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tv   60 Minutes  CBS  February 28, 2021 7:00pm-8:01pm PST

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( ticking ) >> the biden administration has made progress on vaccine distribution over the past month but millions of americans still can't get their shots. it's up to the president's new coronavirus task force coordinator to make that happen. >> we're going to accelerate on supply, accelerate on number of vaccinators, accelerate and increase the number of places that people can get vaccinated because it is a national emergency. ( ticking ) >> it was the largest ballistic
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missile attack ever against american forces... ( explosion ) >> ...iran launched 16 missiles, carrying warheads weighing more than a thousand pounds, at u.s. troops in iraq. >> stay right here bro. don't move. >> tonight, that story as told by the men and women who survived it. >> words can't even describe the amount of energy that is released by these, these missiles. ( ticking ) >> colson whitehead has won the pulitzer prize for fiction, twice. his works have range, to say the least; from the jim crow south to zombie hunters. do you write for yourself or do you write for the audience? >> really for me, which sounds very selfish. should i have written a zombie novel? it made perfect sense to me. i grew up loving horror movies and then horror fiction. is that something i should be doing as a literary author? i don't know. and there's no handbook. (laughter) you know? ( ticking ) >> i'm lesley stahl. >> i'm bill whitaker. >> i'm anderson cooper.
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progressive can't save you from becoming your parents, but we can save you money when you bundle home and auto with us. no fussin', no cussin', and no -- >> whitaker: this weekend marks the addition of a third covid-19 vaccine to america's arsenal against the pandemic. johnson & johnson's one-dose inoculation joins pfizer and moderna's two-dose vaccines for
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use in the united states. as impressive as the scientific advancements have been, getting shots into people's arms has been plagued by bad weather, bad logistics, and bad information. the biden administration's coronavirus coordinator jeff zients, in his first television interview since taking the job, tells us there has been real progress over the past month on vaccine distribution. but with just over 50 million vaccine doses given since president biden took office, the american public still needs patience. >> jeff zients: we hit a grim milestone on monday. 500,000 people have died from covid in the u.s. and everyone's life has been impacted. you know, too many businesses and schools are no longer open. so this is a national emergency, a war.
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>> whitaker: president biden said the other day that the rollout was a mess when you took office. what was the situation you inherited? >> zients: i want to start by giving credit where credit is due, which is to the scientists and the researchers and the people who participated in the clinical trials. it enabled us to have two vaccines ready in really a record-period of time and these two vaccines are very effective. so that was the good news. the bad news is there really was no plan to ramp up the supply of those vaccines. so there wasn't enough vaccine. there were not enough vaccinators, people actually take vaccine and turn it into vaccinations by putting needles into arms. and then third there just were not enough places for people to get vaccinated. there was no comprehensive plan or strategy... >> whitaker: when you came into office. >> zients: when we came into office. >> whitaker: but once you step into the office, this becomes yours. >> zients: right. this is absolutely ours. and president biden, within the
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first couple of weeks, secured enough vaccines that by july 31, there's enough to vaccinate 300 million americans. >> whitaker: people are scared. this is life or death for many people. and i think many americans think that things aren't moving fast enough >> zients: well i think that's a fair feeling this is life and death. we need to make sure that every day we're getting more and more people vaccinated, we're increasing the supply, we're increasing the number of vaccinations, we're increasing the places where people can go. so i understand the frustration. and we're doing all we can to move as fast as we can. >> whitaker: jeff zients fixed the bungled rollout of the obamacare website in 2013. now he's tasked with fixing this vaccine rollout. as part of the plan, the administration has opened seven of 18 mass fema vaccination sites, supported more than 400 smaller vaccine centers across the country and has approved
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distribution of vaccine through pharmacies, targeting under- served communities. >> travis gayles: i think from a federal perspective, there has been significant improvements. they actually have a plan now. this is a vaccine center. >> whitaker: dr. travis gayles is the chief public health officer for montgomery county, maryland, the most populous in the state and one of the most diverse, right next door to washington, d.c. >> calling from montgomery county health department. >> whitaker: according to c.d.c. data, maryland ranks near the bottom when it comes to getting vaccine in people's arms. >> tomorrow looks like it is probably full. >> whitaker: the state's most recent weekly allotment shot up to 118,000 doses-- an increase of 55% since the start of the biden administration. even so, dr. gayles says demand far outstrips supply. >> gayles: for example, we have over 72,000 individuals who are over the age of 75 in montgomery county. we're receiving as a local health department a weekly
