From Dana's Guests

Nothing is Impossible in America: A Speech delivered by Bono

Rock and Roll isn’t the only thing that Bono does and does well. His work and reputation as an humanitarian are fast becoming his calling card. When Bono talks, people listen and he always has something incredible to say.

Harvard University Commencement Speech
June 12, 2001

Thank you for that introduction. But I suppose I should say a few more words about who I am and what on earth I'm doing up here.

My name is Bono.

My name is Bono, and I'm a rock star.

Now, I tell you this, not as a boast but as a kind of confession. Because in my view the only thing worse than a rock star is a rock star with a conscience -- a celebrity with a cause ... OH, DEAR!

Worse yet, is a singer with a conscience -- a placard-waving, knee-jerking, fellow-travelling activist with a Lexus, and a swimming pool shaped like his own head.

I'm a singer. You know what a singer is? Someone with a hole in his heart as big as his ego. When you need 20,000 people screaming your name in order to feel good about your day, you know you're a singer.

Speech from Obama – Take Back America

Senator Barack Obama (D-IL)
Take Back America 2007
Washington, DC
June 19, 2007

It has now been a little over four months since we began this campaign. And everywhere we’ve been – whether it’s Oakland or Cleveland, Atlanta or Austin – we’ve been getting these inspiring, humbling crowds of thousands. For a lot of people, it’s the first political event of their lifetime.

I’d like to take all the credit myself, but I know that’s not the only reason they’re coming. There is a hunger in this country right now – a longing for something new that we haven’t seen in years. And whenever I stop and think about it, I’m reminded of what got me into public service in the first place.

The year after college, I decided to move to Chicago. It was a time where factory closings were sweeping the Midwest, and thousands were being laid off, and they were boarding up homes and businesses.

On the South Side of Chicago, where neighborhoods were struggling to rebuild after the closing of nearby steel plants, a group of churches came together and decided that they could make a difference. And they hired me to help.

The salary was $12,000 a year plus enough money to buy an old, beat-up car, so I took the job and became a community organizer. We went to work setting up job training programs for the unemployed and after school programs for kids. And block by block, we turned those neighborhoods around.

It was the best education I ever had, because I learned in those neighborhoods that when ordinary people come together, they can achieve extraordinary things. And so later, when I finished law school, I turned down the corporate job offers and I came back to Chicago to continue the work I started.

I organized a voter registration drive that signed up 150,000 new voters to help elect Bill Clinton in 1992. I joined a civil rights law practice, and I started teaching constitutional law – because unlike some occupants of the White House, I actually believe in the Constitution.

And after a few years, people started coming up to me and telling me I should run for state Senate. So I jumped in the race. And I shook every hand I could and passed out flyers to whoever would take them. But the one question I’d get from people more than any other was, “You seem like a nice young man. You’ve done all this great work. You’ve been a community organizer, and you teach law school, you’re a civil rights attorney, you’re a family man – why would you wanna go into something dirty and nasty like politics?”

And I understand the question, and the cynicism. We all understand it.

We understand it because we’ve all seen that politics in this town is no longer a mission – it’s a business. Our politics has never been pure, but there’s a sense that in the last several years, the race for money, and influence, and power has left the hopes and concerns of most Americans in the dust. You’re worried about how you’ll pay for college, or health care, or save for retirement, but when you turn on the TV or open the newspaper, all you see from Washington is another scandal, or a petty argument, or the persistent stubbornness of a President who refuses to end this war in Iraq.

As the rest of us have turned away from this kind of politics in cynicism and frustration, we know what’s filled the void. The lobbyists and influence-peddlers with the cash and the connections – the ones who’ve turned government into a game only they can afford to play. It’s the pharmaceutical companies that get to write our drug bills while the price of prescriptions skyrockets for the rest of us. It’s the oil lobbyists that get to meet with the same White House that silences the scientists who warn us about the destruction of our planet.

You know who I’m talking about here. They write the checks and you get stuck with the bills, they get the access while you get to write a letter, they think they own this government, but we’re here to tell them it’s not for sale.

People tell me I haven’t spent a lot of time learning the ways of Washington. But I promise you this – I’ve been here long enough to know that the ways of Washington must change.

The cynicism we feel about what politics can achieve today is no accident. It has to do with a failure of leadership. It has to do with the philosophy they’ve peddled in this town for the last six years – a philosophy of trickle-down and on-your-own that says government has no role in solving the challenges we face and so it shouldn’t even try.

It’s a theory that’s easy to talk about when you’re playing politics in Washington, but harder to defend when you actually see what it does to average Americans.

I met a family in Iowa City with a small business of fifteen years who is now facing bankruptcy because of their medical bills. Try telling them they’re on their own.

I spoke with workers in Newton who were watching their Maytag plant close down and their shops get shipped overseas. Try telling them to pull themselves up by their bootstraps.

Try saying “tough luck” to the families who still don’t have homes in New Orleans, or the 45 million Americans without health care, or the 15 million children born into poverty in the richest nation on Earth.

This is not who we are. This is not how America has persevered through war and depression, through struggles for civil rights and women’s rights and worker’s rights. We have come this far as a nation because we believe in a different kind of politics – because we believe in a different vision for America.

