"Basically, I think we're all nutters, but somehow it works."
The Statesman (Pt. 1)
New York Times,
September 18, 2005
At 1:45 in the morning one day this past July, Bono, the lead singer for U2 and the world's foremost agitator for aid to Africa, was in a van heading back to his hotel in Edinburgh from Murrayfield Stadium; he had just performed in, and expounded at, a concert designed to coincide with the beginning of the summit meeting of the major industrialized nations, held nearby at the Gleneagles resort. Despite the hour, practically everybody in the van was on a cellphone. The bodyguard in the front seat was calling the hotel to see if a huge crowd would still be camped outside hoping to catch a glimpse of their world-straddling hero. (Roger that.) Lucy Matthew, the head of the London office of DATA, Bono's policy and advocacy body - the acronym stands for Debt AIDS Trade Africa - was whispering to some contact in the States. And Bono, who had been conferring 12 hours earlier at Gleneagles with President George Bush, Prime Minister Tony Blair and Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, was sharing an anxiety attack with a friend. The leaders of the G-8, as the group is known, were going to offer far less in aid and trade to developing nations in Africa than the activists had led their followers to expect. Thousands of bright-eyed young recruits to the cause were going to go home in disgust.
Bono, normally the most courteous of men, shouted an obscenity in Matthew's general direction, though the intended target was himself, or perhaps fate. "What's the point of coming back to talk to Chirac?" he said. "It's going to be too late then." The French president had reached Gleneagles late, and was probably sullen given that Paris had just lost out to London in its bid for the 2012 Olympics. (This was several hours before the terrorist bombings in London.) Bono was leaving later that day for a concert in Berlin and so would be unable to see Chirac until the day after. The thought was making him desperate: "Lucy, is it too late to call somebody with Chirac?" Matthew gently pointed out that it was, after all, the middle of the night for most people. Bono digested this unwelcome news and then said, "Look, let's call them tomorrow morning and say I'd be happy to meet with him any time he wants. I'll bring him breakfast.. . .I guess I won't bring him an English breakfast." (Chirac had notoriously declared English food the worst cuisine in Europe, save Finnish.)
Bono did not, in fact, talk to the French president until the third and final day of the conference. But by then his despair had lifted. The summit meeting's final communiqué offered significant pledges on aid and debt relief for Africa, as well as new proposals on education and malaria eradication. Bono's own embrace of the package was treated with a solemnity worthy of a Security Council resolution. When I saw him the day after the summit ended, over tea in the courtyard of the Hôtel Plaza Athénée in Paris, he said, "I feel like I've got a right to punch the air."
And so he did. Bono had moved the debate on Africa, as five years ago he moved the debate on debt cancellation. This past week he was trying to move the debate set to take place at the big United Nations summit meeting, which he says he hopes will consolidate the gains made at Gleneagles, or at least not erode them. He's a strange sort of entity, this euphoric rock star with the chin stubble and the tinted glasses - a new and heretofore undescribed planet in an emerging galaxy filled with transnational, multinational and subnational bodies. He's a kind of one-man state who fills his treasury with the global currency of fame. He is also, of course, an emanation of the celebrity culture. But it is Bono's willingness to invest his fame, and to do so with a steady sense of purpose and a tolerance for detail, that has made him the most politically effective figure in the recent history of popular culture.
I first met Bono last January at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, a gathering that answers almost perfectly to the conspiracy-theory view of global domination by a corporate-political-cultural elite. A core function of Davos is to mix different kinds of authority, which makes it the site par excellence of the Celebrity Prince and the one-man state. Bill Gates was there, as was George Soros - figures whose global currency, of course, is currency, and who deploy their philanthropy strategically, just as states deploy their aid budgets. Angelina Jolie, roving ambassador for the United Nation's refugee agency, showed up, too. Bill Clinton came, as did Jeffrey Sachs, the Columbia professor and unofficial economist to the third world. And a giddy nimbus of wannabes surrounded these regal figures and basked in their company.
When I went to meet Bono at the bar of his hotel, I saw Richard Gere seated at a table with a gorgeous woman in a little fur jacket and a leather cap. Bono, on the other hand, had removed himself to a quiet back room, where he was keeping company with a plump, middle-aged white guy in a suit and tie. (Bono was wearing a T-shirt and a fuzzy sweater whose sleeve needed mending.) This was Randall Tobias, head of the Bush administration's AIDS program. The administration had just announced that the program was providing antiretroviral drugs to 155,000 Africans with AIDS. Another kind of activist might have said, "That leaves 25 million more to go." But not Bono: he looked his cornfed interlocutor in the eye and said, "You should know what an incredible difference your work is going to make in their lives." Tobias looked embarrassed. Bono said various wonderful things about President Bush. Tobias beamed.
