Lawrence Wright

Willie Nelson signs his album, Before His Time, for a fan at his statue unveiling Friday afternoon on Willie Nelson Boulevard.

Photo Credit: Skylar Isdale | Daily Texan Staff

Willie Nelson and supporting fans sang together at the unveiling of a monument dedicated to the Austin resident and country music legend on April 20, a counterculture holiday nationally associated with marijuana use.

The monument was unveiled around 4:20 p.m., with the number 420 holding particular significance within cannabis culture. Nelson is an activist for the legalization of marijuana and sits as a co-chair on the advisory board of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. The bronze statue depicts Nelson sitting relaxedly with guitar in hand.

Erection of the statue was funded by Capital Area Statues, Inc., a private organization that works to celebrate the history and culture of Texas through public sculptures. It was placed in downtown Austin at the corner of Lavaca Street and Wille Nelson Boulevard, adjacent to the Moody Theater, the current home of the PBS music program Austin City Limits. Nelson received one of his first big breaks when he performed during the recording of the pilot episode of Austin City Limits in 1974.

According to Lawrence Wright, president of Capital Area Statues, Inc., the date of the unveiling was a total coincidence as his group had no idea of the political connotation associated with April 20.

“Once we realized what we were stating we just decided to roll with it,” he said, referring to the addition of the planned 4:20 p.m. unveiling of the statue. “It’s a part of keeping Austin weird.”

The event came one day after the release of Nelson’s new single “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die,” a collaboration between Nelson and music artists Snoop Dogg and Kris Kristofferson.

Among people celebrating the unveiling were Kristofferson and city of Austin mayor Lee Leffingwell, both of whom spoke about Nelson’s major impact on the country music world and the city of Austin through his success.

“He is the man who really more than, I think, any other person makes Austin the live music capital of the world,” Leffingwell said.

Arising from humble beginnings, Nelson, 78, has gone on to become the recipient of 10 Grammy Awards, nine CMA awards and dozens of other honors for his albums, of which he has sold about 40 million copies.

Acknowledging his fame at the unveiling, Nelson joked to a fan who suggested he run for president.

“I would run, but I might win,” he said.

Nelson’s personal style is what inspired the private group to originally have the statue created, Wright said.

“It’s about this sense of engagement that you feel,” he said. “Willie is a superstar, but unlike most people in that category, he is down to earth. He really relates to people, and we love that quality of his.”

Printed on Monday, April 23, 2012 as: Statue celbrating music icon Willie Nelson unveiled

American press covering conflict in the Middle East brings humanity back into a situation that can quickly become depraved, said author and journalist Lawrence Wright on Tuesday.

Wright, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 2007 for a book about al-Qaida, spoke in a panel with author Jason Brownlee and Glenn Frankel, the director of the School of Journalism and former bureau chief of The Washington Post’s Middle East desk. The three explained their understanding of the role of a journalist and of America in the face of revolution in the Arab world and the Middle East.

When reporting on stories — such as 9/11, U.S.-Arab conflict or revolution in the Arab world — journalists need to step in and prevent one culture from viewing the other as inherently evil, Wright said.

“When things get to that highly polarized status, the role of the journalist is to complicate things, to go in and add nuance and humanity to a situation that is reeling out of control,” Wright said.

The shrinking pool of foreign correspondents, which has fewer than 300 journalists, is alarming during upheaval in the Arab world, Wright said. Until recently, the American intelligence community has begun approaching open sources, including journalists, because its own information has not proved reliable, he said.

“America is an ignorant country,” he said. “We don’t know the cultures, we don’t know the people and we don’t know what kind of outcome we can expect. The rest of the world needs us. They need us to be the America that we want to be.”

The task of reckoning with Arab public opinion and the views and self-representations of the people of the Middle East after aiding Egypt and surrounding countries during their uprisings is troubling and scary for many American officials and leaders, said Brownlee, who is currently writing a book on U.S.-Egypt relations.

“The fear of an Islamic takeover in the Middle East is kind of a red herring,” he said. “I think what U.S. officials really fear is dealing with Egypt as an equal.”

The lecture gave insight into what a journalist thinks about in his or her daily life when dealing with difficult issues and foreign relations, said civil engineering freshman Hanna Paper.

“As journalists, they have to keep such an open mind,” she said. “It’s hard to think about that when your thinking about topics
like 9/11.”


Pulitzer Prize-winner Lawrence Wright said it took years for him to come to terms with what he saw while covering America’s involvement in the atrocious conflicts in the Middle East.

Wright, who is the 2010-11 Cline Centennial Visiting Professor for the Humanities Institute at UT, earned the Pulitzer in 2007 for his book, “The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11.” But after this difficult exercise in maintaining journalistic objectivity, many were curious about his side of the story.

“My friends asked me again and again, ‘Well, what was it like for you, how did it affect you?’” Wright said. “And I realized that I hadn’t really processed how it had affected me emotionally.”

Wright decided to pen a play, his first inclination being toward musical comedy or “anything to get [him] away from the subject of terrorism.” Instead, in 2006, he produced a one-man show entitled “My Trip to al-Qaeda,” a deeply personal take on all he had experienced, with a special focus on the moral dilemmas that came with getting into the inner sanctum of the men at the heart of al-Qaeda.

Academy Award-winning director Alex Gibney then converted the play into a documentary in 2010 using footage from the events Wright covered in his journalism career and from Wright performing the show itself. The Humanities Institute screened the film Wednesday to a crowd of about 100 people.

“The film is his personal story,” said Humanities Institute director Pauline Strong. “It’s a story about his personal encounter with the development of terrorism. The play and the documentary of the play help us to think about our personal relationship to global issues, as well as our relationship as Americans to global issues.”

The film acted as an effective tool of reflection for Alyssa Creagh, a sophomore in the School of Fine Arts.

“The documentary really shed light on how the American viewpoint on the war was pretty limited,” she said. “Not a lot of people knew about the torture our government administered, and it seems that many decided not to believe it rather than make sure their government was accountable.”

In the middle of the film, Wright lays out bin Laden’s ultimate plan for al-Qaeda — a complete overthrow of the autocratic regimes populating the Middle East in favor of Islamic rule. With the current eruption of revolution throughout the Middle East, this proclamation is eerily prophetic. But, Wright said during a Q&A after the screening, the current revolutions found inspiration not in al-Qaeda, but in the United States.

“The greatest thing we’ve ever done in the eyes of Muslim hearts is elect Barack Obama as president,” he said. “It gave a powerful model on how to bring about true, direct change. I think what’s happened in Tunisia and Egypt is a direct effect of that.”

Staying true to those values is key to maintaining this model, Wright said.