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A Crisis of Confidence; Inside the Fight to Uncover COVID-19's Origins; Problem Solvers Caucus Bucks the Flame-throwing Norm; Does America Have A Drinking Problem; Behind-The-Scenes Look At President George H.W. Bush's Life. Aired 9-10a ET

Aired June 05, 2021 - 09:00   ET





MICHAEL SMERCONISH, CNN ANCHOR: The coming crisis of confidence. I'm Michael Smerconish in Philadelphia with a question. How did a novel bat coronavirus get to a major metropolis of 11 million people in central China in the dead of winter when most bats were hibernating and turn a market where bats weren't sold into the epicenter of an outbreak? When asked that way, the lab leak theory of the origin of COVID-19, it sounds quite plausible.

A newly released investigative piece by Katherine Eban in "Vanity Fair" raises that question and a lot more. This analysis has accelerated a conversation long overdue. It tells the story of how a loose network of sleuths of varying scientific expertise spread around the globe undertook an examination of a theory of COVID origin that was initially discounted by those whose job it was to figure it all out.

Together, they formed a group called DRASTIC, Decentralized Radical Autonomous Search Team Investigating COVID-19. One founder was a data scientist who works for a bank in New Zealand whose Asperger's syndrome gives him a professional advantage in finding patterns in data, but while he was building a plausible case for lab leak, more than two dozen scientists released a statement in a respected medical journal saying this, "We stand together to strongly condemn conspiracy theories suggesting that COVID-19 does not have a natural origin."

Now, to be sure, there were crackpots and political hacks hoping to pin the origin on a Wuhan lab in the hope of gaining a cudgel on China and a boost to then President Trump. After all, it was Trump who said early on that he had seen classified information indicating that the virus had come from the Wuhan Institute of Virology. When asked what the evidence was, he said I can't tell you that, I'm not allowed to tell you that.

But the question now is whether people in government and the scientific community, fearful of being drawn in a national political debate or of being cast as nativist, did not pursue a theory that was worthy of exploration. Eban conducted a months-long investigation, interviewed more than 40 people, reviewed hundreds of pages of government documents and found this.

"Conflicts of interests, stemming in part from large government grants supporting controversial virology research, hampered the U.S. investigation into COVID-19's origin at every step. In one State Department meeting, officials seeking to demand transparency from the Chinese government say they were explicitly told by colleagues not to explore the Wuhan Institute of Virology's gain of function research because it would bring unwelcome attention to U.S. government funding of it."

In the summer of 2020 when State Department leads had gone cold, they got a tip from a foreign source. "Key information was likely sitting in the U.S. intelligence community's own files, unanalyzed. In November, that lead turned up classified information that was 'absolutely arresting and shocking,' said a former State Department official.

Three researchers at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, all connected with gain of function research on coronaviruses, had fallen ill in November 2019 and appeared to have visited the hospital with symptoms similar to COVID-19, so said three government officials to 'Vanity Fair.' The reaction inside the State Department, 'Holy shit,' according to one senior official who recalled the instance. 'We should probably tell our bosses,' and the investigation roared back to life."

And remember the guy with Asperger's? Well, in January of 2021, there was an international fact-finding visit to Wuhan. A dozen international experts visited. They were told that the labs database of some 22,000 virus samples had been taken offline to prevent a hack during the pandemic, which seemed to make sense, except that the ad hoc group of investigators at DRASTIC figured out that the database was actually taken offline on September 12, 2019, three months before the official start of the pandemic.

So, here's my takeaway. First, that the lab leak theory is plausible, not assured, but plausible. Second, that politics and bureaucratic turf wars hampered the full exploration of the lab leak theory. My ongoing, larger concern is the damage this is going to do to public confidence in other institutions at a moment when we can least afford further erosion.

If the lab leak theory was erroneously discounted, it will fuel speculation about the role of authority in other exercises like elections, just the sort of thinking that led to the events of January 6 and is already being used to imperil democracy all across the country. Suddenly the phony Arizona audit will be harder to discount, and science will suffer.


Look no further than climate change. I can hear the skepticism already. How do we really know it's man-made because they told us the virus came from a bat at a wet market? The criticism of climate science has long been that it was research, money driven. The "Vanity Fair" piece similarly highlights the role of money, some American in the Wuhan lab and raises questions about the solidarity of the gain of function research community and this, too, must be said. This will further revelations, as they come out, early discounting the lab leak theory. The media will suffer a loss of credibility for its lack of independent investigation.

