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Royal Caribbean Nightmare; Atlanta Shut Down; Tears & Cheers for American Hero; Interview with Hugh Hewitt

Aired January 29, 2014 - 16:00   ET


JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: And you thought your commute was bad.

I'm Jake Tapper. This is THE LEAD.

The national lead. Some drivers got in their cars 24 hours ago, and they still have not made it home. Hundreds of kids went to school yesterday and have not seen their parents since. How less than three inches of snow paralyzed a major American city.

In national news, in a bitterly divided room, he managed to unite everyone in a grand display of respect, if not awe -- the amazing story of Sergeant 1st Class Cory Remsburg, the man who got the biggest applause at the State of the Union.

And the world lead. The head of the Olympic Games says Sochi is the -- quote -- "most secure venue on the planet." Uh-huh. But we will ask a congressman who just visited the area, can we trust that assessment when Russia is on high alert for a potential terrorist attack?

Good afternoon, everyone. I'm Jake Tapper. Welcome to THE LEAD.

We will begin with the national lead. If you have friends in Atlanta and you want to keep them, do not under any circumstances refer to their city as Hotlanta today. You should never really call it Hotlanta, but especially today.

Anybody who lives there will tell you that even on a perfect day Atlanta's traffic is hell. Now add ice and 2.6 inches, not even three, of snow, and the ninth biggest city in the country and a major hub in the United States is utterly crippled.

At least two deaths are being blamed on the bad weather in Georgia. Some drivers are stuck in the longest commutes of their lives. People who tried to drive home yesterday are still stuck, some for more than 24 hours. Parents are losing their minds because thousands of school- age children had to spend the night at their schools away from home.

Some in both Georgia and Alabama were even stuck on buses. Many in Atlanta are turning their anger upon Mayor Kasim Reed, the Democrat who sailed to reelection last year. He tweeted this out before the storm yesterday around 10:20 a.m. Eastern. He wrote: "Atlanta, we are ready for the snow."

What will Reed live to regret more, that tweet or losing the Braves to another county?

When the mayor appeared on CNN this morning, he seemed to be spreading the blame.


KASIM REED (D), MAYOR OF ATLANTA, GEORGIA: I don't feel the people are angry at me. I think that they have a great deal of frustration. I thought that it was a mistake for business, government, and the schools to announce those closures, which caused people to flow into the streets and created a major traffic jam.


TAPPER: Politely beg to differ, Mr. Mayor. People are angry at you.

And by midday, perhaps after seeing the vitriol directed against him all over Twitter, Mayor Reed had updated his message.


REED: I understand that people are frustrated and angry. We made a mistake by not staggering when people should leave. So I will take responsibility for that.


TAPPER: Now, we should point out that the city of Atlanta is not actually responsible for clearing the interstate highways, where most of the gridlock is. That job lies with the state of Georgia.

Last night, as the storm hit, Governor Nathan Deal put it this way.


GOV. NATHAN DEAL (R), GEORGIA: We have been confronted with an unexpected snowstorm that has hit the metropolitan Atlanta area.


TAPPER: I'm sorry. Did he say unexpected? Unexpected? Well, there were all those weather reports, of course.

Governor Deal, like Mayor Reed, decided to amend his comments by midday today.


DEAL: I didn't mean to imply that we didn't know something was coming.

What I was referring to was that the National Weather Service had continually had their modeling showing that the city of Atlanta would not be the primary area where the storm would hit.

(END VIDEO CLIP) TAPPER: Now, see, that's not really true either. The National Weather Service did put out a winter storm warning for just the southern metro Atlanta area at 3:22 p.m. Eastern Monday, but then at 3:38 a.m. yesterday morning, that was upgraded to the entire metro area, a warning for one to two inches of snow.