The glamour event of the following day, indeed of the whole forum, was a symposium on efforts to end poverty in Africa. The guests were Tony Blair and Bill Clinton, Presidents Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria and Thabo Mbeki of South Africa, Bill Gates and Bono. The heads of state, leading off, candidly acknowledged the obstacles to development - violent conflict, poor governance, corruption, lack of political will in the donor states and so on. It was all terribly somber and Davos. Then Bono was asked what he would like to see changed. "The tone of the debate," he shot back. The Celebrity Prince was wearing a black T-shirt under a black leather jacket, and he appeared to have shaved the stubble off his jutting, bellicose jaw. "Here we are," he went on, "reasonable men talking about a reasonable situation. I walk down the street and people say: 'I love what you're doing. Love your cause, Bon.' And I don't think 6,000 Africans a day dying from AIDS is a cause; it's an emergency. And 3,000 children dying every day of malaria isn't a cause; it's an emergency."
The crowd of C.F.O.'s and executive directors, silent until then, burst into applause. Bono had put music to the words; that's one of the things the rock-star activist can do. Moments later, an inspired Bill Clinton, throwing reason to the winds, cried: "The whole corruption and incompetence issue is bogus! And whoever raises it should be thrown in the closet." (Clinton later calmed down and said he meant that the corruption and incompetence of many African governments should not be used as a pretext to withhold aid.)
Bono gave Davos its music; but he also operated in prose. His chief goal was to win commitments, or the possibility of commitments, to be redeemed six months later at Gleneagles. A major item on the agenda for Gleneagles would be canceling $40 billion of debt that the poorest countries owe to the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and other multilateral institutions; and in Davos, Bono met with John Taylor, an under secretary of the treasury, to try to move the Bush administration's position on the issue. He huddled with Gordon Brown, the chancellor of the Exchequer and heir apparent to the British prime ministership, to strategize on financial mechanisms to "front load" the increased aid that donor states had promised. When Chancellor Schröder arrived to deliver a speech on aid to Africa as well as on the German economy, he met beforehand with Bill Gates and afterward with Bono.
As soon as the Schröder meeting ended, I was summoned to the war room in which Bono and his troops were camped. "Schröder just agreed to .7 by 2015," Bono cried. "It's fantastic!" In 2002, the industrialized states pledged to increase foreign-aid spending to 0.7 percent of G.N.P. by 2015, but the German economy was tanking, and Schröder, who faced a political challenge from the right, had been loath to lay out a timetable for increased spending. Now, to Bono, he had done just that. Of course, a skeptic might have noted that since Schröder was unlikely to be in power in 2006, much less 2015, this was not a pledge he would have to honor, but Bono is not a skeptic.
One night I went out to dinner with Bono and the gang. Richard Curtis, the British screenwriter responsible for "Four Weddings and a Funeral" and "Love Actually" and a prominent activist on poverty issues as well, told Bono that he and Bob Geldof had been talking about arranging simultaneous mega-concerts in major world cities for July 2, to focus attention on the Gleneagles summit - the germ of what would become Live 8. Bono, who was carving up a large steak, got more and more excited. Those eight leaders, he suggested, should think that the whole world will be watching. It wouldn't be, of course; but it should feel that way. "I'm a salesmen," he told Curtis. "And I know I can sell this to NBC or CBS." Meanwhile, Jeffrey Sachs was crouched over in the corner, trying to make himself heard on his BlackBerry. Jamie Drummond, the head of DATA's Washington office, was running down a list of stars - George Clooney, Cameron Diaz, Brad Pitt, Mos Def - who had agreed to appear in a commercial for the One Campaign, a confederation of major development organizations that was assembling an army of activists to fight for increased aid.
Bono had started with a glass of white wine, but when I said I was drinking red, he switched over and ordered a bottle of Brunello di Montalcino. U2's manager, Paul McGuinness, is a wine nut, and Bono caught the bug from him. Bono has unabashedly bourgeois tastes, and he spends his money on the kinds of things most of us would spend our money on if we had as much as he does - a family-size Maserati, a house on the Riviera, a charming hotel in Dublin, great food and wine. I was raving about the Brunello, which was many stations above the norm for me. Bono was less impressed, but he didn't want to dampen my enthusiasm. "It is," he said, after some consideration, "a not immodestly great wine." This dash of wine snobbery, which would have been insufferable from a London banker, became somehow endearing when delivered from behind pink sunglasses in an Irish publican brogue.