The "Vanity Fair" report, it doesn't come to a conclusion as to whether the COVID virus began naturally or in a lab leak, but it convinced me that politics mattered and thwarted the leak investigation, and one ramification of this analysis is bad news for our institutions. It will further distrust in science and even democracy when we can least afford it.

So, let's meet the author. Katherine Eban is a contributing editor to "Vanity Fair" who was educated at Oxford where she earned a Rhodes Scholarship. She's also the author of the book "Bottle of Lies: The Inside Story of the Generic Drug Boom." This is a serious piece of work for which I congratulate you and here's my first question. It's February of 2020, 27 scientists sign a statement for "The Lancet" condemning the lab leak and conspiracy theories. What do they now say?

KATHERINE EBAN, CONTRIBUTING EDITOR, VANITY FAIR: Well, that's a very interesting question because some of them now say, you know, the lab leak hypothesis does require investigation. So there has been a small U-turn even among those scientists who, early on, were on board. Now, an epidemiologist named Ralph Baric who had some involvement in the drafting of that letter came out more recently, signing on to a letter with 18 scientists calling for a full investigation into the lab leak hypothesis.

You know, I think what's important to note here is that the most credible of the doubters raising these questions are not saying it's a lab leak. They don't know. What they're saying is these needs to be investigated and it really hasn't been properly yet. Therefore ...

SMERCONISH: How about ...

EBAN: ... it cannot be fully discounted.

SMERCONISH: How about the State Department -- the State Department official who says don't go there, it's going to, quote-unquote, "Open a can of worms?" What do you think he was worried about?

EBAN: So, I spoke with him. His name is Christopher Park of the biological policy staff. What he said he was saying is you can't jump to conclusions that something untoward was going on at the Wuhan Institute of Virology just because they were involved in gain of function research, which is an effort to try to increase the infectiousness of certain pathogens, and they were doing that on novel -- on coronavirus bat strains seven miles away from the Wuhan market.

But the folks on the other side of that have told me, and documented in one case in a memo, that they felt that they were being told don't dig in those sensitive places because the U.S. government has some exposure here because it has funded some of that research. SMERCONISH: Katherine, how much of this, in retrospect, was a visceral reaction to Donald Trump? In other words, well, Trump said X, I better say Y because I don't want to be cast as a nativist with him.

EBAN: I think it played a significant role. I mean, what people have told me is that that created a kind of antibody response within the government, that they didn't want to be rushing to judgment about something that really wasn't known.

I also want to point out that President Trump floated the lab leak hypothesis publicly in April 2020, but the biggest revelations about what happened inside the Wuhan Institute of Virology came out months later, that the government and the State Department officials learned about it months later. So, you know, we don't know what President Trump knew at the time he said it, but we know that the most consequential intelligence came months after that.

SMERCONISH: When I printed out your piece at home, admittedly with a large font, it was 40 pages long. I point that out so that people know it's a real deep dive ...

EBAN: Yes.

SMERCONISH: ... but interestingly, Dr. Fauci, his name doesn't appear too many times. Where is he in all of this?


EBAN: You know, so first of all, let me just say that, you know, my effort in the reporting here was absolutely to stick with what I knew, what I could prove, what I could document and so, you know, that's what I stuck to. I mean, obviously there is like a huge noise machine about Fauci now related to this e-mail dump of his.

He is now, you know, raising questions simply about what happened to these Wuhan researchers? What were they sick with? You know, can we get any sort of samples of what they were ill with? So, I think he has put it out there that it is inconclusive and we don't know.

SMERCONISH: Well, let me -- let me ask a more direct question. did you see any evidence in your investigation of him downplaying the lab leak hypothesis?

EBAN: No, I did not. I did not.

SMERCONISH: There are -- there are a number of milestones along the way, but from my notes, the three that stuck out, 2012 in the Yunnan province, six miners taken ill who are collecting bat guano or feces, three of them die. That database taken offline September 12, 2019 before, you know, the world knows. Is there a benign explanation of that? And then number three is the November 2019, three researchers who you were just making reference to who require some form of hospital treatment. Respond, please, to those three items.

