Does Bono know best?

Published January 8, 2006

I generally support the separation of stage and state. I don't want to hear John Ashcroft or Orrin Hatch sing, and I don't want to hear Barbra Streisand or Toby Keith expound on politics.

But some artists earn the right to be taken (relatively) seriously when they take a political stand. Way back when they were teenagers, Bono and U2 already were recording intelligent songs that went beyond the usual platitudes about war and peace, racism and religion. I'm not sure Bono deserved to be Time's 2005 person of the year (along with Bill and Melinda Gates), but he has done his homework on important but mind-numbing issues such as international debt in the developing world. And, when necessary, he has been willing to sublimate his ego to suck up to everyone from the pope to Jesse Helms when he felt he needed their help.

Yet something about Bono's humanitarian efforts - maybe the Geraldo-like preening and pomposity he can bring to them - drives some people crazy.

"There are probably more annoying things than being hectored about African development by a wealthy Irish rock star in a cowboy hat," Paul Theroux wrote in a recent New York Times column, "but I can't think of one at the moment."

Hmmm. What could be more annoying? Maybe a self-promoting travel writer's over-the-top complaints about Bono's charitable work?

Theroux does make some reasonable points. Money alone won't solve Africa's problems unless it is accompanied by political reform within the continent and economic justice in the developed world's dealings with Africa's governments and people.

But what would Theroux have Bono do? Organize a militia and overthrow the government of Burundi?

The recent Live 8 concerts, organized by Bob Geldof, Bono and other performers to publicize their push for reforms in G8 governments' policies on AIDS and poverty in the Third World, actually represented a relatively sophisticated understanding of geopolitics. They may not produce more tangible benefits than earlier, more naive charity efforts did, but they couldn't possibly be as "wasteful ... stupid and harmful" as Theroux claimed.

I agree with Theroux on this much: When I listen to music, I don't particularly care to be lectured about the war in Iraq or the plight of the family farm. U2's Pride (In the Name of Love) is a great song, but it would be great if it were about Martin St. Louis instead of Martin Luther King Jr. And its transcendent moment comes when Bono shuts up and the rhythm section kicks in.

At Live 8, the most memorable anthems were performed by a reunited Pink Floyd (Comfortably Numb) and a reunited Who, or at least a befuddled Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey (Won't Get Fooled Again). "The child is grown, the dream is gone" and "meet the new boss - same as the old boss" aren't exactly inspirational calls to action on behalf of starving Africans or anybody else.

So how seriously should be we taking Willie Nelson and Kinky (no relation) Friedman? I'm not jumping on the BioWillie bandwagon just yet. I admire Nelson's good intentions on issues from Farm Aid to alternative fuel, but I don't get the sense he is quite as well versed on current events as Bono is. Maybe it's the french fry fumes.

As for the Kinkster: He's much better qualified to be governor (but much less famous) than Jesse Ventura or Arnold Schwarzenegger were when they were elected. (Whether he's better qualified than George W. Bush was when he first ran is arguable, but he has exactly as much experience in public office as Bush did.)

Kinky is a true son of Texas, a former Peace Corps volunteer with a genuine empathy for his state's neediest residents. His family's Echo Hill Ranch outside Kerrville has long been an oasis for troubled kids (as his nearby Utopia Animal Rescue Ranch is for stray and unwanted animals), and he (like Bush before him) speaks persuasively about issues such as education and immigration. Even some of Kinky's old songs with the Texas Jewboys were more serious than they first sounded. Ride 'Em, Jewboy is a tribute to victims of the Holocaust, and Get Your Biscuits in the Oven and Your Buns in the Bed posits a revisionist view of women's liberation.

Whether all that translates into a serious candidacy is uncertain. Kinky is raising a fair amount of money and doing well in the polls. Incumbent Republican Gov. Rick Perry is broadly unpopular, and the Democrats are in their usual disarray. On the other hand, Kinky has been known to introduce his old friend and traveling companion "Jewford" to political audiences as "very possibly the next first lady of the state of Texas." The state that gave us Tom DeLay and Dick Armey may not be ready for a serious candidate who doesn't take himself too seriously.