Dr. Fauci and the Public Life

Anthony Fauci and the Public Life

The recent retirement of Dr. Anthony Fauci is a good time to reflect on the virtues and perils of a public life. Because so much of that life and our knowledge of it is colored by the last few years and the Covid pandemic, during which he became nearly as recognizable and almost as ubiquitous a public figure as Donald Trump, it’s important to remember that Dr. Fauci was never one of the strivers after fame who litter our airwaves, public places and social networks. He had a long and distinguished career in medicine and research. And though director of the NIAID for many years, it’s a fair bet that you (and certainly I) would not have recognized his name or face in 2019. A rocket scientist who becomes head of NASA is not, by design, a public person. Nor is an immunologist who becomes head of NIAID.

Of course, once you are the head of NASA or NIAID, you must inevitably become a political person. These are not scientific roles, and no one could excel at them by treating them in that way. Still, there is a profound difference between a seeker of fame and a person who has fame thrust upon them. Dr. Fauci was clearly the latter. I imagine that he was no different than many a practitioner who becomes an administrator, leader, and, of necessity, a political player; he was probably better at it than most (based on his career), but he surely looked back on his time in research with more than a little longing.

This longing is not unique to public service jobs. Many a talented computer programmer has risen into the team and product management ranks and looked back wistfully at their coding days. Some, in Peter Principle fashion, are entirely unsuited to these roles and should never have taken them – salary and prestige be damned. Others are perhaps relieved to be out of the trenches and fall into their new roles with the relief of the battle weary. The best do their jobs well but cannot avoid looking back on the days when their work was measurably productive with simple longing. I’m fairly sure Dr. Fauci was one of these.

It is only by recognizing this that we can adequately place the man within the context of the pandemic and truly appreciate the perils that come with an extraordinarily public life. As Director of NIAID he was undeniably a public figure. He was important. He was authoritative. He was as successful in his field as it is possible to be. None of this, as it sometimes will, seems to have corrupted him.

But this kind of success is but the flicker of a candle to the beam of searchlight when compared to the extraordinary role he played in the pandemic. In looking back on those days (and how sweet it is to be able to treat the pandemic as a thing of the past), there is no denying that many mistakes were made. At no level of government or media do we see much to be proud of. The pandemic was a case-study in mass hysteria, media panic and stupidity, governmental overreach and paralysis, the failure of public health experts, and the polarization and rampant hostility of our political factions.

Nor should Dr. Fauci escape his considerable share of criticism. His handling of the mask issue highlights, perhaps more than any other aspect of the pandemic, the risk public health experts take when they tailor their message not to the truth as they see it, but to what they perceive is the public’s ability to handle it. What distinguishes great leaders and communicators in crisis is not their cleverness at shaping their message, but their ability to communicate to people the plain truth as they see it.

When Winston Churchill spoke these words to the people of Britain, he did not sugar-coat the threat or tailor words to avert panic.

“Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous States have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender…”

Too often during Covid, public policy experts refused to tell the truth (as they saw it – inevitably and properly that truth sometimes changed) to the public. Usually because they thought the public incapable of understanding it or feared how the public would react. This is a bad idea. For while the public may be intemperate, ignorant, and feckless, it does not lack an ability to detect bullshit. What resulted, inevitably, was a loss of confidence in the experts, and people like Dr. Fauci became lightning rods of resentment and political action.

Nor did those same experts resist the all-too-natural urge to side with the mainstream media and the broader elites in the wars over public interventions that inevitably followed. In doing this, science and truth were mostly sacrificed, and sacrificed most regrettably by those whose medical expertise and public positions gave them the ability and the duty to do better.

It is hard, in retrospect, to blame Dr. Fauci for his increasingly political role in the pandemic and the extent to which he broke from Trump and then embraced Biden. It would be almost impossible not to break from Trump. Dr. Fauci was not one of those self-appointed “adults in the room” who willingly attached themselves to Trump and then tried retroactively to salvage their reputations after he eventually discarded them. No normal being could work happily with Donald Trump. No normal human should have to work at all with someone like Donald Trump. And it is asking more than is really human to have expected Dr. Fauci to have remained a teller-of-truth and not a partisan after years of putting up with Donald Trump.

We cannot expect saintliness in our civil servants.

If we should blame Dr. Fauci for anything, it was his failure to help guide a public policy that acquired actual knowledge. This failure was by no means his alone. At no point in the pandemic did any agency or any level of government (Federal, State, City) do the work necessary to figure out which public interventions make a difference. This was possible. It should have been done. A program of aggressive experimentation with public interventions and controlled measurement could have helped everyone in the world do better.

No one did it.

We still have no idea what really worked (though it seems clear almost no public interventions did much) and we have only the most limited idea of how to do better. It is a failure of colossal scope, and it is a failure not just of Donald Trump and Anthony Fauci, but of Gavin Newsome and Ron DeSantis, of London Breed and Bill de Blasio. It didn’t require the federal government to develop a useful learning strategy for Covid and public interventions. It just required somebody at a modest level of power willing to set aside the political faction, the hysteria, and the stupidity in service of the truth.

Sadly, that somebody was not Anthony Fauci and in other circumstances it might well have been. If there is a tragedy in this story (and I’m not sure there is), it’s this.

