by Jim Ryan, Contributor, Forbes Magazine
"I used to torture him. I really did," recalled U2 frontman Bono of his treatment of George H.W. Bush, only six days removed from the former President's death at the age of 94 on November 30.
He was referring of course to his antics during U2's early 90s Zoo TV tour, when he'd call the White House switchboard from the stage during each concert and ask to speak to the President, ultimately leaving him a message each night of the tour.
Bono went on to tell the story of a personal encounter he had with Bush in 2007, when the 41st President presented him with the Liberty Medal in Philadelphia, an opportunity he took to further harass the former Director of Central Intelligence. "I probably went a little far for the occasion," said Bono.
But Bush took the moment in stride.
"Grace and humor could get us out of a lot of trouble these days," said the singer in hindsight, looking back at the interaction.
It came at the end of an hour long conversation with Ariel Investments president and Economic Club of Chicago Chair, Mellody Hobson last Thursday at the Hilton Chicago. In conversation at the ECC dinner, Bono was asked what he's learned from a number of people and things including his fans, children, America and the former President.
The socially conscious rocker was in Chicago to speak to the Club about AIDS and poverty in Africa, pointing out that Warren Buffett once advised him to appeal not to the conscience of America but to its greatness.
One of U2's most enduring songs on record, radio and on stage is "One." Released as the third single from their 1991 album Achtung Baby, U2 donated all of their royalties from the single to AIDS research. "I see songs as solutions to problems," said the frontman, whom Hobson referred to as an "evidence-based activist."
It's a song and an idea that continues to inform Bono's activism and philanthropy.
In 2004, he co-founded ONE with the intent of fighting extreme poverty, an organization which now numbers nearly ten million members around the world.
Focusing on poverty in Africa also means dealing with the AIDS crisis, as nearly two thirds of those infected with HIV/AIDS live in Africa. In 2006 he co-founded (RED) to focus more directly on that issue, partnering with brands and corporations in an effort to fight the disease.
Last week's conversation inside the Hilton's historic Grand Ballroom was a wide-ranging one which hit upon his marriage, his children's path, the state of the music industry, U2's history, the physical toll of the group's recent "Experience + Innocence" tour and how all of it continues to inform his worldview.
U2 is in a rare position as a band that owns its copyrights and masters and has benefited greatly from it, despite the fact that it's occasionally meant less money in royalties. Bono is hopeful for the industry's future despite the low income many artists make today at the advent of online streaming.
The singer also spoke about what he feels is the importance of the European Union, a potential need to re-imagine what capitalism is capable of and the benefits of debt forgiveness to developing countries, going to great lengths to stress the bipartisan importance of his work with both ONE and (RED). Bono also talked about the human toll that extreme poverty can take, especially on women, explaining the origins of ONE's successful "Poverty is Sexist" campaign.
There was irony to the Irish artist's breakdown of the punk rock ethos, and its do-it-yourself work ethic, in front of Chicago's 1%. And while corporate partnerships and donations are certainly important parts of the fight against poverty and disease, it was disappointing that over the course of an hour no thoughts were offered by either side of the conversation on how to change the attitudes and mindsets that often leave the sick and the poor as afterthoughts in America.
"What do you hope, want and expect from an audience like this?" Hobson asked Bono of the ECC toward the end of the night. "I wouldn't dare to suggest what this room should or shouldn't do," he answered, largely dodging the question. "Be America. America is an extraordinary thing. You're an extraordinary country and I am your biggest fan. Sometimes that you allow me to be a critic is a great honor."
I am a Chicago-based writer and broadcaster who's tracked the changing music industry since the mid-90s with frequent contributions to WGN Radio and the Daily Herald.
Jim Ryan is a Chicago based writer/broadcaster who's interviewed a Ramone and a Rolling Stone. Follow him on Twitter @RadioJimRyan or visit online at radiojimryan.com. [email protected]
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