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allotment of 4,500 doses. >> whitaker: how do you feel about that? >> gayles: extremely frustrated and exhausted. >> whitaker: his department, he told us, is focused on inoculating the most vulnerable and under-served communities hit hard by covid, but he's having to "prioritize." by that he means identifying the neediest of the needy for the life-saving shot. >> you're ready? one, two, three. >> whitaker: dr. gayles told us he simply needs more vaccine. >> whitaker: do you have the infrastructure to handle a surge of doses? >> gayles: there you are. >> whitaker: you can... you can handle... >> gayles: the capaci... >> gayles: the capacity where we're set right now, these sites could probably double at least the number of doses that they put out, given an increase in supply. >> whitaker: with the new johnson & johnson vaccine granted emergency use authorization yesterday, millions more doses are being added to the national supply-- about four million ready to ship
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as soon as this week. but that's just one-third of what the company had contracted to deliver by this point. johnson & johnson blamed the complexities of manufacturing a new vaccine. the company uses emergent biosolutions in baltimore to turn its proprietary formula into doses of vaccine. >> whitaker: how many employees do you have working on this vaccine? >> sean kirk: so we've got about 350 here and probably another 100 supporting them remotely. >> whitaker: sean kirk is the executive vice president in charge of manufacturing. he admitted facing obstacles ramping up production, but he insists they will meet their contracted goal of 100 million doses by july. the federal government is calling on the companies to produce more. are you able to do that? >> kirk: the question of more capacity, i certainly understand it. i mean, i'm a husband, i'm a father, right? i want to reopen schools. i want to get everyone vaccinated as quickly as possible. but there are practical challenges to doing that overnight. >> whitaker: what are those challenges?
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>> kirk: well, it's not like flipping a switch. you know, we build safety into our manufacturing processes from the beginning. we have controls, we have procedures, we have testing. all of that is very complicated, very complex. we're not manufacturing simple items here, we're manufacturing complex biologics. and the concerted effort, the choreography if-if you will, and the time it takes to ramp that up, it just simply takes time. >> whitaker: to accelerate the process, the biden administration, like the trump administration, invoked the defense production act and forced suppliers to make vaccine manufacturers their top priority. pfizer c.e.o. albert bourla says his company was able to increase its production by 20%. >> albert bourla: we are on track to provide to the u.s. government a total of 120 million doses by the end of march, and to reach 200 million doses released by the end of may, two months ahead of the original schedule of that milestone. >> whitaker: moderna says it will deliver its promised 300
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million doses by july, two months early. the rna-based vaccines of pfizer and moderna are the first of their kind. the process to speed up the manufacture of the rna also pushes the boundaries of bioengineering. >> jason kelly: the scope of the challenge of manufacturing a new type of vaccine on this time scale, you know, it... it's just... you know, it's a moonshot kind of challenge. >> whitaker: jason kelly is co- founder and c.e.o. of ginkgo bioworks in boston. it is helping squeeze more rna out of the manufacturing process. the rna instructs your cells to produce proteins that trigger your body to fight the virus. jason kelly told us the technology is so new there was no infrastructure to produce billions of doses for the world. >> kelly: and so suddenly, we have this new class of medicine. and we just have never made it at a big scale before. so everybody started working on all parts of that problem to try
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to fix it. we're happy to do our-our small piece of it and-and try to scale that up. >> whitaker: the company bioengineers bacteria to produce dna and enzymes, the ingredients to generate rna for the vaccine. ginkgo's master stroke was to figure out how to manipulate bacteria to make more of those key ingredients-- much more. >> whitaker: so how much more are you able to make? >> kelly: for example, for the optimization project we did earlier this year, we roughly tripled the amount that we could get out in-in a tank from the starting process. >> whitaker: so is th... >> kelly: and that's typical. but something like ten times or 50 times. so ten or 50 times more would be what we'd try to hit. >> whitaker: but hold on-- did i hear you right though? you said ten to 50 times more by... >> kelly: yeah. >> whitaker: ...manipulating the enzymes? >> kelly: by changing the dna of the bacteria. yeah. >> whitaker: so that's-that's, like, ten or 50 more plants that don't have to be built? >> kelly: that's exactly the idea. >> whitaker: while jason kelly is optimistic about the future
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supply of vaccine, dr. travis gayles on the frontline in montgomery county, maryland, is less upbeat. he told us those most likely to get covid-19-- the county's black, brown and poor residents- - are least likely to get inoculated. and he says that inequity can't be explained away solely by community hesitance to the vaccine. >> gayles: as a public health official, one of the most frustrating things for me is that many of the disparities that we're seeing play out in covid were longstanding health disparities that have been in place for decades. and then i feel like we forget about it again, because, when we're rolling out vaccines, it's as if we haven't, we didn't learn anything from that. >> whitaker: how are you addressing it? >> gayles: it's going to take all of us working together to ensure that those disparities that we saw pre-covid and those disparities that we saw in terms of covid cases don't play out yet again in the vaccine
