News & Politics

U2’s Bono in Washington

U2’s Bono used his fame to meet the people with power and influence in Washington. Then he took the time to learn how DC really works—and he’s become one of them.

The Player

The wedding at the Willard Hotel in November brought together some of the city’s intellects and insiders. Milling about in the chandeliered ballroom was Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who helped marry foreign-policy specialist Mort Halperin and American University law professor Diane Orentlicher. There was Nobel Prize–winning economist Thomas Schelling, Pulitzer Prize–winning reporter Seymour Hersh, a diplomat here, an organization president there.

As guests were taking their seats for dinner, one of Halperin’s sons went to the microphone. The couple had requested no gifts, he noted, but one friend had sent something anyway as a surprise. “If you’ll now turn your attention to the back of the room,” the son said.

A bagpipe player in full Scottish costume burst through the ballroom doors playing an Irish ballad, “The Minstrel Boy.” The musical gift was courtesy of a man Mort Halperin had come to know well in the last six years through their work together on development aid. They were unlikely colleagues: the scrappy Halperin, a fixture in Washington’s foreign-policy establishment, a veteran of the Johnson, Nixon, and Clinton administrations, and his friend, a rock star—maybe the world’s most famous rock star.

But then again, Bono has turned unlikely alliances into an art form.

Celebrity activists are as common in Washington—and sometimes as annoying—as broken parking meters. They flit into town for a congressional hearing, a press conference, a charity ball, and every member of Congress knows how to humor them. But the Irish rocker Bono, U2’s lead singer and lyricist, has been so committed to the issues he champions—helping Africa out of poverty and disease—that he has become a part of the Washington policy apparatus. A player.

“The time I knew he had really crossed over was when we were in a meeting with him after an Africare event, and we were talking about the authorization level versus the appropriations level,” says Gene Sperling, former economic adviser to President Clinton. “I remember thinking, ‘He is now a full-fledged wonk.’ ”

The wonk in the tinted designer shades has created an important center of influence in Washington. It envelops both Christian conservatives and left-leaning antipoverty activists. And it has become a coalition so improbable that President Clinton once walked out of an Oval Office meeting with Bono and others like Pat Robertson and, according to one participant, remarked, “That was the strangest darn meeting I’ve ever been in in my life.”

The rock star has an advocacy organization a few blocks from the White House called DATA (Debt-AIDS-Trade-Africa) and both a Democratic and Republican lobbyist. He’s forged friendships that span the ideological spectrum, from Representative Nancy Pelosi to former senator Jesse Helms, with whom he recently had dinner in North Carolina. He’s built solid relationships not only with presidents, Cabinet secretaries, and senators, but also with Hill aides, policy analysts, academics, scientists like NIH’s Anthony Fauci, and backroom people like Mort Halperin who know best how Washington works.

with a mind that grasps global issues better than many public officials do, an artist’s imagination that can turn a position paper into poetry, and the ability to touch people emotionally and often spiritually, Bono has made his voice heard in Washington.

He played a role in a $15-billion emergency plan for AIDS proposed by President Bush that has paid for antiretroviral drugs for 400,000 Africans with HIV. He and DATA pressed the administration and Congress to increase money for a global fund for AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria, resulting in AIDS drugs for 350,000 more as well as bed nets for 8 million African families to reduce mosquito-spread malaria. And at last year’s G-8 summit in Glen­eagles, Scotland, Bono was among those nudging Bush to approve a $50-billion aid package and to cancel the debt of impoverished African nations.

Tom Sheridan, Bono’s Democratic lobbyist, notes that the biggest chunk of new money in the 2006 development-assistance budget is for items on DATA’s agenda.

Says former Senate majority leader Tom Daschle: “If you look at this administration, I don’t think they’d be doing many of the things they’re doing were it not for the tremendous attention Bono has drawn to these issues.”

For Bono, born 45 years ago as Paul Hew­son to a Protestant mother and Catholic father in Dublin, the key to success has been the framework he has built in Washington—or “imperial Rome,” as Jamie Drummond, a British antipoverty advocate who heads the DATA office here, calls the nation’s capital.

