Moving quickly to show leadership as COVID continues its relentless march, President-elect Joe Biden turned to former FDA Commissioner David Kessler to co-chair a 13-member pandemic task force. Kessler earned his reputation as David going after Goliath when he took on Big Tobacco in the 1990s and turned the FDA into such an aggressive watchdog on public health that critics derided him as a “nanny state food Nazi” for championing standardized nutrition labels on food.
He now emerges as a lead health official at a time of widespread public skepticism about the pandemic and strong resistance to government efforts to impose social distancing and mask wearing. Getting the virus under control is Biden’s top priority, but in places with the highest number of new cases per capita, the overwhelming majority of people voted for President Trump, presumably buying into his rhetoric about having “turned the corner” on the virus.
With doubts about the constitutionality of a national mask mandate, persuasion is going to be key to the task force’s success even before Biden officially takes the reins of government. Kessler, now 69, has spent the decades since leaving the FDA in 1997 in significant health policy roles, including at the Yale School of Medicine, and he has received numerous awards and plaudits for his work on tobacco regulation and his zeal for protecting public health.
“In a good way, he’s been around,” says Leslie Dach with the advocacy group Protect Our Care. “He has judgment and relationships. To most Americans, his name recognition will be nil.” And those who do remember will be divided between seeing him as a hero fighting for good public health policy against steep odds and those who saw his zealousness then as government overreach, much as Trumpers today view efforts to impose mask wearing.
He’s been through this thicket before where personal freedom collides, or at least allegedly collides, with the public good. There are huge challenges, both around the vaccine and making sure the public is comfortable about being vaccinated, and about social distancing and wearing a mask. These issues are unsettled, and trust in a government led by Biden is at stake.
When Kessler left the FDA, his wife said “it gets wearing” the way he’d been “ripped to shreds” by his opponents and in the media. Much like Anthony Fauci today, Kessler had become an issue in the presidential race with Bob Dole, the Republican nominee in 1996, promising to fire Kessler if elected.
Kessler’s first boss, Utah Republican Orrin Hatch, joined the chorus of critics, saying his former staffer “loves publicity and seeks it.” Kessler did know how to shame the bureaucracy. In one headline-making action, he ordered 24,000 gallons seized of a particular brand of orange juice because it was labeled “fresh” when it was made from concentrate.
President George H.W. Bush appointed Kessler to head the FDA, but Republicans quickly tired of his crusading spirit and so many Democrats loved what he was doing that President Clinton kept him on after the 1992 election. Kessler built an impressive resume at what was once a moribund agency. He is credited with speeding the process of getting new drugs to the market, including life-saving drugs to combat AIDs.
With backing from Vice President Gore, whose family had grown tobacco in Tennessee, and whose sister, a smoker, had died prematurely of lung cancer, Kessler confronted the tobacco industry with regulations designed to curb smoking. "It is too easy to be swayed by the argument that tobacco is a legal product and should be treated like any other. A product that kills people—when used as intended—is different. No one should be allowed to make a profit from that," he wrote in his 2002 book, A Question of Intent: A Great American Battle with a Deadly Industry.
In a 5-4 decision in early 2000, the Supreme Court overturned the regulations, ruling they exceeded the FDA’s authority, but by then the war against tobacco was well underway from other quarters.
Given his history, it is fitting that Kessler should arrive back on the scene in a very public way in the midst of a health crisis. Jack Pitney, a professor of politics at Claremont-McKenna College, remembers the former FDA director’s crusades and says his history “gives ammunition to his critics. I expect we’ll see a lot about him on Breitbart, but to the general public, he’s not a name that has relevance. If they (task force) have sensible, workable and effective recommendations, they will be judged on that. What he said and did in the past is not going to matter to people in the middle of a pandemic where ten million people have contracted the virus.”
Kessler is once again David going up against Goliath in advocating health measures that 71 million people, judging by their votes for Trump, may see as unnecessarily constricting their freedom of movement, and their right to assemble. Kessler was controversial for going after the tobacco industry, but that’s not an issue anymore. “He is widely regarded as a gold standard-level expert,” says Matt Bennett, a co-founder of Third Way, a moderate Democrat group. “He’s what we expect of Biden to name super smart people who know what they’re talking about, as opposed to a son in law and some guy he found on the internet.”
There will be those who denounce whatever the pandemic task force comes up with as government overreach, but many millions more will welcome science-based guidelines. “Wear a mask,” Biden said when announcing the task force. “I implore you.”