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Rocking My Life Away

Is Bono being used?

May 24, 2002 12:00 AM ET

"Is he doing it for the publicity?" Just about every reporter I've spoken to in the news media recently has asked me if Bono's visit to Africa in the company of Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill isn't a publicity stunt. As if U2 needed the publicity -- and as if there weren't far easier ways for the band members to get it if they did. No, Bono is visiting Africa with O'Neill precisely for his stated reasons: To try to convince the Bush administration to provide further debt relief to impoverished nations and to invest long term in building up the physical and economic infrastructures of those countries. Remove the swept-back black hair and the blue-tinted shades, and it's not a very sexy story at all.

The sexier story by far is why O'Neill would agree to bring Bono along on this jaunt. When the singer first tried to arrange a meeting with the Secretary about a year ago, O'Neill refused, telling his staff that he thought Bono was trying to "use" him. That's mainstream political thinking at its finest -- seemingly tough-minded but, in fact, just hard-headed and essentially clueless. Other than trying to advance a political cause just like everybody else who goes to Washington, what conceivable use could Bono make of O'Neill?

But as O'Neill has learned -- along with his boss, President George W. Bush, you can be sure -- the Republican party can make splendid use of Bono, and the singer would be wise to keep that fact in mind during his African visit and afterwards. As the President struggles with the perception both in this country and abroad that he is intolerant of any position that differs from his own, images of a cabinet member cavorting with one of the world's best-loved rock stars (not to mention the photos taken previously of Bono flashing the V sign while walking next to Bush) create the impression of youthful, progressive open-mindedness. Those pictures can certainly prove helpful come election time -- you can be sure that you haven't seen the last of them by a long shot. And if, finally, the Bush administration doesn't deliver on any of the goals that Bono wants to achieve, what the hell, that's just the way the political ball bounces. But at least they listened.

To his credit Bono has proven a deft politician himself during his debt-relief crusade. First he framed the issue in moral terms as a way of appealing to conservative Republicans, like Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina, who like to wear their Christianity on their sleeves. Then, after the attacks on September 11th, he argued to the Bush administration that impoverished populations are kindling for the terrorists' flame. The more the United States eases the plight of those countries, the less susceptible they are to extremist, fundamentalist ideologies. That's a point Bono has been making over and over again on this trip.

But for all his willingness to put up with nonstop Odd Couple jokes, O'Neill is no champion of increased aid to Africa. He's an unabashed free marketer who has repeatedly claimed that "we have precious little to show" for whatever aid poor nations have already received. Generally speaking, he and Bono have been expertly diplomatic in their statements leading up to and during the trip. When O'Neill says things like "For too long, we've seen too little progress," Bono and his supporters can agree -- from their point of view, that lack of progress in ending African poverty is the very reason for their activism. From O'Neill's perspective, however, the lack of progress is entirely the fault of the African nations themselves for squandering the resources so generously provided to them by the West.

There have been signs that the fissures in Bono and O'Neill's delicately balanced relationship have already begun to show. In Ghana, Bono openly wondered whether 800 employees at a company doing work for American corporations for $1 an hour were being exploited. He also visited Nima, a run-down area of Accra, Ghana's capital -- tellingly, while O'Neill was giving a speech to the American Chamber of Commerce. Bono was appalled by the devastation he witnessed there. "I got all kinds of mixed feelings," Bono told journalists afterwards. "Agitation . . . quite angry, I'm getting angrier as the day goes on. I cannot believe that this is a world I want to be part of. Nima is the real world. It's where the full force of the free market is being felt. I thought they should be throwing rocks at us." The singer also accused the U.S. of hypocrisy for preaching free trade to poor countries whose economies can barely function, while propping up the American farm industry to diminish the impact of imports. "You can't have debt cancellation on the one hand and trade subsidies on the other," Bono said. "I don't like this kind of duplicity."

But Bono's experience with duplicity may be just beginning. He's a bright guy, and he understands that by going to Africa with Treasury Secretary O'Neill, he has walked into a lion's den. "My job is to be used," he bluntly told the Washington Post. "I am here to be used. It's just, at what price? As I keep saying, I'm not a cheap date." Maybe not, but as that old-fashioned relationship adage goes, Why buy a cow when the milk is free? The Republican party may already have gotten everything it needs from Bono. And as for that morning-after phone call, whether O'Neill and the president honor whatever promises they made to make their date with Bono such a public relations boon very much remains to be seen.

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