"Publications keep calling me Bono Vox. I'm not Mr. Vox."
The Statesman (Pt. 2)
New York Times,
September 18, 2005
[continued from part one...]
Bono passionately embraced this expansive view of the obligations of the industrialized world, and of the possibilities of Africa. In 2001, he went to Bill Gates and others to finance an organization that would lobby for action on Africa. DATA has offices in London, Los Angeles and Washington, but it was plain from the outset that the real challenge lay in Washington, both because historically the U.S. spent so small a fraction of its budget on aid - one-tenth of 1 percent of G.N.P. as of 2000 - and because the incoming Bush administration believed so single-mindedly in free-market solutions to problems of development.
At the G-8 summit in Genoa in the summer of 2001, Bono managed to wangle a meeting with Condoleezza Rice, who was then the president's national security adviser. Rice is only a few years older than Bono, but her training in classical music and her rather forbidding public persona do not exactly suggest an affinity for rock music or rock musicians. Apparently, this is a misconception. "I'm a baby boomer," Rice pointed out to me when we met in her office in July. "I love rock music." She is, she says, "a U2 fan." And in Bono she discovered a potential partner. The administration, she says, was grappling with ways to "rebuild a consensus about foreign assistance." Rice was surprised to learn that Bono took the hard-headed view that "there's a responsibility for the recipient" as well as for the donor. In fact, Bono championed a new paradigm in which aid would be conditioned not only on need but on demonstrated capacity to use that aid effectively - which was precisely the kind of reform the administration had been thinking of.
After the meeting with Rice, the policy wonks at what would become DATA (it had not yet been formally organized) produced a proposal for a two-pronged strategy to "reward success" in six to nine well-governed countries and to keep others from "falling back" through major increases in funding on AIDS, TB and malaria. The proposal might have gone nowhere, but then 9/11 changed all contexts, including the context of development assistance. Aid became a national-security issue (if a rather marginal one), for it was clear that fragile states could not be allowed to become failed states, as Afghanistan had been. And as the administration geared up for war, it needed to prove that its new foreign policy would not be limited to routing terrorists.
In early 2002, Jamie Drummond recalls, he was "summoned to Washington and asked not to leave." In a series of closed-door meetings, he says, he worked with White House officials on the details of an aid program based on the principles Bono had proposed. (These officials bridle at the suggestion of Bono's authorship: Joshua Bolten, then Bush's deputy chief of staff for policy, will say only that Bono "was working with the president at a time when he was considering" such a program.) The administration vowed to put real money behind the Millennium Challenge Account, as the program came to be called. By the third year of operation, it was to be dispensing $5 billion, which all by itself would increase the aid budget by nearly half.
But the administration wanted something from Bono in return - his imprimatur. The idea seems laughable on the surface, but the fact is that Bono had enormous credibility in an area where the administration had virtually none; or, as Secretary Rice put it to me, "It's great to have a person who would not normally be identified with the president's development agenda as a part of it." Bono had bargaining power, and he now used it. Jeffrey Sachs had long argued that the AIDS epidemic was wrecking the economy and social order of the most affected states, so that development assistance could not work without a major AIDS campaign. Bono told Rice that he would appear with Bush at an event promoting the president's development-assistance program if Bush would also commit to "a historic AIDS initiative." The day before the planned appearance, in March, Bono learned that the president would not do so. He was now playing for dizzyingly high stakes. Virtually everyone around Bono despised Bush; and now some of his most trusted advisers urged him to deny the administration his precious gift of legitimacy. And Bono, in an uncharacteristic act of confrontation, called Rice and said he was pulling out of the joint appearance.
Rice was very unhappy. She recalls telling him, "Bono, this president cares about AIDS, too, and let me tell you that he is going to figure out something dramatic to do about AIDS." But, she added, "You're going to have to trust us." Bono accepted her pledge. According to Scott Hatch, a former aide to the Republican House leadership whom Bono hired to help him gain access to conservatives, "Bono really took it on the chin from the left for dealing with a Republican president." But Bono says he felt that the administration deserved praise for the aid package; and he trusted the Bush White House, though his friends thought him ludicrously naÔve. He says that he has not regretted his trust. "I have found personally that I have never been overpromised," he says. "In fact, the opposite - they tell me they won't do something, and finally they do it."
