Bono and the Art of Getting Results

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bono-coverThe following article appeared in the January 2006 issue of Science of Mind magazine (www.scienceofmind.com).

Science of Mind’s Spiritual Hero of 2005

Bono
and the Art of Getting Results

How the Legendary Rocker Bridges the Gap Between Faith and Power

by Mitch Horowitz

Rock music and social causes became inextricably bound in the late 1960s. Rock songs provided the soundtrack to the era’s protest movements and articulated the highest hopes and most deeply felt anger of the Vietnam generation.   

In today’s money-driven age, however, socially conscious songwriting seems sadly irrelevant. Music that once challenged the prevailing order – from the Beatles to the Clash, from the Doors to Jimi Hendrix – now provides the background to car commercials. As a revolutionary force, rock seems spent.

But look again.

Bono, the lion-haired, sun-glassed frontman of rock super-group U2, has spent most of this decade pioneering new ways for music to retake the political stage. His secret weapon? A deeply felt and seriously abiding sense of faith – one that has made it possible for the Irish rocker to connect with both arenas of screaming fans and the famously crusty Republican Senator Jesse Helms. “I love Bono,” says the conservative icon.

Bono is not a protest rocker in the old style. “I’m not a winging liberal…I’m no hippie with flowers in my hair. I come from punk rock,” he told Oprah. Bono is, in fact, a meticulous and shrewd forger of alliances – and a winner of results.

In the last year, while touring with a successful new album, Bono worked relentlessly to help secure billions in debt-relief and AIDS funding for the poorest nations of Africa. And he did all it with a sneer on his lips that would do Elvis proud and a from-the-gut faith that punctuates his every public statement. For this, Bono is Science of Mind’s Spiritual Hero for 2005.

Getting Results

Bono is not the only rock star possessed of spiritual and social passion. But he is, perhaps, the only one who unites the two in a manner that makes a real difference.

This past September, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund put the final stamp on a package that Bono – according to every finance minister and banking executive who has met him – helped to pioneer and push through: A plan to forgive more than $40 billion dollars in loans that the poorest nations of Africa owe the richest countries of the industrialized world.

Africa has suffered from a crushing AIDS pandemic, worsened, economists say, during years in which the West reneged on promised levels of assistance. While the debt-relief package is no cure-all, it will help well-governed African nations redirect money to schooling and AIDS prevention. As such, the plan represents authentic, measurable progress on the African continent. And, say politicians of the left and the right, without Bono, it would have been a dead letter.

“This guy is for real,” said Republican Congressman Sonny Callahan of Alabama, echoing sentiments one often hears about the activist-rocker. Congressmen, finance ministers, bank executives, United Nations officials – all say the same thing: Bono knows the numbers, understands the political realities, and has the celebrity and clout to bring powerful people to the bargaining table.

“Some Republicans acknowledge privately that working with Bono is attractive to them because he gives them credibility with younger more liberal voters, who are not their natural constituents,” writes The New York Times. Indeed, some dismissively say that Bono is merely a good photo-op, someone who can burnish the image of a buttoned-up politician.

It is a criticism with which Bono agrees, to a point. “I’m available to be used, that is the deal here,” he said last year. “I’ll step out with anyone, but I’m not a cheap date.” Not cheap, indeed. Bono wins more pledges and action from international leaders than perhaps any other single figure in the world today.

A Tough Faith

The 45-year-old Bono often invokes the teachings of Christ as the driving force behind his activism. But his religious principles come from a childhood that provided no pat answers or ready-made dogma. Born Paul David Hewson, Bono grew up in Dublin, Ireland, the son of a Protestant mother and Catholic father. His mother died suddenly – struck down by an aneurysm at the funeral of her own father – when Paul was just 14 years old. He was forced to walk a narrow line in a tough city: A teenager without a mother, from a family without a clear religious background, living in a nation where Catholic and Protestant where not just faiths, but warring camps.

