The Irish Rocker Has a Mission: To Fight Poverty, and Enlist the Powerful in the Battle
Washington Post, November 26, 2007
Bono sweeps into the bathroom that sits outside his downtown lobbying office, which is his base of operation when he comes to Washington every so often to try to save Africa.
He's dressed in black denim, his 5-7 height boosted by a pair of brothel creepers -- the rockabilly footwear in fashion about the time that Elvis recorded "Blue Suede Shoes."
He suddenly starts belting out the opening lines of "I Want to Hold Your Hand."
"Oh yeah, I'll tell you something," he sings before walking to the far stall, "I think you'll understand."
After a few moments, the reporter who's also in the bathroom shouts, "What's up with the Beatles?"
"The Beatles are it," Bono yells before walking to the sink. "There's a really good movie you should see. It's called Across the Universe and it's made by Julie Taymor, who's a card-carrying genius. I'm in it briefly," he says of the musical set to Beatles songs. "It's this fantastic, moving thing."
Bono has spoken!
He's delivered a forceful recommendation, verging on a directive. There's a hint of urgency. We want to rush out and do what he says.
Maybe this is how he does it.
Maybe this is how he gets legislators and heads of state and titans of industry together, and gets them to offer up billions in debt relief to help lift Africa out of poverty.
He dazzles them in telling them what to do, and they do it.
"This is a polarized and very divisive environment these days," former Senate majority leader Tom Daschle says somberly. "The one person who's brought us together is Bono."
For many of the powerful and dispirited like Daschle, who has joined the rocker-advocate's crusade, Bono is the last hope to forge bipartisan reconciliation in a capital city bitterly divided and angry. That he can't go five minutes without calling something "quite sexy" is quite beside the point.
"I don't think he's a celebrity," says Jamie Drummond, a veteran of Third World development causes who now works closely with Bono. "Let's brainstorm a new name. He's breaking a mold here. He's spanning different universes. He's a little mercurial at times but also has a strong focus. He's relentless."
As proof of his potency in Washington, one need only look at the crowd that Bono, 47, draws one fall evening on the second floor of Sonoma, a restaurant on Capitol Hill. Surrounded by administration officials and Hill staffers -- Democrats and Republicans -- and musicians from Mali, he mixes easily with these folks, most of whom he knows and greets by first name. Daschle is there, as is Sen. John Sununu (R-N.H.) and Jendayi Frazer, the State Department's top official for Africa. Yes, they are together for Africa. But they're really here for him.
"When I first met him, I was thinking, what does this man have to do with the people I represent?" says Rep. John R. Carter (R-Tex.), a third-term congressman from the district that includes the Fort Hood Army base as well as the blossoming suburbs north of Austin. "But listening to him, well, he's a straight shooter, and that's what we like back home."
The straight shooter has control of the room soon enough. Looking out at the bipartisan crowd, Bono talks about the stats that have been flashing on flat-screen televisions all evening, of the 20 million African children going to school because of debt cancellation. Then, as he did in accepting the Liberty Medal from the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, he talks of Thomas Jefferson and "what lyrics he wrote."
"It's the closing lines that struck me as a student and fan of America," the Irishman says of the Declaration of Independence and the founders, "which is we 'pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor.' These people could have actually paid with their lives. It was an act of treason to sign it. Am I ready, a man who has stepped off a private jet a couple of days ago, to pledge my fortune? It doesn't look like it. My life? I hope not. But my sacred honor? I like to think I am."
Not unexpectedly, he receives great applause. After all, he's a man preaching to the very people he himself converted. After he makes small talk with those devotees he's brought together, suddenly he's down the stairs, leaving the devoted to their free drinks and, more important, to their sense of renewed inspiration.
'Why Are People Listening?'
How did this happen? How did a man who spent an entire concert tour crank-calling the White House become a power punk in Washington? Well, it all starts with the initial meet. What one hears from elected officials about their first experience meeting the gilded one follows a familiar path. There's the initial skepticism on their part before getting Bono's pitch, which targets a person's secular compassion or sense of religious duty (depending on the legislator) and blends in simple common sense. To forgive debts would allow African countries to spend their money elsewhere, allowing them to create their own anti-poverty programs. As a topper, Bono stresses accountability -- arguing for aid to nations that practice good governance and transparency.
He has set up a lobbying shop, with 75 full-time employees here, welcomed into every corner of power within Washington. He's helped push forward the issues of debt forgiveness and economic development on the continent and a re-energized effort toward eliminating HIV and AIDS. Now, he's determined to poke his mug into the thick of the U.S. presidential campaign, meeting with candidates to push them to add global poverty reduction to their platforms.
