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Fauci Stays the Hero

Tony Fauci was not invited to today’s White House press briefing on COVID-19 — thereby further burnishing his status as scientist communication hero. The more Fauci isn’t allowed to speak (at least in venues where he can contradict other Trump officials), the more it positions him as a functional part of the resistance, regardless of what he actually says in the interviews he does.

But heroes need foils. In a New York Times piece out over the weekend headlined “Inside Trump’s Failure: The Rush to Abandon Leadership Role on the Virus,” Fauci’s White House Coronavirus Task Force counterpart Dr. Deborah Birx is seen as a skilled political operator, infusing her new White House colleagues with optimism in April that the virus’s US course would be short-lived. Fauci, by contrast, seems the classic buzzkill scientist, always a half-step off the beat, struggling to be effective in the rough-and-tumble of Trumpland, never hanging around the White House to build alliances (like Birx, who has an office there). These portrayals are consistent with not just with other accounts — for instance, this May story Axios’s Jonathan Swan wrote headlined “Why Deborah Birx is the real power doctor,” or this March Salon hit job accusing Birx of being part of an evangelical Christian takeover of US federal public health — but with Fauci’s own quotes about Birx himself, calling her a “different species,” “more political” and himself the “skunk at the garden party.” In all these pieces, Fauci — who has survived and thrived in Washington under six presidencies — seems fated to last not six weeks in the yet-to-be-drained Swamp.

A list member writes:

The Fauci as hero thing gets even more interesting when you see the NYT deciding Birx is the anti-hero this weekend. All the people that get thrown under the bus to make sure one guy stays the hero (and yes, can’t have a hero without the he)…have seen it so many times in my career. As if she could ever have had enough power to do anything…the whole thing is just so transparently silly, but also demoralizing. I mean, who really knows what is going on, but it is clearly a blame shift to an easier target (who is undoubtedly flawed), one people are more than happy to demean.

The tragedy comes down not to data availability and the limits of scientific influence on a political process hostile to science, but to personalities, hubris and ambition and betrayal. The Times knows what will make people click.

Meanwhile since COVID-19 began, female scientists and scientists with young children have “experienced a substantial decline in time devoted to research,” according to a new commentary in Nature. Plus ça change. Disruption is as likely to cement inequity as overturn it. The room where the kids you care for are can’t be the room where science (or thought leadership) happens.

Meanwhile, in an interview the Times’ Jennifer Senior did with Fauci today, there’s this exchange:

Senior: You said it would be nicer if some things were more uniform. Like what?

Fauci: The fundamentals. Wear a mask. Avoid crowds. Close the bars. Bars are the hot spots —

Senior: But Americans have already been told this, right? And we still don’t do those things. If you were an executive for the day, what lever would you pull?

Fauci: But Jennifer, would you want me to say something that’s directly contrary to what the president is doing? That’s not helpful. Then all of a sudden you don’t hear from me for a while.

Heroism is for the historians. Tony Fauci is a great communicator, and he’s doing the work of his life right now. But in Washington, DC, you’re not relevant unless you’re in the room where it happens. As Debbie Birx knows, too: Not being there — that’s not helpful.