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What happened at SXSW 2021 on Day 3? Bush addresses election fraud claims; we eat cheese

American-Statesman staff
President George W. Bush spoke at a featured session during SXSW Online on March 18, 2021.

Day 3 of South by Southwest's first all-virtual event brought viewers a former president, a current cabinet secretary and a whole lot of cheese. Music and movies continue Thursday night, but here's what you missed during the day.

1. Keynote: Pete Buttigieg

New U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg returned to the festival that helped make him a household political figure in 2019. It was then a CNN town hall audience was introduced to Buttigieg, a little-known 37-year-old Midwest mayor who weeks later would launch a presidential run that ended up going better than anyone expected. He was the first major presidential candidate to be gay and out, and in his current post, he's the first cabinet secretary who's gay and out, a point the keynote touched on.

Transportation Secretary Pete's keynote speech Thursday touched on roads and bridges and light rails — and, of course, his buddy-buddy friendship with Austin Mayor Steve Adler.

— Ryan Autullo, American-Statesman staff

U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg was the Thursday keynote for SXSW Online.

2. George W. Bush talks insurrection

A session with former President George W. Bush that aired Thursday centered on his new book, “Out of Many, One: Portraits of our Nation’s Immigrants.” But his comments on partisan politics were the news of the day. On the Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol by supporters of former President Donald Trump: "I was disgusted. ... I was sick to my stomach to see our nation's Capitol being stormed by hostile forces. And it really disturbed me to the point where I did put out a statement. And I'm still disturbed when I think about it. It undermines rule of law."

When asked whether the 2020 election was stolen, a false claim perpetuated by Trump and still promoted by his followers: “I think the election, all elections have some kind of improprieties. I think this election, the results of this election, though, were confirmed when Joe Biden got inaugurated as president,” Bush said. And when pressed to provide a more definitive answer, Bush said "No," the election was not stolen.

Commentary:Bush on the presidential election, immigration, baseball and how SXSW used to anger him

3. Richard Branson takes on capital punishment

A Thursday panel called “Business Leaders Against the Death Penalty” also served as a launchpad for a new initiative, Responsible Business Initiative for Justice. Richard Branson, billionaire founder of Virgin Group, spoke on the panel with initiative partner Celia Ouellette, a lawyer who founded the Powell Project and worked on death penalty cases, including some in Texas. Branson has been working with organizations to help free inmates who’ve been wrongly imprisoned, but this initiative, which will be rolled out with more supporters in October, is a more formal effort in a campaign against injustice.

— Omar L. Gallaga, special to the American-Statesman

4. Entertainment highlights

Two of the festival’s top-draw music films got world premieres on Wednesday evening and Thursday morning. Director Mary Wharton’s “Tom Petty, Somewhere You Feel Free” earned its place as SXSW’s centerpiece film, chronicling the sessions for the late rocker’s 1994 album “Wildflowers” with recently unearthed black-and-white footage from the studio and insightful interviews with co-producers Rick Rubin, Mike Campbell and others.

Part-time Austinite Tamara Saviano and her husband, Paul Whitfield, co-directed “Without Getting Killed or Caught,” a remarkably thorough and well-sourced documentary that expands upon Saviano’s 2016 biographer of Texas songwriting legend Guy Clark by digging deep into Clark’s relationship with his wife, songwriter and painter Susanna Clark. Oscar-winning actress Sissy Spacek provides perfect narration with passages taken from Susanna’s diaries, while archival cassette recordings provide glimpses of conversation between the Clarks and their close friend, fellow Texas songwriter Townes Van Zandt.

Peter Blackstock, American-Statesman staff

Oscar-winning director James Cameron discussed his upcoming Disney+ docuseries, "Secrets of the Whales." He called it a "gift from the ocean" and spoke with passion and purpose about conservation. The series dives 50 feet underwater without a tank to understand the love, regional dialects and empathy whales exhibit in their culture. The subtext is clear: Forget apex predators of the ocean, we need to save these "apex thinkers" while we can.

Ramon Ramirez, special to the American-Statesman

More:James Cameron’s Disney+ documentary wants to save the whales before it’s too late

5. Cheese

For the past two years, the most buzzed-about day party at SXSW has not been hosted by a band or a big tech company. For lactose-tolerant fest-goers, Cheeselandia, the massive dairy extravaganza hosted by Wisconsin Cheese, has been the place to Brie (sorry). As the festival went online this year, so did the cheese. On Thursday, a group of about 500 cheese-lovers across the country logged onto a forty-minute Zoom session that included games, celebrity pop-ins and a virtual hang with actor and comedian Nick Offerman.

We learned that Offerman has been spending his pandemic days hanging out in nature and backyard birding with his wife, actress Megan Mullally. In true Ron Swanson fashion, he’s also been learning how to smoke meats and recently made a ukulele in his wood shop.

The event was tightly structured with an impressive amount of interactivity. As event-goers noshed on a trio of cheeses that were mailed out earlier in the week, cheesemakers were celebrated and games were played.

Using a pop-up poll, attendees were able to select an artist to play the event out. LeeAnn Rimes edged out saxophonist Kenny G and drag queen Mrs. Kasha Davis and the country crooner brought the event to a suitably cheesy close.

— Deborah Sengupta Stith, American-Statesman