Bono's friends in high places
Dmitry Medvedev is the latest world figure to be paid a visit by Bono, whose bandmates disapprove of some of the company he keeps, writes BRIAN BOYD
BONO, AFTER a few impatient months spent recuperating from back surgery, has resumed tour duties – and is also back bending politicians’ ears and arguing the case of Africa’s poor and the continuing scourge of HIV and Aids on the continent.
In Russia this week for a U2 show, the now 50-year-old singer took the time to meet the Russian president, Dmitry Medvedev. Bono wasn’t talking rock riffs with the music-loving leader: he was making the case for Russia to write off the money owed to it by poverty-stricken African countries, and explaining how 40 US cents a day could eliminate the transfer of HIV from mother to child by 2015.
Bono’s humanitarian and advocacy work on behalf of the African continent has seen him nominated three times for the Nobel Peace Prize and awarded a knighthood in the British honours list. “Believe me, I know how absurd it is to have a rock star talk about the World Health Organisation or debt relief or HIV/Aids in Africa,” he has said of his time strolling the corridors of power in his leather jacket and sunglasses.
Over the years he has significantly refined his rhetoric when dealing with world leaders. He has dropped the word “compassion” and spent hours poring over socio-economic tracts relevant to his cause.
Although he prides himself on the fact that he can talk for more than an hour without looking at his notes on HIPC conditionality – the terms under which the most highly indebted countries of the world are forgiven their loans – some of his extracurricular activities have caused friction with other members of U2, especially his personal relationship with Tony Blair and meeting with George Bush.
Close encounters of a political kind
John Hume and David Trimble, 1998, Waterfront Hall, Belfast
In the tense days between the signing of the Belfast Agreement and the referendum to endorse it, U2 and Ash staged a peace concert in Belfast. “I talked to John Hume and David Trimble backstage and asked them to do the impossible – shake hands on stage,” says Bono. “I had in my head how Bob Marley, during one of his concerts, had joined the hands of two rival leaders in Jamaica at a tense time.”
Bono organised it so Trimble and Hume would walk on to the stage from opposite sides and shake hands. He introduced them as “two men who are making history; two men who have taken a leap of faith out of the past and into the future”. Ash recall that Bono wanted the two bands to then play John Lennon’s Give Peace a Chance. Ash’s Tim Wheeler says: “We had to talk him out of it – it was way too cheesy a thing to do.”
Larry Summers, 1999, the White House
Summers was US treasury secretary in the Clinton administration, responsible for a multibillion-dollar budget. Bono wanted him to increase the US’s overseas aid package. According to Clinton, “Larry came into the Oval Office one day and said this guy in jeans and T-shirt with only one name had just been in with him, and how impressive he was.”
According to Bono, Summers spent the first 15 minutes drumming on the table and staring at the ceiling before he “eventually came around”. Summers later told aides: “This guy knows his stuff; we have to help him.”
Pope John Paul II, 1999, the Vatican
When Bono had an audience with the pope to discuss Third World poverty he was taken aback by the pontiff’s choice of footwear: a pair of oxblood loafers. “He is, of course, a deeply conservative man, and a lot of people in Ireland were very upset by his failure to embrace contraception as a necessity, not just for modern life but for the life of the poor in Africa. But I’ve learned to respect conservative positions I don’t hold,” he says.
As he approached, Bono remembers the pope staring at his “fly” shades. “I thought maybe I was causing offence by leaving my sunglasses on, so I asked if he wanted them. He not only nodded but put them on and made the wickedest smile. I just thought, That photo will be on the front page of every newspaper – nothing to do with me – because it was the pope in sunglasses.”
Colin Powell, 2001, the White House
When Powell was US secretary of state during George W Bush’s administration, Bono brought a signed note from George C Marshall, the man behind the Marshall Plan. Bono told Powell: “You still find people of my parents’ age in Europe who talk about the Marshall Plan. That was when Europe felt the grace of America.” He called on Powell to put in place a new Marshall plan for Africa – “do something that people can be proud of for generations to come”.
Vladimir Putin, 2001, Genoa
With the Italian police taking a heavy-handed approach to protesters at the G8 summit – there were rivers of blood on the streets, according to press reports – there was a controversial photograph of Bono sharing a joke with Vladimir Putin, the Russian leader. Even normally loyal U2 fan boards were critical of how Bono seemed to be rubbing shoulders with the political elite while protesters – many of them U2 fans – were having their skulls smashed with batons outside.
Bono later said: “It looked like me and Putin were laughing while other people were crying . . . A lot of my mates gave out to me about the photograph, but it was snapped just when Putin was making a joke. He said: ‘I want to congratulate you on the work you have done for the Third World, and, when you have finished that, I hope you can work on the Russian debt.’ I’ve met people the band would rather I didn’t meet, and there are some people I have to talk to, or appear in a photograph with, that in other circumstances I’d rather not.”
George W Bush, 2005, the White House
When Bono told the Edge that he had a meeting with President Bush set up to discuss debt relief for Africa and that there would be a grip-and-grin photograph of them on the White House lawn afterwards (below), the guitarist had words with the singer. “I tried to talk him out of meeting Bush when he told me he was going to do a photograph,” says the Edge.
“He said: ‘I think it’s the right thing to do.’ So, in the end, I just said my piece and let him get on with it.”
Bono has met Blair on numerous occasions and has even spoken at a Labour Party conference, in 2004. The two are good friends. U2’s drummer, Larry Mullen, has made his feelings about Blair’s role in the Iraq war clear to Bono. “My problem is the company he keeps,” Mullen has said. “And I struggle with that – particularly the political people . . . Particularly Tony Blair.”