Verbum Ultimum: Not Our Finest

Alex Azar '88’s service in the Trump administration is nothing to admire.

by The Dartmouth Editorial Board | 1/22/21 2:00am

From Daniel Webster, Class of 1801, onward, many Dartmouth alumni have gone on to serve in prominent public service roles. Alex Azar '88, the former Secretary of Health and Human Services under the Trump administration, is certainly one of them. But prominence and power do not mean admirability; Azar stepped down from his post earlier this week with the entrance of the Biden administration, ending four years of controversial health care policy.

The previous administration deserves severe criticism for its handling of the pandemic, a botched effort that left more than 400,000 Americans and counting dead. Azar played a key role in the Trump administration’s response to the pandemic, even chairing the White House Coronavirus Task Force before former Vice President Mike Pence assumed the role. Of course, good, responsible actors may “work from the inside” to improve a bad situation — but Azar, unfortunately, was not among their ranks. Particularly during the crucial early months of the pandemic, Azar’s missteps left the country vulnerable.

After Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, alerted Azar on Jan. 3, 2020 about the dangers of the virus, Azar failed to brief the president until weeks later. On Feb. 25, when director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases at the CDC Nancy Messonnier warned of the potential for a pandemic in the U.S., Azar told reporters the virus was contained.

After news outlets began to pick up on the errors committed in the administration’s early COVID-19 response, Pence abruptly replaced Azar as head of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, a move many interpreted as Trump sidelining Azar. Still, as late as this October — when over 200,000 Americans had died of COVID-19 — Azar was defending the administration’s response, which he said entailed “aggressive, unprecedented, historic steps for which we were criticized every step of the way.”

Azar's indefensible policymaking as HHS Secretary did not begin with the emergence of COVID-19 — Trump’s nomination of Azar drew criticism from the beginning. Azar was the former president of the U.S. division of Eli Lilly and Company, a major pharmaceutical firm — many saw Azar’s background as a conflict of interest for a position that involves regulating the pharmaceutical industry. Unsurprisingly, Azar failed to bring down the price of prescription drugs during his tenure. 

While Azar holds a degree from the College and served in a high-profile and powerful position, this should not merit him praise from Dartmouth. 

Dartmouth’s own mission statement reads that the College “prepares [students] for a lifetime of learning and of responsible leadership.” Azar was no leader, nor did he show responsibility when entrusted with a high-ranking government position. Instead, he made decisions that cost hundreds of thousands of American lives. 

We ought to look beyond headlines and powerful names and celebrate the real leaders within our alumni body.

The editorial board consists of opinion staff columnists, the opinion editors, the executive editors and the editor-in-chief.

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