The Guardian- Pro Bono-18.03.03
Senator Jesse Helms is 80 years old. He walks with a four-pronged cane. A fearsomely rightwing evangelical Christian, he has repeatedly exploited racial prejudice in his election campaigns. He believes that homosexuals are "weak, morally sick wretches", and a couple of years ago, he endorsed a report entitled "There Is A Virus Loose Within Our Culture", which blamed violence in America on Satan's involvement in the music industry. For these and many other reasons, he stood out somewhat when he attended his first rock concert last June, a sell-out date in Washington DC on U2's Elevation Tour.
"People were moving back and forth like corn in the breeze," the wide-eyed senator reported, seeking metaphorical inspiration in the landscape of his native North Carolina. "When Bono shook his hips, the crowd shook their hips... [It] was the noisiest thing I ever heard," he added, noting that he hadn't been able to make out most of the words. But he was taken with Bono. "The senator is very much a fan of Bono," says Lester Munson, one of his senior staffers, failing to disguise his incredulity. "Or that's my sense from hearing him talk all the time about this person who now seems to be his favourite rock star."
The Bono/Helms axis may seem entirely improbable to the average owner of Achtung Baby and The Joshua Tree. And when Bono appeared alongside President Bush last week at the announcement of a historic $5bn aid package for the world's poorest countries - declining to remove his blue shades and matching the president's chummy wave with a peace sign - it might have looked like another standard-issue photo opportunity.
In fact, it was the culmination of an assiduous effort to court Washington's Republican elite - and the first public sign of an extraordinary hub of influence that has emerged at the centre of American government. It embraces the religious right, the counterculture-phobic Bush conservatives, the anti-Aids crusaders, and the normally beleaguered international-aid lobby. And most extraordinary of all, it was constructed by a 40-year-old singer from Dublin with no surname who is more accustomed to hanging out with musicians called The Edge.
Back home in Dublin this weekend, Bono - affectionately known as "The Pest" by his new friends in the White House - was quietly satisfied with his latest mission. "It's a downpayment. It's not where we need to be. The administration has now committed itself to an Aids initiative at some point in the next year. Once my foot is in the door, I'm hard to get out."
There is nothing new about rock activism, of course. Bob Geldof, a close friend of the U2 singer, epitomised the old approach: raise money, raise public anger, pile the pressure on the politicians. But Bono - working in collaboration with Geldof - has pioneered a new kind of celebrity activism: he is a lobbyist, not a fundraiser. "Usually, famous faces are used to getting media attention," says Lucy Matthew, one of two key behind-the-scenes players in Bono's campaigning (the other is Jamie Drummond, of the Drop the Debt campaign). "But now Bono and Bob spend time on meetings, phone calls, how to get people on side, much more than on photo opportunities.
It's a strategy that comes with risks. Is it possible to appear in public with the likes of Helms and Bush and preserve that precious commodity - street-cred? If it's not, says Bono, it's a price worth paying. "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?' 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 its very important not to play politics with this. Millions of lives are being lost for the stupidest of reasons: money. And not even very much money. So let's not play, Who are the good guys and who are the bad guys? Let's rely on the moral force of our arguments."
And Bono has not stinted from making those arguments at every opportunity. In the past year alone, there have been frequent meetings in Washington and an eight-day trip in January to Uganda, Malawi and Ghana with the influential Harvard economist, Jeffrey Sachs. Then an exhausting dash along the East Coast - a rehearsal for the Super Bowl halftime slot in New Orleans, followed by intensive schmoozing with Republicans at their get-together in West Virginia, where he met with White House adviser Josh Bolton before joining Bill Gates and treasury secretary Paul O'Neill on a panel on the effectiveness of aid at the World Economic Forum in New York. For two days, Bono shuttled between discussions on development and recording studios. Then it was back to New Orleans for the Super Bowl.
Bono has done his fair share of the old-style rock politics, helping Geldof with Live Aid and supporting Greenpeace and Amnesty International. But it was the Jubilee 2000 campaign - the simple, Biblical idea of cancelling third world debt for the millennium - that captured his imagination and set him on course to becoming a backroom powerbroker. "He rang me and said he'd like to do another Live Aid concert," Bob Geldof remembers. "I said, 'It's not going to work.' These are very dry, empirical, economic arguments, and it needs something different. The main thing he's got is access because of his fame - and the only route I was prepared to go was one that would move the political agenda... It's embarrassing and pathetic that people who have celebrity have access, but if that's the case, let's fucking use it, you know?"