EBAN: Yes. So let's start with the database. So this is one of the most comprehensive databases of viral samples that include bat coronavirus strains. The Wuhan Institute of Virology maintained it. It was like an inventory of what they had in their labs. They took it down in September, as you point out, 2019. The explanation provided publicly by their lead coronavirus researcher, Shi Zhengli, was they were being hacked multiple times.

You know, but if you look at the timeline of when and how she's saying that she gives the impression that it was taken down after the pandemic when, in fact, it was taken down before. But there is no question about this -- the world and the investigators need access to that database, and it doesn't appear that China is willing to do that.

SMERCONISH: Katherine, this is a great, great investigation, old school "Vanity Fair" and I congratulate you for writing it and investing the time. Thank you so much.

EBAN: Thanks for having me.

SMERCONISH: What are your thoughts? Tweet me @Smerconish or go to my Facebook page. I'll read some responses throughout the course of the program. "Here we go again. Trump's lies killed 585,000 Americans. Doesn't matter -- it doesn't matter." No, it does matter if you want to prevent it from ever happening again and, Cliff -- put that back on the screen. I have to say something to this person.

Cliff, this is exactly the mindset that perhaps caused us to miss this in the first go-round because it was received as, by the scientific community, by the media as well, well, if Trump said it, then we've got to go in the other direction. Hey, a broken clock is right twice a day. It should have been taken more seriously, even if the natural theory is the one that wins out.

Still to come, some members of Congress are putting the concept of the buddy system to good use. You can only join their exclusive caucus if you bring a member of the opposite party. Two of the co-chairs join me to explain why they're different from Congress' well-known noisemakers.

And you'll never drink alone again, said the headlines in August when Anheuser-Busch launched Dog Brew, bone broth disguised as beer, but solitary, drinking with or without a dog, became a pandemic vice for many Americans. Almost a quarter of Americans say stress drove them to drink more than they did before the pandemic, which leads me to this week's survey question at Will drinking return to pre- pandemic levels? Go vote.




SMERCONISH: Believe it or not, a modicum of bipartisanship still exists within the Congress, but you might have to dig beyond the mainstream headlines to find it. They're called the Problem Solvers Caucus, the only caucus with what they call the "Noah's ark rule." If you want to join, you've got to find a buddy from the opposite party to tag along with you.

They're committed to finding common ground on many key issues facing the nation, introducing bipartisan bills and solutions on issues, including COVID recovery, healthcare, immigration and criminal justice reform. They backed the January 6th commission, which eventually was shot down by Senate Republicans.

The 58 members of the Problem Solvers Caucus, they practice the values they preach. They sit together in the center at the State of the Union Address, they participate in district swaps, they get to know each other's families and build personal relationships, making it easier to uphold their rule of avoiding personal attacks and fundraising against one another. They aim to project unity through Congress and throughout the country.

In other words, it's the polar opposite of what we've come to expect out of Congress. All the incentive in the world is geared toward headline-generating flamethrowers who are winning the fundraising game by throwing red meat to their base and yet the irony is legislative action for many in that camp can sometimes be an afterthought.


So, it's hard to believe that the Problem Solvers Caucus is part of the same Congress as their quiet bipartisan work doesn't yield the same campaign cash or click bait, but they do exist and here to prove it are Problem Solver Caucus co-chairs Republican Congressman Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania, Democratic Congressman Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey. Congressman Fitzpatrick, can anyone join and what are you signing on to if you agree to be a member of the caucus?

REP. BRIAN FITZPATRICK (R-PA): Hey, Michael. Good morning. Good to be with you. So can anyone join? Anyone can ask to join, but to actually become a member, it has to be approved by the group, first by me and Josh as co-chairs and then by the group as a whole, and they have to have demonstrated some interest in crossing the aisle and have demonstrated some courage in breaking with party leadership. The caucus has to accept them.

What are they being asked to do? Stand with our country first and not be driven by any political ideology, represent the people back home and of the country and nobody in Washington D.C. and no other elected official. That's what they're being asked to do. When we get to 75 percent of the caucus agreeing, you have to vote as a block together.

SMERCONISH: OK. So, in other words -- that's really interesting. Congressman Gottheimer, you get together and decide, say, how you look at an issue, like whether there should be an investigation into January 6, and if 75 percent of the group agree, if I'm part of the 25 percent, nevertheless, I've committed to go along with the will of that 75 percent?