As he was being taken to meet Bush, Bono recalls, he told the driver to circle the block a few times while he sat with a Bible in his lap, hunting frantically for a verse about shepherds and the poor. He was getting later and later. Finally he found a passage to his liking, and he went into the Oval Office. There he recited the passage he had chosen from the Gospel of Matthew: "For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat; I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink; I was a stranger, and ye took me in.. . ." Bono then presented Bush with an edition of the Psalms for which he had written the foreword.
Bono's most celebrated collaboration with the Bush administration was his African caravansary with Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill in May 2002. The two men, so oddly matched, had a striking effect on each other. In the course of the trip, O'Neill, a highly successful corporate leader who preached the gospel of "value for your money," came to conclude that small investments of public money could produce extraordinary value, at least in the exemplary countries on their itinerary - Uganda, Ghana, South Africa, Ethiopia. He became obsessed with the idea that donors could create a supply of clean drinking water for a entire country for a pittance. But he also tried to impress on Bono the liberating power of the global market. Bono was accustomed to prating about the evils of the I.M.F. and the stinginess of donors; he was taken aback when O'Neill escorted him through factory floors and explained that Africa would benefit more from even a modest expansion of trade than from a radical increase in aid. An account in The Washington Post suggested that a "momentous. . .alliance between liberals and conservatives to launch a fresh assault on global poverty" was in the offing.
O'Neill returned to Washington with the fervor of a convert - and ran into a brick wall. The trip had provided great publicity for the White House, but nobody wanted to hear about water projects. When O'Neill took advantage of a one-on-one meeting with Bush to propose a $25 million demonstration project to provide clean water to Ghana, the president "looked blankly at him," according to "The Price of Loyalty," an account of O'Neill's time in Washington written by Ron Suskind with O'Neill's extensive cooperation. O'Neill's impolitic enthusiasms and intellectual honesty marked him as a hopeless outsider in the Bush White House; he was fired at the end of 2002. And with him went hopes for a historic conjunction of soft hearts and hard heads.
The Millennium Challenge Account, announced with such fanfare, now proceeded to sink to the bottom of the administration's priority list. Only in early 2004, two years from the announcement, did the president sign the law creating the body. The first executive director, Paul Applegarth, was a complete unknown who impressed scarcely anyone. Congress appropriated only $1.3 billion for the first year and $1.5 billion for the second. This year President Bush asked for $3 billion rather than the $5 billion he had once promised; and Congress may appropriate little more than half that. Why should legislators do otherwise? Since the corporation has disbursed a grand total of $400,000 to date, there's no evidence that it works.
Administration officials and legislators give various explanations, none terribly persuasive, for the dilatory pace. Senator Rick Santorum, who has been one of Bono's key conservative allies, says that he has tried to persuade White House officials that the M.C.A. is "part of our war on terror" and should be financed accordingly. But when Santorum tries to push the budget director, Joshua Bolten, he says, he hears "the 'Jerry Maguire' answer: 'Show me the money.' " Bolten is another White House Friend of Bono, and he, too, speaks of aid as "an integral part of the national-security strategy." But when I asked him what happened to the Millennium Challenge Account, he said that it fell between budget cycles.
The Bush administration, critics say, has fumbled the opportunity to transform the aid debate. In March, Paul O'Neill said that he found it "unforgivable that we and other mature nations" have refused to do something as simple as providing clean drinking water. Many of Bono's own allies have lost what little patience they had. Jeffrey Sachs, whose moral sensibilities are comparable to those of U2 circa 1985, calls the operation of the M.C.A. "a disgrace." When I asked Sachs if he thought that Bono should stop cultivating the president and start denouncing him, he said, "Even aside from him saying it publicly, I'd just like him to say it to himself."
