Has a celebrity ever accumulated more political influence than Bono? No one has ever really come close. The lead singer for the Irish band U2 (born Paul Hewson) has made himself the fulcrum of an extraordinary global network of political leaders, philanthropists, development experts, and celebrities dedicated to relieving poverty in the developing world, particularly Africa. With his religious bent, Bono once sang about the day “when all the colors will bleed into one,” and he sometimes seems to personally embody that convergence: He mingles as easily with heads of state onstage at Davos as he does with Bruce Springsteen at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and he can sling M.B.A.-speak about reform and responsibility in poor countries as fluently as the language of Christian obligation to the needy.
Bono has demonstrated tenacity, persistence, and extraordinary political dexterity in building alliances not only with left-of-center American political figures such as Bill Clinton and Bill Gates but with George W. Bush and Jesse Helms, the late archconservative senator from North Carolina, who Bono bonded with in discussion over Scripture and persuaded to attend a U2 concert. “When Bono embraced Bush, that pissed a lot of people off because in the past there were a lot of celebrities who said, ‘I won’t even go to the White House,’ while George Bush was president, and he said that was ridiculous,” said Lara Bergthold, who helps match Hollywood luminaries with liberal causes. “But you would have to say Bono was right. Debt relief in Africa was such an obscure issue that no one cared about, and [it] is now on the agenda. He made it a sexy issue, and he made a case for it in Republican chambers that was effective, a Christian argument.”
Such shrewd political maneuvering helps explain why Bono topped the list of both National Journal’s Republican and Democratic Political Insiders as the most effective celebrity advocate in Washington. “Anyone who could make Jesse Helms cry and then attend a U2 concert is an effective lobbyist,” said one Republican. “He literally put Africa on the map for a generation of Democrats and Republicans,” a Democrat agreed. Bono not only raised consciousness about his issues—poverty and health needs in Africa—but has changed the way that celebrities interact with politicians and issues. More than any single figure, he’s responsible for the tilt of celebrity activism toward poverty in the developing world; the increased emphasis on direct action as a complement to government lobbying; and attention to building institutions (such as the ONE campaign he cofounded to mobilize public support for African aid in the United States). And he has done all this while usually maintaining a wry sense of irony about his own privileged life; only occasionally straining his audience’s tolerance for sermons; and emphasizing outreach over confrontation with virtually everyone he interacts with. “He calls on everyone to be their best,” actor George Clooney once told The New York Times. “If you fall short, you feel embarrassed. That’s the unique thing. And we all want to be that person.”
On screen, Clooney represents a throwback to a bygone age of Hollywood elegance—the closest thing to another Cary Grant that the film community has produced. In his political life, Clooney is helping to forge the emerging model of 21st-century celebrity activism. Following a mold cut primarily by Bono (whom he freely acknowledges as an inspiration), Clooney is global in his orientation (his principal political cause has been the violence in Darfur); disciplined in his commitments (the relief telethon he organized after the Haitian earthquake was a rare break from his focus on Africa); interested more in direct action than in electoral politics (although he supports President Obama he wasn’t a visible figure in his campaign); willing to work with political leaders from both parties (in NJ’s Insiders Poll, Clooney placed third among Democrats and fourth among Republicans when the Insiders were asked to rank the most-effective celebrity activists); measured in his public comments; and creative in his use of modern communications tools to advance his causes. Clooney became perhaps the first celebrity with his own satellite when he partnered with Google, Harvard University, and the United Nations to fund one to monitor potential violence during the voting on independence for south Sudan earlier this year. He has also been an institution builder, joining with actors Don Cheadle, Matt Damon, Brad Pitt, and others to found Not On Our Watch, a group that aims to mobilize global attention in the wake of humanitarian disasters and atrocities. In NJ’s poll, Insiders praised his “sincerity,” “hard work,” and “strictly humanitarian [effort] with no taint of self-promotion.” Witty, self-deprecating, and dogged, Clooney is acquiring a reputation in the political world that parallels his on-camera persona—something like a car that attracts with its style but ultimately impresses for its reliability.