REP. JOSH GOTTHEIMER (D-NJ): That's exactly the idea, Michael, and thanks for having us. Yes. You know, when we get together and sit in a room every week, we debate the issues, as you should, we do it with civility in mind, which is, I think, the way we should approach tough challenges and tough issues. We're working tonight. We've got a call on infrastructure, which we've been working on for a month now.

And listen, we had disagreements. Brian is a proud Republican, I'm a proud Democrat, but as he said, we put country first and we look to see where we can agree instead of focusing on where we disagree, which is so much of the problem right now in Washington.

SMERCONISH: Congressman Fitzpatrick, I was born and raised in your congressional district, and I consider it to be a purplish kind of a place, which is a good thing. Could this work in gerrymandered districts? In other words, you'd be -- you'd be destined to fail in a primary if this was your modus operandi in a large part of the country.

FITZPATRICK: You're exactly right, Michael, which gets to the institutional challenges that we have in Congress which leads to the gridlock, gerrymandering being number one. If you're in a D plus 30 or R plus 30 district and on top of that you have closed primaries, which is the case in many states, certainly it poses a challenge, which is why those are two things that we have to address for sure.

The more -- the more moderates we have in Congress, the more compromise there will be, the less gridlock, but the gerrymandering and the closed primaries are two huge problems.

SMERCONISH: Congressman Gottheimer, it's a great development to hear of the success of the Problem Solvers. It's also kind of sad that there needs to be a formal caucus for civility because the more that I hear you and Brian speak, to me, this is like a throwback to the way things were as late as the 1980s.

GOTTHEIMER: You're exactly right. In the ideal world, there is no Problem Solvers Caucus and it's just called Congress, but I'll tell you, when we were working together at the end last ...


GOTTHEIMER: ... when we were at the end of last trying to get a $908 billion deal done, we helped lead it in the House, we worked with a bipartisan group in the Senate, we get together weekly. I know that sounds crazy, right? We're not about tweets and screaming at each other, we're about trying to find a place of common ground and commonsense solutions.

And, frankly, I hope that one day we don't have to exist, but for right now, whether it's infrastructure or criminal justice reform or police reform or immigration, some of the toughest issues, it's going to take us working together with each other and talking to one another and listening to one another. And I'll tell you, it is a breath of fresh air. I wish the whole country could see our conversations. I think we'd all feel better about Congress.

SMERCONISH: Congressman Fitzpatrick, how, if you know, are you regarded by what I'll describe as the noisemakers? I've got this vision of the lunchroom in Congress where they're throwing paper airplanes at you guys. FITZPATRICK: Yes. I mean, it's interesting, Michael, you know, how we view each other. I mean, we view ourselves as representing the overwhelming majority of people in our country that just want government to work the same way their personal relationships do. You never get everything you want. You'd rather get 80 percent of something than 100 percent of nothing. You don't allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good.

But you know politics better than anyone, Michael. The money, the fundraising, the canvassers, the activists are on the fringes and that's the challenge that Josh and I and our caucus face, but we believe in it wholeheartedly because we believe that's what our country needs.



SMERCONISH: Well, Congressman Gottheimer, I can -- I can think of a particular member of Congress who would never -- she would never make your cut for membership and yet you know her incendiary behavior generates millions of dollars, I think $3 million in the first quarter of this fundraising cycle. You two are essentially foregoing that in the name of trying to get things done.

GOTTHEIMER: You're exactly right. There's a whole complex built around the screaming and yelling and extremism, right? On both sides and it's tough to break through, right? People look at us and go, wait, you're actually governing? I say, yes, yes, that's what we're focused on. I'm not interested in the tweets or the e-mails saying give $5 now or the world's going to fall apart. We actually want to figure out how we can get an infrastructure deal done.

And when I drive around my district, which I'm doing right now, I'll tell you, people come up to me, Democrats and Republicans, and say this is what we need. We got to bring the country back together again, right? We're here in the middle, middle left, middle right and we just want you to solve our problems, right? Not scream at each other and I know it's not always the most popular thing on Twitter, but this is what the country wants and Brian and I are going to keep at it, along with 58 members of the caucus.

SMERCONISH: And final question for Congressman Fitzpatrick. I hate to say this, but it's true. The media props up exactly what Congressman Gottheimer was just discussing and describing, right? I mean, the party bosses today are men with microphones, not individuals in front of whom you would have to screen to get an endorsement to run for office.

