When a guest at the white-tie Gridiron Club Dinner earlier this month in Washington, D.C. collapsed, hit her head on a table, and fell motionless to the ground, many of the people around her were not sure what to do next. But then a familiar fellow guest quickly came through the crowd to help: Dr. Anthony Fauci. In retrospect it feels like little surprise that Dr. Fauci, who is also the subject of a just-released PBS documentary, was in the right place at the right time to provide aid when it was needed. As a physician and immunologist who has been an advisor to every president since Ronald Reagan and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, by President George W. Bush, Dr. Fauci has spent his entire professional life serving and helping others.
Dr. Fauci’s distinguished service to our nation’s public health began decades ago when he joined the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in 1968, just a few years after graduating first in his class from Cornell University Medical College (now Weill Cornell Medicine). He became Director of NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) in 1984, and served in that position until December. As Director of NIAID Dr. Fauci guided our nation’s research and work on HIV/AIDS, SARS, swine flu, MERS, and Ebola. During President George W. Bush’s administration he oversaw the development of the United States President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), a global response to the HIV/AIDS crisis that has saved millions of lives. When President Bush awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2008, the citation read: “As a physician, medical researcher, author, and public servant, Dr. Anthony Fauci has dedicated his life to expanding the horizons of human knowledge and making progress toward groundbreaking cures for diseases. His efforts to advance our understanding and treatment of HIV/AIDS have brought hope and healing to tens of millions in both developed and developing nations. The United States honors Anthony Fauci for his commitment to enabling men, women, and children to live longer, healthier lives.”
That lifelong commitment faced an enormous test against the fear and deadly unknowns of the COVID-19 pandemic, and Dr. Fauci was up for the fight. Dr. Fauci became a nationally familiar face and voice while leading NIAID’s response to the pandemic. He also became the focus of suspicion and hatred for every critic of public health measures to address COVID-19 and every denier arguing that the pandemic was a political ploy and not a genuine threat at all. Dr. Fauci remained determined to follow the research; as he said, “Attacks on me, quite frankly, are attacks on science.” But defending research and science against opponents seemingly uninterested in either one meant those attacks quickly turned into vicious calls for his imprisonment and death threats against him and his family. Even as these violent threats on his own life continue, Dr. Fauci has kept his commitment to saving others.
How dangerous it is that many of the same elected officials who are loudly defending former President Trump’s alleged criminal behavior are amplifying calls today to criminalize and investigate Dr. Fauci for his role in the government during the pandemic. We are living in a moment when many of our leaders seem unable to show they know right from wrong. What a horrifying example some politicians are setting for our children. What a contrast to the example of a serious and dedicated lifelong public servant like Dr. Anthony Fauci.