Sunday, September 18, 2005

The Angel of the Lord

Imagine my glee to open the sacred pages of The New York Times on Sunday (a liturgical book in its own right) to find my beloved Commencement Speaker on the cover of the Magazine. It's kept me from the Weddings and Celebrations, for now....

Bono and Social Justice:
From the outset, the members of U2 have been committed to rescuing the planet from various evils. Back in the 1980's, when the band was building its reputation, every tour seemed to come with its own moral sponsor - Amnesty International, Nelson Mandela, Greenpeace. Bono has since come to think of this as the era of Rock Against Bad Things.
Bono and Religion:
Religion played an important role in the band members' lives, if not always in their music; indeed, the band's survival was threatened only when, early on, Bono, the Edge and Larry Mullen Jr. thought of leaving to join a Christian fellowship. Bono remains religious, and not in the cosmic, New Age sense you expect from rock stars. He describes himself as a "meandering Christian," and his four children attend the Church of Ireland, which is Episcopalian (and thus splits the difference between his mother and father)....

Bono has the saving grace of self-awareness; he keeps close track of his own absurdities. Like any pop star, he sorted through various personae over the years - brother of the oppressed, Christian visionary, ironic trickster, devoted husband and father - and ultimately arrived at the soulful, watchful, perpetually unsatisfied grown-up that he is. And at that point he was ready to take up issues that other rock stars were unlikely to bother with, since they couldn't be reduced to a songwriter's hook.
Bono and Republicans:

When I went to meet Bono at the bar of his hotel, I saw Richard Gere seated at a table with a gorgeous woman in a little fur jacket and a leather cap. Bono, on the other hand, had removed himself to a quiet back room, where he was keeping company with a plump, middle-aged white guy in a suit and tie. (Bono was wearing a T-shirt and a fuzzy sweater whose sleeve needed mending.) This was Randall Tobias, head of the Bush administration's AIDS program. The administration had just announced that the program was providing antiretroviral drugs to 155,000 Africans with AIDS. Another kind of activist might have said, "That leaves 25 million more to go." But not Bono: he looked his cornfed interlocutor in the eye and said, "You should know what an incredible difference your work is going to make in their lives." Tobias looked embarrassed. Bono said various wonderful things about President Bush. Tobias beamed....

In mid-2000, Bono received an audience with Senator Jesse Helms, viewed by Bono's fellow lefties, including members of the band, as the archfiend himself. Bono quickly realized that his usual spiel about debt service and so on wasn't making a dent. So, he recalls: "I started talking about Scripture. I talked about AIDS as the leprosy of our age." Married women and children were dying of AIDS, he told the senator, and governments burdened by debt couldn't do a thing about it. Helms listened, and his eyes began to well up. Finally the flinty old Southerner rose to his feet, grabbed for his cane and said, "I want to give you a blessing." He embraced the singer, saying, "I want to do anything I can to help you." Kasich, who was watching from a couch, says, "I thought somebody had spiked my coffee." Bono later invited Senator Helms to a U2 concert, and Helms sat through the evening with his hearing aid turned down. Afterward he said to Bono, "I saw them all standing there with their arms in the air, blowin' like a field of corn."

During this period, Bono flew to Washington eight times, meeting not only legislators but also their aides - even though U2 was then in the last stages of recording a new album. The key holdout in the House was Sonny Callahan, a congressman from Alabama, and Bono and his little band ginned up the clergy members in Callahan's district. Callahan himself later said: "Priests and pastors sermonizing on debt relief on Sundays, telling their congregations to tell Callahan to take care of this, including my own bishop. Eventually I gave in." In late October 2000, Congress appropriated the additional $435 million needed for 100 percent debt relief.

Bono and Bill Clinton:

The glamour event of the following day, indeed of the whole [Davos] forum, was a symposium on efforts to end poverty in Africa. The guests were Tony Blair and Bill Clinton, Presidents Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria and Thabo Mbeki of South Africa, Bill Gates and Bono. The heads of state, leading off, candidly acknowledged the obstacles to development - violent conflict, poor governance, corruption, lack of political will in the donor states and so on. It was all terribly somber and Davos. Then Bono was asked what he would like to see changed. "The tone of the debate," he shot back. The Celebrity Prince was wearing a black T-shirt under a black leather jacket, and he appeared to have shaved the stubble off his jutting, bellicose jaw. "Here we are," he went on, "reasonable men talking about a reasonable situation. I walk down the street and people say: 'I love what you're doing. Love your cause, Bon.' And I don't think 6,000 Africans a day dying from AIDS is a cause; it's an emergency. And 3,000 children dying every day of malaria isn't a cause; it's an emergency."

The crowd of C.F.O.'s and executive directors, silent until then, burst into applause. Bono had put music to the words; that's one of the things the rock-star activist can do. Moments later, an inspired Bill Clinton, throwing reason to the winds, cried: "The whole corruption and incompetence issue is bogus! And whoever raises it should be thrown in the closet." (Clinton later calmed down and said he meant that the corruption and incompetence of many African governments should not be used as a pretext to withhold aid.)

U2'll be here again next month. I'll be there, we'll bring Diarmuid in and have Davos on the Delaware. Good God and niente foto!



Blogger Jeff said...

Nice stories. I particularly like the one about Jesse Helms. Whatever you thought of his politics, he was a man with a heart of gold. He adopted a handicapped child and spent vast amounts of time touring the country and raising money for the handicapped and other people in need.

18/9/05 15:32  
Blogger patrick said...

The key to understanding Jesse is that his heart did have compassion for the suffering innocent. However, he had little compassion for those who suffered that were not so "innocent." He utterly failed to see Christ in the sinner or Christ in many of his political enemies. When it comes to compassion and southern gentlemanliness, Frank Porter Graham wins out over Jesse every time.

19/9/05 10:29  

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