FITZPATRICK: Correct, Michael. Anyone in public service, me and Josh are in public service, you're in public service as a member of the media and we all have a choice to make. Are we going to use this position, this precious time with this great honor we have to actually try to do something good or are we going to try to cannibalize a voting base and then monetize it for our own purposes? You see it in politics, you see it in the media and those people are very unbecoming of the honor that's been bestowed upon them and I, for one, know and I know you know and I know Josh knows, you know, we're going to grow older looking back at our time when we do what we're doing with pride that we didn't sell out, that we did -- we used this time, this precious time we had to be public servants to do the right thing.

SMERCONISH: Well, how refreshing that was. Thank you both for being here.

GOTTHEIMER: Thanks, Michael.


SMERCONISH: Let's see what you're saying on my Smerconish Twitter and Facebook pages. This comes from Twitter, "The problem with the Problem Solvers Caucus is they don't actually solve problems. They talk big, but when the votes are counted, people vote with their party. They have no influence."

Well, somebody in Minnesota, what a sad commentary that is. I'm heartened by the fact that there are 58 members who are sitting in the center at the State of the Union Address and who have agreed they're not going to cheap shot one another and they're going to try and get stuff done. I mean, the thing about the flamethrowers is the flamethrowers on the left and the right, they accomplish nothing, nothing.

You know that I was making reference to Marjorie Taylor Greene. I may as well just call her out. I didn't want to embarrass those two by calling out a colleague, but what has she accomplished? Like what has passed with her name on it? It used to be you'd get to Washington, be a backbencher, bide your time, get a position of seniority via committee assignment and get stuff done. Now you say something incendiary via Twitter, you raise a ton of money and you become the darling of your party. It's twisted.

Up ahead, with alcohol readily available or on tap nearly everywhere you turn, how much is America really drinking? According to an analysis in "The Washington Post" a few years back, the top 10 percent of American drinkers downed at least two bottles of wine a night. The next category, 15 drinks a week and then it declines from there. Well, that was all before the pandemic. Almost a quarter of Americans say the pandemic stress drove them to drink even more.

That's why we're asking this question this week at Will drinking return to pre-pandemic levels? Go vote.



SMERCONISH: Americans are finally emerging from the darkest days of COVID, and two-thirds of U.S. adults now say their lives are at least somewhat back to normal. But it remains to be seen if the new normal will include the drinking habits that many of us developed during lockdown. Nearly a quarter of Americans reported increased drinking over the past year to deal with stress, that's according to the American Psychological Association.

"The Atlantic" senior editor Kate Julian says there's nothing moderate about the way that Americans drink today, and she joins me now. Kate, when I first saw your piece come online, I immediately read it because I knew that I had consumed more during the pandemic and I wanted to know, where do I fit in? Judging by the popularity of your piece, I guess, I'm not alone because it was very much circulated.

KATE JULIAN, SENIOR EDITOR, "THE ATLANTIC": I think it's certainly hit a chord among our readers and a lot of other people. Speaking for myself, I know that the amount of alcohol I drink or the frequency at least which I drink has definitely increased over the past year. But I think what's really interesting is not just the amount but the way we drink over the pandemic that has changed and that's kind of what's concerning and interesting to me.

SMERCONISH: So, who among us saw the biggest uptick in their drinking habits?

JULIAN: So, perhaps not surprisingly to anybody who has kids at home, those of us with children in school or rather home from school had the biggest uptick. Women also saw a disproportionate rise.

What's really interesting though is, I think, two-fold. One the sort of social context of our drinking. This was kind of almost definitionally not drinking for fun, drinking with other people, drinking with friends.


This was drinking at home often by yourself. And, secondly, relatedly it was drinking to deal with, as you said, you know, negative feelings, anxiety, stress, you know, even a bit of depression. And the problem is that those two things maybe even as much as the quantity of alcohol are really concerning as far as setting people up for problems down the road. Alcohol itself isn't necessarily the problem but the way we have been drinking it is really concerning.

SMERCONISH: Millennials have been regarded as the driest among the generation groups. Does that remain true?

JULIAN: No. This is a really interesting fact and it sort of defies a lot of expectations. So, back in the early 2000s it was noticed wildly in public health circles that teenagers weren't drinking as much as teenagers used to. And everybody thought this is great news because we know that, in general, people drink less when they're teenagers it sets them up for a healthier sort of drinking course in adulthood.

