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The skunk at the picnic

"Genuine public service does not have to take on a political hue all the time."

Eighty-year-old Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the United States National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said he never once entertained the idea of quitting his post even at the height of the pandemic, even with former president Donald Trump’s epic denial, minimization and mismanagement of the virus, and even when he and his family were being threatened for contradicting Mr. Trump’s outrageous claims in public.

In an interview with the New York Times, Fauci, who is keeping his role in the new Biden administration—the seventh administration he has served—described what it was like to work under Mr. Trump. Even then, Mr. Fauci remained faithful to facts, narrating events as they happened and using the words that were actually exchanged—nothing more, nothing less.

For instance, Trump, who constantly played down the virus and its effects, always asked Fauci why he was being so negative.

Trump was also prone to believing people who called him to say this or that substance was effective, based not on data but mere anecdotes. Fauci felt he had to explain that there was a process and a standard for establishing whether drugs did work.

While Fauci never went out of his way to contradict Trump, he knew he had to speak up when the public, through reporters, sought his expertise. “It isn’t like I took any pleasure in contradicting the president of the United States. I have a great deal of respect for the office. But I made a decision that I just had to. Otherwise I would be compromising my own integrity, and be giving a false message to the world.”

Trump’s close associates lashed out at Fauci, and he was being egged to lash back—he chose not to do that.

And then there were the threats: His wife and children were harassed through their phones, and in their homes, and one time Fauci himself received a powdery substance in an envelope in the mail. “It was a benign nothing,” he said. “But it was frightening.”

Despite this, he stayed on, knowing he would leave a void if he stepped down. “They would try to play down real problems and have a little happy talk about how things are OK. Someone’s got to not be afraid to speak out the truth,” he said. This was how he came to regard himself as the skunk in the picnic—still a better scenario than the skunk not being in the picnic at all.

Dr. Fauci’s decision to stay on, his decent demeanor and his unflappable fidelity to science shows us that it is possible to simply serve and resist being engulfed in petty infighting and wheeling and dealing.

While he worked from within and chose to serve alongside a president for whom everything was political, Dr. Fauci kept things objective—calling out Trump when he uttered falsehoods, toning down his dangerously positive rhetoric, and yet refusing to join the chorus of those denouncing Trump for his role in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Americans.

Genuine public service does not have to take on a political hue all the time. Politics is fleeting and arbitrary, while science—or any other field of expertise—that is built through decades of painstaking work and reliance on the facts will outlast the names and faces of populists who come and eventually go.

Topics: Editorial , Dr. Anthony Fauci , United States National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases
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