U2, Mr. President?

Strange bedfellows make great stories. In his latest Against the Grain commentary, CBSNews.com's Dick Meyer tells one about the President, the Rocker, and the foreign aid plan.


If you believe the press (and why wouldn't you?), the most influential outsider in George Bush's Washington is not an Armani-clad, K Street lobbyist. It's not a publicity-shy, Texas-rich FOG, Friend of George. It's not some establishment Wise Man retained by the 41 to watch over 43. It's not a columnist, a consultant or a concubine.

Ladies and gentlemen, it's Bono.

Seriously. Bono, the U2 star with no surname.

Bono has taken celebrity crusading to a higher plane of success and effectiveness. His "cause" is aid for poor countries, especially Africa, and for fighting AIDS in those countries. But I don't mean "cause" in the dilettante, Beverly Hills fundraiser sense of the word. By all accounts, Bono has orchestrated a shrewd, serious, and sustained campaign to convince the Administration to increase U.S. foreign aid.

It came together on a Thursday in March, one week before the president was scheduled to go to a big United Nations conference on global poverty in Monterrey, Mexico.

Bono had a meeting with the president, in the Oval Office no less, and then accompanied him to a speech. In that speech, Mr. Bush proposed to increase foreign aid spending by $5 billion over the next three years.

The announcement astonished the international aid crowd. And it meant that Mr. Bush could go to Monterrey and not get too badly heckled and harangued, as was anticipated.

The snapshots from Bono's long national tour are wonderful.

He worked Capitol Hill first. The Dems were easy, always suckers for celebrity photo-ops. He warmed up the less rock 'n roll side of the aisle after getting audiences with the Pope and Billy Graham.

Daringly, Bono then went for the ultimate convert – Jesse Helms, a notorious foreign aid Scrooge and Mr. Hard Right. And it worked.

In June, Jesse Helms, age 80, grabbed his cane and went to a U2 concert in Washington. Really.

"People were moving back and forth like corn in the breeze," said newly gentle Jesse. Helms said Bono changed his mind about anti-AIDS funding and debt relief for poor countries. "You can see the halo over his head," Helms said.

Then Bono began to crack the administration itself. Colin Powell and Condoleeza Rice fell first. But Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill, another unabashed international aid skeptic, refused to see Bono. "I thought he was some pop star who wanted to use me," he said. But he relented.

Their meetings went so well that the unlikely duo will tour Africa together in May. Really.

All the while, Bono and U2, after 22 years, are on a remarkable roll. Their concerts became informal homage to 9/11. They starred at the Super Bowl. They cleaned up at the Grammy Awards.

Bono rolled right into the Oval Office. But these things don't happen without a lot of calculation and choreography by White House thought-and-action police. A private meeting with POTUS and a tag-a-long to a major and controversial policy announcement are certified Big Deals.

Logic would seem to dictate one of two conclusions: Either Bono played a substantial role in influencing the Administration's change of course on foreign aid, or the Administration was going to do it anyway and was just using Bono as a prop.

There is a third theory floating around town. It's that Republicans suffer from Celebrity Envy. The Democrats usually get the pick of coolest stars from leftie Hollywood and the music world. Republicans have been stuck with jocks, astronauts and Arnold. On this game board, Bono is a humongous coup. It's giant step for Republican hipness, which has been an oxymoron.

The policy implications of the coolization of the Republican Party are earth shattering. If, for example, Julia, Tom, J Lo, Oprah, Madonna, Brad and Jennifer made a concerted, Bonoesque run at the GOP, I believe the two parties would merge within a few years. The remaining uber-party would then merge with Disney/AOL Time Warner/Viacom, and then Microsoft and then American life would be simplified immensely.

Anyway, back on the Planet Earth, we probably owe Bono a big thank you. The United States is still one of the least generous rich countries with its foreign aid money. But leading an assault on global terrorism has changed perspectives on global poverty.

"Poverty doesn't cause terrorism," the President said in his aid speech. "Yet persistent poverty and oppression can lead to hopelessness and despair… And when governments fail to meet these basic needs of their people, these failed sates can become havens for terror."

U2, Mr. President? Welcome aboard.

Dick Meyer, a veteran political and investigative producer for CBS News, is Editorial Director of CBSNews.com based in Washington.

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Against the Grain

By Dick Meyer
  • Dick Meyer

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