Ann Pettifor, who headed the Jubilee 2000 campaign, knew a publicity coup when she saw one. "I flew to Dublin to talk him through it," she says. "I explained Sabbath economics - the idea that every seven days you stop consumption and exploitation, and every 49 years you write off debts and free slaves. It was the opposite of globalisation, and Bono got very excited."
According to Geldof, a weekend that the two musicians spent at Chequers with Tony Blair and Gordon Brown established that "we were pushing at an open door". They had a good-cop, bad-cop routine, Bono joked to a friend. "Geldof rages at the injustices served by the west on Africa while Bono comes in to ask politely what we're all going to do about it," the friend recalls.
But they all knew that Washington needed to be on board if the campaign was to succeed. So Bono turned to an old friend, Bob Shriver, a member of the Kennedy clan and a record producer with excellent connections with Democrats on Capitol Hill, and some pretty good Republican links through his brother-in-law, Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Meanwhile, the US wing of Jubilee 2000 hit on the idea of persuading the Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, a Baptist, to write a letter to Baptist churches across southern US states explaining the Biblical principles behind debt cancellation. Suddenly, Bono found he had access to a swathe of strongly Christian Republicans compelled by his Biblical theme - what Bono calls "the melody line" of his pitch. "We knew we had to get both sides," he explains. "So we got Billy Graham and the Pope and I went to people like Jesse Helms, who had been very tough on the the concept of foreign assistance and very bleak on Aids. He's a religious man so I told him that 2103 verses of scripture pertain to the poor and Jesus speaks of judgment only once - and it's not about being gay or sexual morality, but about morality. I quoted that verse of Matthew chapter 25: 'I was naked and you clothed me.' He was really moved. He was in tears. Later he told me he was ashamed of what he used to think about Aids."
All the time spent on Capitol Hill began to pay off when members of the Bush administration finally agreed to meet with Bono, often in Geldof's company. First came Colin Powell and Condoleeza Rice, whom Geldof describes as "one of the smartest people I've ever met". Secretary O'Neill was still sceptical, but relented after his chief of staff met Bono last May. Three weeks later, Bono was back in Washington to meet O'Neill again - and now he has persuaded O'Neill to accompany him to Africa in May to prove to him that aid and debt relief can really work.
Then White House advisors Josh Bolton and Karl Rove agreed to meet, from whence followed last week's appearance with the president. All parties were presumably too tactful to recall U2's ZooTV tour, in the early 1990s, when Bono would call the White House nightly from an onstage telephone to lambast a hapless receptionist about US policy in Central America.
Bush's announcement on foreign aid astonished development experts: they had already written the obituaries for Monterrey, the UN summit on development finance in Mexico which opens today, blaming US unilateralism for killing it off. But Bono, unlike many of the other development lobbyists in Washington, kept on going after the Republicans took over the White House. He was convinced, he told sceptical aid experts, that the Republicans were taking him seriously - and Bush's extraordinary testimony to Bono's influence was vindication. As the president put it in his speech: "Dick Cheney walked into the Oval office, he said, 'Jesse Helms wants us to listen to Bono's idea.'"
Everyone involved in Bono's energetic coalition-building over recent months agrees on one thing: the singer knows his stuff. "Every time you go into these meetings you're surrounded by civil servants who know their stuff, even if the protagonist doesn't. So you have to be au fait with the issues," says Geldof. "For a summer, we had a high-level tutorial until we completely knew this boring shit backwards. Bono's an exceptionally clever man, and he's also a paddy, so he's very verbal. He was... jesuitical."
The combination of rock singer with someone who knows the issues is a strange one; Bono knows this, and he has been deft in exploiting it. Calculatedly, he never drops the superstar routine - the louche T-shirts, the informality, the shades worn while meeting the Pope - while stunning besuited powerbrokers with his knowledge of debt sustainability ratios and aid flows. If he understands the importance of mastering his subject, Bono also has a keen sense of how to exploit his celebrity. "It doesn't matter who you are - he is the pop star of record," says Geldof. "He's charming, he's persuasive. And the politicians can go home to their daughters and say: 'I had a meeting with Bono today.'"
The mild irony of the multi-millionaire performer appointing himself spokesman for the world's poor isn't lost on Bono either. "I'm uncomfortable being a rich rock star, doing this. I'm unhappy with that juxtaposition. I would love not to be doing this - for somebody else to do it who was not as compromised as me. That guilt has driven me to be a policy wonk. It makes me queasy to turn up just for the photo opportunity so I turn up for the briefing as well. I go to bed with World Bank reports. These issues are bigger than whether it makes me comfortable or not. So the band might cringe, I might wince, but I went to Washington to get a cheque and I'm going back to get a bigger one."