The more we hear about this, the more it seems Atlanta's grand plan for dealing with this storm is the sun. There are horror stories all over Atlanta today about the storm. Kawanna Anthony got on Interstate 285 yesterday around 2:45 p.m. Eastern. It's a drive home that usually takes about 20 minutes. She didn't get home for 18 hours. The worst part is she had her 6-month-old daughter in the car with her.

Kawanna Anthony joins me on the phone right now.

Kawanna, first of all, thank God you are home and you are OK and your baby is OK. I know you only had a few diapers and bottles for your baby. How did you manage to take care of her through this ordeal? Is she OK?

KAWANNA ANTHONY, STRANDED PASSENGER: Yes, she's fine now. She's happy because he was able to get some more food.


TAPPER: And your other child got stuck at school?

ANTHONY: Yes. She was stranded as well. She didn't get home last night until around about 8:30.

TAPPER: How did you keep yourself sane? A lot of us are just picturing 18 hours in a commute. What did you do? Did your car move at all? What did you do for food? What did you do for any other break you needed to take?

ANTHONY: No, I actually didn't have any food, period, for myself.

I had to manage with her bottles that I left from her day care. It was only two-and-a-half bottles that I had that I had to make way with for 18 hours for her. And it was very hard, and it was horrible. And I had never experienced anything like that in my life.

TAPPER: A co-worker posted on Facebook that you needed help, and I understand a good samaritan arrived this morning? Tell me about that.

ANTHONY: Yes, yes, yes, Mr. Todd and Heather Couch (ph), exactly.

Well, Ms. Heather called me and basically wanted to know where my location was. And I told her where I was, and she told me that she was going to have my husband call me in a few minutes. And he called me like within like five minutes of me and her getting off the phone.

And he wanted me to give him directions to where I was. And he told me, he was he -- he says, I will be there in about 20 minutes because it was going to take him a good little while to get there because of all the ice being on the road. And so he parked his truck on top of the highway -- I mean, on top of the bridge and walked down to the highway where I was and got me and my daughter out.

And I just thank God for him. I think he was heaven-sent with us not -- with me not having nothing to eat, with me not having any diapers for her, and no milk for her. It was definitely a blessing with him coming to get me. My car is still actually on the highway as we speak.

TAPPER: Kawanna, before I let you go, is there anything you want to say to the politicians who should have been better prepared?

ANTHONY: Well, my thing is, I just hated that everybody was told to get off work at the same time. I think that is what caused the awful, awful backup.

I mean, it was just completely awful out there on the street. Everybody was spinning and cars was turning around. And I was actually scared for my life, as well as my daughter. And I just think the next time, you know, if we know that the weather is coming like this, the schools should have never been involved.

The schools should have been closed and everyone should have been let go at a different time, so that way it would have gave the highways enough room to not get so congested.

TAPPER: All right, Kawanna, well, we're so happy that you're OK and your babies are OK. Hug them for us. Thank you so much for your time.

ANTHONY: You're welcome.

TAPPER: What is the city's plan now, just hours before night falls and the temperatures drop?

Ceasar Mitchell, Atlanta City Council president, joins me now from the CNN Center in Atlanta.

It's 4:00 p.m., Ceasar. Thanks for joining us. The sun will be down soon. People are still hurting. What's the plan for tonight?


Thank you, Jake, for having me.

I will say this first and foremost. My heart goes out to the many citizens who were stranded on highways and streets last night, to our young people, our students who had to spend nights in schools with parents who were waiting at home for their children to be returned.

And I also want to say this. And I think this is important to say. I want to thank the many citizens, the business owners, the residents who took stranded motorists in, who took in young people and their parents into their homes, their businesses, brought them food in little red wagons from their homes to streets that were impassable to ensure that people had food to eat. And I just want to say that is one of the things that really is important to note here, that citizens, everyday citizens stepped up.


TAPPER: I understand, absolutely. But what happened? How come there was no planning? Who was responsible for this? How could the governor have not had any preparation, apparently any preparation to clear the highways? How come the city of Atlanta, the mayor and yourself, as the City Council president, how come you didn't stagger the closings? How come you weren't better prepared?