When he is not lobbying heads of state on multilateral debt relief, Bono, who is now 45, still earns his keep as one of the most famous rock stars in the world. And in order to understand how he has come by his Celebrity Prince status, it's helpful to attend a U2 concert. In May, a few months after Davos, I saw the band perform in Madison Square Garden. First, the entire arena went dark, and then, in a cone of white light through which innumerable bits of confetti fluttered and danced, Bono materialized, twirling slowly, ecstatically, his arms raised to the light as if asking to be drawn up to the heavens. It was a gesture with intimations of the messianic. And yet what you felt, throughout the evening, as Bono pranced and hopped along the catwalk that extended out into the crowd in the pit, inviting girls up to dance with him, was that he was beckoning his fans to join him in the ecstatic place where the music came from. Even his political appeals, which he generally kept in check, felt like an invitation to the transcendent. Invoking the spirit of American courage and enterprise that once put a man on the moon, he called on President Bush to increase aid to Africa and thus "put mankind back on earth" (whatever that meant).
Bono may be a one-man state, but he is not a one-man band. U2 is a rock phenomenon because the Edge, the lead guitarist, the drummer, Larry Mullen Jr., and Adam Clayton, who plays bass guitar, are very talented musicians who share Bono's gift for conjuring a sense of rapture. But the voice of U2 is Bono's voice, which seems to rise up out of a great pool of naked yearning. It takes the form sometimes of an arena-enveloping shout, sometimes of a keening wail and sometimes of a piercing falsetto. The voice, like the stage presence, is easy to spoof, for as a performer, Bono generally does without the irony that he deploys as a bantering citizen. The ironist will not, however, touch a stadium full of hearts, as Bono does.
Bono, who was born Paul Hewson, had more than enough unhappiness and loss growing up to give a sharp edge to that wail, but not too much to kill his sense of delight. He was reared by a Catholic father and a Protestant mother in Dublin's ragged middle class, a smart boy who was playing in international chess tournaments at 12. But when Bono was 14, his beloved mother suddenly died, leaving him with an older brother and a father who, he has said, "would always pour salt - and vinegar - onto the wound." He was a very angry teenager, but at 16, he and some of his angry, barely middle-class school chums began noodling around on instruments. By the following year, 1977, they were performing in local clubs. They weren't very good, but even then there was something fiercely affirmative in their music. At a time when many performers looked as if they'd just emerged from electroshock therapy and were wont to incite a crowd by pelting it with offal, U2 had a bond, a benevolent relationship, with the audience. "We were never adversarial," Adam Clayton says. "We were much more Irish."
The band has been together ever since. Even Paul McGuinness, their manager, has been with them from the beginning. This is not only rare in the rock business; it is just about unheard-of. U2 is also one of the very few bands in which all revenue is shared equally; Bono and the Edge could have claimed the songwriting revenue but didn't. Nor do any of them appear to have succumbed to drugs, alcohol or raging ego. Religion played an important role in the band members' lives, if not always in their music; indeed, the band's survival was threatened only when, early on, Bono, the Edge and Larry Mullen Jr. thought of leaving to join a Christian fellowship. Bono remains religious, and not in the cosmic, New Age sense you expect from rock stars. He describes himself as a "meandering Christian," and his four children attend the Church of Ireland, which is Episcopalian (and thus splits the difference between his mother and father).
Unlike his dyspeptic fellow activist Sir Bob Geldof, Bono is a hugger, a giver and seeker of affection. Geldof himself has compared the two by saying: "He is in love with the world . . . he wants to give it a cuddle. I want to punch its lights out" - as if Bono were an Irish John Denver. Bono understandably hates this crack, but in fact he doesn't want to punch the lights out of life. He's an extremely courteous, minutely attentive person who signs every object thrust at him by delirious fans and never forgets to thank everyone for everything. Though he has, over the years, written a great many aching ballads about women with "Spanish eyes" and so forth, he has stayed married to his first wife, Ali, whom he met at age 12 and started dating at 16.
