Can Bono Save The Third World?

As the singer in the Irish rock band U2, the man who calls himself Bono has played some tough rooms. But Orrin Hatch's office in the U.S. Senate provided a different kind of challenge. Bono, whose real name is Paul Hewson, had come to Washington last November on a particularly low-glamour errand: to lobby key policymakers, mostly Republicans, to forgive nearly $6 billion in Third World debt. The meeting was going well. Bono marshaled his arguments with pop-star elan; Hatch, who had been sympathetic going in, offered his support. But even so, by both men's accounts, their business was not yet done. Like his guest, Hatch is a songwriter. "He turned up the stereo in his office to 11, and played these kind of R&B and pop and gospel tunes," says Bono. "I almost fell over." The senator adored the attention. "I was tickled to death," Hatch says. Two weeks after the visit, with Hatch joining the majority, Congress backed a Clinton pledge to write off all Third World debt. By the end of the year, the British government followed suit.

The announcements capped a year of surreal encounters between a scruffy, well-spoken rock-and-roller and some people in very high places. The meetings offer a unique window into what has been called the entertainment- industrial complex, where governance requires not just reason and compassion, but ratings as well. "Bono got meetings with people we couldn't meet with," says Jamie Drummond, who recruited the singer for the London-based debt-relief group Jubilee 2000. "If you're looking for the X factor, it is that we managed to win over the attention of media, which usually ignore a cause like this. And that was through Bono." Drawing support from the Vatican and other religious and political quarters, the campaign can claim dramatic results. The Group of Eight industrial nations, or G8, pledged in June to forgive more than $100 billion in Third World debt, out of $356 billion. The United States, Britain and Canada later added to this commitment, pledging to forgive all the debt they held. Social causes have long used the dazzle of celebrities to attract attention and, often, money. But here was a new application of star power, to rally not the masses but the elite brokers of real power. This is a story of white (mostly) men in gray suits, and of the Versace-clad rock star who helped sway them.

The tale begins in 1985, after U2 performed at Live Aid, the global benefit concert for African-famine relief. Bono and his wife, Ali, lived in Ethiopia for a month, working in one of the relief camps. He remembers holding an infant who weighed just two pounds, its skin ivory white from malnutrition; another time, a man wanted to give Bono his own son, to spare the boy from starvation in the camp. "You say you'll never forget," says the singer. "But you do forget. You go back to your regular life as a rock star, and I make no apologies for that." Then, in the spring of 1998, Drummond approached Bono with a pithy argument. Live Aid, he said, had raised $200 million for African relief. The African nations owed that much in debt payments every five days, more than they spent on health care and education. "Here was a chance to revisit that situation, but with more than a Band-Aid," says Bono--"to look at the structure of poverty." Bono was in. "We expected that [Bono's involvement] might be concerts and records," says Drummond. "But it turned out Bono's a very brilliant political lobbyist."

What followed was a high-level game of telephone tag, in which the currents of power--political, financial, religious and celebrity--yielded a surprising network of connections. Bono phoned his friend Bobby Shriver, the music producer and Kennedy nephew. Shriver called in his own Rolodex of family and professional contacts. He introduced Bono first to Harvard economist Jeffrey Sachs, a leading researcher and advocate for debt relief, then to Leslie Gelb and Holly Peterson of the Council on Foreign Relations. Gelb and Peterson, in turn, made calls to the titan financier David Rockefeller and to U.N. Ambassador Richard Holbrooke. "I said I had a kooky proposal," says Peterson, 34: " 'I'm going to bring a rock star into your office in weird sunglasses to talk about Third World debt relief.' They were skeptical. But within five minutes they were floored by his breadth of knowledge."

The connections continued to multiply. Shriver's brother-in-law Arnold Schwarzenegger made calls to key Republicans, including House Budget Committee chairman John Kasich. "John Kasich started raving about Radiohead," says Shriver with a laugh, referring to the British alternative-rock band. "I said, 'Did Arnold put you up to this?' Then I realized Arnold doesn't know who the hell Radiohead is." Along the way, Bono met with President Clinton, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroder, U.S. Treasury Secretaries Robert Rubin and Larry Summers, national-security adviser Sandy Berger, Federal Reserve chief Paul Volcker, World Bank president James Wolfensohn and Pope John Paul II. Not to mention Larry Summers's kids' nanny. Pretty heady company for a guy in a rock-and-roll band. "I treated everybody with respect," Bono says. "But walking into the Oval Office in my combat jeans and a T shirt, I noticed the president's secretary looking at me bemused. And even the president smiled when he saw the big boots." On reflection, he says with a laugh that "maybe the Prada shoes weren't respectful enough, but they're pretty swanky where I come from."

Bono's travels say a lot about who is in power today. "I felt we had access to a generation of rock-and-roll politicians," says Bob Geldof, the Irish rocker who organized Live Aid and played a key role in the debt campaign. "Don't forget that Blair was in a rock band. A crap rock band, but a rock band. These people grew up and became prime ministers." In the case of more senior power brokers, it was not necessary that they be U2 fans, says Shriver. "I doubt Paul [Volcker] ever met a guy in rock and roll before. He's an intellectually curious man. Or put yourself in David Rockefeller's position: 84, a prince of the world, a real plutocrat. Then all of a sudden all these sober young people in his office go berserk because a guy says he wants to see him. What is up?"

In Washington, the issue's near-zero sex appeal actually played to Bono's advantage. He knew the subject better than the suits across the desk. "Not that there was incredible opposition, but incredible disregard," says Sachs, who attended many meetings. The two argued that the Third World was held in the equivalent of a debtors' prison, unable ever to get out. Politicians are by now used to hearing the complaints of pampered celebrities. But Bono brought a different game, says one senior administration official. "Other celebrities like Bonnie Raitt would come in and tell you they want to save the whales, and you'd say, yes, we like whales, whales are good. But here's a guy who comes in and he's telling you what Jeff Sachs is thinking. He'd say, 'I understand, that's just what Jim Wolfensohn said,' and then you'd realize he has talked to an enormous number of people."

The progress so far has made splashy headlines. But it hasn't brought dramatic change for the debtor nations. Much of the G8 pledge forgave portions of debt that were realistically unpayable. "There's a lot of ambiguity and a lot of negotiating ahead," says Sachs. "And so far, not a penny of relief." But the headlines are important, he says; the Bono campaign illustrates that public image operates as capital, too, by drawing attention to the cause. "A hundred billion dollars," says Bono. "Not bad take-home for a year's work."

After a New Year's performance in Washington, he is now recording with the band, trying to make up for a year of living unhiply. Bono is wiser for his Prada paces in the corridors of power. "You grow up with this idea of us and them, that all politicians are full of s---t," he says. "Now I see their life is the art of the possible, and not much is possible." He remembers luminous moments with various politicians, or the pope's "brilliant" shoes ("bootleg Polish Gucci loafers," Geldof called them). Yet he is not seduced by the political world. "They work harder than I thought they did. And they have duller lives." He snaps back into rock-star mode. Let me tell you, he says, about the new album.