"If you want to know, what I do is I put flesh and blood on statistics," Bono, in an interview, says of his method of advocacy. "I try and get those people to come alive and walk around the room for a while -- mothers, children, families. Because once they're real, they're very hard to ignore. There's a kind of cold passion that is necessary for us all in terms of policy and strategy. But there comes the occasion when you want some warm blood to run through the veins."
What comes next is a follow-up that stretches into years. There's the call to Dick Durbin's cell while the senior senator from Illinois rides a bus on Lake Shore Drive in Chicago. There's the call to Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy from the deepest reaches of Africa. ("Oh, hi. Honey, it's Bono !")
"The bottom line is, I believed he was sincere and made good arguments," says John Kasich, the former Republican congressman from Ohio, who heard the pitch and led the House to appropriate $435 million toward a $5 billion to $6 billion loan-forgiveness program for 33 African nations. "I know he is a man of faith and he stressed responsibility on our part, and that resonated with me.
"And," says Kasich, "I like him because he's a cool guy."
He and others describe something that sounds like giddiness from having worked with someone who's not like a rock star, but actually is a rock star.
"I think knowing the Scriptures helped," Bono says of his conversations with more conservative legislators. His father was Roman Catholic, and it was his Protestant mother who regularly took him to church before her death when Bono was 14. "I think I could debate with them. I hope they had appreciated that, and they knew I had respect for their beliefs. Even if I wasn't the best example of how to live your life, they treated me with respect. I'm nervous of zealotism, even though I have to admit I'm a zealot for these issues of extreme poverty."
Bono seems to provide for many in official Washington a form of inspiration, reaching into those corners of the soul to find whatever remained of the sense of optimism and altruism that drove them into public service in the first place. What Bono demands in return is the means to save the lives of millions.
"Why are people listening?" Bono says. "Because I actually believe in America and they know it and I'm not sure if they do sometimes. It is a little odd and eerie to have an Irish rock star recite the Declaration of Independence like it's a great poem, but it is a great poem. And that poetry is what's missing from political dialogue right now. And this country is parched, parched from the lack of such political lyrics, and I'm going in saying, 'This is who you are.' "
He was an ordinary man once, with an ordinary name. Paul David Hewson started to become who he is at Mount Temple Comprehensive School in Dublin. There, when he was 15, he met Alison Stewart, now his wife of 25 years and the mother of his four children. And it was there he found his mates -- the three men who would join together and stand together to this day as U2.
From the very beginning, they were not content to stay a garage band or merely a darling of the critics. They always wanted to be galvanizing, a force that could reach millions, everlasting and indestructible. Musically, their songs (beginning with their first album, Boy) made that extended reach, informed by a sense of spiritual longing, underpinned by biblical beliefs.
Reflecting on those early days, Bono reaches for the wonkish language of official Washington and says: "We decriminalized ambition. There was a kind of dishonesty that surrounded music when U2 was formed -- it was that whole thing that you had to cut your ear off to be a real artist. It was clear to us that it wasn't true. Lifestyle did not decide how good an artist you were.
"It's that part of you that stands in front of a mirror [strumming] with a tennis racquet," he continues. "You want to be in the Beatles with girls chasing you down the street. I don't really believe there's a songwriter out there who doesn't want as many people as possible to hear their songs. And when they say that, I don't believe them."
And millions across the world heard U2's anthems to social justice in 1985 at the Live Aid benefit for a starving Ethiopia. After that, Bono and Alison went there themselves and worked for six weeks giving out essential food supplies. At one point, a man approached Bono with his young child, asking the rocker to take his son to Ireland.
Those who know Bono say it was something he never really got over. It spurred his transcendence from mere rock star to savior of both the world's most impoverished and the button-down servants of the American experiment working along the Potomac.
'You Have to Engage With Power'
Now, if you are going to be taken seriously among the duly elected representatives of The People, and the people they appoint, you need to have a lobbying organization. Bono essentially has two: DATA (an acronym for Debt AIDS Trade Africa), which prods the big policy folks, and the One Campaign, which seeks to seed a grass-roots movement for poverty relief. Set to merge soon under the One name, they are housed in a pedestrian office building on I Street NW. The vibe could be described as a mix of National Geographic and Us Weekly. It's a place where pictures of Brad Pitt in conference with DATA's Drummond, of Matt Damon in Africa, of Bono arm-wrestling Houston Rockets center Dikembe Mutombo, blend in nicely with photos of African schoolchildren.
