That Time U2’s Bono Wasn’t The Biggest Rock Star On The Tour
What we can learn from rock star Bono touring Africa with US Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill
“Oh, and I toured Africa for two weeks with Bono.”
It’s the line when talking about my 12-years at CNN that makes eyes bug out the most.
Yes, it was all that.
My first trip to Africa.
Crazy access to one of the biggest rock stars in the world.
That actually isn’t the whole story.
Not the most important part of the story.
There’s a bigger star than Bono
Bono wasn’t even the biggest star of the story.
That would be Paul O’Neill, once head of aluminum giant Alcoa.
When this story takes place he was US Treasury Secretary under George W. Bush.
How this opportunity came to pass
So, it’s about 2001 and I get a crazy email from CNN producer Ted Winner.
“Do you want to go to Africa for two weeks with Bono and Paul O’Neill?” he asked. “They offered the trip to Christiane Amanpour, but she doesn’t want to go.”
Trust me, I was only too happy to take Christiane’s scraps, to be the second choice.
The very idea of the trip seems so implausible today.
Somewhere along the way, Bono and O’Neill had met.
An unexpected friendship
Got to talking about different ways to make the world a better place.
O’Neill was the conservative Republican who saw power in macro-economics.
Bono was the micro guy, the liberal rock star who could wax poetic about the power of a single clean water well to change the trajectory of an entire village.
Their differing world views led to something that would be unheard of today.
They decided to take a trip together, to show each other what they believed, and here was the magic, to listen, to see what they could learn from the other.
The itinerary was set. Four countries: Ghana, South Africa, Uganda and Ethiopia.
This was 2002, might as well have been 12 centuries ago with the limitations in covering this trip.
Our crew would be lean. Ted, me and photographer/editor Dan Young. If we went, we’d have to be gone the entire time, riding the charter plane the whole way. It simply was going to be too expensive for us to hop off and fly back commercial with all our gear.
OK, so cool stuff did happen
And so off we went.
And yes, I would be lying if I tried to tell you there weren’t magic moments with Bono. How he bought Ted and me a drink that first night in the hotel bar in Accra.
Just the three of us.
He mentioned he was working on a little song for Martin Scorcese’s upcoming movie, “Gangs of New York.” The world heard him sing it the next year when he accepted his Academy Award for “Best Original Song.” Ted and I heard it for the first time over drinks in Ghana.
The truth is it quickly became easy to forget we were traveling with and covering one of the biggest rock stars in the world.
He did the entire trip with only two people in his entourage.
Compare that to Paul O’Neill, a cabinet secretary, complete with Secret Service protection and a number of people on his staff.
The difference was most evident when we would land in a new country.
The real star
There were no two ways about it: O’Neill was the bigger star.
Here was a man who had led an international conglomerate, who now represented the wealth and power of the United States of America.
I’m pretty sure U2’s music wasn’t played in Africa in 2002 because each place we went, there were no fans outside the hotel. Few seemed to know who he was. He’d be by O’Neill’s side for each official event and ceremony.
It was Bono who had to introduce himself. “Hello, I’m Bono. I’m a rock star and I’m here to help,” he’d say.
Still, the most remarkable part of the trip was watching these two incredibly successful men become friends.
To watch them debate.
To watch them learn.
Different sides of the same story
In Ghana, Bono led the tour to show the power of clean water wells.
In South Africa, O’Neill showed the power of industry to bring wealth at the Ford factory.
And so it went over four countries.
We journalists can be a cynical bunch.
Did O’Neill only invite Bono to get media coverage?
I can guarantee you there is no way CNN would’ve sent a crew of three on a tour of Africa for two weeks to cover a not that well known treasury secretary.
What was the real story here?
Were these men sincere?
Did Bono make good on his promise to host O’Neill and his wife at a U2 concert after this tour?
Did they really learn from each other?
All these questions and memories came flooding back this week as a headline caught my eye.
“Former Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill Dies at Age 84,” it read.
I clicked right away.
The article talked about his pretty incredible life: leading Alcoa, helping to get the economy back on track after 9/11.
And there it was almost at the end of the piece.
The line that made me catch my breath.
“He also devoted time in retirement to projects that would deliver clean drinking water to Africa.”
I couldn’t help but smile.
At an incredible man.
At a real friendship.
At what is really possible.
Oh, what we have to learn.
All of us.
That we could lay down our egos at this crucial time.
To say to someone else with another life view, “Show me another way. Show me what you know.”
It’s been quite a few years since I last saw Bono, but I have no doubt he stopped upon hearing the news this week about the loss of Paul O’Neill.
A true rock star of a man,
Someone smart enough to reach some of the most powerful positions in the world.
Someone smart enough to offer to share what he knew.
And even smarter to realize he,
We can all learn from someone who sees the world through different colored glasses.
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