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distribution process. >> whitaker: to ease that process, becky taylor and her crew of seven other public school teachers in montgomery county are helping people navigate the confusing network of online vaccine appointment sites. >> taylor: we call ourselves the vaccine hunters. >> whitaker: the vaccine hunters? >> taylor: yup. nice... >> whitaker: similar groups are popping up all over the country. for taylor, a light bulb went off when she had a difficult time registering for her own vaccine. it took her a week. she realized seniors might be having an even harder time. so she and a friend decided to use their teaching skills and instruct people through a facebook page. >> taylor: and in a matter of three or four days, we had over 600 people that had signed up. and we were shocked and overwhelmed at the number of people that were feeling so desperate that they needed help. >> whitaker: what are some of the things people have said to you when they finally get to you? >> taylor: you know, there was one person that reached out that said her father was 94 years old
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and had a litany of health issues. and she even said "he's on borrowed time already. i don't want to lose him before we're able to get a vaccine." >> whitaker: and they turn to you. >> taylor: right. to eight teachers to solve their problem because, you know, teachers, we get things done. >> whitaker: they got the state to fix translation errors in a spanish language signup site, they're advocating for a mass vaccination site in montgomery county, and they continue to help people like 76 year old retired nurse nancy hart. we caught up with her this past week when she got her second shot. now she has a shot at getting back to normal life. >> all done. >> hart: thank you so much. >> thank you. >> hart: nice to meet you. >> nice to meet you too. >> whitaker: americans watching this are wondering when am i going to be able to get my shot? >> zients: well, we're picking up the pace of vaccinations. it's doubled in our first month.
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people over 75, nearly 60% of them have received at least their first shot. that was only 14% five weeks ago. people over 65, almost half have received their first shot. that was eight percent six weeks ago. but there's a long way to go. and we need to make sure that as fast as possible and as equitably as possible we are able to vaccinate all americans. ( ticking ) the lowewest mortgagage rate and chose amerisave. the one choice she'll never regret... ...unlike buying a do-it-yourself orthodonontics kit..... .....or marryiying eddie.... ...who doeoes all the e electrl work i in their hohome... ...w.which is alalso haunted by a a trapper n named trevo. boo. dude! but now sarah's working with amerisave and will be saving money for years to come. way to turn it around, sarah. visit now.
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bankining and live booookkeeping.. ( ticking ) >> whitaker: now, david martin on assignment for "60 minutes." >> david martin: the u.s. air strike against iranian-backed militias thursday night was the latest chapter in the poisonous relationship with iran president biden inherited from the trump administration.
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13 months ago the two countries came perilously close to war. it began with an american drone strike which killed iran's most powerful general and ended with an iranian ballistic missile attack against u.s. troops in iraq. it was the largest ballistic missile attack ever against americans. tonight we will show you for the first time drone video of the attack and talk to the troops who were there the night the u.s. and iran went to the brink. >> alan johnson: hey buddy. if you're seeing this video some bad things happened to dad last night. so i need you to be strong, okay, for mom. and just always know in your heart that i love you, okay. bye buddy. >> martin: a few hours after army major alan johnson recorded that message to his son, iranian ballistic missiles began raining
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down on al asad airbase in iraq where 2000 u.s. troops were based. as a drone recorded the attack, americans caught in the crosshairs could do nothing but run or duck and cover. ( explosion ) >> holy ( bleep )! >> martin: each missile carried a warhead weighing more than 1,000 pounds. >> stay right here bro, don't move. >> johnson: well, words can't even describe the amount of energy that is released by these, these missiles. >> martin: johnson was taking cover in a bunker designed to protect troops against much smaller warheads weighing only 60 pounds. >> johnson: knocked the wind out of me followed by the most putrid tasting ammonia tasting dust that swept through the bunker coated your teeth. >> martin: after the blast wave and debris came the flames. >> johnson: the fire was just rolling over the bunkers, you know, like 70 feet in the air. >> martin: johnson's bunker provided no protection from that. >> johnson: we're going to burn
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to death. we start heading down 135 meters, make it about a third of the way there, the big voice we call it, clicks in, "incoming, incoming, take cover, take cover, take cover." i've got another football field to run. i don't know when this next missile's going to hit. >> martin: can you hear the incoming? >> johnson: like a freight train going by you. >> martin: johnson wasn't the only one frantically searching for cover. >> johnson: it's six people running for their lives to get to this next bunker. we get to the bunker and realize there's roughly 40 people trying to stuff themselves into this bunker that's made for about ten folks. and i grabbed the guy in front of me and i'm just like, "you got to get in the bunker!" and just, like-- like, shoved everybody in there. >> martin: but, when you're running between bunkers, it's just a matter of, what, luck? >> johnson: luck. the only thing i can actually come up with is that hand of god protected us. because, really, nobody should have lived through this.
