Must celebrities save the world, too?
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I first noticed the public policy train ignoring its rails nine years ago, while attending a poolside party some lobbyists threw for then-U.S. Rep. Joe McDade to celebrate his acquittal.
Curt Weldon, a congressman from Pennsylvania's 7th District, strolled past with a sidekick, a skinny man with a droopy mustache. Someone introduced him as Jeff "Skunk" Baxter, formerly lead guitarist for The Doobie Brothers and, currently, Weldon's adviser on missile defense systems.
After assuring me that Weldon did too have a defense adviser called "Skunk," my companion explained that Baxter had become interested in defense topics and took it upon himself to reach out to Republicans in Congress with his expertise. Hence, a guitarist who belonged to a band named after a cannabis cigarette now helps to establish defense policy for a nation capable of blowing up the world and bouncing the rubble.
Celebrity and politics have been drinking buddies since the day Al Jolson climbed onto Warren G. Harding's porch in Marion, Ohio, and reporters rushed to interview Jolson.
We had a fabulously popular president who once acted in the talkies, the Hollywood crowd is an endless giver when Democrats come a-panhandling and Donny and Marie Osmond were once the official troubadours of the Republican National Committee. But the emergence of the working celebrity as credentialed policy wonk is startling. Last Sunday, The New York Times Magazine cover story was a novella-length profile of Bono, the singer for U2, the band, who has become an arbiter among G-8 nations on debt forgiveness for Africa, the continent.
By all indicators, Bono is a wonderful fellow who has worked at a refugee center, appeals to liberals because of his impulse to give and to conservatives because of his devotion to Christianity. He has turned his celebrity into access and, because of this, world leaders apparently were persuaded to forgive billions in debt to deserving regimes, such as those in Africa, and head-crushing tyrannies, such as that in Ethiopia.
"This," says Roger Bate, a non-musical expert in African debt policy for the American Enterprise Institute, "is why it's always better to have elected leaders running your countries."
But Bono is unlike other celebrities. He has read deeply on the dangers of rampant AIDS, and swims in balance statements for the third world. Consider this passage from last week's profile:
"As soon as the Schroeder meeting ended, I was summoned to the war room in which Bono and his troops were camped. 'Schroeder has agreed to 0.7 by 2015,' Bono cried. 'It's fantastic!' In 2002, the industrialized states pledged to increase foreign-aid spending to 0.7 percent of GNP by 2015, but the German economy was tanking, and Schroeder, who faced a political challenge from the right, has been loath to lay out a timetable for increased spending. Now, to Bono, he had done just that."
For my own part, I would have suggested a sliding scale starting at 0.5 with a target of 0.9 by 2015 so long as the euro grew at a pace exceeding the value of the U.S. dollar, but Schroeder does not return my calls. What do I know? I can't sing.
But if one considers the actual dollar amount that 0.7 percent of the German economy means, it is reasonable to wonder why Bono gets a seat at the table when he has been elected by no one, save the sovereign nation of entertainment.
"World leaders like to be seen with him," Bate said. "He's never had to vote on anything in the Senate. He doesn't have a record to attack. It's hard to go off on Bono."
Or as Condoleezza Rice, the secretary of state, told the Times Magazine: "It's great to have a person who would not normally be identified with the president's development agenda as a part of it." Perhaps as a political selling point, but should that person be pushing the details?
Bono's closest brush with the administration came in 2002 when he played Bing Crosby to Paul O'Neill's Bob Hope in a cross-Africa jaunt to promote assistance to Uganda, Ghana, South Africa and Ethiopia. O'Neill, theretofore viewed as a steely-eyed man of economy, converted to the idea that clean drinking water could be brought to Africans through foreign aid. Bono, who adhered to the entertainment industry orthodoxy that the IMF and global trade ate the children of the poor and sucked the marrow from their bones, was schooled in the virtues of free enterprise.
After stopping off in Nairobi, where they appear to have purchased matching pajama sets from the airport duty free, the pair returned to their respective homes. Bono recorded "Vertigo." O'Neill was diagnosed with it and fired by President Bush, who complained his treasury secretary was becoming a cult figure, a position Bush reserved for himself.
Having tidied up O'Neill's career, Bono lent his imprimatur to Bush's $15 billion commitment to battle AIDS in developing countries. One-third of the money is spent promoting abstinence, which combats AIDS much the way urging people not to drive furthers highway safety.
To aid skeptics such as Bate, this dabbling and advocacy becomes dangerous when a man reaches beyond the role of goodwill ambassador and becomes, as the Times Magazine called Bono, "The Statesman." The United Nations, which exemplifies its probity with such events as prime rib luncheons over which world hunger is debated, occasionally signs up a celebrity recruit to promote some noble cause. Noted sociologist Geri Halliwell was trotted out in 1998 as a goodwill ambassador on world population. Her speech was notably not about abstinence, but in fairness, it was about little else as well.
"I'm going to really, really try and learn a lot about this and I hope the world will learn with me," she said. It is all well and good that the world learn with one of the stars of Spice World, so long as Halliwell is not asked for a position paper.
Not so, with Bono. He has his own think tank, from which he advocates solutions fiscal and humanitarian, and he meets with elected leaders who give him ear and curry favor.
One of the darkly hilarious passages of last week's profile told of the celebrity lounge set up at the Live 8 concert held in conjunction with the G-8 meeting in Britain. George Clooney, the actor and aspiring Metternich, was in the lounge, awaiting the arrival of Paul Wolfowitz, erstwhile war-maker and incoming World Bank president. Wolfowitz showed up.
The account: "He and Clooney held a brief palaver and agreed to speak at greater length."
Harrison Ford was once asked on camera about some issue of state and his response was something akin to this: "I'm an actor." Someday, it would be gratifying to hear actors, rock 'n' roll virtuosos and the like admit to their area of expertise and stop attempting surgery on the body politic.
For now, Ted Nugent will continue to author pop philosophy for the right wing, and Bono will continue his messianic lobbying, and star-struck leaders will chum along as if no one remembers something about that famous photograph of Elvis Presley alongside Richard Nixon: They looked ridiculous together because they were.
First Published September 25, 2005 12:00 am