The Rock Star, The Kennedy, And The Economist

17 Jan 2002
'Sometimes, instead of climbing over the barricades, you've got to walk around them,' explains Bono, profiled on

The idea of the rebel-rocker is sorely tarnished in these days of "pop lite," writes Elaina Richardson, but there's nothing sugarcoated about the intensity Bono brings to the world. Consider these few events from the past year in the life of U2's charismatic front man: a sold-out tour; the All That You Can't Leave Behind album went to number one in 32 countries; the birth of his fourth child in May; talks with the leaders of the world's strongest economies the G8; the death of his father in August; countless one-on-ones about AIDS relief and trade with cabinet officials from Colin Powell to Condoleezza Rice. Where does his stamina come from?

"God made me stubborn," Bono says with a throaty laugh that tells you something about the state of his vocal cords. "Stubbornness and Catholic guilt," he continues. "That'll work for you every time. And I've had the best life that a man's ever had."

This is how Bono talks long strings of run-on sentences that can encompass pub life, the AIDS pandemic in Africa, blues guitar and a healthy dose of self-deprecation. The bottom line of all his speechifying is that it's time for a major initiative that would combine debt cancellation for the world's poorest nations with trade reform and a commitment from pharmaceutical companies to give free HIV drugs to African countries. Bono spouts numbers effortlessly and accurately, noting that sub-Saharan Africa spends around $13.5 billion a year repaying debts to rich countries, which is more than double what it spends on health care.

His charm lies in the fact that whether he's at an audience with Pope John Paul II or singing "Beautiful Day" for 20,000 fans, his need to communicate is palpable. There was a time when Bono harangued the world, all the while making it clear that he didn't give a damn if he was. A decade later he has learned a more effective path.

"Sometimes, instead of climbing over the barricades, you've got to walk around them, and sometimes you discover that the real enemy is not what you think it is," he says.

That attitude has led to some strange-seeming bedfellows such as Senator Jesse Helms, the 80-year-old archconservative from North Carolina, who became Bono's champion in the struggle to get a debt-relief plan through Congress.

According to Bono, "When I first started going to Washington for meetings on Capitol Hill, I'm sure I looked like a very exotic creature, but eventually they didn't see me, they just saw the argument. And the thing about the pictures of me the rock star with, say, Jesse Helms the politician is it's really unhip for both of us, you know, it's a bad look for the two of us!"

"I think that politicians are attracted at first by the celebrity," says Harvard economics professor Jeffrey Sachs, "but once they meet him, they find that he is outstandingly capable." Along with producer Bobby Shriver, Sachs became part of Bono's American kitchen cabinet in 1999 in the quest to get debt relief on the agenda. In his Class Day address at Harvard in June, Bono summed up the trio: "Sachs and I, with Bobby Shriver, hit the road like some kind of surreal crossover act. A Rock Star, a Kennedy and a Noted Economist crisscrossing the globe like the Partridge family on psychotropic drugs."

The results have already been impressive: In November of 2000, Congress passed legislation authorizing $435 million in debt relief. Last July, President Bush and the G8 countries focused the debate on issuing grants rather than loans to developing nations, and Bono is sure a lot more is about to happen. "I'm confident that President Bush has a real feeling for the AIDS pandemic. Essentially, what we're asking for is a kind of Marshall Plan for Africa. A few months ago that didn't look like a possibility, but post-September 11, the comparisons are striking. When you have nothing, you are easy prey to terrorists and to groups who keep alive the lie that the West is not interested in your calamity. We've just seen what happens when one country, Afghanistan, implodes. God knows what will happen if the entire continent of Africa is left on its current trajectory, which is disaster."

Read the rest of this article from the February 2002 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine at


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