Sixteen years ago, Bono paid a visit to the White House with the goal of getting then-president George W. Bush on board with the worldwide fight against HIV/AIDS. The U2 frontman’s powers of persuasion worked: Bush launched the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) the following year, and the program has gone on to bring lifesaving drugs to many millions of people (though not without running into some controversy along the way).
Tomorrow, December 1st, is World AIDS Day, and Bono stopped by The Today Show to reminisce about that partnership. The interview was conducted by co-host Jenna Bush Hager, the former president’s daughter, which meant questions like “Do you remember the first time you met my dad?”
“Yeah, well, he didn’t want to see me, which is fair enough,” Bono recalled. “Different political views and whatever. I was the guy who had to come into the office and get him to look up from his big oak table, there in the Oval Office, to let his values tell him what to do.”
Bono’s close work with George W. Bush was surprising at the time to many who saw his presidency as an unmitigated humanitarian disaster. (“Many historians are now wondering whether Bush, in fact, will be remembered as the very worst president in all of American history,” historian Sean Wilentz wrote in a 2006 Rolling Stone cover story that assessed the impact of Bush’s disastrous choices in Iraq, New Orleans and elsewhere.)
Yet Bono has never wavered in his praise of the former president for funding PEPFAR, and he continued to sound that note on the Today show. “I think we’ve got to cut through the shenanigans of political cartooning and see that some people can have different views and still be principled people,” he told Hager, before sharing a comedic impression of her father’s Texas drawl.
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“I’ve become very fond of him,” Bono added. “Underneath his armor, there’s passion, compassion. He has it.”
Earlier this year, Bush awarded Bono the first-ever George W. Bush Medal for Distinguished Leadership for his advocacy on AIDS and poverty. The current Republican president, meanwhile, has threatened to cut PEPFAR’s funding.
“It’s not like I do the art and then do the activism,” Bono added. “It’s all the same. I’ve been able to make my celebrity – I can’t stand the word – useful.”