not long after, AIDS hit.”
Fauci’s role in the AIDS epidemic changed him. At first, he tackled the growing crisis with a measured, data-driven approach to trying to find a treatment. But that methodical tack infuriated gay activists watching friends die daily.
“Initially, Fauci was very rigid in his approach to AIDS and people like (gay rights activist and playwright) Larry Kramer got in his face, calling him the worst things,” says Baruch College professor Engel, who wrote “The Epidemic: A Global History of AIDS.” “And to Fauci’s credit, he got it and he changed.”
Fauci had been seen as the detached scientific face of an uncaring administration led by President Ronald Reagan, late to understanding the scope of the AIDS crisis. Fauci started to meet with members of the gay rights community and quickly understood the need to include those who were suffering in finding a solution.
Goosby, who was running of one the nation’s first AIDS clinics in the late ‘80s, recalls attending a meeting with Fauci in Washington, D.C. The gathering was attacked by ACT UP activists, who locked the meeting’s attendees, there to discuss new drugs to fight HIV, inside the hall with chains.
“A lot of us were nervous and scared of possible violence,” Goosby recalls. “But Tony looked at us and said, ‘This is our chance to learn about the frustrations of the community. It’s an opportunity for us to learn and serve.’ I’ll never forget that.”
Fauci turned enemies into allies
That shift in attitude – away from the rigidity of scientific pursuits and towards an embrace of the human reality – soon turned enemies into lifelong friends, says Matt Sharp, a San Francisco-based AIDS survivor and activist who was part of many ACT UP protests in the nation’s capital aimed at calling out Fauci.
“What developed was a very interesting mutual respect, where you have a hero who once was an enemy,” says Sharp. “Once we got him to relate to us and our reality, trust was established. Today, the AIDS community is glad he’s the one leading this effort right now.”
Over what is now nearly a 50-year career with the NIH, Fauci has worked for presidents as philosophically wide-ranging as Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama, helping them through crises that included the post-9/11 anthrax scares, SARS in 2003, H1N1 in 2009 and Ebola in 2014.
Those who know Fauci marvel at how he keeps his political leanings private.
“I honestly don’t know if he’s a Democrat or Republican,” says Sharp. “But I know he’s got an amazing grace and an ability to cut through the b—–. That’s his genius.”
That skill is particularly valuable now, as Fauci continues to navigate his truth-telling role for a president whose response to criticism often is dismissal.
“He has always had a knack for telling it like it is, and letting the political chips fall where they may,” says Stanford’s Relman. “Don’t forget, Tony Fauci is proud card-carrying New Yorker. He has a blunt, endearing and no-nonsense New York attitude, and I think Trump kind of gets that.”
Indeed, a brief #FireFauci firestorm that flared in the wake of Fauci appearing to show exasperation at the president’s coronavirus remarks ended with Trump saying Fauci wasn’t going anywhere.
That’s probably just fine with Fauci. He may not get much sleep these days, and he’s contending with political forces dueling over just how much reopening the country will lead to another coronavirus case spike and then more shut-downs.
But friends insist he’d wouldn’t want to be anywhere other than in this hot seat. Says Osterholm of the University of Minnesota: “I would go so far as to say Tony’s been the right man for the job for several decades now.”
The recipe for that success perhaps can be found in remarks Fauci made around this time in 2016 to the graduating class at Ohio State University.
Fauci started out by telling the graduates – in his trademark Brooklyn patois that made “honor” sound like on-AH and “poverty” like PAW-vaty – that if they’re like him, they’ll soon forget every word their commencement speaker said.
Then over the next 12 succinct minutes, Fauci laid out five credos to live by: Be a perpetual student, expect the unexpected, embrace public service, lead by example, and, finally, pursue happiness.
As prescriptions go, Fauci has taken his own medicine. When he is at that West Wing lectern, he seems to radiate a sense of satisfaction at simply being of service despite the attendant slings and arrows of the post.
“Different pursuits provide joy,” Fauci urged the gradates. “Find your source of joy, and embrace it.”
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Follow USA TODAY national writer Marco della Cava: @marcodellacava
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