With the merest twitch of his head, Bono can command the undivided attention of a sold-out stadium. But when he works a smaller room, his charisma acclimatizes itself; he turns smooth, dexterous. Late one night, during the forum in New York City, a dozen officials from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Episcopal Church, MTV and DATA (Debt, Aid, Trade for Africa) gathered for a strategy session in the back room of a Manhattan restaurant. The group was brainstorming on ways to convince Americans that saving Africa from financial ruin is in America's best interest. As is frequently the case with debate on Africa, the discussion eventually sagged into weary frustration. By midnight, the air had leaked out of the room and, with it, any glimmer of productivity.
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Then U2's singer Bono strolled in.
Wearing a black leather jacket, his trademark blue-tinted shades and a roguish smile, he glided around the table, shaking hands and kissing cheeks. Like Superman turning into Clark Kent, the earnest political operative took over. Before the shy types could mumble about a brief previous encounter, he set them at ease, reciting their names and the circumstances of their last meeting: "Of course! The forum in Boston!" With his glad-handing complete, Bono--founder, spokesman and chief benefactor of DATA, a nonprofit, debt-relief advocacy group--sat down at the edge of the table and, at 1 a.m., recounted the details of his early-morning session with 30 G.O.P. Congressmen. "I am not willing to give up on the Republicans," he said of his efforts to convert the Congressmen on debt relief and increased aid to Africa. "They're tough, but they're willing to listen."
With the energy in the room reignited, Bono the rock god disappeared. As the ideas flowed, he nodded along quietly, just another wonk occasionally spitting out acronyms. This lasted for the better part of an hour until Trevor Neilson, director of special projects for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, complained, "Look, we have to give away, by IRS law, $1.2 billion a year."
"Trevor," said Bono, reinflating himself to pop-star proportions to better deliver his punch line, "we can help."
U2 is up for eight grammy awards this week for All That You Can't Leave Behind. The album and the band's live concerts--still the best in rock--became cultural touchstones following Sept. 11. U2 has, with a few bumps along the way, managed the nearly unprecedented feat of being musically--and politically--relevant for 22 years. Yet as big a rock star as Bono is--and he has no rival--he has grown even larger over the past three years, molding himself into a shrewd, dedicated political advocate, transforming himself into the most secular of saints, becoming a worldwide symbol of rock-'n'-roll activism. Part poet, part pol, he has taken his cause--solving the financial and health crisis in Africa--and helped put it onto the agenda of the world's most powerful people.
"I refused to meet him at first," says Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill, who last year joined Pope John Paul II, Bill Clinton, Jean Chretien, George Soros, Jesse Helms and Colin Powell on Bono's all-star chat list. "I thought he was just some pop star who wanted to use me." After their scheduled half-hour session went 90 min., O'Neill changed his mind. "He's a serious person. He cares deeply about these issues, and you know what? He knows a lot about them."
Rock stars tend to cast themselves as emotional savants, folks who feel the plight of vanishing rain forests and anguished Tibetans more acutely than the rest of humanity. Bono's involvement with Africa began in typical celebrity-dilettante fashion. In 1984, U2 took part in Band Aid and Live Aid, Bob Geldof's Ethiopian famine-relief efforts. While many of Live Aid's participants played their sets and moved on to the next cause, Bono and his wife Alison Stewart decided to find out just how bad the African famine was. They traveled to Wello, Ethiopia, and spent six weeks working at an orphanage. "You'd wake up in the morning, and mist would be lifting," Bono recalls. "You'd walk out of your tent, and you'd count bodies of dead and abandoned children. Or worse, the father of a child would walk up to you and try to give you his living child and say, 'You take it, because if this is your child, it won't die.'"