The name they were expecting was that of Dr. Anthony Fauci, currently the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at NIH. “We’ve been told for months that Fauci was their guy,” says the committee staffer. “Zerhouni appears to be a fine choice. He just wasn’t the name we’d been hearing.”
Fauci is best known for his active role in the debate over HIV and AIDS in the mid- to late-1980s. He spearheaded a national debate and became a lightning rod for AIDS activists who didn’t believe the federal government was doing enough. Fauci’s blunt personality and political style didn’t please everyone, particularly conservatives in the Reagan and first Bush administrations. “He didn’t make anyone happy, which was probably a good sign,” says a former colleague of Fauci’s at NIH. “But he did a great job raising awareness of infectious diseases, and he’s continued to do a great job there.”
It’s unclear why Fauci didn’t get the head NIH job. Indications are he was at the top of the Bush administration’s list of nominees before September 11, and that the job was offered to him at least once. He turned it down.
After September 11, Fauci is said to have butted heads with Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson, particularly over the department’s preparedness to handle a smallpox epidemic. “Thompson didn’t know what the hell he was talking about,” says a current HHS staffer. “He was scaring people, talking off the top of his head. Then Fauci had to clean up the mess. It was awkward.”
Thompson is said to have strongly opposed a Fauci nomination since. “It wasn’t just the arguments over smallpox,” the HHS source says. “Thompson had some serious concerns about Fauci’s position on stem-cell research and fetal tissue research. It isn’t clear that Fauci would have fully supported the administration position on both.”
Zerhouni appears to back Bush’s position on both hot buttons, and when Fauci became too hot to handle, was the next pick. “Conservatives should be happy with this one,” says a White House legislative affairs staffer. “The Hill seems happy, we’ve been told he’s a slam dunk for confirmation.”
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