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>> frank mckenzie: things are happening that could take us to war if we don't make the correct move here. >> martin: marine general frank mckenzie, commander of u.s. forces in the middle east, monitored the attack from his headquarters at tampa, florida, ducking into this small room off his main operations center where he could talk directly to the only two people above him in the chain of command. >> mckenzie: they bring in the secretary of defense. and then a little bit later they brought in the president to this conversation. we're listening to the reports of the missiles flying. >> martin: you ever been on one like this? >> mckenzie: i've never been on one like this where real missiles being fired at our forces and where i thought the risks were so high. >> martin: the iranian attack on al asad was in retaliation for a stunning u.s. operation president trump ordered six nights earlier: a drone strike which killed iran's most powerful general, quasem soleimani. >> mckenzie: the blood of many americans is on the hands of quasem soleimani. he was as close to an indispensable man as you could find inside iran.
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where he went violence and death followed. >> martin: during the american occupation of iraq, soleimani had orchestrated attacks which killed more than 600 u.s. troops and, according to mckenzie, he was planning to do it again. >> mckenzie: we saw intelligence reports where qasem soleimani was moving various attack streams forward against our forces in iraq, against our embassy and against other bases there. >> martin: were they imminent? >> mckenzie: perhaps in hours, perhaps in days, probably not weeks. >> martin: until then the u.s. had shied away from going after soleimani for fear killing such a high-ranking government official would only provoke more iranian attacks. >> mckenzie: i never take killing anyone as, as an easy decision, but i think the risk of not acting in this case outweighed the risks of acting, so, yes, i was good with the decision. >> martitin: on januarary 3rd of last yeaear, an airport t secury camera recorded soleimani's arrival inin baghdad on n a commercial flight from damascus. mckenzie was watching from a different angle. >> martin: you have the drones
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overhead. do you see him? >> mckenzizie: yes. >> martin: get off the airplane? >> mckenzie: y yes, yes. >> martin: as soleimani's entourage pulled away y from the plane, mckenzie gave t the kill order to the commander controlling the drones. >> mckenzie: and then i said," take your shot when you got it." >> martin: missiles slammed into both vehicles simultaneously. >> mckenzie: there's no back slapping. there's no cheering. because now i have to prepare to deal with the consequences of the action. >> martin: general mckenzie was sure iran would retaliate, but he didn't know how, and neither, for a while, did the iranians. >> mckenzie: i believe they went into a period of disorganization because they had lost the officer who really spoke up and shaped everything up and told them what they were going to do >> martin: so it was kind of an ominous silence. >> mckenzie: it was a very ominous silence. >> martin: and what was the first sign that iran might really be thinking of a ballistic missile attack? >> mckenzie: they began to move their ballistic missiles. >> martin: the attack was just hours away when major alan johnson got the word iran's most powerful weapons were aiming for
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al asad. >> johnson: my intelligence officer pulled me aside and basically said, "sir, i've got some bad news for you."" what's up?"" we have information that iran is fueling 27 medium range ballistic missiles and their intention is to level this base and we may not survive." >> tim garland: this is a completely different threat. >> martin: lieutenant colonel tim garland commanded an army battalion at al asad, a sprawling airbase about 120 miles west of baghdad where the u.s. operated scores of helicopters, drones and other aircraft. >> martin: did the base have any defense against ballistic missiles? >> garland: no sir. it was such an unprecedented threat. i don't think it was ever calculated, so the capability to prevent a ballistic missile attack it, it wasn't there. >> martin: did you have a plan for what to do? >> garland: we came up with a