“You need your squadrons and centurions here,” Drummond says. “You need to do some due diligence with the relationships here and be very sure you get that right. I’m obviously British. Bono is obviously Irish. What we learned was that, much as our ambitions to help Africa might be great, they won’t achieve greatness if you don’t have America leading it.”

Drummond notes that Bono is not a one-man band; he has lent his fame and access to the people already working in the trenches here. “He’s a movement maker. He’s holding a mirror up to America and to Washington and reminding people of why they came here. In most cases, that’s to do good.”

Bono must have seen 500 people during his three days in Washington last fall. There were the 10 am briefings by his DATA staff, 11 am meetings on Capitol Hill, a lunch that Nancy Pelosi held for him in her office with senators John Kerry, Barack Obama, Patrick Leahy, and other Democrats, a lunch with Republicans, a lunch and Oval Office meeting with Bush, a meeting with the Secretary of State, another with the national security adviser, afternoon sessions with advocacy groups, a late-night reception at the Ritz in Georgetown with about 50 people who had worked with him on debt cancellation.

And he squeezed in two sold-out concerts at the MCI Center.

Back again in February, he was the keynote speaker at the National Prayer Breakfast, joined congressional Democrats at a retreat in Williamsburg, and visited friends at the White House and on Capitol Hill.

In his wraparound sunglasses, black jeans and jacket, and open-collared shirt—a style lobbyist Sheridan calls “rock-star business”—he travels light through the corridors of power in Washington, usually with only a DATA staff member and maybe Sheridan or his Republican counterpart, lobbyist and former Tom DeLay aide Scott Hatch.

“He does not want an entourage,” says Sheridan. “He’s lobbying on behalf of the desperately poor and terminally ill. You don’t want to look like you’ve got too much stuff around you.”

Still, there is no moving him quickly. There are the group photos to do with the staff of every member of Congress he visits, CDs to sign for any page or staffer or senator’s wife who asks. Last October, Rich Verma, senior national security affairs adviser for Senator Harry Reid, brought in his new daughter’s onesie for Bono to autograph.

In the Irish tradition, Bono often brings gifts for those he goes to see, such as a volume of works by Irish poet Seamus Heaney for Senator Bill Frist, a framed copy of the Marshall Plan speech for Colin Powell, a Peter and the Wolf book he illustrated for Senate staffers. He stays in touch with the people he meets through calls, e-mails, handwritten notes, visits.

Iowa representative Jim Leach, who came to know Bono when the former chairman of the House banking committee was pushing bills on debt relief, has visited the rock star at his recording studio in Dublin and in turn had him to his home in Iowa City. There, Bono drew a sketch of Leach’s daughter on a paper plate that is now framed and hanging in their home.

Leach, a reluctant rocker, went to a U2 concert and says, “It’s hard not to be impressed.” But he’s been more impressed by Bono’s intellect. He recalls being at a meeting in the White House Cabinet room toward the end of the Clinton administration with the President, Cabinet members, AIDS advocates, religious leaders, and Bono. “It was very clear to me the highest IQ in that room was Bono’s,” says the Iowa Republican. Last December, Leach entered in the Congressional Record a tribute he wrote to Bono. “In the history of celebrity,” it read, “no one has used his stature for greater social effect than this Irish songwriter and performer.”

California representative Tom Lantos, the senior Democrat on the international-relations committee and a 78-year-old Holocaust survivor, had not heard of Bono when he agreed to have lunch with the stubbly-chinned musician several years ago. But Lantos said he and Bono “clicked” over a shared commitment to human rights.

Last December, Lantos and his granddaughter Kimber Cook visited Bono at his home in New York—a three-story penthouse he bought from Steve Jobs. The three went out on the balcony overlooking Central Park, and Bono took hold of their hands. He said a prayer for another Lantos granddaughter, an opera singer whose stage name is Charity Sunshine, who suffers from an incurable lung disease.

“He made up something very beautiful on the spot, asking God to assist Charity in beating this horrendous condition,” Lantos said. Then Bono told the congressman he wanted to write a song for Charity and do a concert with her in Honolulu when U2 performs there in April.