I saw Bono soon after my conversation with his mentor and sometime foil. In late May, U2 made a swing through New York for the Madison Square Garden concert. Bono insisted on having lunch at Balthazar, the downtown bistro, where the staff welcomed him as an old friend. He ordered half a dozen oysters, the filet mignon and a half-bottle - and then, sometime later, another half-bottle - of a Clos de Vougeot. When my lunch came, he ate the French fries off my plate, Bill Clinton-style. I told him about my talk with Sachs. Bono frowned and said: "I understand his rage; I share it. What I will not agree with is the belief that we can do this just by the moral force of our argument. We need the right as well as the left. We have achieved an enormous amount this way." Bono will not say anything that will drive the administration away, but it is not wholly a matter of tactics; he continues to believe, with what can only be described as a touching faith, that President Bush, while utterly indifferent to the political value of aid, is deeply committed to helping Africa according to his own lights.
And the proof, for Bono, is AIDS. Condoleezza Rice had promised him a historic AIDS initiative. Throughout 2002, Bono pressured the administration, lobbying key representatives, White House officials and, above all, leaders in the conservative Christian community. In the first week of December that year, he organized a bus tour through Middle America - the Heart of America tour - to demonstrate that ordinary Americans wanted action on AIDS. And the administration made good its pledge: in his 2003 State of the Union address, President Bush proposed a five-year, $15 billion effort to combat AIDS in 15 hard-hit countries, 12 of them in Africa. The President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, or Pepfar, has been fully financed every year. And because, unlike the M.C.A., it was built on existing programs, the AIDS initiative began operating on the ground within months - which is why Bono heaped praise on Randall Tobias at Davos. Bono did not, however, see fit to remonstrate with Tobias over the damage that may have been done by the AIDS program's ideologically inspired guidelines: a requirement that one-third of prevention funds go to programs promoting abstinence and sexual fidelity, stringent restrictions on the use of condoms and even a demand that groups receiving funds must formally oppose prostitution. An editorial in The Economist characterized Pepfar as "too much morality, too little sense."
And the administration has been far less generous with international approaches to AIDS. When, in 2001, Secretary General Kofi Annan of the United Nations announced the establishment of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, President Bush offered only $200 million as the American contribution. Congress has agreed to finance up to one-third of the fund's budget, but in each of the last three years, the administration submitted a lower figure and then Congress raised it. Rick Santorum offers only a middling grade to the administration on AIDS: "The president put up a very good number for bilateral aid, but didn't put up a good number for multilateral aid." Had Congress approved the administration's most recent budget request, Santorum says, thousands of people would have lost their supply of antiretroviral drugs.
The leader who deserves the greatest credit for placing Africa at the top of the world's agenda, or at least near it, is Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain. It was Blair, who, at the urging of Bob Geldof, impaneled the Commission for Africa, whose report, released earlier this year, painstakingly laid out the case for an enormous increase in aid to Africa. Blair seems actually to believe what the Bush administration only says, for he uses the same ringing tones to talk about the West's responsibility to Africa that he does to discuss the war on terrorism. But Blair also knows that his crusade enjoys broad political support. And for this he has Bono and Geldof, among others, to thank. Justin Forsyth, Blair's special adviser on development, credits Bono with making Africa an urgent issue in Britain, and with helping Blair "keep the bar very high" by insisting on big, breakthrough goals.
The Gleneagles momentum began building in the spring. In May, European Union development ministers pledged to double global aid from $60 billion to $120 billion by 2010. The following month, Paul Wolfowitz, the hawkish former Pentagon official who had just left the administration to become head of the World Bank, embraced the 0.7 percent target. The Americans and the Brits had worked out their differences on multilateral debt relief. But the Bush administration remained a conspicuous holdout. White House officials were mystified that they hadn't gotten the credit they felt they deserved for reversing decades of indifference to aid, and felt no pressure to do more.