MITCHELL: Well, I will tell you, I think what happened, and based upon my observation and based upon what I personally witnessed, is that the situation went from bad to worse more quickly than I think anyone expected.

I think when you talk about this issue of moving around and shifting around the blame, I don't think that's what we ought to do now, but what I do believe we need to do is, as elected officials, as folks who serve the public, be willing to shoulder the responsibility of what's happened squarely upon our shoulders collectively and certainly come up with a plan to make sure that this doesn't happen ever again.

You know, I will tell you, yesterday, I was one of those folks who had to figure out how to get home, but I was not certainly as bad off as my mother-in-law, who had to travel from North Atlanta to South Atlanta to get home, and it took her 12 hours to get halfway, and if it wasn't for my father-in-law coming to get her, she would have still been on the highway this morning.

TAPPER: No, it's remarkable, sir. But the thing is, despite what the mayor and governor have said, we absolutely knew this was coming. Our own meteorologist Chad Myers, based in Atlanta, was reporting on this 24 hours before it hit.

When did you know something was terribly wrong with the preparation for the response?

MITCHELL: Well, I will tell you, I'm someone who's very interested in what's going on with the weather. I have a wife. I have two very young daughters who are in school and I'm very concerned about their ability to get around, as I am with all the citizens of our city.

And what I know happened, quite frankly -- and this is where I think we have got some lessons learned here and some things that we will need to do going forward in a much better fashion to make sure this doesn't happen in the future.

But if you think about what happened, you laid this out at the beginning of your program. Earlier on Monday, you had a winter storm watch for the Atlanta area that was then downgraded to a winter weather advisory. I know this because I was watching the Weather Channel very closely on Monday evening.

But then mid-morning, this situation got upgraded to a winter weather warning around 3:30 a.m., and not only upgraded to a winter weather warning. It was pushed up an hour. The question I think we will have to find out is what really happened during that time frame between when the status was upgraded from an advisory to a warning, and what protocols did we have in place that didn't allow us to react in the way that we could have reacted?

And I think that's going to be the lesson for us, and we have got to figure this out.

TAPPER: I haven't seen anything like -- I happened to have been in Greece in the winter of 2001 when they had their first snowfall in decades, and I have to say I haven't seen anything like the unpreparedness that I see in Atlanta right now then from back in 2001 when I was in Greece, a country that hadn't had snowfall in decades.

Atlanta City Council Caesar Mitchell, thank you so much for your time.

MITCHELL: Thank you for having me.

TAPPER: Coming up on THE LEAD: It was the one moment that brought both sides together, a standing ovation for a soldier, an Army Ranger wounded in Afghanistan. Who is Sergeant 1st Class Cory Remsburg, why does he mean so much to President Obama?

Plus, Royal Caribbean is doing damage control after the largest outbreak of an illness on a cruise ship in two decades. We will talk to one passenger ahead who just got off the ship.


TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD.

In national news, there was a lot to discus and much to disagree on, when it comes to our body politic in last night's State of the Union address. But there was one moment at the end of President Obama's speech that captured everyone's attention and brought everyone to the edge of their seats, then out of their seats. For a moment, one brief moment, a very divided Congress came together, a moment of unity and one would hope humility, and it took an army ranger to lead the way.


TAPPER (voice-over): He captivated the room, bringing the nation's leaders to their feet and some to tears. And he did it without saying a word.

He is Sergeant First Class Cory Remsburg and last night, he received the longest and loudest standing ovation during the president's address in the House chamber.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Cory is here tonight, and like the Army he loves, like the America he serves, Sergeant First Class Cory Remsburg never gives up and he does not quit.

TAPPER: The 30-year-old from Arizona has been deployed to fight for the U.S. 10 times. The last time to Kandahar. OBAMA: On his tenth deployment, Cory was nearly killed by a massive roadside bomb in Afghanistan. His comrades found him in a canal face down under water, shrapnel in his brain.