“It’s hard not to like a man like this,” Lantos says.

Bono started out doing more-conventional rock-star activism, helping Bob Geldof organize the mid-1980s Live Aid, a concert for famine relief in Africa. The concert was deemed a success and spurred Bono and his wife, Ali, to spend six weeks at an orphanage in Ethiopia.

Bono, a father of four, spent most of the ’90s basking in U2’s fame—until 1997, when he was approached by Jamie Drummond, who was organizing Jubilee 2000, a church-sponsored, biblically inspired campaign to cancel Third World debt in the millennium. The $200 million raised by Live Aid was swell, Drummond told Bono, but African countries were paying that much in old Cold War debt to rich industrialized nations and international institutions every four to five days, leaving them little for the health and education of their own people. Often that debt had been racked up by long-gone tyrants.

“I knew we needed to get more oxygen onto this very arcane, esoteric issue of debt cancellation,” says Drummond. “We went back to the music industry and said, ‘If you got involved in debt cancellation, you could achieve a lot more than that big concert you did. You can move from charity to justice.’ And Bono lapped up that idea.”

He first wanted to become an expert. Eunice Kennedy Shriver, whom Bono knew from a Special Olympics album he worked on, suggested the rocker talk to her son Bobby, a record producer with high-level Washington contacts. Soon Bono was flying to Washington for tutorials with then–World Bank president James Wolfensohn and to Harvard for sessions with economist Jeffrey Sachs and making contacts with government officials around the globe.

By 1999, Bono was ready to make his case to the Clinton administration for cancellation of the $6-billion debt the poorest African nations owed the United States. Shriver arranged a meeting for Bono with Gene Sperling, Clinton’s chief economic adviser, and Sheryl Sandberg, chief of staff to Treasury secretary Lawrence Summers. “No one expected the meeting to be very substantive,” says Sandberg, now an executive at Google.

But she and Sperling say it was clear from the start this was not your average celebrity. The U2 star talked about capital markets, constituents, debt instruments. He was disarmingly eloquent. Says Sperling, “He has a gift for being able to reach right in you and grab you emotionally.”

Summers, who had no idea who Bono was, dropped by and told the rock star he didn’t think debt cancellation was possible. “It’s not just up to us,” he told Bono dismissively, noting that the other finance ministers had to agree.

At that point, Bono looked Summers in the eye, Sandberg says, and told the secretary: “I have been all over the world. I’ve met with all the finance ministers. They’ve all said, if I can get Larry Summers, this can get done. So don’t tell me this can’t get done, because I know it can.”

Sometime after the one-hour meeting, says Sandberg, Summers told Clinton, “You know that guy who wore jeans to the White House and only had one name? Boy, is he smart.”

Bono didn’t let up. He called Sperling on a Sunday, a few days before Clinton was to give a speech at the World Bank, and asked if he could come see him. “I said, ‘You don’t need to come in. You know I’m with you,’ ” Sperling recalls. But Bono insisted and on a fall Sunday morning walked into Sperling’s West Wing office.

Sperling remembers the scene: “I had a two-foot-high stack of paper by my side. Bono comes in and says, ‘Gene, I know your heart’s in the right place. I’m looking at that stack and imagining that everything in this stack is more urgent than debt relief. But I want you to ask yourself, ten years from now, is there anything in this stack you’ll feel as good about as getting debt relief for the world’s poorest countries?’ ”

Bono left, and Sperling picked up the phone. He and Summers got Clinton to use his speech that week to call for 100-percent cancellation of the debts owed to the United States by 33 countries.

Bono thought: Mission accomplished. Until wiser Washington hands filled him in. “There was this thing called the Republican-controlled Congress,” says Tom Hart, a lobbyist for the Episcopal Church who would later become DATA’s director of government relations.

Bobby Shriver’s brother-in-law Arnold Schwarzenegger introduced the musician to Ohio Republican John Kasich, a rock ’n’ roll–loving conservative who headed the House Budget Committee and whom Bono has called “our first rabbi on the right.” Bono made trips to Capitol Hill, spending most of his time courting conservatives and those opposed to his agenda.

