Bono's Wonk-and-Roll

Bono at the National Prayer Breakfast Thursday with President Bush.
Bono at the National Prayer Breakfast Thursday with President Bush. (Pool Photo By Dennis Brack)
By Annie Gowen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 4, 2006

The title of Bono's $95-a-head speech to a group of association execs last night seemed intriguing, if a little annoying: "The Future in Front of Us: Living a More Involved Life."

The humanitarian and rock star's pep talk capped yet another visit to our nation's capital this week, which also included an appearance at the National Prayer Breakfast on Thursday, where he made a self-deprecating quip about his messianic tendencies and side-hugged President Bush on his way to the lectern. Now it was on to another only-in-Washington experience: a speech sponsored by an association that association leaders join to . . . associate. At the Hilton Washington, no less.

Okay, so it's one thing for Saint Bono to preach from the concert stage or snuggle with world leaders at the G-8 summit and in Davos, but to descend to the rubber-chicken circuit, even while charging a hefty speaker's fee? What does it portend?

Maybe after so many lobbying trips to the Hill, there wasn't anybody left to charm. Or his U2 band mate Larry Mullen's worst fears have been realized and Bono is running for "[expletive] president."

Before the speech, the line of the near-sellout crowd of 3,000 snaked out of the hotel and down Connecticut Avenue. Inside was the chaos of a rock concert -- discarded beer bottles left willy-nilly, lines for "Will Call" and the ladies' room.

When Bono arrived, he did not disappoint, dressed in his omnipresent wrap-around shades, rumpled blazer and a black shirt unbuttoned dangerously close to the navel area.

"I don't even tell the band I do this," he said after the first of three standing O's. "This is like Bono unhinged, not Bono unplugged."

The evening's sponsoring group, the American Society of Association Executives, has held this distinguished speaker lecture series for the past 12 years and hosted other big-name guests, such as Dr. Phil and Oprah, said Susan Sarfati, president of the ASAE's Center for Association Leadership.

Attendees were hoping for uplift. It's tough being an association exec these days -- can't get a lunch with Bush like some people and have to scrape by on an average $148,000 a year. Downtown parking alone can kill you.

"People are dying to meet him, dying to be seen with him or catch a glimpse of him. He's not your ordinary rock-and-roll star. He's reached legendary status," said Deb Fasano, 35, who works for the none-too-glamorous International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association.

In the past, the lecture series was open to the public and the press was invited, but Bono's reps at the Harry Walker Agency speaker's bureau decreed on Tuesday that it would be off the record. (Though we should feel free to buy one of those pricey tickets, organizers said.) The secret-briefing stuff was surprising, because Bono in his hour-long speech sounded familiar themes, about the need to give, pester our leaders and care, and not just in that moment of the opening chords of "One" but way after U2 has left the building and the roadies are breaking down the equipment.

Remember how he got everybody at MCI Center to text-message support for his poverty relief campaign and the darkened seats turned blue with phone light and the fans screeched in delight? It was like that last night, except tailored to the Jos. A. Bank crowd.

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