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Anthony Fauci says one line from 'The Godfather' has shaped his career

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the godfather
The line "It's not personal, Sonny. It's strictly business," comes from the 1972 film "The Godfather." IMDb/Paramount Pictures
  • In a new documentary, called "Fauci," Dr. Anthony Fauci reveals that a line from the movie "The Godfather" has guided his career.

  • It's a classic quote: "It's not personal. It's strictly business."

  • See more stories on Insider's business page.

"It's not personal, Sonny. It's strictly business."

The deadpan line, delivered by a young Al Pacino in the iconic 1972 film "The Godfather," has been a guiding principle for a different type of leader: Dr. Anthony Fauci.

Fauci, an even-keeled public servant, leads the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and has served under six presidents, including Joe Biden and Donald Trump. He explains why "The Godfather" line has stuck with him in a new National Geographic documentary, titled "Fauci," which is now streaming on Disney Plus.

Dr. Anthony Fauci during an interview at the NIH in Bethesda, Maryland.
Dr. Anthony Fauci during an interview at the NIH in Bethesda, Maryland. National Geographic for Disney+/Visko Hatfield

"When someone attacks, I don't immediately fight back. That's not my style. You don't get into the fray," Fauci says in the film. "And over the years, which became decades, that became the mantra, using 'The Godfather' as the great book of philosophy: 'It's nothing person, it's strictly business.'"

trump fauci coronavirus vaccine
Anthony Fauci has served under six US presidents. AP Photo/Alex Brandon

Fauci's long tenure in Washington may be a testament to his mantra's power.

"Tony Fauci doesn't come in the Oval Office to say, 'I'm going to make you look good politically.' He's not a politician," former President George W. Bush explains in the documentary. "Tony Fauci says, 'I think we can solve this problem. Here are the facts. And here's my recommendation for a way forward.'"

joe biden anthony fauci
President Joe Biden receives a briefing from Fauci on February 11, 2021, at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz

During Fauci's 50-plus-year career, he has worked on infectious-disease threats including Ebola, Zika, and anthrax, as well as the epidemic that first put him in the crosshairs of activists in the 1980s and 1990s: HIV/AIDS.

The documentary depicts how, as deaths mounted during the HIV/AIDS crisis, Fauci met with representatives from the group Act Up to hear their concerns. The activists peppered Fauci with targeted questions about the slow pace of scientific research into HIV/AIDS treatment and accused him of causing their friends' deaths.

ACT UP
Members of the activist group Act Up march through Times Square in New York on April 6, 1992. AP Photo/Andrew Savulich

"The criticism, the hostility, it didn't really seem to faze him," David Barr, an AIDS activist, recalls in the documentary.

Peter Staley, an AIDS activist and early member of Act Up, adds: "My first impression is that we're dealing with Brooklyn here. He got a complete grilling and continued the conversation."

The documentary shows footage from those early meetings, in which Fauci responds to the accusations from Barr, Stanley, and others.

"This is where I disagree with you," Fauci told them at the time. "This is nothing personal, strictly business."

In reflecting on that moment, present-day Fauci says in the film: "We didn't agree on everything in that first meeting. But their instincts were right, and that started a series of dialogues that did not stop the demonstrations."

Fauci sits behind his desk in his office, Bethesda, Maryland, 1988.
Fauci sits behind his desk in his office in Bethesda, Maryland, 1988. Leif Skoogfors/Corbis via Getty Images

Archival footage shows what those demonstrations looked like. Protestors surrounded the NIH - Fauci's workplace - with signs and banners, shouting, "Typical day at the NIH, watching people die!" and "The NIH is lying. Women with AIDS are dying!"

"I started to feel - and my staff thought I was completely nuts - almost an affinity to them," Fauci recalls of the demonstrators.

"I started to put myself into their shoes," he adds. People with AIDS were being told they had months to live, but scientific research was expected to take years. Fauci summed up the activists' point of view about the slow pace of research as, "Thank you very much, but I'm going to be dead."

Fauci lectures former President Ronald W. Reagan (left) and other members of the President's Commission on AIDS.
Fauci lectures President Ronald Reagan (left) and other members of the President's Commission on AIDS. Photo by Diana Walker/Getty Images

The documentary also shows how Fauci brought scientists and AIDS activists together to work on clinical research and drug development, forging a patient-scientist relationship that has since extended beyond AIDS research.

In a speech Fauci gave at the time, which is depicted in the film, he said: "Activists are mistaken when they assume that scientists do not care about them. This is devastating to a physician scientist who has devoted years to AIDS research, particularly when they themselves see so many of their own patients suffering and dying. On the other hand, scientists cannot dismiss activists merely on the basis of the fact that they are not trained scientists ... We must join together."

Fauci watches footage of that speech in the documentary.

"During that speech, I'm saying something and you have the activists clap. Then then I say something, and the scientists clap. The beauty of it is that at the end of it, everybody was clapping," he says.

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