Shriver also put together small dinner parties for Bono, inviting Democratic and Republican senators and a smattering of VIPs like Wolfensohn, AOL’s Steve Case, and Jordan’s Queen Noor. At one dinner in a private room at Galileo, Bono sat next to Jesse Helms’s wife and, by one account, spent much of the evening asking her about the secret to a successful marriage. Dorothy Helms came away charmed, and Bono was on his way to becoming fast friends with the North Carolina senator.

A spiritual man who sees songs as prayers and wears around his neck a rosary given to him by Pope John Paul II (in exchange for a pair of his sunglasses), Bono appealed to the Christian conservatives in government like Helms, and later President Bush, by framing the issue of debt relief as a biblical one. He quoted scriptural references to helping the poor and afflicted, including the Leviticus text in which Moses announces God’s decree that special years be set aside for the forgiveness of debt and other acts that make right the social order.

His stories about starving children in Africa, about women and their infants dying of AIDS moved Helms to tears. And the North Carolina senator not only became the unlikeliest of Bono allies and U2 fans (“the noisiest thing I ever heard,” Helms said of a U2 concert), he later apologized for insensitive remarks he had made about AIDS and said he’d been wrong.

Five-foot-seven in shoes, Bono has said he learned from growing up on the streets of Dublin that “you find the tough guy and make him your friend—especially if you’re my height.”

Bono made sure he knew the particulars of each lawmaker he went to see. Once, before stepping into Senator Robert Byrd’s office, he turned to Sheridan, his Democratic lobbyist. “He’s like an institution, isn’t he?” Bono said of the West Virginia senator who’s been in Congress for more than half a century. “He’s like the Senate itself.”

Daschle says whenever word got out that Bono was coming to the Hill, senators and House members did something they almost never do—ask to be invited to a meeting. Another rarity: Bono would be doing most of the talking, the politicians the listening.

And Bono made a point of cultivating congressional aides, understanding that you ignore the staff people at your peril, and often meeting with the staffers alone. “He’s far more willing to do that than the politicians are,” says the former South Dakota senator.

As the vote on debt relief neared in fall 2000 and the Clinton administration needed help on Capitol Hill, Bono was in Dublin finishing an album. “I called him, and he said, ‘I’ll be in Washington in a month,’ ” recalls Sandberg, the Treasury secretary’s chief of staff. “I said, ‘This will be over in a month. We need you this week.’ ”

Bono got on a plane. In October 2000, Congress appropriated the additional money needed for 100-percent debt relief, and Clinton signed the measure into law the next month, the day before Election Day.

U2’s album, All That You Can’t Leave Behind, was late to the record company.

Once George W. Bush became president, Bono, Drummond, and Hart decided they needed to professionalize their Washington operation. They realized their agenda needed to be bigger than debt relief if they were going to achieve their goals of getting every child in school, providing clean water, and battling hunger and extreme poverty in Africa. What’s more, candidate Bush had said Africa was not in the “strategic interest” of America.

With funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, George Soros, and software businessman Edward Scott, Bono and Bobby Shriver launched DATA, opening offices here as well as in London and Los Angeles in 2002.

Faced with a new cast of characters, Bono and DATA came up with a more hardheaded approach, one that put responsibility on countries in need of aid to prove that the money would be well spent. Bono described for then–national security adviser Condoleezza Rice—and eventually Bush—examples of African countries using their forgiven debt to lift their people up and put their economic houses in order. He led then–Treasury secretary Paul O’Neill, a skeptic, on a ten-day trip through several African countries and made him a believer.

The idea of development selectivity was not a new one, but when Bono and his colleagues talked of responsibility and accountability on the part of recipient countries, the administration felt it had found a kindred spirit.

September 11, and Rice’s pronouncement of development as a new pillar of national security, gave DATA’s agenda even more currency. As Bono pointed out, Africa is 40 percent Muslim; it wouldn’t hurt for the United States to gain some favor there.

