Let’s face it: Virtual galas just aren’t the same thing as the real deal. But they’ve become clever workarounds as everyone adjusts to our new pandemic “normal.”
Of course, it helps if you have big-name headliners to draw people to their computer screens. It helps even more if that headliner is the most recognizable face in the fight against the coronavirus.
Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, was this year’s honoree at the National Italian-American Foundation’s 45th anniversary gala. The online event drew thousands of viewers during its Oct. 31 live-stream.
The National Italian-American Foundation (NIAF) has never had a problem booking celebrity guests for its annual gala. This year’s roster included Robert De Niro, Andrea Bocelli, Francis Ford Coppola, Al Pacino, Michael Douglas, Lidia Bastianich and Bono, among many others.
But Fauci’s fame is far more consequential.
He’s become one of the most consistent, trusted voices throughout the pandemic — a world-renown immunologist who hasn’t shied away from the hard truths of a disease that has claimed the lives of over 275,000 Americans, and counting.
He’s offered hopeful words about the recent vaccine breakthroughs, tempered by brutal honesty about the tough months that still lie ahead.
But the NIAF gala gave people a more personal look at the man behind the lab coat — or, more accurately, the suit and tie he now wears on countless TV appearances.
Fauci’s Italian heritage is usually on full display during those appearances thanks to his signature gravely New York accent.
He spoke affectionately about growing up in Brooklyn and how it influenced not only his career, but his general outlook on life.
“If you want to be successful in addressing and ultimately conquering this terrible outbreak, you’ve got to be honest, you’ve got to be clear, you’ve got to be consistent, you’ve got to be trustworthy” — all traits that he said were intrinsic to his Italian-American upbringing.
“You always backed up your friends and the people who cared about you,” Fauci told Patricia de Stacy Harrison, president and CEO of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, during his one-on-one interview that aired during the gala.
“You would never betray a friend. You would never be dishonest with somebody. You would always be reliable…. That was not something that you had to go to school to learn. It was a given part of the culture,” he said.
(An avid baseball fan, Fauci has committed one minor betrayal, switching his allegiance from the New York Yankees to the Washington Nationals, and was rewarded for it by throwing out the first pitch for the team this summer.)
Family, of course, is also a big part of Italian culture. Fauci — whose grandparents immigrated to the U.S. from Italy in the 19th century — described his native Brooklyn as his “extended family.”
“Literally the family was the neighborhood,” he said, recalling how safe it was for kids to walk to school because all of the shopkeepers and neighbors would keep an eye out on them.
“So that had a great influence on me because I have always been a people person, caring about people. And that was one of the things that drove me into medicine as a profession,” he said. “[E]ver since I was a child, as long as I could possibly remember, it was always people caring about each other. And that is the hallmark of the Italian-American experience.”
That experience was embodied by Fauci’s father, a pharmacist whom he described as a “non-materialistic, public service-type of person.”
Fauci recalled that when people couldn’t afford the medications at his father’s drugstore, “he would essentially give it to them for free.”
“Go to your Walgreens or your CVS and try to walk out without paying for your prescription. See how far you get,” Fauci quipped. “But he used to do that all the time. So we didn’t make a lot of money at all. We just had enough to get along.”
Fauci — who used to deliver his father’s prescriptions on his bike — paid for college entirely through scholarships. He credits his parents, along with his schooling at a Jesuit college, for teaching him “the spirit of service and intellectual rigor.”
Those traits have propelled Fauci’s decades-long career, which began in 1968 when he joined the National Institutes of Health. In 1984, he became director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), a position he holds to this day.
Over the last 36 years, he has advised six presidents — likely to be seven, with Joe Biden recently asking Fauci to be his chief medical advisor — and has overseen research on infectious diseases such as HIV/AIDS, respiratory infections, diarrheal diseases, tuberculosis and malaria, as well as emerging diseases such as Ebola and Zika.
So while the coronavirus pandemic has consumed him over the past year, it’s hardly the first crisis he’s faced.
And throughout each crisis, Fauci said his wife Christine, a nurse and bioethicist, and their three daughters have been “amazingly supportive of the unusual lifestyle that I had to develop because of the demands on my time during crisis, after crisis, after crisis.”
“During their young years, the major crisis was HIV, which I was devoted to. But then remember we also had 9/11 and that was followed by the anthrax attacks,” he pointed out. “So for them, crisis management and crisis response was part of everyday living.”
That included family dinners.
“The one thing that has always been sacrosanct in Italian-American families [is] that you sit down with the family together at dinner. We couldn’t do that at 5, 6, 7 or 8 o’clock because of my schedule, but they adjusted perfectly well [to eating late at night].”
Fauci admitted that the pandemic has taken a personal toll on him but said that the sheer unrelenting magnitude of the crisis is what sustains him.
“The end is not necessarily in sight of [this] historic pandemic, the likes of which we haven’t seen in 102 years, since 1918,” he said, referring to the Spanish flu. “So getting worn out, getting burned out, getting too tired to go any further is not an option. It’s just not in the cards. No matter how many hours you work, no matter how worn out you feel, you’ve just got to keep going.”
He had the same advice for Americans exhausted by the pandemic as he urged them not to let their guards down, especially with the likely surge of COVID-19 cases this winter.
“The entire country I think has enough resiliency that after a while — and I hope it’s a short while — people will get back to the optimism and the hope that has been so characteristic of our country, and not the despair that seems to be settling in now,” he said.
Speaking specifically to young people frustrated by having to put their lives on hold, Fauci reminded them that “there will be an end to this.”
“Just hang in there, do the kind of things you need to do. Stick together, work this out together, and we’ll be fine.”
Anna Gawel (@diplomatnews) is the managing editor of The Washington Diplomat.