When I saw Bono in late May, he was close to despair about Bush's intransigence. The next day he was going to Washington to see Rice, Bolten and the political mastermind Karl Rove. He planned to say, "I know that important programs are being cut, but this kind of momentum doesn't come along every year." He was going to suggest a major initiative on malaria, and another on girls' education.
Blair and Bono speak regularly, and the week before Gleneagles, Bono hatched a plan to visit 10 Downing Street when the eight "sherpas," who map out the summit for their heads of state, would be meeting there. Lobbying sherpas is simply not done, but Bono dropped in on their meeting as if he just happened to have been in the neighborhood. Once he was in the door, he started talking for all he was worth. "First I tried to get them to laugh," he told me. "And I did get them to laugh. Then I tried to inspire them. I think I inspired them."
The Bono operation in Scotland, quartered in a spacious suite in the Balmoral hotel in Edinburgh, was far larger than it had been in Davos. A planning meeting on Day 1 of the summit meeting included all sorts of unfamiliar young men in fashionable glasses, as well as George Clooney. Jamie Drummond was trying to come up with a crisp sound bite on debt relief for Clooney to use on the American morning talk shows. Bob Geldof, his ginger locks tucked under Andy Capp headgear, wandered into the meeting trailed by a TV crew and talking on the cellphone to a senior British treasury official. Geldof held out the phone so everyone could hear, if barely. The official was saying that Chancellor SchrŲder was balking at an airlines tax to be used to raise money earmarked for aid. Bono said that he was trying to persuade Angela Merkel, SchrŲder's electoral opponent, to give the chancellor political space by agreeing not to raise the issue - a stupefying proposition. "We'll be working on that all day," he said blandly. (The idea was eventually dropped.)
Bono, Geldof and the key aides then choppered over to Gleneagles. Bono spoke with SchrŲder and Blair about the issues that were still up in the air - financing mechanisms and trade reform. He met with Bush, who had announced new initiatives on malaria and access to education the week before - the two issues Bono raised with the White House in late May. It was good, but it was all done in prose. "They keep saying, 'We're spending this much, and it's this much of a share of world spending,' " he told me the next morning. "I want them to say: 'Malaria just can't be allowed. We're going to get rid of malaria.' " That was how the president talked about terrorism; Bono conceded that if he didn't talk about aid that way, it was probably because he didn't feel that way.
The Live 8 concerts on July 2 had been crowded, star-studded and distinctly upbeat - Rock in Favor of Good Things. One last concert was staged on July 6, the first day of the G-8, in the Murrayfield Stadium. It was a fabulously bizarre event. One dressing room had been set aside for George Clooney, Susan Sarandon, Claudia Schiffer and the archbishop of Canterbury (who did not show, alas). The concert lasted five and a half hours, including inspirational addresses by Clooney, Schiffer, Bono and others, and was finally closed down, with magnificent incongruity, by James Brown himself, driving the crowd insane with "I Got You (I Feel Good)." At some point during the endless evening, I sat down with George Clooney and quite a few vodka-and-cranberries. Bono has enlisted some of the biggest names in Hollywood, including Brad Pitt, Cameron Diaz, Justin Timberlake and Clooney. For all his effortless charm, Clooney has serious aspirations, and he spoke of Bono with a respect that bordered on reverence. "He calls on everyone to be their best," Clooney told me. "If you fall short, you feel embarrassed. That's a unique thing. And we all want to be that person."
Clooney had been tasked to buttonhole Paul Wolfowitz and get him to press the administration to finance the World Bank's program to provide free public education. As Clooney and I were talking, the glass door separating our V.I.P. lounge from the roar of the stadium slid open, and who should emerge but the president of the World Bank himself. Wolfowitz, who had rolled up the sleeves of his dress shirt, seemed to be delighted, or at least amused, by this extraterrestrial environment. He and Clooney held a brief palaver and agreed to speak at greater length.
[continued in part three...]
(c) New York Times Company 2005