With his trademark wit and a sassy knack for speaking truth to power, superstar rocker Bono last night accepted the Liberty Medal, Philadelphia's premier social-service award, for using his celebrity to champion the plight of Africa.
Accepting the medal and its $100,000 prize from National Constitution Center chairman George H.W. Bush, Bono drew a chuckle from the crowd of 2,500 on the center's white-chair-specked lawn when he reminded the former president that Bush wouldn't take his calls in 1992. Back then, the Irish musician-turned-statesman-in-the-rough wanted to discuss global awareness about AIDS, Third World debt, hunger and pestilence in Africa.
Bush's son, the current president, has been more receptive - for better or worse, Bono teased.
"He had me over to lunch. . . . Now, I'm not what you'd call house-trained. I'm not even White House-trained," Bono said. "I ask for things before we even sit down for tea, like billions of dollars to fight AIDS."
Swathed in earrings, a black tuxedo, and wrap-around shades, the front man for the band U2 shared the honors with the Washington-based campaign he cofounded five years ago: DATA (Debt, AIDS, Trade, Africa).
Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala of DATA said that Bono's charitable work and DATA's were admirable, but that she appreciated even more his understanding of the African mentality.
"It's true that the drugs save lives and that the debt relief has unleashed additional resources for education and health, but there is something more important that they have done: They have supported Africans to support themselves," Okonjo-Iweala said. "Africans do not want to be the object of pity. And the wonderful thing that Bono has done is to recognize the essential wish of Africans to do for themselves."
Praising a long list of famous Americans, from the Founding Fathers to contemporary musicians, Bono said he felt like an honorary American.
"Let me set my foot here, and say to you tonight this is my country. Let me say, with humility and pride in my own country, that anyone who has a stake in liberty has a stake in the United States of America. For all that you've been through - good and bad - this is my country, too," he said to soaring applause.
And alluding to an article that said a majority of Americans favor torture when necessary in the war on terror, he challenged them to achieve a higher standard.
"You do not have to become a monster to defeat a monster," he said.
Performers blew Irish penny whistles and strummed the traditional African kora, Mayor Street and Gov. Rendell addressed the crowd, George Clooney narrated a video tribute, and South African poet Zakes Mda read a poem written for the occasion.
It was the 19th time the medal was presented since it was established in 1988 to commemorate the bicentennial of the U.S. Constitution and recognize "leadership and vision . . . in the pursuit of . . . freedom from oppression, ignorance or deprivation."
In a private interview before the ceremony, Bono said he would give the prize money to the One Campaign, a national project he announced in Philadelphia three years ago to build citizen support for dedicating more of the U.S. budget for foreign aid.
"I'm certainly not going to keep it," he teased. "I'm going to give it to the One Campaign because it started in Philadelphia."
As the event started, DATA executive director Jamie Drummond told reporters the award was humbling.
"As you can tell from my accent, I'm not American, nor is Bono, but we get what an honor this is," he said.
Past recipients have included U.S. presidents, Supreme Court justices, and world leaders, among them Nelson Mandela, Vaclav Havel, Thurgood Marshall, Sandra Day O'Connor, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and the current chairman of the Constitution Center, George H.W. Bush.
Kathy Sloan of Lindenwold, wearing a black-and-white One Campaign T-shirt, showed up early to score one of the tickets set aside for the public.
She was on Independence Mall for the birth of the One Campaign, and said she would not have missed last night for the world.
"I'm like part of Bono's army," said Sloan, the manager of a court-transcription business. "He points to things that need to be done, and we go do it. He points. We shoot."
Nancy Riley, 52, a hospital lab technician from Port Richmond, was on hand with her daughter Rachel, 25, a restaurant worker at the Hyatt Regency Philadelphia at Penn's Landing.
"I've been waiting for years for them to name him" for the award, the mother said. "I keep hoping for the Nobel Peace Prize, but I don't know if a rock star will ever get that."
Six Liberty Medal winners have subsequently won the Nobel Prize.
Rachel Riley, who has been listening to Bono's music her whole life, said Bono's activism was "excellent. I think someone using his voice is what he should do."
Osagie Imasogie, a Nigerian-born businessman, U.S. presidential consultant on AIDS relief, and resident of Gladwyne, said before the ceremony that Bono was one of the first to lend his celebrity to the causes of Africa. He did so with an exceptional ability to "articulate that this is not a race issue but a humanity issue, that there is only one race, the human race."
Bono, 47, has said he is inspired in his activism by the likes of Gandhi, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., John Lennon, and Bob Geldof, whose Live Aid concerts in Philadelphia and London in 1985 were a springboard for the one-named one's advocacy of political and social causes. After that watershed concert, Bono and his wife, Ali Hewson, spent six weeks in Ethiopia with sleeves rolled up, working against the devastation caused by famine and war.
As his acceptance speech drew to a close, Bono, echoed the famous line from the Declaration of Independence about its signers willing to pledge their "sacred honor."
"What, then, about you and me? What are we ready to pledge? How about our science and our technology? We have so many things to offer. We can't fix all the world's problems, but the ones we can, we must."
2006: Former Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton.
2005: Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko
2004: Afghan President Hamid Karzai
2003: Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor
2002: Secretary of State Colin L. Powell
2001: U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan
2000: Scientists James D. Watson and Francis H.C. Crick
1999: South Korean President Kim Dae Jung
1998: Former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell
1997: CNN International
1996: Former Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres and King Hussein of Jordan
1995: Sadako Ogata, U.N. high commissioner for refugees
1994: Czech President Vaclav Havel
1993: South African leaders F.W. de Klerk and Nelson Mandela
1992: Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall
1991: Former Costa Rican President Oscar Arias and Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders)
1990: Former President Jimmy Carter
1989: Polish President Lech Walesa