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plan. >> staci coleman: the only real defense against a ballistic missile attack is to get out of harm's way. >> martin: air force lt. col. staci coleman and the rest of al asad scrambled to evacuate more than 50 aircraft and 1000 troops before the missiles hit but the base still had to be manned. >> coleman: we still needed to be able to do our mission. so the first decision was to split our team by combat capability. >> martin: what did you think was going to happen to the people you were telling to stay? >> coleman: the honest truth is i didn't think that we were going to survive. >> martin: the best shelter was air raid bunkers built during the rule of saddam hussein, but there weren't enough of them. >> garland: and i just remember, a very heavy sinking feeling setting in. it was like, man, we, we are not going to come up with a bunker plan that's going to be adequate for the number of people that we're talking about. >> martin: so garland sent most
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of his soldiers out into the desert where they watched the attack from a safe distance. >> garland: there was a lot of people who didn't want to leave. they didn't want to be that guy that was going to relative safety. >> martin: a lot of people might have trouble understanding what you just said. tell me why a soldier wouldn't want to go to a safe place. >> garland: they want to carry the burden. they want to share in the danger. >> martin: from his headquarters in tampa, general frank mckenzie had tried to time the evacuation just right. >> mckenzie: if you go too early, you risk the problem that the enemy will see what you have done and adjust his plans. >> martin: the iranians monitored al asad by purchasing photos like these taken by commercial satellites. mckenzie waited until after iran had downladed its last picture for the day. so the last time the iranians took a look with their commercially acquired spy photos, what would they have seen? >> mckenzie: they would have seen airplanes on the ground and people working. >> martin: so when they launched
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those missiles, they thought that was going to be a full flight line. >> mckenzie: i think they expected to destroy a number of u.s. aircraft and to kill a number of u.s. service members. >> martin: a clock, stopped at 1:34 a.m. when it was knocked off the wall, recorded the moment the first missile landed. >> john haines: it's like the sun rising instantaneous. that's how bright it was. >> martin: air force master sergeant john haines and his security team were outside their armored patrol vehicle when the first missiles struck. >> haines: and across the radio we heard, "incoming, incoming, incoming." >> martin: what do you do? >> haines: i just threw the phone down and ran to my vehicle. and once that impact happened the back pressure blew our doors closed and then you just see cloud of dirt, fire. >> coleman: they call it a" shock wave" and you kind of feel that, that wave almost internally. like, it's almost as if you, your organs are, you know, kind of wavering around inside. >> martin: sgt. kimo keltz was outside the bunkers, manning a guard post in case the missile barrage was followed by a ground
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assault. >> kimo keltz: we got down and we protected our, our vital organs, our heads, and we waited. >> martin: did it blow you around? >> keltz: in one of the closest ones that had hit directly near us had actually lifted my body about two inches off the ground. >> martin: iran fired a total of 16 missiles from three locations, five missed, 11 landed at al asad. >> martin: this was an attack like no other. >> mckenzie: it was an attack certainly like nothing i've ever seen or experienced. >> martin: what have you learned so far? >> mckenzie: their missiles are accurate. >> martin: did that surprise you? >> mckenzie: we knew it, but to see it. they fired those missiles to significant range. and they hitit pretty muchch whe they wanteted to hit. >> marartin: from firsrst launco last impact wawas 80 minuteses. somehohow no one w was killed.d. when the sun came up, the survivors surveyed the damage. >> holy ( bleep )! >> garland: shells of a
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building, you know, skeletal frames left with nothing else. craters about a room size deep into the ground. concrete barriers blown across a field or a street. >> haines: it looked like a scene from a movie where everything is destroyed around you, but yet, no one was killed. >> coleman: i still have no idea understanding other than, you know, god being on our side, that no one was seriously injured and there were no, you know, no, no fatalities. >> martin: the news traveled fast up the chain of command and president trump tweeted "all is well." that turned out to be premature. >> johnson: there are people throwing up, everybody had headaches. >> keltz: i had a concussion for two weeks. >> martin: what'd it feel like? >> keltz: someone hitting me over the head with a hammer over and over and over. >> johnson: finally, you know, hours later we realized, "we