Drummond worked closely with the White House to develop a plan. In March 2002, at a speech at the Inter-American Development Bank, Bush announced “a new compact for global development defined by new accountability.” He pledged a $5-billion aid package over three years in a new “Millennium Challenge Account.” And he praised his unlikely ally, who sat behind him, saying: “Bono, I appreciate your heart, and to tell you what an influence you’ve had, Dick Cheney walked in the Oval Office, he said, ‘Jesse Helms wants us to listen to Bono’s ideas.’ ”

The Bono stamp of approval was important to the White House, giving Bush a measure of credibility with a constituency that was not his. In fact, Bono was criticized, even by members of his band, for his new relationships. “Edge was pleading with me not to hang out with conservatives,” Bono told a British newspaper, referring to the U2 guitarist. “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.”

But Bono asked Bush for something in return—a major new AIDS initiative—and he and other activists spent the rest of the year lobbying Congress, the White House, and the Christian right making sure it happened. To show lawmakers that Middle America cared about the issue of AIDS, Bono led Lance Armstrong, Warren Buffett, and Ashley Judd on a bus trip through the country’s heartland, holding town-hall meetings in the backyards of Congress members who needed convincing.

The pressure from Bono and others, notably Helms, worked. In his 2003 State of the Union address, Bush proposed a $15-billion emergency plan for AIDS relief.

Since then, Bono has tended his relationship with Bush gingerly. He praises the President for the AIDS initiative but also confronted him last year for letting the Millennium Challenge Account fall through the cracks. Bush didn’t sign it into law until 2004 and called for billions less than he originally pledged.

Some liberals were disappointed Bono did not issue more full-throated protests of the President’s actions on the Millennium Challenge Account and other issues. They were angry that the president’s AIDS package came with ideological strings, such as requirements that countries receiving aid preach abstinence and limit free condom distribution.

But the self-described “big-mouthed Irish rock star” believes he’s a more effective advocate if he doesn’t take sides and tempers his criticism. He may be right. In November, Bush turned the MCA over to former ambassador John Danilovich and pledged to make it more of a priority.

Some liberals have also been uncomfortable with DATA’s strong ties to religious conservatives, including major evangelical and megachurch leaders like pastor and Purpose Driven Life author Rick Warren as well as Christian musicians and singers.

“It has been a key motivation for many of the folks who have helped us get things done,” says DATA’s Hart. “We value those relationships to the nth degree.”

In fact, the religious tilt is a perfect fit with Bono, who often invokes Jesus in his lyrics and whose children have biblical names. Riding in a Chevy suburban to his first meeting with Bush in 2002, he had a Bible on his lap and his priest in Ireland on the phone, lobbyist Hatch recalls. Though running late, he asked the driver to circle the White House while he hunted for a passage about leaders and service to the poor that he wanted to recite to the President and inscribe for him in a Bible. He found the verse in the Gospel of Matthew.

A year before the G-8 summit in Scotland last summer, Jamie Drummond, Tom Hart, and DATA policy director Erin Thornton met for beers with two Treasury officials at Shelly’s Back Room, a downtown DC cigar bar where the administration officials have their own private humidor.

In a friendship that began with the Bono/O’Neill trip to Africa three years earlier, the Washington insiders talked about cancellation of 100 percent of the debt owed by developing nations to multilateral institutions like the World Bank.

In a back-of-a-cocktail-napkin sort of way, the five friends sat around a small table and worked out a plan.

“Only in DC could a rock star’s lobbyists and top-level Treasury officials get together in a cigar-and-Scotch bar—coats off, ties down, sleeves rolled up—and plan cancelling the debt of the world’s poorest countries,” says Christopher Lagan, DATA’s communications director.

The activists, acting as an unofficial liaison, had similar sessions with British treas­ury officials and helped broker a compromise between the two governments. The deal, eventually agreed to by the G-8 at the 2005 summit and then by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, promised full forgiveness of the debt owed to these institutions by 18 poor countries, 14 of them African. “It was better than either of their two positions alone,” says Hart. “And it was essentially our plan.”

Bush embraced the debt-relief agreement but still resisted the other goal British prime minister Tony Blair had proposed as the summit’s host: a doubling of aid to poor African nations by 2010.

