All of which is to say that, in the air for less than an hour early last November, Tony Fauci reinforced an impression I’d had from a greater distance: This influential scientist, who did not know that night he would soon become a linchpin in the nation’s fight against a novel coronavirus, has long been the antithesis of a private man. Which means that any writer setting out to produce a biography of Fauci inevitably confronts a high bar in finding a fresh way to portray his life and career. In the audiobook “Fauci,” veteran journalist Michael Specter does not soar over the bar, and it is debatable whether his work can best be termed a biography, though it contains many biographical elements. Still, Fauci’s beginnings, trajectory and redefinition of the role of government scientist are fascinating enough that most of this compact two hours and 59 minutes of listening form a worthwhile primer for the uninitiated.
More than that, the decision by Pushkin Industries — a young audio production company founded by author Malcolm Gladwell and editor Jacob Weisberg — to make Fauci the subject of its first audiobook was a genius stroke of timing. Two weeks to the day after the book’s publication, with the pandemic heading into a fall crescendo, President Trump stepped up his months of intermittent derision of Fauci, branding the decades-long director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases a “disaster.” The same day, the National Academy of Medicine awarded Fauci its first Presidential Citation for Exemplary Leadership. Talk about a man in the news.
In “Fauci” the audiobook, Specter emphasizes that he has known Fauci the man since 1986, when the scientist had been leading NIAID for about a year and the author was covering AIDS for The Washington Post. Each was attending a meeting of a Food and Drug Administration advisory committee. AIDS activist Larry Kramer was also in the room and “let loose a tirade” that included the two of them, Specter says. “Since we had just both been called Nazis, it seemed as good a time as any” for Specter to introduce himself to Fauci. It is one of many moments in the audiobook when he describes direct interactions they have had, setting up an expectation that the author is thus armed with a trove of insider-ish insights — or at least previously unrevealed anecdotes.
Looking up Spector’s bylined stories over the decades that mention Fauci, one finds that the pattern of their contact appears more sporadic than this book and its marketing material suggest. Such stories were plentiful while the journalist was covering AIDS, until he left The Post in 1991 for the New York Times, where he mentioned Fauci only twice before joining the New Yorker seven years later. Since then, Fauci appeared in five of Specter’s stories through 2012, after which his name did not surface in any of the writer’s articles until a lengthy April piece in the New Yorker that is the basis for what became the audiobook.
It is quite possible the two men continued to talk all those years, out of sight of Specter’s bylines. If that is so, it is surprising that the anecdotes that form the audiobook’s biographical material — a Yankees-loving Brooklyn boy delivering prescriptions on his Schwinn bicycle to his pharmacist father’s customers, and on from there — feel like well-worn grooves. As a Holy Cross undergraduate, Fauci worked summers on construction crews, one of which was helping to build a library at Cornell Medical College. He sneaked inside the auditorium at lunchtime, in dusty fatigue pants and dirty boots, and was asked to leave by a guard. “One of these days I am going to be a medical student at this place,” the young Fauci said. And the guard replied, “Yeah, one of these days, I’m going to be police commissioner, so get out of here.” It is a wonderful narrative moment. It also has been recounted in the medical school’s alumni magazine, a 2002 profile of Fauci in Holy Cross Magazine and the introduction of Fauci when he was the 2007 recipient of the Association of American Physicians’ George M. Kober Medal.
If many anecdotes lack originality, they are still good stories, enhanced by an audiobook’s power to give listeners the immediacy of voices. Specter’s narration is interspersed throughout with clips of Fauci speaking in various settings, as well as occasional comments from his wife, Chris Grady (who runs the National Institutes of Health Clinical Center’s bioethics department), a few other scientists and prominent AIDS activists. Much of the Fauci material is archival from publicly available sources, though Specter makes clear that they had some conversation, starting with Fauci’s Brooklyn-inflected voice saying, “Hello there, how are you, Michael?” while taking a walk with his wife. That Brooklyn accent fuels much of the narrative.
Being able to hear him firsthand is especially evocative in the richest chapters, on Fauci’s role early in the AIDS epidemic. Uncharacteristically for a federal scientist, he was willing to engage directly with activists — many of them young, gay men who were infected themselves or terrified by the deaths of friends and lovers — in Greenwich Village, San Francisco’s Castro District and demonstrations outside federal buildings. Fauci’s raw emotion comes through in an undated audio clip: “After a while you realize that it’s futile because they’re all dying, and that’s when it gets dark because you are trying to keep them alive until . . . you find out what the hell the disease is and then hopefully you do something about it. And that’s when the long journey began. We didn’t realize it was a long journey until we realized how helpless we were.”
The activists’ urgency and anger come through, too. The clips are brief, so the listener does not get a thorough immersion but rather a flavor of the desperate times. Kramer, a prime activist to whom Specter dedicates his audiobook, illuminates one of its curiosities: The book contains not a single criticism of its subject. Not even a hint of criticism. In Specter’s telling, even Fauci’s onetime antagonists, Kramer chief among them, undergo conversion experiences and become acolytes. Not long before his death in May, Kramer, who had once compared Fauci to Hitler, called him, Specter tells us, “the only true and great hero” among government officials during the early years of AIDS.
Specter himself sounds outright hagiographic. In the current pandemic, he says, “Tony Fauci has somehow become Enlightenment’s human shield.”
Nevertheless, during the book’s final chapters, Fauci fades from the foreground. After a quick tour of several other viral crises in which Fauci has been involved, Specter pivots to a tutorial on scientific advances that have led to gene editing and the profound ethical questions the technology poses. From there, he finishes by excoriating Trump for being a foe of science, and failing to heed the advice of Fauci and his other scientific advisers. “America is paying a terrible price,” Specter tells us, “for having a president who acts like a 19th-century carnival barker, riding the rails and hustling dubious elixirs.”
In landing on this point — the dreadful misguidedness of spurning scientific evidence — Specter returns to a theme that has animated his work for years, including a 2009 book, “Denialism,” in which he argues that Americans increasingly mistrust scientific institutions, at their peril. And with this framing, “Fauci” the audiobook is not quite a biography, with deep research into its subject yielding penetrating insights. Instead, it employs the remarkable career of this man of the pandemic moment to personify the side of virtue in Specter’s moral reasoning about good vs. evil.
Written and Narrated by Michael Specter
Pushkin Industries. Audiobook, available through an annual Audible subscription of $7.95 a month.