TAPPER: That was October 2009. After months in a coma and years in hospitals and rehabilitation centers, the army ranger was finally able to return home to Arizona last April.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He's working hard, trying to find that independence. And that's what we're here to do, help him find that.

TAPPER: His father Craig and stepmother Annie have been with him throughout his recovery, supporting him physically and emotionally, as the country recognizes his sacrifice.

ANNIE REMSBURG, CORY'S STEPMOTHER: We are the blessed ones. We're the one who got our son back.

TAPPER: President Obama met the army ranger before his injury. He then saw him again at his bedside in Bethesda and at a rehabilitation center after the life-threatening attack. Remsburg is blind in one eye, he has difficulty moving on his left side, but he is making progress.

OBAMA: Day by day, he's learned to speak again and stand again and walk again. And he's working toward the day when he can serve his country again.



TAPPER: President Obama has met with hundreds of wounded warriors. So, what makes Sergeant First Class Remsburg so special to him beyond his determination?

It was the fact that he may have been the first soldier whom the president met before and then again after he was wounded. I'm told it was a poignant and somewhat stunning moment for commander in chief when at Bethesda Naval Hospital in 2010 he looked up and saw this photograph of him with a healthier Remsburg from the previous summer, a moment when the president felt the weight of his responsibility for all these troops on his shoulders.

In the politics lead, while the president was calling for a year of action last night, one prominent conservative radio host is calling for Republicans to aim for, quote, "masterly inactivity".

Joining me is Hugh Hewitt, host of the nationally syndicated radio program, "The Hugh Hewitt Show", and author of the new book, "The Happiest Life: Seven Gifts, Seven Givers, and the Secret to Genuine Success."

It's all in here, happiness and success. HUGH HEWITT, CONSERVATIVE RADIO HOST: That's all you need, Jake. That's it. All you need.

TAPPER: Buy this book. All right. That's it. I can call it a night. I want to get to the book in a second because a fun and enjoyable read. But before I do, I want to talk about the State of the Union.

So let's say you're not a fan of the current president. You write on your blog that the president's speech was, quote, "forgettable, is, in fact, already forgotten."


TAPPER: Is there anything that he said last night that you liked that you applauded other than Sergeant First Class Remsburg? I had Ted Cruz on last night. He came up with a couple things. So there must be nothing.

HEWITT: No. Actually, I think Ted Cruz is working overtime. I appreciate greatly the recognition of the master sergeant. I wish he'd gone further and said that anyone who's served 10 deployments, whether they've been as terribly wounded as the master sergeant has been or not, does not deserve to have their military COLA cut. I would have then applauded the president.

I was over with Senator Graham earlier today talking about how to reverse this military COLA cut for people who have deployed 10 times who haven't been terribly injured. So, I thought, it was wonderful they applauded him, but where was the president on the rest of the trips for whom he is the commander in chief defending these men and women who serve 20 years against the Congress looking for $6 billion to spend on pork?

So, now, I did think it was notable in your hometown newspaper this morning, "The Washington Post," the headline is, "I am not standing still." That's a negative. And normally, that's not what a speechwriter shoots for in a State of the Union.

TAPPER: No, it's not. You also write, quote, "The GOP must adopt this position of refusing to negotiate with the president who's routinely breached his every commitment to them."

Now, obviously, one of the knocks on the Republican Party from say the media is this is the party of no, or let's say it's the Democrats or interchangeable perhaps sometimes. Is there a price to pay, you think, for inaction? Don't the American people, especially swing voters, don't they want something happening?

HEWITT: I'm glad you read the blog, Jake, and I'm glad that people notice that line "masterly inactivity" comes from a great prime minister of the 19th century, Lord Salisbury, who believed in doing nothing well.

