Rock 'n' roll warrior
By Gary J. Andres
From the Washington Post
Last week, while bombs blasted Baghdad, a different kind of warrior came to Washington, fighting a ferocious battle on a faraway continent against a faceless enemy. Irish rock 'n' roll star Bono pounded the marble halls of Capitol Hill trying to build an army of compassion to prosecute a war on AIDS in Africa. While familiar with crowds and publicity, the rock band U2's leader is not a professionally trained advocate. Yet, his lobbying sortie earned high marks from lawmakers and lobbyists. Moreover, Bono will serve as a vital ally for the White House later this year, as the House and Senate consider the president's $15 billion Africa AIDS initiative.
Entertainers testifying before Congress are as common as spring thunderstorms over the Potomac. They rumble through town with varying degrees of noise and consequence, but normally have little impact. Bono's different. Watching him last week was a case study in effective advocacy, demonstrating what works best in a city where the competition of ideas is fierce and the agenda crowded.
Most entertainers substitute star quality for substance. Possessing little more than a superficial knowledge of the issue, lawmakers usually let them skate by the tough questions surrounding complicated and controversial policy matters. Not Bono. On thorny, complex issues like Third World debt relief and AIDS, he mixes an acute comprehension of the issue with a poignant message.
Often, high-profile advocates also make the mistake of associating with political extremes, usually the left. While everyone has the right to express political beliefs, mixing personal views too closely with an advocacy campaign usually clouds the messenger and the message. Even when they promote ideologically neutral ideas, their political rhetoric and associations often alienate large segments of the political middle. They are just as likely to blast the president with anti-war rhetoric as testify at a hearing on missing children.
Successful entertainment advocates do not allow personal views to confuse their broader message. Like a veteran legislative strategist, Bono recognizes that building a bipartisan consensus represents the most effective way to navigate through the checks and balances of the American public policy process. Alienating segments of either the left or the right is a sure way to invite legislators to use any one of a variety of tools available to derail a cause. "I was amazed how he stayed on message," one veteran Hill- watcher said. "With everything going in the war, I thought he might get distracted, but he didn't."
Hubris among entertainers is another fatal flaw. Most celebrities who saunter through Washington have enough egos to fill the cavernous Cannon Caucus Room. Not Bono. "He displays a remarkable amount of humility for a person with his star quality," says a congressional aide who watched him in action. Instead of taking credit personally for raising the issue of AIDS in Africa to the highest levels of power in Washington, he bestows commendation on others. "President Bush did a wonderful thing with his AIDS initiative," Bono told a Republican gathering last week. The audience consisted of folks more accustomed to hearing their leader receive kudos from someone on the cover of Business Week than Rolling Stone.
In a meeting last week with senators and their staff, "historian" Bono laid it on the line. He told them that 100 years from now scholars will remember the early 21st century for three things: the Internet, the war on terrorism and the AIDS crisis in Africa.
He recounted a story of a Holocaust survivor telling his grandchildren about watching unknowing kids, when he was young, forced onto rail cars taken away to gas chambers. The grandchildren asked in horror, "Why didn't you do anything about it?" We know why. They were powerless, unable to act with Nazi guns pointed at their heads.
"Fifty years from now, your grandchildren will ask you the same question when they read about an entire continent wiped out by this disease, Bono told the hushed assembly. "Why didn't you do anything about it? Please try to help. God bless you." He then left for his next meeting.
Washington is a place where a thousand hours of problems beg for attention in every 24-hour day. Financial resources, time and attention spans are all scarce. Most "entertainer advocates" do not understand this, more wrapped up in themselves than in fixing the problem. Bono grasps these nuances, and that's what makes him effective.
Yet, many watching him in action last week, fighting a lonely war, believe another motivation drives him. When his grandchildren ask him if he responded to the AIDS crisis, he will remove his signature sunglasses, look them in the eye, and say, "I did."
*Gary J. Andres holds a Ph.D. in public policy and is a senior managing partner with the Dutko Group [-] a D.C. based government relations company. A former White House senior lobbyist, he writes every Thursday for The Washington Times on politics and policy.
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