Keys To Bono's Political Success: Passion And An Iron Butt

Observers laud U2 singer for his unyielding dedication to AIDS, third-world

It's a long way from the stage of Madison Square Garden to an HIV clinic in

South Africa, or from the thunderous roar of an adoring audience to the

buttoned-down halls of the U.S. Senate.

For most people, perhaps, but not for Bono.

Rock and politics have been strange bedfellows for decades, from folkie Pete

Seeger's civil rights work in the '60s to Frank Zappa's censorship battles

in the '80s and Rage Against the Machine's anti-sweatshop agitation in the

'90s. But whether it's peace in Ireland or restructuring third-world debt,

few rock stars have been able to devote as much time to their poesy

and political passions as U2's lead singer.

And few politicians in recent memory, to say nothing of moonlighting

rockers, have been able to bring such mainstream attention and hope for

action to causes such as AIDS and poverty in Africa as the Irishman born

Paul Hewson.

Which is why you've seen Bono on the cover of Time magazine, on the

nightly news and in newspaper articles across the U.S. lately. If his recent

10-day tour of Africa with U.S. Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill was meant to

focus the world's attention on the devastation HIV has wrought on Africans

and the continent's dire poverty, experts both inside and outside

Washington, D.C.'s beltway believe it was a mission accomplished. One that

perhaps only someone like Bono could have pulled off.

According to those who've worked with him, that's because Bono —

through his tenacity, religious conviction, deep knowledge and, of course,

rock star cache — has transcended the headline-grabbing, day-tripper

image of politicized superstars who make a splash and then get back to their

lives.

"One of the things that he and conservative politicians like Senator Jesse

Helms have in common — what distinguishes him from other rock stars

— is that they can not only go home and tell their daughters that they

met with Bono, but he can speak to them and address issues in a way that

touches the heart," said Marie Clarke, national coordinator for the Jubilee

USA Network, a debt-relief organization that has benefited from Bono's

support.

"He touches them, especially Christians, by reminding them of the scriptural

call to ... protect the vulnerable of society. Which has led to that now

famous story of Bono making Helms cry in a meeting."

Being at the top of the celebrity heap doesn't hurt, either. "He's the kind

of person where, if he walks into a room, everything comes to a stop," said

Fred Davis III, founder of Hollywood-based Strategic Perception Inc., an

image consulting firm that has helped politicians such as Elizabeth Dole and

Dan Quayle "go Hollywood" by making their messages slicker and more

mediagenic.

"But he also has this amazing do-good attitude that he has applied to

everything he does," Davis added. "It's that combination of personality and knowledge that allows him

to gain access. If he was just a celebrity, without that knowledge, he

wouldn't be able to do great things."

Unlike many rock stars who dress up for the more sober work of diplomacy,

Bono has chosen to remain in character while advocating for his causes.

Whether it's a meeting with the Pope, Helms or global leaders at the World

Economic Forum, Bono doesn't clean up in a suit and respectable haircut.

Instead, even for a bull session with President Bush (who has affectionately

referred to Bono as "The Pest"), it's the familiar wrap-around shades, black

leather jacket and unkempt hair. Which, curiously, is part of the appeal.

"He doesn't press his suit, his shirt is wrinkled, he's a smoker, so he

probably smells a bit, but he doesn't fake it at all. He's not putting on an

act," explained Lester Munson, the Republican spokesman for the Senate

Foreign Relations Committee and a top aide to Helms. The sincerity and

notoriety might get him in the door, but once he's in, as in his day job,

it's his conviction and salesmanship that get the work done.

Which is why when an amendment pledging an additional $5 billion to fight

AIDS is offered on behalf of the ailing Helms in the next few weeks, Bono

can take some credit for it, Munson said. "Without him, it might not have

happened. It's because, unlike most celebrities, he hasn't come in for a

photo op and left. He's been back here over and over and over for more than

two years. He has an iron butt, which is high praise in Washington because

it means you can sit and listen to other people talk."

His leaden leather pants and deep knowledge help, but the other key is

Bono's shrewd understanding of the American political process, according to

Sen. Christopher Dodd of Connecticut. "He has studied the political

situation in the United States and uses that knowledge to frame his argument

in a manner that is appropriate and attractive to his audience, be it

Democratic or Republican," said the senator, who co-sponsored a Senate

debt-relief bill.

"It is clear that debt relief and AIDS in Africa are not just momentary

concerns for Bono, and you can tell he cares about what he is saying. This

level of dedication and resolve is rarely seen in a celebrity advocate."

The Helms amendment comes just two months after Bono took his place

alongside President Bush to announce a $5 billion aid package for Africa,

which Munson agreed might also have foundered without Bono's politicking.

Even when he's stumping for his pet causes, though, Bono's mind is never far

from his primary gig. In a National Public Radio interview on Wednesday, the

singer said his job was to enlighten the world to the African AIDS crisis by

making it "pop," as in popular, like his band.

Over the past 30-odd years, rock and roll statesmanship has been less about

being a policy wonk and more often about raising money with all-star benefit

concerts: George Harrison's concert for war victims in Bangladesh, Neil

Young, Willie Nelson and John Mellencamp's Farm Aid events, the Beastie

Boys' Tibetan Freedom concerts and the mother of all fund-raisers,

ex-Boomtown Rats leader Bob Geldof's Live Aid.

But Bono has gone beyond raising money and public awareness by taking the

less sexy route of becoming a celebrity lobbyist, which means burying

himself in World Monetary Fund reports and not being afraid to hang out with

such archconservatives as Helms. In the process, he's jeopardized what is

perhaps a rock star's most treasured asset — street cred.

As the singer told the English newspaper The Guardian earlier this

year, "[U2 guitarist] 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, [are you]?' 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 it's very

important not to play politics with this."