The Congressman, The Singer and The Campaign For Debt Relief

4 Jul 2001
GOP congressman John Sweeney has formed an unlikely friendship with Bono in the campaign for aid for poor nations reports Lara Jakes for TimesUnion.Com

They are, according to the congressman, on a first-name basis. Or at least a nicknamed basis: Bono and "the Gunner.'' Sometimes it's Bono and "the Flyer.''

Bono, of course, is the world-famous lead singer of Irish rock band U2. His new pal? Rep. John Sweeney, R-Halfmoon.

It's an unlikely friendship but one that coalesced as Bono began reaching out to Capitol Hill lawmakers in 1999 for debt relief aid to the world's poorest countries. The left-of-center issue has since become a foreign policy focus for Sweeney, a second-term Republican congressman.

Bono "just sort of sucks you in with the excitement and the energy,'' Sweeney said in an interview, adding that the megastar has since begun to refer to him as "the Gunner'' and "the Flyer.'' Why?

"Fundamentally, I think what he's tapping into is my energy,'' Sweeney said, adding: "This isn't your classic celebrity involvement in an issue. This is a guy who, first of all, has studied the issue with such great depth and detail that it's almost like talking to an economist when you're talking to him.''

With his long black hair, blue-shaded glasses and international celebrity status, Bono has emerged over the last two years as a key spokesman and lobbyist for debt relief for the world's 41 poorest nations. While the International Monetary Fund and World Bank have agreed to forgive $33.6 billion in debt accumulated over the last 40 years, the total debt by the 41 nations amounts to about $200 billion, said IMF spokeswoman Conny Lotze.

Meanwhile, those nations are struggling with domestic calamities that make it all but impossible to pay back what they owe, advocates say. Some of the 41 countries on the list, for example, are grappling with costs associated with the AIDS epidemic that has overcome their citizens.

It was not a cause that Sweeney supported at first. Nor was it high on the priority list of President Bush, who campaigned for the White House last year on a theme of giving money back to U.S. taxpayers - not global causes.

But the Republican administration, according to the Office of Management and Budget, has earmarked $240 million during its 2002 fiscal year for the United States' share of international debt reduction. That prompted the rock star to seek out contacts within buttoned-down GOP circles in Washington in hopes of winning future commitments.

Bono is "keen to support the new administration'' efforts at debt relief, said Lucy Matthews, a spokeswoman for the London-based Drop the Debt, the advocacy group that the singer has taken under his wing of publicity.

"As Bono has always acknowledged, without America on our side, the problem isn't going to be solved in Africa because America is the most powerful country. So he's looking to how this administration can take the lead globally,'' Matthews said.

Cue Sweeney.

While in Washington two weeks ago, Bono met with Bush administration officials, including Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill and senior policy adviser Karl Rove -- appointments Sweeney says he had a hand in arranging. Now the congressman is trying to set up a meeting between Bono and Bush, a summit that Sweeney confidently declares is "going to happen.''

"He's going to eventually sit down with the President,'' Sweeney said. "And my prediction is these two people, knowing both of them, are going to get along. In some ways they remind me of each other. They're both very intense when they get on something. George Bush is not really understood in that sense.''

Check the rest of this story at


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