The young Bono felt two major pulls in life: punk rock and Christianity. In his own fashion, he followed both. Bono accompanied the same mates with whom he started a high school rock band – and who form the U2 lineup today – into a Charismatic Christian collective called the Shalom fellowship. The band’s involvement with the community strongly influenced their first two albums, Boyand October, which are thought to have born-again themes.

But, say band members, the Shalom fellowship eventually began to pressure the group to abandon rock music for religion, rather than accommodate the two together. Bono and the band bolted. “People actually started to take stances on things,” recalls U2’s guitarist, known as The Edge, “and tried to influence people’s lives and tell them what they should and shouldn’t do. I have to say that it was a good time, but at the end it got a bit weird…” 

By 1982, when the band began to emerge as one of the hottest rock acts in the world, it was clear that no narrowly conceived faith could contain Bono. “I don’t see Jesus Christ as being part of any religion,” Bono said. “Religion to me is almost like when God leaves – and then people devise a set of rules to fill the space.”

Yet U2’s brand of religious devotion would remain at the forefront of their work. The cover of their 2000 album All That You Can’t Leave Behind features an altered airport sign that directs onlookers to read Jeremiah 33:3: “Call unto me, and I will answer thee, and show thee great and mighty things, which thou knowest not.” Many U2 concerts open – perhaps catching fans unaware – with quotations from the book of Psalms. One of the group’s most recent hit singles, “Beautiful Day,” offers pointed reference to Noah’s dove, making the song far more than the feel-good pop anthem it may at first appear. 

Bono’s religious commitments not only fuel his activism, but also earn him clout with the kinds of religious conservatives to whom activism is sometimes a four-letter word. His ability to frame matters of foreign aid and poverty relief as moral enterprises, and to speak about them with religious passion, has opened doors to Republican Senators Jesse Helms and William Frist, with whom Bono visited Africa in 2002. “He did bridge the gap between me and the more liberal community,” said Alabama Congressman Sonny Callahan.   

But just when observers think they’ve got Bono figured out, he throws a curve ball. Or, to put it another way, an F-bomb. Bono angered Christian fundamentalists in 2003 when he used the f-word on television during the Golden Globe Awards. And he speaks frequently of drinking and of his fondness for the pubs of his native Ireland. In 2002, he wrote the foreword to a controversial book in Ireland, They’ve Hijacked God, which castigates the modern church as a spiritual wasteland. As a result, some evangelical writers have disparaged Bono as a religious poseur, someone who uses Bible imagery without having a real grounding in churches. Other religious conservatives, however, say he is an alarm clock, reawakening churches to what they were supposed to have been doing all along.

For his part, Bono carefully targets praise in every direction. In 2005, he credited many traditional religious institutions – especially evangelical churches – for newly channeling resources to the African AIDS crisis. “I am surprised and even a little disappointed that I can’t continue to beat up the Church, because they’ve really responded.”

What Makes Bono Run?

Bono may be the first figure to dominate both the worlds of rock music and global activism. Onlookers are often left to wonder at how he does it all. Three traits seem to buttress his public successes: mastery of detail; speaking truth to power; and religious independence. They inform not only what he does, but how.

