November 30, 2023 –In an interview with the BBC, America’s former top doctor shares how he navigated polarising conversations with seven US presidents – and what life is like now.
Anthony Fauci made his mark in medicine for nearly four decades at the US’ National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), but rocketed onto the world stage – and became an accidental celebrity – when he joined the White House Coronavirus Task Force in January 2020.
His high-profile tenure, at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, was polarising; appearing as the face and voice to the American public, Fauci received both praise and critical backlash from political factions across the country. Yet Fauci is more than just a figurehead of political divide.
From Georgetown University in Washington, DC, the 82-year-old talks with author and BBC special correspondent Katty Kay on Influential, her unscripted interview series, where she has hosted in-depth conversations with actor Wendell Pierce, on his time on Suits alongside Meghan Markle, and joined Ina Garten in her bespoke barn test kitchen to discuss how young people mythologise her cooking.
Fauci grew up in the Brooklyn, New York, neighbourhood of Dyker Heights, where his father owned a pharmacy. At university, Fauci didn’t pursue science until partway through, instead studying Greek classics, focusing on the human side of education and ancient civilisations. Once he realised he could marry science and humanity to forge a career, Fauci found his way into medicine.
For 39 years, Fauci served as the director of NIAID, working through major health epidemics including the AIDS crisis, Ebola and Covid-19. “I was really the person that articulated to the general public, the US public and ultimately the global public about what was going on and what needed to be done or not,” says Fauci, of his crucial role in the Covid-19 response.
As a top public health authority in America, he has been a highly visible presence – attracting both fans and foes, including US President Donald Trump.
“How did it happen that a public health official becomes the recipient of such divisiveness?” asks Kay.
“Anyone who observes the United States realizes that we’re living in an era of profound divisiveness,” says Fauci. “I got caught up – in my own country – having to disagree publicly with the president of the United States. I generated, on the one hand, a lot of praise on the part of people who were looking for some comfort, some realism and some sober facts about how they could protect themselves. And on the other hand, it generated an incredible amount of hostility among the extremists.”
Fauci tells Kay the narratives, lies, conspiracy theories and misinformation can make him “angry” – largely due to the negative impact it has on his family. “The attacks on me are so preposterous … You want to tell them, ‘Are you serious?’ A complete fabrication of things,” he says.
Fauci emphasises his priority has always been to bring science-based facts to the public and its leaders. His laser focus on data is his number one tool to deal with sceptics and detractors – as Kay says, it’s what enables him to “puncture the balloon of misinformation”.
“If you can get people to look at the data, and at least have a conversation with you, you can win some of them over,” says Fauci. “Far-right, far-left – there’s nothing wrong with that. That makes for a healthy, heterogeneous society. But when you use that to make very, very poor decisions when it comes to your health, it’s really disturbing.”
As a seven-time presidential advisor, Fauci has had to deliver complex, sometimes difficult news, and has often called on advice from a friend and mentor whom he worked with during the Reagan administration in the 1980s.
“He said, ‘Whenever you go into the White House and go under that awning of the West Wing to go in to see the president, you should whisper in your own ear, this may be the last time that I’m going to be walking into this building. Because you may have to tell the president an inconvenient truth they don’t like to hear, which means you may not get asked back again. So, if you’re OK with not getting asked back again, you’re going to do fine, because they’re either going to respect you, or they’re going to shoot the messenger’,” says Fauci.
Fauci maintains he’s lived by the advice, with every president whom he’s served.
“Never be afraid to tell them the cold, honest truth,” he says. “I did that with Reagan. And I did that with George HW Bush. And I did that with Clinton and George W Bush, and Obama, and Trump and now with Biden. It’s always a little bit different. But it always needs to be driven by being honest and clear and articulate in what you’re saying to them, and not being afraid to disappoint them. And for the most part, that worked.”
Amid the stress and importance of his years in public health, Fauci emphasises how dangerous it can be to not take care of yourself under pressure.
Reflecting on his early career during the AIDS/HIV epidemic, he says, “Those first years for me as a physician were the dark years of my professional life, but also the dark years of my life, because I lived it – 18 hours a day of people, young, otherwise vigorous men who you got to know and like and love, coming in essentially all of them dying. That was a very, very difficult experience to have. I mean, I still have a little bit of post-traumatic stress when I think about those years.”
His personal views have evolved in step. Walking by the church where Fauci and his wife, bioethicist Christine Grady, were married, Kay asks how his views on religion have changed.
“My own personal ethics on life are enough to keep me going on the right path, and I think there are enough negative aspects about the organisational Church that you are very well aware of,” says Fauci. “I’m not against it. I identify as a Catholic, I was raised, baptised and married in a Catholic Church, but as far as practicing, it seems almost like a proforma thing that I don’t really need to do.”
Now, on the other side of his leading role on the world stage in US government, Fauci is forging a new path. Still, he is doing so as a very public figure.
For instance, in 2020, People magazine nominated him as the ‘Sexiest Man Alive’, highlighting the septuagenarian in a poolside photoshoot for InStyle Magazine. Fauci exercises every day – “mostly power walking”, but also “a lot of marathons and 10Ks” in the past – yet the title was “not something I aspired to”, he says, with a laugh.
Fauci still isn’t used to having such a public profile. “I can’t go up to the corner and grab toothpaste in the Walgreens unless somebody comes with – my wife is particularly disturbed by the lack of privacy,” he explains, as he walks alongside Kay.
In June this year, Fauci stepped into another position among the faculty at Georgetown University as a distinguished professor in the School of Medicine. Leaning out of the spotlight has felt like a relief, he tells Kay.
And Fauci knows he has more work to do. “What do I want to do for the last five or more years? I think it was a clear answer [is] to maybe serve as an inspiration to young people.”
Kay’s conversation with Facui is the third in her revealing, nine-part interview series. New episodes premiere every Thursday at 10:30 p.m. ET on the BBC News channel, and will be available the following day on the BBC News YouTube channel. An audio version will be available wherever you get your podcasts.