That Dr. Fauci became distracted by and enamored by the bright lights seems clear. It’s a forgivable sin. Not many people would do any better given the extraordinary nature of his sudden fame. Much of the hysterical adulation was the result of standing next to Donald Trump and being a huge contrast gainer. People, especially the people who loathed Trump, desperately wanted a voice they could trust. Those people were no different than everyone else. They were scared, they were ignorant, and they wanted a person to trust. If it came in the form of a silver-haired scientist-doctor, all the better.

The public adulation that resulted was the crazed sort that sweeps our world like the aftermath of an earthquake. It is not rational, earned or useful. But it can be devastating to those at whom it is directed. Some, like poor Beto O’Rourke, experience the whiplash of first receiving this mad adulation then becoming an object of its derision and contempt – all without ever changing or doing anything to deserve either the one or the other. Those who experience this whiplash will never be the same, though no doubt they have gained a kind of wisdom from the experience.

Dr. Fauci was both more and less lucky. His fame just petered out. He lost Donald Trump as a foil and the mass hysteria gradually died away. It lasted longer than most such crazes do and left him to retire, if not quite intact, at least not wholly shattered.

It’s a melancholy end to a remarkable, distinguished, and worthwhile career and a sad commentary on the dangers of a too public life. Bad ideas like effective altruism that replace ethics and virtue with calculus drive us to all to spend a great deal of time obsessing about politics. And the more people obsess about politics, the worse politics becomes. Politics is an ethical quagmire, dangerous to enter and dangerous to be around. It has always been a dangerous endeavor, a pursuit prone to bringing out the worst in most people.

We are faced here, though, with a true paradox of thrift. If everyone who cares about leading a good life avoids politics, then politics will get steadily worse. And politics does matter, because public policy matters and politics is the struggle for control over policy. Yet there is something more to be learned from Dr. Fauci’s career than a fear of mass adulation.

When people talk about influencing public policy they are nearly always talking about politicians. Politicians make policy. Bureaucrats mostly just get in the way. This kind of thinking is problematic for many reasons. There are far more civil servants than there are politicians. How that vast body of civil servants behaves matters – in most cases – far, far more than what politicians do. Few policies can be effective without the intellectual and emotional support of the experts who implement them, but it’s also true that in almost every case what makes a policy useful or harmful is the manner in which it is designed and carried out by the people in responsible agencies.

This isn’t always the case, of course. When congress changes the tax rate, that change requires hardly any work by civil servants and the change may work or backfire regardless of whether the civil service supports or loathes the change. That’s a rare case. When congress passes laws regulating land use or pollution or commercial airwaves, the impact of those laws is nearly always at the mercy of people much like Anthony Fauci and those who work for them. Ditto for all those executive orders by Presidents that have become so popular. The President can sign anything, but it takes committed civil servants to make it happen in a coherent fashion.

Nor should we forget that most political action has nothing to do with public policy. The work of a politician is to get elected. What happens in between elections is largely incidental to a politician’s career. There are many representatives and senators who have never authored a single significant piece of legislation – and they are the people at the top of the political heap.

This intense focus on politicians not civil servants is harmful. Inevitably, it pushes the most ambitious and often the most capable people into choosing politics not civil service. If their ambitions run to true accomplishment, that can be a poor personal choice and a considerable societal waste. Focusing on politics also makes it hard – perhaps even impossible – to build a culture of civil service. In the United States, this is an especially severe problem since we’ve never had a very good culture for civil servants and our broader cultural values don’t fit well with the virtues that work best in civil service.

Perhaps Asian cultures steeped in Confucian thinking have a natural advantage in this regard. Confucian thought was explicitly geared toward creating good civil servants and its fundamental tenets of filial conduct (in a broad social sense) and discrete remonstrance work very well as pillars of civil service culture. Confucius’ exemplary person was probably not an ideal scientist, entrepreneur or artist, but it would be hard to find a better model for a useful government agent.

Modern Western culture is not universally hostile to a good civil service culture. The English have and have maintained a culture of civil service that is stronger and more effective than anything that has ever existed here, demonstrating that the conflict is at least partially endemic to the United States. And, after all, one of the few kinds of excellence that our school system engenders involve skills quite relevant to civil service. Hierarchies, boundaries, discipline, documentation, meticulousness, and detail are all intellectual habits strongly encouraged by our general educational system. They are not enough, of course, to make a good civil servant. They are often put to full use in what Confucius described as the petty bureaucrat. But they nevertheless form a valuable set of skills for people who must navigate and work effectively in large, rule-bound organizations.

This may sound dismissive, but at the scale of our society, the skills necessary to work effectively within a large organization matter enormously and the work of civil servants matters quite a bit more than the work of most politicians.

Cultural recognition of those two facts might trigger a salutary movement of more accomplished and more ambitious people into civil service and perhaps the gradual development of cultural and institutional practices that borrow and hybridize some of the virtues embedded in other culture’s social practice peculiarly suited to that service.

The work of a civil servant is useful but never glamorous. The work of a politician is glamorous but rarely useful. There is a vast amount of good, useful work in a career like Dr. Fauci’s. If Covid was not his finest hour, neither was his performance worse than his peers. Few people do much better in the first, harsh light of overwhelming fame. We would do better to honor and recognize the value his full career than mourn or scorn the lost glory.

Near the end of the movie Patton, the General (himself no stranger to the vicissitudes of public admiration and vilification), recounts the Roman tradition of the triumph. The victor will ride in a chariot amidst the adoring throngs, soaking in their adulation. By his side a slave will whisper in his ear, “All glory is fleeting.”

All glory is fleeting, but good work will endure.

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