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Bono: The Great Persuader

By Dafydd Rees
28 February 2023

By Dafydd Rees

One of the most remarkable books I’ve had the pleasure to read in recent weeks is Surrender: 40 songs, One Story written by Bono. The leader singer of U2 squeezes a heck of a lot into the 500 pages of his autobiography.

The loss of his mother when he was a teenager and his deeply held spirituality imbue every aspect of his life and, we now understand, his music. His drive and ambition are clear, as well as his belief in friendship, family and faith.

This memoir also contains fascinating portraits of everyone who has been anyone in the past thirty years. From Frank Sinatra to Mikhail Gorbachev and from Paul McCartney to Warren Buffett, Bono lifts the veil on what it means as one of the world’s best known rock stars to get to sit in the front row of history.   

Yet the most interesting, and perhaps most ignored section of the book is devoted to how Bono has used his global fame with the US media, Congress and three successive US Presidents to argue first for debt forgiveness and then for money to fight Aids in Africa.   

I wanted to share with you three lessons from Bono’s life story which in these troubled times are worth remembering for all those interested in how best to overcome entrenched opposition and persuade the powerful to act in the greater good.

The first is about finding common ground, especially with your opponents. The second is about building relationships while the third is about harnessing the power of words and ideas.  

Bono recounts how in the 1960’s the American Civil Rights activist Martin Luther King taught how it was “finding the one positive connection with your enemy” that would open the door to understanding. That’s exactly what Bono did with President George W Bush and such arch-conservatives as Senator Jesse Helms, Chair of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee and Roger Ailes of Fox News.

His relationship of trust with President Bush’s National Security Adviser Dr Condoleezza Rice proved critical at a time when the War in Iraq was at its height and concerns within his own movement that the singer was being duped.

Bono was asked to pose for a photo-opportunity at the White House with President George W Bush to launch the $5 billion Millennium Challenge Account, despite it lacking any explicit commitment in support of his campaign to fund anti-retroviral drugs for Africa. That faith was repaid when President Bush used his State of the Union address to announce a further $15 billion to create the President’s Emergency Plan for Aids Relief, at the time the largest intervention to fight a single disease in the history of medicine.   

The musician turned poverty campaigner concludes by stressing the power of advocacy in achieving social transformation. “It turns out the fight for justice comes down to boring words that don’t look good on a T-shirt.” Those non-shouty words, according to Bono, amount to competence, governance, transparency and accountability. Let’s hope our leaders are listening.