But, in fact, something different has happened. The age at which drinking peaks has gotten a bit later. It used to be sort of 18, 19, 20. Now it's maybe 22. But the amount that people are drinking by the time they hit their late 20s and 30s is as much as everybody else. And that's really troubling. I mean, it's not just, again, the quantity of drinking across the population but the signs that there's really some extra dysfunctional drinking going on at the extremes. Rates of cirrhosis among Millennials are at all-time highs and that's really, you know, especially concerning.

SMERCONISH: OK. Beyond the cirrhosis which is, obviously, a problem is this all necessarily a bad thing?

JULIAN: No. I mean, I think that really keeping -- to remember here is the is that alcohol actually has, in addition to the health harms that we hear so much about, some really important social and psychological benefits. Those don't get a lot of play, but the research suggests that having, you know, a moderate or light drinking habit is actually correlated with some really healthy things like having more friends.

There was a fascinating study out of Britain a couple of years ago that drinking habits of British people and found that people who had a pub that they went to were better off in a whole bunch of regards. They were more trusting. They were more socially connected. They were more happy. They just had a greater sense of well-being.

And when they sort of dug into the data they found that what was going on with the alcohol itself was healthy, but that this kind of ritual of going, getting a little bit disinhibited, bonding, having a little social lubrication meant that these people actually had more friends and that was the thing that was really helpful.

SMERCONISH: So, you get to weigh in live and on television for my survey question which you have inspired. Do you think we're going to go back then to pre-pandemic, meaning less drinking, or are these habits now here to stay?

JULIAN: I can argue it both ways. It depends on which day of the week you ask me.

Look, I think that we have an opportunity here for a real reset and to think we're deliberately about when we drink and why we drink. Speaking personally, I'm going to lay off the liquor, right? I don't need to have a cocktail. Beer or wine is probably a healthier choice for me.

I am going to make a point of not drinking by myself, right? I'm not going to do that kind of reflexive, let's pour a glass of wine at, you know, the end of the day because, you know, the kids are driving me crazy, or work is driving me crazy or the pandemic keeps going on. I think that there is a real risk though that people will if they don't stop and really think about this and think about what it's doing for them and what it's not doing for them that we could have some problems.

SMERCONISH: Well, done. The piece was great. Thank you for being here to discuss it.

JULIAN: Thank you so much for having me. SMERCONISH: OK. So now as Paul Harvey would say, now you know the rest of the story. Now you know why I'm asking this question today at

I imagine when you first saw it you're like, huh? What's up with that?

"Will drinking return to pre-pandemic levels?" Go vote at my website right now. The results are coming up in about 20 minutes.

From social media. At this point we're going to need free rehab in addition to free vaccines.

Aaron, thank you for that comment. Yes, I think that all of the data that she had in the piece made sense to me and comported with my own experience which has probably been a bit to excess the last year in comparison to other years of my life.

Still to come, what happens when you go from being president to a private citizen overnight? A new book tells that story and shows the sides of President George H.W. Bush that many didn't get to see before, during, and after his presidency. It is written by his former chief of staff, and she joins me next.



SMERCONISH: Jean Becker worked for 25 years at a job for which she was never formally hired. And not just any job, she was a chief of staff for a former U.S. president, George H.W. Bush. Much has been written about the nation's 41st president not the least of which his own memoir of sorts, "All the Best: My Life in Letters and Other Writings."

But this new book is unique. "The Man I Knew" is a funny, poignant, revealing read written by someone who for a quarter century was at the side of an American president. It presents George and Barbara Bush in a way the rest of us never had the opportunity to know them.

This is Jean Becker. Jean, I love your book. Walk me through this.

They are upset because of the election outcome in '92. They split their time between Walker's Point, Kennebunkport and Houston. She, Barbara Bush, cuts lose the secret service detail. He buys her a blue Mercury Sable. And the next thing you know they're at Sam's Club.

JEAN BECKER, PRESIDENT GEORGE H.W. BUSH'S FORMER CHIEF OF STAFF: Well, Michael, first of all, thanks for having me on. And I love the Sam's Club story, mainly because it just shows how you go from being the president and first lady one day and the next day, you're walking around Sam's Club pulling a pulley cart.


They love Sam's Club and they bought everything in bulk. I'm convinced there's still a big jar of Cheetos somewhere floating around Houston, Texas, because they would buy Cheetos in bulk. They bought everything in bulk. But as much as they were -- started licking their wounds over the '92 election they also were enjoying, immersing themselves back into life as normal citizens.