Bono learned how to buttonhole congressmen in the late 1990s, when he recruited Bobby Shriver, son of Sarge and Eunice, to push debt relief on the Hill.
Studying every lobbying organization from the NRA to AARP, Bono and his advisers -- including Shriver and Drummond -- along with Tom Hart (who worked for the Episcopal Church), Republican lobbyist Scott Hatch and Democratic lobbyist Tom Sheridan, came up with DATA and persuaded financiers George Soros and Ed Scott to help fund it. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation ponied up $1 million.
"What's made them effective is not only to be bipartisan but to be apolitical," says Sununu. "They're willing to sidestep politics and appeal to people of all stripes -- conservatives, liberals, moderates of both parties. It's served them well."
What's also served them well is their relationship with the White House. Condoleezza Rice, now secretary of state, and Josh Bolten, now White House chief of staff, warmed to Bono's ideas as early as 2001. So did then-Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill, who traveled with Bono to Africa for 12 days in 2002; TV crews filmed their every move as they visited schools and clinics and clean-water projects.
"We created dozens of hours for CNN -- a lot of which they showed to the world," O'Neill says. "I think they did it because of Bono's notoriety and fame and my title, which for me is exactly how these things can be used."
The rocker was instrumental in "creating a public awareness in which politicians feel they have to be active," says Michael Gerson, a former speechwriter for President Bush. In 2003, Bush announced a $15 billion initiative to combat AIDS, primarily in Africa.
Certainly Bush and Bono have at times seemed inseparable. Last year, the president introduced the rocker/activist before he addressed the National Prayer Breakfast. Earlier this year, as Bono took the reins of the glossy phonebook otherwise known as Vanity Fair for its special Africa issue, he made sure that both Bush and Rice were among the special guests asked to appear on the 20 different covers photographed by Annie Leibovitz. (Late in the party at Sonoma, Bono could be seen standing alone in a corner, autographing a photo of himself and Bush for a White House official.)
"If you want change, you have to engage with power," Bono says. "That's what we do."
But engaging with power has its costs. To get what he wants on the African continent, to exert influence over those still in power, he must forsake his own feelings about the singular issue driving the most active of artistic activists: Iraq.
"They know my feelings about the war," Bono says. "Both Prime Minister Blair and President Bush knew we were not in support of the war. I've always gone out of my way at U2 shows to show my support for the troops, but it's not something I sound off on. I gave up that right. I have become a single-issue protagonist. And as hard as that is for a mouthy Irishman who's more used to putting his foot in his mouth than his fist, I think people really respect that."
Since 2003 he's made roughly a dozen trips to Washington, avoiding the little brush fires, making sure to arrive at that moment when he's most needed.
Not everyone kneels before him. Novelist Paul Theroux and New York University professor William Easterly have repeatedly mocked Bono's efforts as celebrity aggrandizement that overemphasizes outside aid as a fix for poverty. Former World Bank president James Wolfensohn, while praising Bono's efforts on the African continent, quibbles with the actual results -- saying that the average poor African gets fewer dollars in aid today than pre-1980 levels.
But that hasn't deterred Bono from his efforts here. During a recent meeting in the DATA offices, Bono sits with Drummond; former Republican congressman Jim Kolbe; the Brookings Institution's Lael Brainard; Mort Halperin, director of U.S. advocacy at the Open Society Institute; and DATA's policy director, Erin Thornton.
During the brainstorming session, Bono asks: "Do you think it's time for a Cabinet position for development?"
"Having done an 18-month bipartisan commission that came to that decision," Brainard says, "I'd say yes. But the real question is, do you put that on your list of priorities?"
"I think DATA should stay out of this fight," Halperin says. "It's born to lose. It's not going to happen."
When it is suggested that structural reform is boring and might need a household name to push it, Bono asks, "Could Pat Leahy do that?...He's a fantastic orator. A gigantic personality."
"And he loves his job," Halperin says.
"He also has a gigantic heart," Bono says, and he seems to genuinely believe that he could inspire President Bush not only to set up a new Cabinet post, but to put Pat Leahy in it.
And then he is gone, off to catch a private jet to New York, where he will greet the famous of that metropolis by their first names.
He leaves behind a city awash in its own bile. We are once again faced with our own disagreements over earmarking and vetoes and overrides and cots. What we do now is wait -- wait for Bono to return, the one person who can unite us.
© The Washington Post Company, 2007.