"[M]usic has lost the personality of human beings and musicians. It's got so shiny that it's as if there's a surface of Formica over it. And it's something that doesn't let you in."
-- Edge, 2003
Chessmaster Bono Still Planning Next Moves
October 11, 2002
"I never knew what I wanted to be. One day I'd wake up and want to be a chess player -- the best. I'd read a book on it, and at twelve I studied the grandmasters, and I was fascinated." - Bono, 1987
Back in September of 2000, I wrote a piece called Politics: The Art of the Possible. It concerned the then-novel sight of Bono in Congress, talking with the people in power with and without cameras present. The question then was "Why is Bono effective? How is he getting people to listen to him?" I predicted the next few months would be interesting to watch as Bono's political activity would collide with U2's promotion of All That You Can't Leave Behind.
"Months" proved a gross underestimation. It is now October of 2002 and Bono is still on the campaign trail. If he were after a political office it would be his by now. Unfortunately for his work schedule, his goal isn't anything nearly as easy. His goal is to cancel the debts owed by the poorest countries to the richest ones, halt the spread of AIDS in Africa, and make the most poverty-stricken corners of the world thrive through trade. Incredibly, his crusade has not prompted howls of cynical laughter from the media; if anything, the media has helped raised expectations of his effectiveness absurdly high. Newsweek ran a story in January 2000 headlined, Can Bono Save the Third World? Time Magazine upped the stakes with their cover question in March 2002: Can Bono Save the World? These are questions that I will not attempt to answer. I'm interested in one more fundamental: Why is Bono still doing this? What is his motivation?
I've heard the opinion that it's all a big ego-stroke, that it is designed to enhance his public image. My answer to this is that there are much, much easier ways to snag adulation -- see the political office idea mentioned above. If Bono's after praise, he surely wouldn't take on a cause where victory is so far from being assured. His accomplishments to this point are of interest largely to the group that's always been interested in Bono -- U2 fans -- and to economists. Where's the glory in that?
Bono likes to ascribe the blame for his tenacity to "Catholic guilt," or perhaps "folk memory" -- the famine in Ireland has given the people of the former colony an empathy for suffering anywhere in the world. These prompts to the conscience may goad him at first, but what can give him the fuel to keep at his task for years?
I have a theory. Bono likes to play chess.
No, really; that's my theory. Chess is a game of strategy, of planning your moves ahead, of trying to think like your opponent. All the pieces are useful in different ways, but toward only one objective -- checkmate. There are kings, queens, bishops and knights, but when the game is over it's affected nothing; no real power has shifted. What chess player, confident in his skills, wouldn't grab the chance to play a game where the stakes were high and the pieces had minds of their own?
If you're reading this, you're probably a pawn -- and not necessarily in the sense that you are easily manipulated. In this political/economic game, pawns are the general public -- the great mass of people who do not wield power as individuals but as a collective. Early in the Jubilee campaign Bono addressed this group directly: He showed up for a human chain protest; he sent round an email to U2 fans to sign a Drop the Debt petition. Though he can reach a sizable audience through these sorts of appeals, the process is time consuming and the payoffs can be small. Pawns are limited in their movements and are far too easy to block.
Bono turned next to the political arena, spending time in Congress not to create photo opportunities but to present his case as a lobbyist. Political figures in general, senators and congressmen in particular, became the knights in Bono's match. Different sorts of skills are needed when you go from moving pawns to knights. The latter can jump over obstacles; they also tend to land in unexpected places. The lobbyist used strategies that in hindsight are easy to spot. He found nice things to say about everyone he met; he found where he and his politician friend shared common ground; once in someone's office he kept going back. (The best example of this is his unexpected friendship with Jesse Helms. Many AIDS activists simply dismissed Helms because he didn't have a track record of supporting their cause. Bono spoke of his toughness as a virtue, talked the Scriptures with him, and invited him to a U2 concert.) The most common praise he received in return was that he was much smarter than anyone expected. Smarts are essential in this game. Bono was keeping his eye on what moves he had to make next.