From the outset, the members of U2 have been committed to rescuing the planet from various evils. Back in the 1980's, when the band was building its reputation, every tour seemed to come with its own moral sponsor - Amnesty International, Nelson Mandela, Greenpeace. Bono has since come to think of this as the era of Rock Against Bad Things. Should he ever want to mortify himself utterly, Bono need only cue up the incantation at the end of his 1987 song "Silver and Gold": "This is a song about a man . . .who's sick of looking down the barrel of white South Africa. A man who has lost faith in the peacekeepers of the West while they argue.. . .Am I buggin' ya? I don't mean to bug ya." But Bono has the saving grace of self-awareness; he keeps close track of his own absurdities. Like any pop star, he sorted through various personae over the years - brother of the oppressed, Christian visionary, ironic trickster, devoted husband and father - and ultimately arrived at the soulful, watchful, perpetually unsatisfied grown-up that he is. And at that point he was ready to take up issues that other rock stars were unlikely to bother with, since they couldn't be reduced to a songwriter's hook.
In 1997, Bono was approached by Jamie Drummond, then working with a church-sponsored campaign to cancel the debts that the most impoverished nations owed to the industrialized nations. (This was "bilateral debt," owed by one state to another, as opposed to the "multilateral debt" debated at Gleneagles.) Many countries, especially in Africa, were so crushed by foreign debt, often run up by long-gone tyrants with the happy connivance of Western banks, that scarcely anything was left over for schools, health care and the like. The movement made real headway in England, but was virtually unknown in the U.S. U2 played in the Live Aid concert to raise money for Ethiopia back in 1985. So did everyone else, of course. But Bono actually wanted to understand the problem he was sloganeering about, so the following year he and Ali spent several months living and working in a refugee camp in Ethiopia. He was ripe for a deeper involvement.
Bono agreed to spearhead the American debt-relief effort and began by educating himself on the subject. As a superstar, Bono had the advantage of being able to conduct his education at a very high level. Bobby Shriver, a record producer and member of the Kennedy clan, set up meetings for him with James Wolfensohn, who was the head of the World Bank, and with Paul Volcker, David Rockefeller and other colossi of the financial establishment. Bono traveled to Cambridge, Mass., to meet with Jeffrey Sachs, then at Harvard. But he also asked Sachs to find him an academic who opposed debt cancellation, a very peculiar request for a graduate of the school of Rock Agitprop. "I'm always attentive to the bearers of bad news," Bono told me, "because they're a little more reliable." They also, of course, sharpen your debating skills.
By the summer of 1999, Bono was ready to take on Washington. The Clinton administration was already committed to canceling two-thirds or so of the $6 billion that the poorest African countries owed the United States, but Bono wanted 100 percent cancellation - not only because he thought it was right, but also because you can't sing about two-thirds of something. "It has to feel like history," he says. "Incrementalism leaves the audience in a snooze." Shriver arranged for Bono to meet with Gene Sperling, President Clinton's chief economic adviser, and with Sheryl Sandberg, chief of staff to Lawrence Summers, who had just been named secretary of the treasury. Summers himself was not about to waste precious time meeting with a rock star. He did agree, however, to "drop by" while Bono spoke to Sperling. Bono laid out his argument. "He was deeply versed in the substance," Sandberg recalls. "He understood capital markets, debt instruments, who the decision makers were."
Summers tried to give Bono the polite brushoff. "These are complicated issues," Summers told him. "I'll have to take it up with the G-7 finance ministers." And now this earnest, impassioned rock star with the accent of a racetrack tout issued a call to destiny. "You know what," he told Summers, "I've been all over the world, and I've talked to all the major players, and everyone said, 'If you get Larry Summers, you can get this done.' " It was, Sandberg says, "a really important moment. I think we were all inspired and motivated."
It wasn't Bono's belief in the issue that was so effective; it was his belief in others. One Sunday morning that fall, Bono called to ask Sperling if he could come to his office in the West Wing. There he put his hand on top of a giant stack of papers Sperling was working through and said: "I bet that most of the things in this pile feel more urgent than debt relief. But I want you to think of one thing: Ten years from now, is there anything you'll feel more proud of than getting debt relief for the poorest countries?" Bono understood something about people like Sperling: that in their heart of hearts, the chastened New Democrats of the Clinton administration yearned for morally resounding acts, but that they needed political cover, and they needed permission - the feeling that the thing could and must be done. When Bono left, Sperling called a treasury official and said that he wanted to insert something on debt relief into a speech Clinton was about to give at the World Bank. He and Summers got a few minutes in the presidential limo. Clinton instantly agreed to call for 100 percent cancellation of the debts owed to the United States by 33 impoverished countries.