At the summit, Bono dropped in on the behind-the-scenes negotiators as well as five of the eight heads of state: Blair, with whom he speaks regularly, German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, Canadian prime minister Paul Martin, French president Jacques Chirac, and George Bush.

As the lyricist had told DATA’s Erin Thornton, “sometimes you just have to listen to the poetry.” Trying to give Bush one last push, Bono invoked the spirituality the two men shared. “On so many issues it’s difficult to know what God wants from us,” the Irish rock star told the American president, according to Time. “But on this issue, helping the desperately poor, we know God will bless it.”

In the end, the G-8 leaders agreed to Blair’s proposal to double aid to Africa to $50 billion by 2010.

House minority leader Nancy Pelosi went to both U2 concerts at the MCI Center in October. Secretary of State Rice and national security adviser Stephen Hadley took in a show. Democratic senator Hillary Clinton, whose husband is a Bono buddy, got a block of tickets and resold about 18 of them for $2,500 each to benefit her political action committee. Republican senator Rick Santorum bought 66 tickets, which supporters could repurchase for $1,000 each.

To make sure Bono remained above the political fray, Jamie Drummond issued a statement, saying, “U2 concerts are categorically not fundraisers for any politician; they are rock concerts for U2 fans.”

But they are also Bono extravaganzas—and that means more than a touch of political activism, often in between “Where the Streets Have No Name” and “One.”

In the past year Bono has been asking audiences to sign up for an antipoverty campaign he helped launch two years ago called One: The Campaign to Make Poverty History. He urges concertgoers to light up the arena by lifting their cellphones and sending a text message pledging support to One, a campaign to get an additional 1 percent of the US budget for aid to poor countries. The organization, which has been embraced by the Christian Coalition on the right and on the left, has enlisted 2 million people and is aiming for 5 million by 2008, which would make it bigger than the National Rifle Association, Bono notes.

During U2’s concerts, Bono talks about his experiences in Africa. The articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights scroll on one of the big screens above the stage. Some fans find it all a bit preachy. Others are moved by it.

“You’ve got everyone from teenyboppers to adults, new fans and old, people who’ve probably never paid any attention to this kind of thing, pumping their fists and cheering,” says DATA’s Thornton. “For all these new people, he’s been able to make these issues sexy and interesting and meaningful. His music is the only thing that could do that.”

He also has spawned a new breed of serious-minded celebrity activist. Actors Brad Pitt, George Clooney, and Ashley Judd have been intrigued by how Bono has leveraged his celebrity, says Drummond, and are now working with DATA. “Washington is rightly skeptical of celebrities getting involved,” Drummond says. “This is actually famous people getting down and rolling up their sleeves and doing their homework and being staffed. They’re not just going in, making a pitch, and walking out. They’re not not just leaving a bunch of bodies in the corridors of power.”

When bono is not in Washington, he is still engaged, his associates say. “He’s on a global U2 tour, but I just got off the phone with him for an hour and a half on issues ranging from our board and financing to trade policy,” Hart says.

And he keeps up his lobbying of the world’s leaders. In January, he attended the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, to remind the finance ministers of their promises from the G-8 summit. His access to European leaders makes him a welcome visitor in Washington, where he returns a lot—but not too much.

“A while back there was some concern that Bono fatigue might set in,” says Allen Moore, former policy director for Senator Frist. “But because the landscape is changing and he’s staying current, he comes back with new information. It’s not just another pitch. It’s ‘Here’s what some of the European leaders think.’ He’s trafficking in useful information.”

DATA and its rock-star head will spend the next months pushing for its items on the President’s budget and urging the US government to give an additional 1 percent of the federal budget to the world’s poor, a tough sell in times of budget deficits.

Bono keeps coming to DC, he says, because this city of divisions has proven that people can come together “on behalf of what the Scripture calls ‘the least of these.’ ”He has a lot more respect for politicians, he says, “than it’s hip to admit to.”

The rock star still hasn’t found what he’s looking for—an end to poverty and disease in the most desperate part of the world. But in Washington, he knows whom to see.

Susan Baer

Susan Baer is a former Washingtonian editor and Baltimore Sun correspondent who has also written for CNN and the Washington Post. She can be reached at [email protected].