So far we have kept to the level of analogy -- Bono has dealt with no actual pawns or fellows in armor on horses. One real bishop did come into play, however, and that was Pope John Paul II, the Bishop of Rome, trading rosary beads for Bono's sunglasses in a meeting that generated quite a lot of publicity for the cause. The Jubilee 2000/Drop the Debt campaign was well supported by church groups; many congregations staged protests for debt cancellation and informational leaflets were handed out to those in the pews. Once Bono focused on Africa and the incredible toll of AIDS on human suffering, he posed the question a number of times: "Where are the churches?" Almost as soon as he'd asked the question, Bono was finding the churches himself.
Historically there has always been suspicion about U2 in certain circles for their leather-wearing, public-swearing ways. Bono expresses suspicion in turn of organized religion and does not use any of the common identifiers -- Catholic, Protestant, born-again, evangelical -- for his beliefs. It is a means to avoid being misinterpreted which can unfortunately draw more speculation than it dissuades. How surprising it was, then, when Christianity Today reported on Bono meeting with evangelical Christian leaders in Washington, where he told them, "I'm a believer and I have faith in Christ." The evangelical response seems to have been, "Oh! Well, that's all right then. Why didn't you say so before?" The last few months have seen Bono become more active with the Christian music and publishing scenes than he has ever been. He taped a video about his organization, DATA, that was shown at Christian music festivals. He is contributing to book called The aWAKE Project: Uniting Against the African AIDS Crisis, which will be released by W Publishing in October.
Apparently Bono decided it was worth the risk (of potential misinterpretation) to align himself more publicly with evangelicals than he has in the past. The crisis in Africa is both a political and a moral issue for him. If he brings up morality, politicians can't be his only audience.
A chess player has only one queen; there is only one "most powerful woman in America," and her name is Oprah Winfrey. She makes books into bestsellers and can prevail against the attack of the Texas beef industry. She is not to be trifled with. Many find her too powerful or dislike her for any number of reasons, but it is the nature of queens to be loved, feared, respected and despised all at once.
When Bono appeared recently on The Oprah Winfrey Show, there was a moment just as he walked on to the set where they appeared to size each other up. They each knew the other was an exceptionally strong personality and that this show had astounding potential. Again Bono used his strategy and said nice things like "If you want to talk to America, you talk to Oprah," which kept him on her good side.
It remains to be seen if the show moved the audience to become politically active for Africa's sake. There is much that the queen could have done and did not do. She gave Bono the time to make his case in impassioned terms and memorable metaphors (the phrase "watching the trains" still reverberates in the ears of those who heard him compare doing nothing in Africa to watching people being put on the trains to Auschwitz). However, she did not show the web address for DATA or give out a phone number viewers could call to voice their concerns. The Oprah message boards for days afterward were filled with the same sort of comment: "I want to do something to help! Who can I contact?"
The chess analogy can only go so far; Bono's goal is so amorphous that there isn't any single event that can be compared to a checkmate, and no one person that can be considered the king (the nearest choice would probably be Jim Wolfensohn, president of the World Bank, a man still somewhat immune to Bono's charms). It has been pointed out to me that I haven't mentioned rooks, and also that we haven't heard much of Bono engaging captains of industry and finance on this matter. Fair enough -- we'll call the mega-rich "rooks." Bono may be lobbying them more than we know, as these exchanges wouldn't make many gossip columns. There was one report recently that he'd attended a meeting of financiers on the Rothschild family compound, so we may hear more about Bono moving rooks in the future.
All in all, international policy-shaping is a complicated business. It's lucky Bono knows something about attacking problems from a variety of angles. It may prove lucky to the people who may be helped by all this that Bono can stay interested in planning these attacks over the course of many, many years.
© @U2/Pancella, 2002.