Birx had had a low-grade fever, she explained on Monday evening when she returned to the stage. So she’d stayed away. She had taken one of those elusive coronavirus tests and it came back negative. As she explained this to the small group of assembled journalists, the president stepped away from her with a wry smile at the mention of a fever. She shrugged off his move with an eye roll and a wave, the way a patient parent might deal with a rambunctious child.
Birx isn’t the only medical professional regularly in front of the television cameras. Anthony S. Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, is typically there, too. The diminutive immunologist with the gray hair and the wire-rimmed glasses usually stands next to Birx. The medical community has had a rocky relationship with the prickly president who often attempts to create his own reality rather than deal with the fact-based one. Fauci delivers the facts raw and keeps faith that they can rise above politics. Birx at least acknowledges that sometimes her audience needs a little hand-holding to choke down the truth.
Fauci has been the more public of the two doctors. He’s known for speaking the language of science, not hunches. He can be politically diplomatic — except in recent interviews when his words have suggested exasperation. He is sober but not paralyzingly grim.
In contrast, Birx comes across as more nimble at navigating the complex web of human emotions. She does so with an encouraging nod and an outstretched hand. If there is a subtext to her gestures, it’s this: “Come on now. You can do it. I have faith in you.”
Her tone is gentle but firm. From her background as a diplomat, she is skilled in soft force — the art of getting people to do what you want them to do but having them think it was their brilliant idea all along. She stands out on what was a distressingly crowded stage until it recently thinned out: Women are in the minority during these public expositions. But she’s also distinctive because of her attire.
Birx doesn’t dress like a lady politician in jewel-tone suits and statement jewelry. She doesn’t wear power dresses, those sleek sheaths that are a critical part of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s professional wardrobe. She doesn’t turn up in a white coat as if she’s there to take the nation’s collective temperature. Birx’s style can be called classically feminine when she wears her shirtwaist dresses and knots silk scarves around her shoulders. She exudes academic wonkiness with her earth tones and tunics and mufflers double-wrapped around her neck. She never looks bland or nondescript. She doesn’t look like an automaton or someone who has lost herself in the data and computer models. And in doing so, she offers a subtle but important reminder to people that while this crisis is serious and meeting it is hard, we are still human. Do not lose yourself. Be kind to yourself.
Her style could go anywhere. It’s a multitasking aesthetic, modest but sophisticated. Contemporary but not trendy. It telegraphs competence and dependability. Her style is not a statement of power. It’s more likely to call to mind the image of a school nurse than a superhero. Studious determination is going to get us out of this, not swaggering braggadocio. The heroes wear wire-rimmed glasses and silk kerchiefs.
That’s not to say that Birx doesn’t have a tremendous amount of clout. She simply doesn’t display it for all the world to see. Revealing it would, in fact, dilute it.
Birx’s style speaks to her emotional intelligence. While the regular briefings are filled with folks in suits and uniforms — clipboard types who are very good at going through the motions of competence — Birx makes one feel like she’d be the one willing to put a cool compress to a fevered brow while everyone else was backing out of the room. (And then she’d wash her hands and duly self-quarantine.)
Birx stands at the lectern as part of the president’s team, but her style sets her apart. She sometimes refers to him, but judiciously. She keeps a distance. She’s part of Trump’s ecosystem but she remains a unique organism. When she speaks, it’s not the president this or the president that. It’s all about the data, the data, the data. No one spends more time telling the public about the president’s leadership than Vice President Pence. When he steps to the microphone during briefings, he begins almost every sentence by noting that whatever action was taken, it was done “at the president’s direction.” I woke up this morning, at the president’s direction. I’m breathing in and out, at the president’s direction.
As briefings often meander past the one-hour mark and the president’s message muddles off course, one’s eyes are drawn to Birx. She’s standing there utterly composed. The only hint of uneasiness is her rapidly blinking eyes as she looks straight ahead.
She is a perfectly calibrated vision of comfort and intelligence. A consoling meditation of personable style, facts and figures.