With help from “Saturday Night Live,” Dr. Anthony Fauci has secured his place in coronavirus history as a great American hero who puts truth and science ahead of President Trump. Now, what about Dr. Deborah Birx?
She could be America’s “shero” — a woman of intelligence and grace, admired for her courage and honesty during the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead, she runs the risk of parody, as long as she drapes herself in a Trump-pleasing scarf of scientific denial.
Birx knows idiocy when she hears it. Her face showed that when Trump started babbling about injecting disinfectant or UV light into the human body as a way to fight the coronavirus. Yet she still chose to defend him, telling CNN’s Jake Tapper the president was having “a dialogue.” And what really bothered her wasn’t the craziness of that dialogue but the media focus on it.
Why would a smart woman defend the indefensible? According to Politico, Birx could be in the running as Trump’s choice to replace Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar. She’s also said to be playing an important, behind-the-scenes role in guiding Trump toward some semblance of pandemic policy sanity. Birx is reportedly the one who persuaded Trump to express misgivings about Governor Brian Kemp’s decision to open up Georgia for business.
Is that worth the damage to reputation? That’s what Birx will have to decide — and soon.
Around the world, female political leaders have drawn praise as voices of reason in the face of male bluster. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand quickly shut down the borders and ordered an early lockdown of her country. In Norway, Prime Minister Erna Solberg also took early decisive action. Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, a scientist by training, delivered a public address that rallied that country around the tough but necessary choices she said it had to make to fight the coronavirus.
In this country, Trump alternates between stoking the partisan divide, baiting the press, and offering up scary dollops of gibberish, like he did when he mused about the potential for injecting disinfectants to fight COVID-19. Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who, like Birx, is on the White House coronavirus task force, has been the medical expert most willing to stand up to Trump. But last week, Fauci was largely absent from the daily briefings, and there’s constant speculation that Trump will permanently sideline him.
The ode to Fauci on “SNL” certainly won’t help his standing with the president. The skit included this line from Brad Pitt, as Fauci: “I’m going to be there, putting out the facts for whoever’s listening. And when I hear things like ‘the virus can be cured if everyone takes the Tide pod challenge,’ I’ll be there to say, ‘Please don’t.’ ” Given that the makers of Lysol felt compelled to warn the public against internal consumption of their product, the joke is almost too close to reality to be funny.
It was Birx who was called to answer for Trump’s wild musings on Sunday. In her CNN appearance, you could see the struggle between science and the desire to please the president. As she told Tapper, what bothers her about the focus on Trump’s musings is that “we’re missing the bigger pieces of what we need to be doing, as an American people, to continue to protect one another.” Yet, as Tapper pointed out, “the source of the misinformation is not the news media.” It’s Trump.
For the most part, Birx is the woman in the now-trademark artfully draped scarf, who presents scientific information that makes Trump look somewhat sane and informed. But even in that role, she’s not immune from badgering. When Birx was presenting slides that showed COVID-19 deaths per capita — including a figure from China, displayed with an asterisk — he rudely interrupted her, saying, “Excuse me, does anybody really believe that number?” In response, she coolly explained she put the number on the chart to show how unrealistic it could be.
Can she go further than that and survive? By sticking with Trump, not science, she has nothing to lose — except more of her credibility.