When Beyoncé Knowles was in Cape Town, South Africa, last weekend to perform at the Nelson Mandela concert, U2 frontman Bono brought her to a nearby township's orphanage. During their visit, Beyoncé stopped at a nursery and picked up a tiny newborn named Hope. She cradled the baby with tenderness. Bono picked up a second infant named Emily. Noticing that both babies had a waxy complexion, Beyoncé asked a heath-care worker, "Are they sick?," Bono recalled Wednesday during a forum conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation.
"Oh, yes," replied the woman with a blank expression and a matter-of-fact tone. "They're all going to die."
The health-care worker was so nonchalant, not because she didn't care, but because she had gotten so used to watching children die of AIDS. The disease is ravaging South Africa, where as many as one in nine people are either HIV positive or suffering from full-blown AIDS, according to United Nations statistics.
For the better part of the past two years, Bono and his trade-advocacy group, called Debt, AIDS, Trade & Africa (DATA), have been on a crusade to encourage world leaders to funnel more money into fighting the AIDS crisis. And their efforts have made a difference: On April 15, after meeting with Bono and other AIDS activists, President Bush urged Congress to direct $15 billion over five years to the battle against AIDS.
But Congress has yet to pass the president's bill, which is the main reason why the U2 singer was in Washington Wednesday for a televised interview with ex-ABC correspondent Jackie Judd. In all likelihood, the legislative body will pass the initiative before it recesses for the year, but there's still a good chance that the Senate won't get to it until January. If that's the case, Bono said, as many as 500,000 additional people will lose their lives.
"The thing that angers me more than anything is stupidity," he said. "And people are dying for the most stupid of reasons, and that reason is money," Bono said.
Bono compared the bureaucratic delay to a fire truck arriving at a blaze and being unable to turn on the water. "I just think there's an incredible opportunity to take the prosperity we have in the West and turn it into goodwill in the poorest places on the planet and transform lives and communities. And we can't afford to wait."
Most political pop stars who speak their minds never take the necessary steps to cause actual constructive change. Not only has Bono gone straight to the politicians who can make a difference, he's learned how to navigate within the system and speak their language. He has also refused to be dismissed or denied.
"This argument has hundreds of thousands of lives at stake," Bono said. "It's not that I am smart or particularly determined, it's that the argument has such a moral force that once you lay hands on it, it shows you where to go. It's like women not voting. It's like separate buses in the South in the '60s."
In addition to being persistent, Bono has been extremely tactful, appealing to both Democrats and Republicans, and taking great care not to make his fight a partisan issue. While he has criticized the Bush administration for not funneling enough money fast enough and for not ponying up an extra billion for the global AIDS health fund (they compromised at $400 million), he praises the administration's willingness to listen and its desire to help.
"I've got a lot more respect now for politicians now than I did when I was a kid," he said. "They work very hard and often they're not bad guys. They're just busy guys. I've met some incredible people right across the board, on both sides of the aisle who are waking up to the fact that we have to do something."
Bono even praised former archconservative North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms, who met with Bono before he left office last year. "[U2 guitarist] the Edge will hardly speak to me for even meeting Senator Helms," Bono said. "But he played an important role in turning around conservative opinion."
Right now, Bono is positioned in an optimistic, but defensive, stance. He's pleased that he and DATA are being taken seriously, he's thrilled by the success of the recent concert in South Africa to fight AIDS (see "Beyonce, Bono, Others Perform At AIDS Benefit Show In Cape Town"), and he's hopeful that the Bush administration will continue to address the crisis. At the same time, he's growing restless.
"I say with respect, 'We can't really wait,' Bono said. "The fire burns out of control. It will cost more to wait [and that's very frustrating]."
When he realized he had stepped slightly outside of the prudent line of diplomacy, Bono concluded by throwing a little more praise on the Bush pile. "All the people I've dealt with in this administration have been incredibly truthful," he said. "And the president slapped his hand on the desk and said, 'You show me programs are saving lives and doing what they're supposed to do, and they will not go short of funding.' "