TAPPER: Right. HEWITT: And the Republicans seem to do nothing well right now on immigration, right now on spending. They need to focus all of their activity on Obamacare's rollout and the actual facts about it and on the aftermath of Benghazi, which you and I talk about many times on the air. They don't need to advance an immigration bill. They don't need to walk into the president's Roosevelt Room and get hammered again as happened last year during the shutdown when they thought they made progress and the president emerged and basically clipped them, hit them from the blindside.

Speaker Boehner has been hit from the blind side so many times by the president, he probably won't ever engage in a conversation with him again.

So, I think, now is the time to wait for November '14 and see what the country thinks about Obamacare, and then move forward in the next Congress.

TAPPER: Let's move to your book.

HEWITT: All right.

TAPPER: Because it is enjoyable.

So, basically the bottom line with your book, you look back at over 10,000 interviews that you've conducted. I have to say you have interviewed me on my book also, which you've generously mentioned in your book. And you really prepare. You are probably one of the most prepared interviewers I've ever encountered. You read a 600-page book, I mean, it's pretty astounding.

It's not just any host talking about what they've learned. You actually listen.

You have seven lessons, seven gifts that you say people need to adopt. They are encouragement, energy, enthusiasm, empathy, good humor, graciousness, and gratitude. Now we don't have time, unfortunately, to go into every one of them, but let's pick out a few of them.


HEWITT: Right, right.

TAPPER: You talk about Richard Dreyfus, someone with whom you agree probably on nothing.


TAPPER: But you love talking to him.

HEWITT: We ran out of tape. The only time in 25 years of broadcasting, I was doing television for PBS at the time, and we have taken three hours of tape, and we ran out of tape.

Richard Dreyfus, have you had a chance to interview him?


HEWITT: He's a magnificent interview. He's very smart. He's mother was the secretary for Eugene Debs.

He's self-educated, autodidact, reads everything, totally conversant, watched my show for PBS for years, came in ready to wrestle but very smart, very well-prepared and happy, also quite grateful. He's had some recovery issues in his life, quite grateful to be sitting there with a career that's still going on. He was a fantastic interview.

TAPPER: Another thing, another chapter that I really like was the one on empathy. You talked about, you interviewed eight religious leaders and you said that "each of these men had great capacity for empathy and that was because each of them had suffered greatly. Their suffering had not deformed them, but rather had formed them into complex carriers of love and understanding. These are not soft people. The opposite, in fact."

We're running out of time, but I want to say -- in your experience, what makes somebody go from having this experience to a carrier of love as opposed to having the shock and the horror deformed?

HEWITT: I think that is because each of those individuals -- Harold Kushner who lost his son gave me the best advice ever, show up and shut up. People were merciful to them in the midst of their suffering and so they themselves have been served in the midst of these horrible situations and therefore became that carrier.

So, they all have that in common. I think it's easier to emulate when you've received empathy to, in fact, be empathetic.

TAPPER: Hugh, I envy the time that you have on your show, because I now have to bid adieu to you. But the book is "Happy is Life: Seven Gifts, Seven Givers, and The Secret to Genuine Success." It is really very enjoyable book.

HEWITT: Thank you, Jake.

TAPPER: Thank you so much and it's nice to meet you face to face after years of talking on the phone and the radio.

HEWITT: See you on the radio soon.

TAPPER: Good to see you, Hugh.

And tomorrow, I will interview President Obama in a post-State of the Union exclusive. You can watch it Friday morning on NEW DAY, and Friday at 4:00 p.m. Eastern here on THE LEAD. And if you have a question for the president, you can tweet me @JakeTapper, or our show @TheLeadCNN. The hashtag is #potuslead. I'm sure Hugh has some suggestions.

Coming up on THE LEAD, angry passengers finally off one cruise ship as it docks in New Jersey. We'll talk to one of the hundreds of passengers who got sick, next. Plus, the chief Olympic organizer in Sochi is calling it the most secure venue on the planet. But one congressman who just returned from Russia, he disagrees. Who is he blaming for lack of coordination? Coming up.