SMERCONISH: OK. And that includes him seeing a TV commercial, Bush 41, for Princess Cruises and booking it for the two of them.

BECKER: He books a cruise just a month after they have left the White House. I call it the love boat cruise. He surprised her with the cruise.

She thought they were going to Florida to visit Jeb and Columba and he then springs on her they're going on the love boat. I think if she had known, she maybe would have stopped this. It maybe was not the best idea.

Can you imagine being on a Princess Cruise in February of 1993 and you're walking around the boat in your swimsuit and your cover-up and here comes George and Barbara Bush who had just left the White House? The funniest thing that happened on the boat is that President Bush admitted to his friend George Plimpton he worked out one day in the gym, took a shower in the gym, comes out of the shower, stark naked, and there is a man waiting to take his photo. Yes, Mr. President, you're not in the White House anymore.

SMERCONISH: He was a very forgiving man. You say it's possible that he went to his grave only disliking three people -- Saddam Hussein, Ross Perot, and Dan Rather.

BECKER: I think that's right. He -- you know, he became best friends with Bill Clinton. They -- Mrs. Bush called them the odd couple. President Bush did not hold grudges and he also had a unique ability to see the best in everybody.

I'm not sure he ever forgave Ross Perot for running against him in 1992. Saddam Hussein, that is sort of obvious. And he and Dan Rather did not get along very well. But we'll leave that story for another time.

SMERCONISH: Jean, it sounds like a cliche what you wrote about him. Forty-one never quit living life to the fullest. But when I step back and appreciate all the stories that you told of his final 25 years, it's undeniable. He never stopped living life to the fullest.

BECKER: He didn't. And I'm going to quickly read one short paragraph just to show how he really did not want to give in to aging. This is actually -- I wrote this in an email to my two sisters in November 2007.

President Bush had not been diagnosed with Parkinson's yet, but we knew something was going on with him. He was getting more and more frail and unstable.

And I wrote this to my sisters. "Today he is going hunting, the first trip of the season. He's so he unstable on his feet, and he confessed to me he's slightly afraid of getting shot. He says if you wobble out there, Jean, you might fall in the path of another hunter. He was dead serious yet has no intention of not going. He just sort of said it matter-of-factly to me. I might get shot today, Jean. Well, OK, then. These Texans are weird."

But, Michael, that was so President Bush. He wanted to go hunting. So, what if he might fall down and get shot? That just, you know, that just might happen.

But one of the things I learned from him from watching him grow old, and I put this in the book, watching him deal with his new reality taught me another important life lesson, "Grow old gracefully, don't whine and don't wallow in self-pity."

I learned so much from that man. And we certainly all can learn --

SMERCONISH: There's a lot --

BECKER: I'm sorry, go ahead.

SMERCONISH: There's a lot to be learned about the way to lead one's life from your book. By the way, I've got a quick time-out, but over your right shoulder, I think I know who painted that.

BECKER: I love this painting. It touches my heart every day. The 43rd president of the United States painted that, this portrait of his father, and gave it as a gift to me after his dad died. And I'm very proud of it and it makes me smile.

SMERCONISH: What a blessing. Congrats. The book is excellent. Thank you.

BECKER: Thank you, Michael.

SMERCONISH: Still to come, more of your best and worst tweets and Facebook comments.


We'll give you the final results of the survey question at Nearly a quarter of Americans reported an increase in alcohol consumption to help cope with the stress of the pandemic. So I'm asking, "Will drinking return to pre-pandemic levels?"


SMERCONISH: Time to see how you responded to the survey question this week at With nearly one in four Americans saying the pandemic stress drove them to drink more than usual, I've asked, "Will drinking return to pre-pandemic levels?"

Here are the results. What do we got?


Sixty-nine percent say, wow, of 11,019 who voted. Let's call it 70-30 say, yes, now that the pandemic is winding down we'll go back to the way that we were. I don't know, time will tell.

Social media we don't have much time. What came in this week that I can respond to quickly?

I'm too hung over to vote. Right. I thought somebody would say, I'll drink to that.

One more if we've got time for it. Put it up there.

For me any increase in drinking has been due to boredom rather than stress, more hours at home watching TV or surfing the internet. But two bottles of wine per night -- yes, that sounded crazy.

Hey, I'll say one thing, Richard, the TV has been excellent, and I don't just mean CNN.

See you next week.