  • Detail Man. As evidenced by his political clout, Bono’s intellect and command of facts – as well as no small degree of personal allure – swing open doors to power. “It is Bono’s willingness to invest his fame,” writes James Traub in The New York Times Magazine, “and to do so with a steady sense of purpose and a tolerance for detail that has made him the most politically effective figure in the recent history of popular culture.”  If Bono didn’t know the facts about Africa, AIDS, and debt-relief he would never win face time with world leaders. “I let him come in for 15 minutes,” said Paul O’Neill, the former secretary of the Treasury in the Bush Administration. “And in 15 minutes he convinced me he was real.”
  • Truth to Power. One of U2’s earliest songs was called “I Threw a Brick Through a Window.” But the young Bono quickly realized that bricks and rhetoric don’t work in a complex world. So he figured out how to become an insider, while still speaking truth to power. “I am a pest,” he said in 2002 after meeting George W. Bush. “I am a stone in the shoe… a squeaky wheel. It is much hipper for me to be on the barricades with a handkerchief over my nose – it looks better on the resume of a rock-n-roll star. But I can do better by just getting into the White House and talking.” When Bono speaks about the lives – and deaths – of African AIDS victims, his tone is uncompromising.
  • Religious Independence. Bono may be the sole public figure who maintains credibility with both traditionalist and progressive believers. Bono is on first-name (well, one-name) terms with leading politicians of the Christian right. But to evangelicals who want to claim Bono for their own, one is tempted to reply: You’ve got to be kidding. “I am a believer,” Bono said in 1997, “…but I find it hard to be around religion. But if I was living close by I’d definitely be in the congregation at Glide Memorial in San Francisco. Rev. Cecil Williams there looks after the homeless, gays, straights; he marched with Martin Luther King; he’s funny as hell – pardon the pun – and you can get an HIV test during the service. Now that’s my kind of church.”


Finding the Good

There is, perhaps, one further ingredient to Bono’s success on the world stage. Bono appears to intrinsically understand, even to exemplify, the spiritual ethic: Others appear to us as we see them. Many spiritual traditions teach that our preconception of another person frames the very manner in which that individual will behave toward us. Hence, Bono finds the good in his interlocutors. He searches out and praises that which is positive in the power players with whom he meets. His approach is not to manipulate others through superficial compliments or mawkish flattery; but rather to elevate them through authentic praise and high expectations. 

In 2005, journalist Michka Assayas asked the rocker, with obvious incredulity, whether he actually liked President George W. Bush, with whom Bono has been frequently photographed. “Yes,” Bono replied unhesitatingly. “As a man, I believed him when he said he was moved to also do something about the AIDS pandemic. I believed him. Listen, I couldn’t come from a more different place, politically, socially, geographically. I had to make a leap of faith to sit there.”

As in similar encounters, writes journalist James Traub, “It wasn’t Bono’s belief in the issue that was so effective. It was his belief in others.” 

Bono’s strategy of finding the good within one’s adversaries is perhaps adopted from the methods of one of his idols, the Rev. Martin Luther King. In the 2005 book, Bono In Conversation, Bono tells the story of a meeting King held with his advisers, in which they were complaining that the newly appointed U.S. attorney general was an enemy of civil rights and would prove an implacable barrier. Ironically, this figure was Bobby Kennedy, who would later be known as a hero to the civil rights movement. At the time, however, members of King’s inner circle saw the tough-talking young jurist as an opponent.

As the meeting with King wore on, his advisers complained ever more bitterly about the perceived enemy before them. As Bono recounts the story, King replied: “Well, then, let’s call this meeting to a close. We will re-adjourn when somebody has found one thing redeeming to say about Bobby Kennedy, because that, my friends, is the door through which our movement will pass.” 

When dealing with your adversaries, Bono concludes, “Find the light in them, because that will further your cause. And I’ve held onto that very tightly, that lesson.”

This is the key – the secret, if there is one – to his ability to reach politicians who wouldn’t know U2 the rock band, from U2 the spy plane. And it supports the role that Bono plays in the world today.

Yet for Bono – ever the tough-minded realist from the streets of Dublin – outcomes are never taken for granted. Reaching out to the highest in people, counting on people, comes with a risk. “If you trust people, you are going to be burnt ten percent of the time.” But, “You’re [also] gonna find yourself in very good situations that you wouldn’t have, unless you took the risk.”

The risk, for Bono, is in being used by those in power, versus using them to aid the poorest. In 2005, it is a risk that appears to have paid off.

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Email Mitch at :mitch.horowitz@us.penguingroup.com.