In his conversations with Michka Assayas, the rock star and champion of the poor speaks of previous meetings in the White House and Washington:
I was in a photo with President Bush because he’d put $10 billion over three years on the table in a breakthrough increase in foreign assistance called the Millennium Challenge. I had just got back from accompanying the president as he announced this at the Inter-American Development Bank.So you liked this man?
I kept my face straight as we passed the press corps, but the peace sign was pretty funny. He thought so, too. Keeping his face straight, he whispered, “There goes a front page somewhere: Irish rock star with the Toxic Texan.”
I think the swagger and the cowboy boots come with some humour. He is a funny guy. Even on the way to the bank he was taking the piss. The bulletproof motorcade is speeding through the streets of the capital with people waving at the leader of the free world, and him waving back.
I say: “You’re pretty popular here!”
He goes: “It wasn’t always so . . .” — Oh really? — “Yeah. When I first came to this town, people used to wave at me with one finger. Now, they found another three fingers and a thumb.”
Yes. As a man, I believed him when he said he was moved to also do something about the Aids pandemic. I believed him. Listen, I couldn’t come from a more different place, politically, socially, geographically. I had to make a leap of faith to sit there. He didn’t have to have me there at all. But you don’t have to be harmonious on everything — just one thing — to get along with someone.…What was your gut feeling the first time you came face to face with President Bush?
He was very funny and quick. Just quick-witted. With him, I got pretty quickly to the point, and the point was an unarguable one — that 6,500 people dying every day of a preventable and treatable disease [Aids] would not be acceptable anywhere else in the world other than Africa, and that before God and history this was a kind of racism that was unacceptable.You mean that right-wing fundamentalist neocon scary stuff?
And he agreed: “Yeah, it’s unacceptable.” He said: “In fact, it’s a kind of genocide.”
He used the word “genocide”, which I took to imply our complicity in this, which I absolutely agree with. Later, his staff tried to take the edge off the word. But in the Rose Garden there was press, and I already had used the word.
He really helped us in using that word. He knew it was hyperbole, but it was effective. We get on very well. I couldn’t come from a more different place. We disagree on so many things. But he was moved by my account of what was happening in Africa. He was engaged.
I think, when I’m sitting two feet from someone, I could tell if this was just politics. This was personal. I think, for all the swagger, this Texan thing, he has a religious instinct that keeps him humble.
Actually, he’s a Methodist. It has to be said that most of the people in the cabinet are not religious extremists.But you must have disagreed with him at some point.
He banged the table at me once, when I was ranting at him about the ARVs [Aids drugs] not getting out quick enough. I’m Irish. When we get excited we don’t pause for breath, no full stops or commas. He banged the table to ask me to let him reply. He smilingly reminded me he was the president. It was a heated debate. I was very impressed that he could get so passionate. And, let’s face it, tolerating an Irish rock star is not a necessity of his office.You recently met Senator Jesse Helms, who as chairman of the Senate foreign relations committee in the Eighties did whatever he could to suppress the Sandinistas.
People said to me: this is the devil himself you’re going to meet, and his politics are just right of Attila the Hun. But I found him to be a beautiful man with convictions that I wouldn’t all agree with but had to accept that he believed in them passionately.