It’s a long way from the stage of Madison Square Garden to an HIV clinic in South Africa, or from the thunderous roar of an adoring audience to the buttoned-down halls of the U.S. Senate.
For most people, perhaps, but not for Bono.
Rock and politics have been strange bedfellows for decades, from folkie Pete Seeger’s civil rights work in the ’60s to Frank Zappa’s censorship battles in the ’80s and Rage Against the Machine’s anti-sweatshop agitation in the ’90s. But whether it’s peace in Ireland or restructuring third-world debt, few rock stars have been able to devote as much time to their poesy and political passions as U2’s lead singer.
And few politicians in recent memory, to say nothing of moonlighting rockers, have been able to bring such mainstream attention and hope for action to causes such as AIDS and poverty in Africa as the Irishman born Paul Hewson.
Which is why you’ve seen Bono on the cover of Time magazine, on the nightly news and in newspaper articles across the U.S. lately. If his recent 10-day tour of Africa with U.S. Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill was meant to focus the world’s attention on the devastation HIV has wrought on Africans and the continent’s dire poverty, experts both inside and outside Washington, D.C.’s beltway believe it was a mission accomplished. One that perhaps only someone like Bono could have pulled off.
According to those who’ve worked with him, that’s because Bono – through his tenacity, religious conviction, deep knowledge and, of course, rock star cache – has transcended the headline-grabbing, day-tripper image of politicized superstars who make a splash and then get back to their lives.
“One of the things that he and conservative politicians like Senator Jesse Helms have in common – what distinguishes him from other rock stars – is that they can not only go home and tell their daughters that they met with Bono, but he can speak to them and address issues in a way that touches the heart,” said Marie Clarke, national coordinator for the Jubilee USA Network, a debt-relief organization that has benefited from Bono’s support.
“He touches them, especially Christians, by reminding them of the scriptural call to… protect the vulnerable of society. Which has led to that now famous story of Bono making Helms cry in a meeting.”
Being at the top of the celebrity heap doesn’t hurt, either. “He’s the kind of person where, if he walks into a room, everything comes to a stop,” said Fred Davis III, founder of Hollywood-based Strategic Perception Inc., an image consulting firm that has helped politicians such as Elizabeth Dole and Dan Quayle “go Hollywood” by making their messages slicker and more mediagenic.
“But he also has this amazing do-good attitude that he has applied to everything he does,” Davis added. “It’s that combination of personality and knowledge that allows him to gain access. If he was just a celebrity, without that knowledge, he wouldn’t be able to do great things.”
Unlike many rock stars who dress up for the more sober work of diplomacy, Bono has chosen to remain in character while advocating for his causes. Whether it’s a meeting with the Pope, Helms or global leaders at the World Economic Forum, Bono doesn’t clean up in a suit and respectable haircut. Instead, even for a bull session with President Bush (who has affectionately referred to Bono as “The Pest”), it’s the familiar wrap-around shades, black leather jacket and unkempt hair. Which, curiously, is part of the appeal.
“He doesn’t press his suit, his shirt is wrinkled, he’s a smoker, so he probably smells a bit, but he doesn’t fake it at all. He’s not putting on an act,” explained Lester Munson, the Republican spokesman for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a top aide to Helms. The sincerity and notoriety might get him in the door, but once he’s in, as in his day job, it’s his conviction and salesmanship that get the work done.
Which is why when an amendment pledging an additional $5 billion to fight AIDS is offered on behalf of the ailing Helms in the next few weeks, Bono can take some credit for it, Munson said. “Without him, it might not have happened. It’s because, unlike most celebrities, he hasn’t come in for a photo op and left. He’s been back here over and over and over for more than two years. He has an iron butt, which is high praise in Washington because it means you can sit and listen to other people talk.”
His leaden leather pants and deep knowledge help, but the other key is Bono’s shrewd understanding of the American political process, according to Sen. Christopher Dodd of Connecticut. “He has studied the political situation in the United States and uses that knowledge to frame his argument in a manner that is appropriate and attractive to his audience, be it Democratic or Republican,” said the senator, who co-sponsored a Senate debt-relief bill.
“It is clear that debt relief and AIDS in Africa are not just momentary concerns for Bono, and you can tell he cares about what he is saying. This level of dedication and resolve is rarely seen in a celebrity advocate.”
The Helms amendment comes just two months after Bono took his place alongside President Bush to announce a $5 billion aid package for Africa, which Munson agreed might also have foundered without Bono’s politicking.
Even when he’s stumping for his pet causes, though, Bono’s mind is never far from his primary gig. In a National Public Radio interview on Wednesday, the singer said his job was to enlighten the world to the African AIDS crisis by making it “pop,” as in popular, like his band.
Over the past 30-odd years, rock and roll statesmanship has been less about being a policy wonk and more often about raising money with all-star benefit concerts: George Harrison’s concert for war victims in Bangladesh, Neil Young, Willie Nelson and John Mellencamp’s Farm Aid events, the Beastie Boys’ Tibetan Freedom concerts and the mother of all fund-raisers, ex-Boomtown Rats leader Bob Geldof’s Live Aid.
But Bono has gone beyond raising money and public awareness by taking the less sexy route of becoming a celebrity lobbyist, which means burying himself in World Monetary Fund reports and not being afraid to hang out with such archconservatives as Helms. In the process, he’s jeopardized what is perhaps a rock star’s most treasured asset – street cred.
As the singer told the English newspaper The Guardian earlier this year, “[U2 guitarist] Edge was pleading with me not to hang out with the conservatives. He said, ‘You’re not going to have a picture with George Bush, [are you]?’ I said I’d have lunch with Satan if there was so much at stake. I have friends who won’t speak to me because of Helms. But it’s very important not to play politics with this.”