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Transcript: Michael Lewis on "Face the Nation"

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The following is a transcript of an interview with author Michael Lewis that aired Sunday, May 9, 2021, on "Face the Nation.

JOHN DICKERSON: And we go now to Michael Lewis, author of a new book, "The Premonition: A Pandemic Story." He joins us from Berkeley, California. Good morning, Michael. 

MICHAEL LEWIS: Morning, JOHN.

JOHN DICKERSON: I want to start with a quote from Bill Parcells, the NFL football coach. "You are what your record says you are." You quote that in the book to explain your view about the American record on the coronavirus. Why is that quote important?

LEWIS: It's important, I mean, the starting point for this book is, look, we were sitting at a little more than 4% of the world's population with 20% of the world's deaths. And before the season, before the pandemic, we were- we were- we were rated by experts as most prepared for this sort of risk. And- and- but the games get played. And as Bill Parcells said after a losing season, you know, you can make all kinds of excuses. You can point fingers at whoever you want to point fingers at. All of it is avoiding looking in the mirror because you are who- who- you are, what your record says you are. And our record- our record is appalling. I mean, what we did is appalling and reflects kind of a deep negligence of our own population.

JOHN DICKERSON: And you went into this project looking for the roots of that negligence and you chose a number of different characters to illuminate some- something. What were you trying to illuminate?

LEWIS: A system. Like the system that- I was really worried because of work I'd done previously, "The Fifth Risk", the book I'd written about the federal government that the take away was from this whole event was like with a losing sports team was going to be let's point the finger at the quarterback or the coach or whoever. And people would think, oh, if we just change the- if we just change a person or two here, it's going to be- that it's going to it's all going to be better. When, in fact, the characters in the story that I tell you could tell by the shape of their frustration, I mean, they're these extraordinary people who have gone to unbelievable lengths with a kind of obsession to prevent just this thing from happening that- that you can tell by how they fail what's- that this is a bigger problem. You've got- we've got these systematic things that we need to address.

JOHN DICKERSON: And one of the big things you identify as a systematic problem is that the people who know don't- aren't able to get their information into the heads of the people who can act, either because they're not heard or because they're not listened to.

LEWIS: That's part of it. That's part of it. I mean, we had- we had, you know, very persuasive evidence. Carter Mecher, one of the main characters in the book, could have sat you down on January the 20th and persuaded you really pretty quickly that we were going- that what would happen was going to happen. And that's- that's a month before the Centers for Disease Control acknowledges that, you know, this is a risk- a risk to American lives. And in that month, you know, the delay of the response cost thousands and thousands of lives. So- so part of it is- part of it is that. It's like- it's like, yes, the wrong people are being listened to. But part of it is like the system was designed for them not- never to get there, that that we have built, especially at the federal level, a government that operates in a defensive crouch and that punishes risk taking and punishes error mercilessly, but doesn't punish inaction in the same way. And- and- and- so- so anybody who's- who's got, you know, wisdom, news, insight that that implies action and implies taking some risk is naturally going to be shunned because that because the government really doesn't want to do that.

JOHN DICKERSON: And I want to stay with- linger, on- on this important point that you're making, what your characters all have is that kind of risk-taking muscle. They've been in this fight for their whole careers. They can see things. They have, title of the book, a premonition because it's informed. And yet the political instinct in politics, which is to say in- in- in an administration, is at odds with that. Is that- is that a fair way to think about this?

LEWIS: It's totally a fair way to think about it. And then you think about, well, what does that mean? Right? I mean, what does it mean, especially when you're facing this sort of risk and- and a disease risk requires you to get out in front of it in- in ways that are just kind of unnatural to the to- the structures we have. Because by the time you have, like, proof like by the time you have data that this is a deadly thing that's going to kill hundreds of thousands of Americans. It's- it's too late. The disease is moving among you. You have- you have almost to be clairvoyant and you have to do things and explain to people why you're doing them, which don't seem obvious, that- you know, that- that- that- yeah, there's this thing in Wuhan but actually, it's effectively here. And so- so that it's true. All my characters, the three people at the center of this book, I mean, they're amazing people, but they all have they'd prefer to commit a sin of commission than a sin of omission. They'd prefer- they'd prefer- they- they default to action.

JOHN DICKERSON: And I want to go back to a point you were making earlier, which is if it's a systemic problem, then blaming Donald Trump, which is what you're hinting at earlier, actually is an impediment to improving systems so that they'll be able to handle another one of these.

LEWIS: Yes, so I don't want to let Donald Trump off the hook. I mean, that's not really the point, but the point is that no matter how you feel about him, even if you despise him, if you- if your mind comes to rest at, oh, it was all his fault, we are never going to address the underlying problem that actually- actually drove our response. And we are never going to- we're going to be- we're going to be similarly at risk the next time this happens. And I tell you, every single one of the characters in the book make a very persuasive case that this was a dry run, that this could have been much worse, that- that it could have killed children, it could have been more lethal. And that- and that we're- we're just fools if we think this isn't going to happen again. So- so to just point a finger, it's like a losing football team, to point a finger at a single person involved and say that's why we lost, that's catastrophic. It's not- it's not how you fix the team, right?

JOHN DICKERSON: That's right, Michael, we are- we are out of time. We really appreciate it. Thank you so much for being with us. And this programming note, former first lady Michelle Obama sits down with Gayle King for an exclusive interview tomorrow on CBS This Morning.

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