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have a mass casualty event here of traumatic brain injury." >> martin: military doctors diagnosed more than 100 cases of traumatic brain injury. major alan johnson and 28 other soldiers received purple hearts. do you have any lingering effects today? >> johnson: headaches every day, horrible tinnitus or ringing in the ears. p.t.s.d. you know, i'll be willing to admit that. i still have nightmares. >> martin: but the nightmare of war with iran had been averted. >> mckenzie: had americans been killed, it would have been very different. >> martin: have you ever done an estimate on if you hadn't evacuated the damage that would have been done? >> mckenzie: sir, i think we might have lost 20 or 30 airplanes and we might have lost 100 to 150 u.s. personnel. >> martin: you had a plan to retaliate if they killed americans. >> mckenzie: david, we had a plan to retaliate if americans had died. >> martin: iran was on alert for
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a possible u.s. strike, and hours later mistakenly shot down a ukrainian airliner, thinking it was an american bomber. 176 entirely innocent people died. ( ticking ) >> the unknown toll of a ballistic attack. >> this never happened before. >> at t 60 becacause there e are option. likeke an “ununjection™”. xeljananz. the firirst and only pill l of its kinind that treatats moderatete to see rheumamatoid arthrhritis, psoriatic c arthritis,s, oror moderate e to severee ulcerarative colititis whwhen other m medicines have not h helped enouough. xexeljanz can n lower yourur ay to fightht infectionons. before a and during g treatme, your d doctor shouould check for infectctions, lilike tb and d do blood t te. tellll your doctctor if you'u'd hepatitis s b or c, haveve flu-like e symptoms,, or arere prone to o infection. seririous, sometetimes fafatal infectctions,
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the 7pm news, weeknights on kpix 5. ( ticking ) >> john dickerson: the club of writers who have won the pulitzer prize twice for fiction is small-- it contains just four members. the club of those awarded the prize for consecutive novels is even smaller. colson whitehead is its only member. he won last year for his novel, "the nickel boys," about the jim crow south. in 2017, he won for the "underground railroad." through historical fiction, he has illuminated the past to tell us something about our present. but, his work does not stay in one place. he has written about elevator inspectors, zombie hunters, and the world series of poker. his next book is a heist novel. one of the other four members of the double-pulitzer club, john updike, said of whitehead's
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style, "his writing does what writing should do. it refreshes our sense of the world." can i ask you about your first lines? "even in death, the boys were in trouble." "the first time caesar approached cora about running north, she said, 'no'." "it's a new elevator, freshly pressed to the rails, and it's not built to fall this fast." "i have a good poker face because i'm half-dead inside." those first lines, they're all crackling. tell me about the process of the first line. >> colson whitehead: i'm very fond of them. ( laughs ) and i think, you know, i'm doing the outline-- >> dickerson: for good reason. >> whitehead: i'm doing the outline and-- and lines are coming, and scenes are coming. and i think there's a point where i do enough research, and i'm so excited to start writing because i've written this first sentence two months before, and i'm like, i got to put this sentence in the file, so i-- i can start the book. >> dickerson: do they come to you in this intentional process, or are you at the bodega picking up something? >> whitehead: always the bodega. ( laughs ) yeah. >> dickerson: and what happens
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if-- when that happens? do you have a notebook? >> whitehead: so now, it's-- it's phone. so, 4:00 a.m., you know, tapping, my wife's like, "you know, turn-- i can't see, it's too bright." >> dickerson: do you write for yourself or do you write for the audience? >> whitehead: really for me, which sounds very selfish. should i have written a zombie novel? it made perfect sense to me. i grew up loving horror movies, and then horror fiction. is that something i should be doing as a literary author? i don't know. and there's no handbook. ( laughs ) you know? and if it gives me pleasure, if it's exciting, you know, our time on earth is pretty short. i should be doing what i-- what i feel like i should be doing. >> dickerson: is the propulsive force for you to al-- always be trying to take risks, always running to new, fresh territory? >> whitehead: well, i think... i'm not sure why i internalized this lesson but, i've always loved pop culture, and i love stanley kubrick. and so, kubrick has this war movie, his science fiction movie, his sci-fi movie, it just made sense that you would-- if you're an artist, you just do something different each time.
