ILLSBOROUGH, Calif. — It should have been the crowning moment of his life.
Amid the post-inaugural hubbub, Don Francis got a phone call last month from President Clinton's transition team. Would he be interested in running the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta and launching a new national battle against AIDS?
His resume seemed perfect: He was a brilliant public health doctor who had mobilized early reaction to the epidemic. A straight talker who knew how to crack heads. Someone born to put out fires and who smoldered with just enough impatience to get the job done.
But Don Francis turned them down cold.
"I'm far too angry to work in the system now, especially after what I've been through in the last 10 years," he says, staring out his front door at a steady, drenching rain. "I fought this battle as long as I possibly could, and everybody has limits. Even me."
In the long, frustrating story of America's fight against AIDS, there have been many unsung heroes. Yet few have pushed themselves--and the U.S. health-care system--as relentlessly as Francis. Like a swift kick in the face, he's never been much for subtlety. When AIDS first erupted, he was a one-man band of alarm. When politicians dragged their feet, he blew the whistle. Did it mean the end of his career? He was ready to go down swinging.
It wasn't supposed to happen this way. Francis started out in the U.S. Public Health Service 20 years ago, fighting smallpox and other infectious diseases in Africa, Asia and Europe. He never dreamed that the mere mention of his name might one day raise hackles in the White House. Or that he would quit public service because of burnout and disillusionment.
But AIDS changed him, like millions of other Americans. And with changes came enemies.
"There are lots of s.o.b.s out there who still hate me," he says with a rueful laugh. "That's because I've made some people very, very uncomfortable. Including me."
Bug-chasers don't become boat-rockers overnight, but Francis got there in a hurry. He never had much use for bureaucrats, and he didn't think twice about taking on the scientific Establishment. Although he ultimately left the CDC under fire, many of his earlier suggestions have become real today, including expanded AIDS testing, safeguards on the nation's blood supplies and early medical intervention for those infected with HIV.
His efforts have not gone unnoticed: Francis was featured prominently in "And the Band Played On," journalist Randy Shilts' scathing indictment of AIDS policy, and his story will be given star treatment in HBO's upcoming adaptation of Shilts' book. He's writing his memoirs, and there is talk of other television films as well. Beyond that, Francis hopes to parlay publicity from the HBO special into an AIDS vaccine fund-raising campaign.
But he has more than Hollywood on his mind. After leaving his CDC post in Atlanta in 1985, Francis served as the agency's liaison to California's AIDS programs through February, 1992, and he continues to work as a private consultant. He helped develop San Francisco's pioneering response to the epidemic, and he's also lobbied Congress to pass AIDS legislation.
In the world of AIDS activists, Francis is a bona-fide legend, a man whose rage over governmental foot-dragging never diminished. To skeptics, he's a junior-grade loudmouth who never knew his place, a hustler in a lab coat with little regard for scientific truth.
Either way, he doesn't look the part.
Amiable and low-key, Francis seems younger than his 50 years, and a boyish smile blossoms on his face as he pads about his roomy Hillsborough home, south of San Francisco. These days, the man who once declared war on Washington mutters about garden plants and a pet parrot who screeches inconsolably in her cage. Dressed in deck shoes, khaki pants and sweater, he welcomes visitors with the breezy bonhomie of a successful Bay Area physician.
But all that can change in a second. Get Francis talking about AIDS and his jaw tightens. He becomes visibly tense, recalling battles with politicians whose hatred of homosexuals outweighed their duty to save lives.
At one point, he starts pounding the table and obscenities pour out--crude, pointed jabs that hit their mark.
"If I've learned anything," he says curtly, "it's that there are really bad, truly evil people in the world. I didn't used to believe that. I wanted to believe that you could simply do your work as a doctor and nobody would mess with you. But I was dead wrong."
Leaning forward, Francis shakes a finger at those who stood in his way, recalling their presence and lashing them with invective. It's easy to see how he fought the AIDS wars--and why he couldn't go on forever. Even if it meant turning down the job of his life.