Dr. Anthony Fauci is a national treasure — and never more so than during a public health crisis in the United States.
For 35 years — under presidents from both parties — he has served as head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. In that role, he has been in the thick of efforts to combat diseases from AIDS to the annual flu — but he has never been in a battle like this one.
It is not that the fight against this new coronavirus is all that different scientifically. The complicating factor for Fauci is it is leagues apart politically.
Just how do you go about containing a new highly contagious disease at a time when all kinds of information — for good or ill — can be spread with just one presidential post on Twitter?
Fauci recently said in an interview with POLITICO: “You should never destroy your own credibility… you don’t want to go to war with a president but you have got to walk the fine balance of making sure you continue to tell the truth.”
And when it comes to this new virus, the truth according to Tony Fauci is: “I think that this is going to be one of those things we look back on and say boy, that was bad.”
He is straight talker and it came as no surprise that that the Trump administration has tried to muzzle Fauci at a time when the nation most needs to hear from him.
In the past, he has been the public face of the government when the prospect of a scary new illness has left America rattled. But this time, it is White House appointees — those with political ties to the president — who are doing most of the talking. They are hosting briefings at the White House and appearing on national television, putting the best possible spin on the situation.
Trump himself did the first White House public “briefing” on the new coronavirus — downplaying the health and financial risks to the country, even though minutes earlier he had been informed of the first U.S. case of the illness not tied to foreign travel.
The president told Americans not to worry, that a vaccine would be available soon. Fauci — based on his decades of medical research experience — said it might take a year.
The chief executive was not pleased.
A banner headline on CNN said it all: TRUMP OUT OF STEP WITH HIS OWN EXPERTS ON CORONAVIRUS.
Welcome to medical crisis control in the age of Trump.
The president at first tried to blame Democrats for igniting the coronavirus scare and an accompanying plunge in the U.S. stock market.
“Some of them are trying to gain political favor by saying a lot about this,” he told reporters last Friday.
That was just before a campaign rally in South Carolina where he called the coronavirus the Democrat’s “new hoax.”
“The Democrats are politicizing the coronavirus. They are politicizing it. They don’t have any clue!” he told his ardent supporters.
This is what happens when a president skilled at sowing chaos faces an emergency that demands calm, consistency, empathy and trust — not to mention an acknowledgement that medical experts know more about the problem at hand than he does.
Former Ronald Reagan aide and speechwriter Peggy Noonan —who now pens a column for the Wall Street Journal — put it this way:
“In a public health crisis, the role of government is key. The question will be — the question IS — are the president and his administration up to it?… It is in crisis that you see the difference between showmanship and leadership.”
So now we have to wonder — in the midst of a presidential election year — if a commander-in-chief who came to public prominence by hosting a TV reality show is really the best fit for our country.
The people who will be doing the hands-on work in American laboratories — both public and private — to develop vaccines and treatments are among the best in the world. People like Anthony Fauci know how to gear up in times of crisis, calm jangled nerves, and bring results.
But the other part of the equation — the political leadership needed to prevent an all-out panic — may fall far short.
A president who loves to spread conspiracy theories, and who says he trusts his own opinions more than those of the scientific community may not be able to really deal with the situation if it gets worse, which it undoubtedly will.
“It is a test he is uniquely prepared to fail,” wrote columnist Michael Gerson in the Washington Post. “His immediate tendency in such a crisis is to assume there is a plot against him and to search for scapegoats.”
The bottom line is that for Trump to be successful in this case, he has to at least repress those natural tendencies. He also needs to respect and rely on government scientists — part of the expert community he has railed against in the past.
Experts like Anthony Fauci.
I first met Dr. Fauci about five years ago when reporting on the government’s ongoing efforts to come up with a universal influenza vaccine — one that would provide years of protection against ever-morphing flu strains.
He took me on a tour of the vast laboratories operating under his direction at the National Institutes of Health — providing a constant narrative on this important work. He wasn’t just another agency manager. Fauci knew the name of every single researcher we encountered, explained the details of each step in the intricate research process, and answered all my questions in a way that any lay person could understand.
On that day the topic was influenza. But Fauci and his lab have also been working on an HIV/AIDS vaccine, and they have been front and center in confronting outbreaks of dangerous diseases like Ebola.
We need him to be Washington’s voice now.
Please, Mr. President, stand aside and let Dr. Fauci speak.