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>> dickerson: whitehead's office shelves testify to the range of his interests: science fiction, comic books, and stephen king novels, relics from arch colson chipp whitehead's youth in manhattan. he attended the elite trinity school, one of just five black students in his class, and went to college at harvard. his writing career started at the "village voice," to the initial dismay of his parents, who owned an executive recruitment firm. >> whitehead: when i told them i wanted to become a writer, they were like, "do you know how much a writer makes?" and i was like, "i have no idea. i just want to write." >> dickerson: but not everyone wanted to read what whitehead had to say. the first novel he tried to sell was rejected 25 times, and the book was never published. >> whitehead: you know, that's what made me a writer. not being a journalist or being 12 and thinking, "i want to write stephen king-type horror novels." i realized there was nothing else i could do that would sort of make me whole. and no one else is going to write it. and so, i have to start another one.
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>> dickerson: so, the failure was what told you who you were, in a sense? >> whitehead: yeah. i mean, i had no-- i had no choice. i literally had no other options. >> dickerson: for much of the last year, colson whitehead and his wife, literary agent julie barer, have quarantined with their children at their home in long island. >> whitehead: i mean, the one regret is that i-- everyone knows how many naps i take a day. like, i'm just always, like, laying down. >> dickerson: julie, what did you discover about his process, other than the naps? ( laughter ) >> julie barer: i discovered that he-- ( laughs ) he listens to really loud music when he works. >> dickerson: whitehead cycles through a 3,000-song playlist that is as eclectic as his writing topics: thee oh sees, johnny cash, david bowie. feet away, barer negotiates for her clients. it's a swirl of literary activity born out of a moment of artistic doubt. was there a moment where you said, like, "i have to do something to make money, because writing isn't doing it"? >> whitehead: i do remember after my poker book, you know, it came out, and i was--
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and, no one really liked it. and-- ( laughs ) >> barer: i liked it. ( laughs ) >> whitehead: i think it's a great book. i was like, "so you just, like, write a book, and it comes out? then write a book again?" >> barer: i remember this conversation. >> whitehead: "and then write a book again until, like, you die. that seems, like, so terrible." and i was like, "should i go to cooking school?" like, "i don't know. i like cooking." like-- and then, as always happens, i'm like, "i have to get back to work. this sucks." i'm like-- ( laughs ) i just have to, you know, reconnect with, you know, what i love. >> dickerson: after that poker book, he had another book outlined, but julie encouraged him to drop it and instead write "the underground railroad." >> barer: and he started talking about the idea for "the underground railroad," and he was like, "i don't know if i can do it. i've just-- i've been kicking around this idea for a really long time." but i knew he could do it. and so i had to do a little nudge. ( laughter ) >> whitehead: that sounds like-- yes, she was very enthusiastic. >> barer: i was like, "put the
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other book away." >> dickerson: "the underground railroad" won the 2016 national book award. it was a "new york times" best-seller for 49 wks, eed has been published in more than 40 languages. >> whitehead: croatian, and chinese, and... >> dickerson: and did any of them change the title in a way that's-- you know, sometimes when it's in a foreign language, it's something like "the railroad that is not above the ground." >> whitehead: i don't think so. there was one country that shall remain nameless... ( laughs ) who put the subtitle, "black blood of america." and i was like-- ( laughter ) "what are you talking about?" ( laughter ) >> dickerson: last december, we went with whitehead to plymouth church in brooklyn, a hub of the underground railroad. we asked him about his book's magical rail system that delivers his heroine to different eras of tragedy in black history, from slavery to lynchings to forced sterilization. the fact that the underground railroad is an actual railroad, why was that important, and what did that help you do in terms of giving people a new way to look
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at something that is-- that they think they know? >> whitehead: well, the premise is this fantastic conveyance will take you around different points in history... these alternative americas. and so, immediately, it's not real 19th century america, and i can do what i want. and so, sometimes by not coming at things the right way, by coming at them sideways, we see them-- see them a different way, and they make more sense. >> dickerson: could you have written that book ten years earlier? >> whitehead: i had the idea in the year 2000. i was like, "this is a great idea, it's cool, the railroad is going to be real," and i'm like, "each state is going to be like gulliver's travel, a different alternative america. it is so good, i would screw it up if i did it right now." i didn't think i-- i was serious enough to write about slavery in the way-- you know, with the gravity that it required. i didn't think i was a good enough stylist or craftsperson to do it. >> dickerson: was there a puzzle-- part of the puzzle that you thought, okay, i'm ready to
