Editor’s Note: Paul Begala, a Democratic strategist and CNN political commentator, was a political consultant for Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign in 1992 and served as a counselor to Clinton in the White House. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his. View more opinion articles on CNN.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, one of the nation’s foremost experts on infectious diseases, has at long last reached the end of his rope. Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky was hectoring him in a congressional hearing, when he said, “You are the lead architect responsible from the government, and now 800,000 people have died.”
As Fauci began his response, stressing masks and vaccines for the umpteenth time, Paul interrupted, “and you have advocated to make it coercive and done by force, and you’ve advocated it be done by mandate.”
Rising to high moral dudgeon, Paul resorted to sarcasm: “You have advocated that your infallible opinion be dictated by law.”
Fauci had had enough. He put Paul’s attacks into context – and the context is dark.
“I have threats upon my life,” he said. “Harassment of my family, and my children, with obscene phone calls because people are lying about me.” Fauci then got into specifics, and they are chilling: “Just about three or four weeks ago, on December 21, a person was arrested who was on their way from Sacramento to Washington, DC at a speed stop in Iowa. And the police asked him where he was going. And he was going to Washington, DC to kill Dr. Fauci. And they found in his car an AR-15 and multiple magazines of ammunition, because he thinks that maybe I’m killing people.”
Now we know the threat of physical violence is real. The Capitol itself was the scene of a violent and vicious attempted insurrection on January 6, 2021. Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana was shot and grievously wounded by a gunman in 2017, and Rep. Gabby Giffords of Arizona was shot in the head at point blank range in 2011 by a man who murdered a federal judge and five others in the attack.
But Fauci took it one step further on Wednesday, offering a theory behind Paul’s attacks. He displayed screen shots he said were from one of Paul’s political websites, seeking to raise campaign donations from his attacks on Fauci.
Having been through more political song and dance than I care to recall, I think I can spot insincerity. Fauci’s response, I believe, was real. It was raw. And it was righteous.
Fauci is not infallible, but he is a dedicated public servant who has spent his long career trying to protect Americans from illness and death. He deserves tough questions, to be sure, and even criticism where warranted. But at a time when national security officials warn that, “We face an elevated threat from domestic violent extremists,” Paul seems to have crossed a line.
The fact the Rand Paul for Senate committee is raising money on a website called firefauci.org suggests that politics, rather than public health, might be part of the motivation of the junior senator from Kentucky.
The Senate has always had demagogues, liars and outliers who go too far. Fauci’s measured but heartfelt takedown should have been a Joseph Welch moment. Welch was the lawyer for the US Army when the notorious Sen. Joe McCarthy of Wisconsin was spreading hysterical chargers that communists had infiltrated the army, along with the State Department, Treasury and even the White House.
When McCarthy impugned a young lawyer from Welch’s firm, the soft-spoken, bespectacled Welch could take it no more. “Until this moment, senator,” he said, “I think I never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness.” McCarthy was stunned into silence, as Welch continued, “Have you no sense of decency?”
Not now. Paul’s rant against Fauci produced a strong and immediate condemnation from Democrat Chris Murphy of Connecticut. “Thank you, first of all, for what you do,” he said. “You shouldn’t have to put your life at risk…. And thank you for calling out this agenda for what it is: an attempt to score political points, to build a political power base around the denial of science and around personal attacks on you and your family.”
But where was the GOP condemnation of Paul? Nearly nonexistent.
To his credit, though, Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah defended Fauci. “Some of what we do [in these hearings] is performing,” he said, in an apparent reference to Paul’s attack. “And some of what we do is to become informed.”
He went on to stress his appreciation for Fauci and the other scientists who were testifying. “I do want to point out how much I personally, and I believe the great majority of the people of our country respect you individually and professionally for the work that you do. You are scientists, not politicians. Nevertheless, you are being made subject to the political whims of various political individuals, and that comes at a high cost.”
Two cheers for Romney for defending Fauci and for labeling the attacks on him as political. But I do wish he had followed through and condemned his GOP colleague the way Republicans condemned McCarthy decades ago. Perhaps that’s too much to ask in these hyper-partisan times.
Perhaps Romney has assessed that condemning Paul might have opposite effect of the censure of McCarthy; that if he were to condemn Paul the result would be a diminution of Romney’s political strength within the Trumpified GOP, while strengthening Paul even more.
That is a depressing thought, but likely accurate. So long as there is money to be raised, clicks to be earned, votes to be gained, we can expect power-hungry politicians to, well, be reckless and dangerous – even during a deadly pandemic. It seems that political decency is not as contagious as Omicron.