But it wasn't enough just to pierce the hearts of guilty ex-liberals, for there was still the Republican-controlled Congress to attend to. In late 1999, Bono arranged to meet John Kasich, a wild-man rock-fan conservative from Ohio who was chairman of the House Budget Committee. Kasich might not have been the most obvious candidate for the job; one of his obsessions was getting rid of foreign aid, most of which he considered, he says, "a joke." But Kasich says he was impressed by the force of Bono's argument. The congressman was also a Christian, and Bono spoke of Biblical injunctions to succor the poor and downtrodden. Kasich enlisted. And this became a pattern: Bono was able to dislodge conservatives from their isolationist or free-market reflexes by reaching them as Christians. Conservative Christians in and out of Congress - mostly out - are now a key constituency in the debates over aid to Africa; Bono was among the first outsiders to help them across the ideological divide.
In mid-2000, Bono received an audience with Senator Jesse Helms, viewed by Bono's fellow lefties, including members of the band, as the archfiend himself. Bono quickly realized that his usual spiel about debt service and so on wasn't making a dent. So, he recalls: "I started talking about Scripture. I talked about AIDS as the leprosy of our age." Married women and children were dying of AIDS, he told the senator, and governments burdened by debt couldn't do a thing about it. Helms listened, and his eyes began to well up. Finally the flinty old Southerner rose to his feet, grabbed for his cane and said, "I want to give you a blessing." He embraced the singer, saying, "I want to do anything I can to help you." Kasich, who was watching from a couch, says, "I thought somebody had spiked my coffee." Bono later invited Senator Helms to a U2 concert, and Helms sat through the evening with his hearing aid turned down. Afterward he said to Bono, "I saw them all standing there with their arms in the air, blowin' like a field of corn."
During this period, Bono flew to Washington eight times, meeting not only legislators but also their aides - even though U2 was then in the last stages of recording a new album. The key holdout in the House was Sonny Callahan, a congressman from Alabama, and Bono and his little band ginned up the clergy members in Callahan's district. Callahan himself later said: "Priests and pastors sermonizing on debt relief on Sundays, telling their congregations to tell Callahan to take care of this, including my own bishop. Eventually I gave in." In late October 2000, Congress appropriated the additional $435 million needed for 100 percent debt relief.
Why Africa? Why not, say, global warming? Part of the answer is happenstance: Africa is what Bono got swept up into. But Africa, or so Bono feels, needs what only a certain kind of world figure can give - a call to conscience, an appeal to the imagination, a melody or a lyric you won't forget. The cause of ending extreme poverty in Africa speaks to Bono's prophetic impulse. Rock music, for him, is a form of advocacy, but advocacy is also a form of rock music. His definition of "sing" includes speeches and press conferences, and his arenas include Davos and Capitol Hill. Among his best work is the rallying cry. He often says, "My generation wants to be the generation that ended extreme poverty." There's not much evidence that this is so; but Bono has helped make it so, in part by repeating such resonant phrases.
God knows Africa could use a song or two. The reason that debt relief required such an excruciating effort is that foreign aid has virtually no constituency; a politician is only going to hurt himself by vowing to spend more money helping poor people in Africa. By the time the Bush administration took office, the percentage of G.N.P. devoted to development assistance had been shrinking for more than three decades. And the case for aid had dwindled just as drastically. Countries like Nigeria and Kenya had received tens of billions of dollars over the years with scarcely anything to show for it. Not only conservatives like John Kasich but also Clinton administration "neoliberals" argued that aid was powerless, perhaps even harmful, in the face of corruption, civil conflict, weak governance, self-defeating economic policies.
Whatever its merits, the neoliberal argument began to feel morally unsustainable as much of Africa retrogressed throughout the 90's. Was the West to offer nothing more than pious advice about free markets and small government while whole portions of the globe slid into misery? Did all African countries suffer from bad values, bad governance and bad policies? Liberal economists and activists formulated an alternative argument: a combination of "natural" factors - poor soil, high incidence of infectious disease, lack of access to ports - along with disadvantageous trade conditions and wrongheaded neoliberal policies had gotten many countries stuck in what Jeffrey Sachs called "the poverty trap." They could not escape, absent outside help. This view, which was widely accepted outside the United States, was given a global endorsement in 2000, when the U.N. adopted the Millennium Development Goals, pledging to radically reduce such problems as extreme poverty, child mortality and infectious disease over the next 15 years. Recipient countries pledged to reduce corruption and improve accountability; donor countries pledged to increase aid, lower trade barriers and grant further debt relief.
[contined in part two...]
(c) New York Times Company 2005