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solve this piece now? >> whitehead: i think deciding on the female protagonist was an important piece. being an enslaved woman, it's much different than being an enslaved man. your body is not your own, obviously, and you're supposed to pump out babies, because more babies means more property, more slaves. and when you become a woman, you enter a new, sort of more terrible phase of-- of being enslaved. and i thought that was worth writing about. >> dickerson: and now, after selling 2.5 million copies, "the underground railroad" is being adapted into a limited series by oscar-winning director barry jenkins, and starring thuso mbedu as its protagonist, cora, who journeys out of slavery, like whitehead's own relatives. you have enslaved ancestors. >> whitehead: yes. yeah, yeah. >> dickerson: and was that part of your thinking as you were writing? >> whitehead: i was thinking about the, sort of existential terror of being descended from
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slaves. >> dickerson: your own existential terror. >> whitehead: yeah. i realized that, you know, i shouldn't be here. it's just-- it's a real miracle that this person wasn't killed when they were kidnapped in africa, in the middle passage, on this plantation. >> no justice, no peace! no justice, no peace! >> dickerson: the existential terror that life can be altered forever in an instant is at the heart of whitehead's 2020 book, "the nickel boys," motivated by the police killings of 2014. >> whitehead: it was the summer of-- of michael brown being killed in ferguson, missouri, and the protests, eric garner being killed in-- in-- staten island. and i came across the story of the dozier school that august. >> dickerson: whitehead was propelled by a series of stories, which detailed survivors' accounts of physical and sexual abuse at the dozier reform school for boys, that operated here in the florida panhandle for more than 100 years before it was closed
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by the state in 2011. more than 50 unmarked graves were discovered on the site. you said at one point with these two books, "i've been working in the space of very little hope." what does that mean? >> whitehead: to create a realistic world, a realistic plantation, a realistic florida in the south under jim crow, it's bleak and it's terrible. >> dickerson: that must be, emotionally, quite difficult. >> whitehead: it is, and definitely the last, writing these-- these two books back to back about slavery and jim crow, was very depleting. it helps that people have shared their stories, whether it's a former slave or a former student, and opened themselves up in that way. that gives me permission to try and find my way into their story and put myself in their, in their shoes. >> dickerson: you talked about the existential question of "you're lucky to be here," in a way. chance, being in the wrong place at the wrong time, can determine
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the whole outcome of your life. >> whitehead: well, you know, i mean, so much of what happens in "the nickel boys" and "underground railroad" resonates with what we see every day in our headlines. and they are connections i don't have to force. young black people being murdered for being in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong skin color. and if they'd left the house five minutes earlier, their whole lives would have been different. >> dickerson: have you felt that way in your life, at times? "at this moment, it could go either way," being either a young black man or even now? >> whitehead: i think about the way-- what i feel when i see a police-- a police car, or four cops hanging out in front of the subway. there is an instance of, "are they are here for me?" and i think about how strange it is just to walk through your own city and have that-- have that thought. and i think, "am i alone?" and i realize i'm not alone. >> dickerson: in total, whitehead's books have sold over four million copies. his next book, "harlem shuffle,"
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part crime novel, morality play, and an examination of race and power, has a signature start: "ray carney was only slightly bent when it came to being crooked." there are a lot of aphorisms about writing, you know? "write what you know." "write your heart." do you all agree on all of those aphorisms? >> whitehead: we don't talk about things on that kind of level. >> barer: yeah, i mean, use one that colson says." you can do anything if you're-- if you're good enough." >> whitehead: you know, the current debate's over who can write about what, and writing across race and class and gender. and it's only when the-- you know, you screw it up, that people get angry, and i think rightfully so. >> barer: but i hear people ask him sometimes at readings, you know, "is it hard to write from the point of view of a woman?" and he's like, "i'm a writer. that's my job, is to write from"-- >> whitehead: or, "i'm a human being." >> barer: right. >> whitehead: you know. >> dickerson: you're saying, "i'm a human being, this is what i do as a human being." but you're also doing it as a writer, which has-- it has this secondary benefit, which is that it works really well with your audiences. >> whitehead: what was very heartening was the realization that, if it's true for me, it
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must be true for at least one other person. and so, what i'm saying won't come off as crazy. and if there's one person, there's a dozen. and then, why not 1,000? and if i can find the right combination of words to express my inner truth, then other people can see it the same way. and so, i think we're all in it together. and if-- and if i can find the sentences and words arranged in the right way, where people can recognize that? then that's-- you know, i've done my job. ( ticking ) >> welcome to cbs sports hq for progressive insurance. >> i'm greg gumbel in new york. in college. iowa cruised past 4th ranked iowa stated, and the the wolves won. sdpt butler bulldogs beat
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