Opinion editor's note: Editorials represent the opinions of the Star Tribune Editorial Board, which operates independently from the newsroom.
There are two safe bets about the public's perception of Dr. Anthony Fauci when he first strode onto a White House briefing stage with President Donald Trump. Those were the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic — in fact, before it was declared a pandemic, and before the disease had been named COVID-19.
The first safe bet is that most Americans had never heard of Fauci. The second is that most Americans didn't know what to make of him.
Neither of those bets would be safe today. Fauci, who has announced that he will retire at the end of the year, may now be the most famous doctor in America. And in this sorry, polarized environment of toxic public discourse, there must be few Americans who lack a fully formed — if not as fully informed — opinion of him.
Fauci should have been famous before COVID came along. He had been head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases since 1984. He was a controversial figure early in the AIDS epidemic, when members of the gay community alleged that his agency was moving too slowly in the face of a mortal threat. He served as an adviser to every president from Ronald Reagan onward, and he continued to perform that role for Trump, who threatened to fire him. Now he serves President Joe Biden.
Fauci's career reads like a history of health emergencies and near misses: Besides COVID and HIV/AIDS, he has been there for Ebola, the anthrax threat, Zika and, most recently, monkeypox. His work with President George W. Bush, crafting the global AIDS initiative known as PEPFAR, earned him the Presidential Medal of Freedom. By rights, he should get another one of those for his work helping steer the country through the COVID pandemic. (There is precedent; Colin Powell had two.)
Although some public officials encountered Fauci's prickly side — Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., comes to mind — he remained the picture of probity in his dealings with President Trump. The memory strains credulity now, but Trump contradicted his adviser on matters of medical science during open news conferences. After Fauci cautioned the press about the antimalarial drug hydroxychloroquine, noting that the evidence of its effectiveness on COVID was as yet "anecdotal," Trump countered: "I'm a big fan … I've seen things that are impressive, and we'll see. We're going to know soon."
"We have ordered millions of units," Trump continued. "What the hell do you have to lose? … I've been right a lot."
Fauci's response was gracious. "There really isn't that much of a difference … in what we're saying," he said. In fact, the difference was plain to see.
Even when Trump stooped to ridicule of Dr. Fauci, mocking him for initially discouraging ordinary Americans from wearing masks and then reversing his recommendation, the doctor kept his cool, calmly noting that COVID's airborne transmission had not been immediately apparent.
Fauci enjoys a degree of immunity from such criticism because he has frankly admitted his fallibility. One of the refreshing elements of his character is his willingness to learn from his mistakes, and to do so in public. He has admitted that he was too cautious in his response to the AIDS epidemic, for example. He acknowledges he was slow to realize that asymptomatic people could spread the coronavirus, and he is said to find the current toll of almost 400 deaths a day unacceptably high.
Fauci has had to endure taunts from internet trolls and death threats from flesh-and-blood trolls. On the plus side, he was granted his wish to see himself portrayed by Brad Pitt on "Saturday Night Live." And although Republicans have vowed to investigate him if they retake the U.S. House, he says the threat doesn't faze him.
Fauci has been a voice of reason and wisdom during a terrible time. He deserves the country's thanks.