We believe that we rise or fall as one people. We believe that we each have a stake in one another – that I am my brother’s keeper; that I am my sister’s keeper. We believe that what happens to that family in Iowa, or to those Maytag workers – that matters to us, even if it’s not our family, or our job. And what’s more – in the face of our cynicism, and our doubts, and the power and influence we see in Washington, we believe that this kind of America is possible.

The time for the can’t-do, won’t-do, won’t-even-try style of politics is over. It’s time to turn the page.

Some of our more cynical friends in the media tease me from time to time for always talking about hope. But the reason I do is because I’ve seen its power.

No one thought those South Side neighborhoods had a chance when I got there. But we banded together, and we kept working, and we taught people to stand up to their government when it wasn’t standing up for them.

When I got to the Illinois state Senate, people said it was too hard to take on the issue of money in politics – that our state had too long a history, and too many entrenched interests. But I knew we had the people of Illinois on our side, and I even found a few folks on the other side of the aisle who were willing to listen, and we passed the first major ethics reform in twenty-five years.

People told me I couldn’t reform a death penalty system that had sent 13 innocent people to death row. But we did that. They doubted whether we could put government back on the side of average people – but we put tax cuts in the pockets of the working families who needed them instead of the folks who didn’t. And I passed health care reform that insured another 150,000 children and parents.

So I know that change is possible. I know that turning the page is possible. This isn’t just the rhetoric of a campaign, it’s been the cause of my life – a cause I will work for and fight for every day as your President.

It’s not enough just to change parties in this election. If we hope to truly transform this country, we have to change our politics too. It’s time to turn the page. .

It’s time to turn the page on health care – to bring together unions and businesses, Democrats and Republicans, and to let the insurance and drug companies know that while they get a seat at the table, they don’t get to buy every chair.

I have a universal health care plan that will cover every American and cut the cost of a typical family’s premiums by up to $2500 a year. It’s a plan that lets the uninsured buy insurance that’s similar to the kind members of Congress give themselves. If you can’t afford that, you’ll get a subsidy to pay for it. And it goes further than any other proposed plan in cutting the cost of health care by investing in technology and preventative care, breaking the stranglehold the drug and insurance industries have on the health care market, and helping business and families shoulder the cost of the most expensive conditions so that an illness doesn’t lead to a bankruptcy. And I promise you this – I will sign a universal health care plan that covers every American by the end of my first term in office as your President. Count on it.

It’s time to turn the page on education – to move past the slow decay of indifference that says some schools can’t be fixed and some kids just can’t learn.

As President, I will launch a campaign to recruit and support hundreds of thousands of new teachers across the country, because the most important part of any education is the person standing in the front of the classroom. It’s time to treat teaching like the profession it is. It’s time to pay our teachers what they deserve. And when it comes to developing the high standards we need, it’s time to stop working against our teachers and start working with them. We can do this.

It’s time to turn the page on energy – to break the political stalemate that’s kept our fuel efficiency standards in the same place for twenty years; to tell the oil and auto industries that they must act, not only because their future’s at stake, but because the future of our country and our planet is at stake as well.

As President, I will place a cap on carbon emissions, and require companies who can’t meet the cap to buy credits from those who can. This will generate millions of dollars to invest in renewable sources of energy and create new jobs and even a new industry in the process. I’ll put in place a low-carbon fuel standard that will take 50 million cars’ worth of pollution off the road. And I’d raise the fuel efficiency standards for our cars and trucks because we know we have the technology to do it and it’s time we did. We can do this.

It’s time to turn the page for all those Americans who want nothing more than to have a job that can pay the bills and raise a family. Let’s finally make the minimum wage a living wage and tie it to the cost of living so we don’t have to wait another ten years to see it rise. Let’s put the jobless back to work in transitional jobs that can give them a paycheck and a sense of pride, let’s help our workers advance with job training and life-long education, and let’s finally allow our unions to do what they do best and lift up the middle-class in this country once more. And when you head to Capitol Hill in a little bit to rally for the Employee Free Choice Act, say it loud enough so that the folks on the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue can hear you – in this country, we believe that if the majority of workers in a company want a union, they should get a union. We can do this.

We can do all of this. But before we do, we have to begin by turning the page and ending this war.

I am proud that I stood up in 2002 and urged our leaders not to take us down this dangerous path. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – this is a war that should’ve never been authorized and never been waged.

So many of us knew this back then, even when it wasn’t popular to say so.

We knew back then this war was a mistake. We knew back then that it was dangerous diversion from the struggle against the terrorists who attacked us on September 11th. We knew back then that we could find ourselves in an occupation of undetermined length, at undetermined cost, with undetermined consequences.

But the war went forward. And now, we’ve seen those consequences and we mourn for the dead and wounded.

I was in New Hampshire the other month when a woman told me that her nephew was leaving for Iraq. And as she started telling me how much she’d miss him and how worried she was about him, she began to cry. And she said to me, “I can’t breathe. I want to know, when am I going to be able to breathe again?”

It is time to let this woman know she can breathe again. It’s time to start bringing our troops home – not a year from now or a month from now – but now.

I introduced a plan in January that would’ve already started bringing our troops home by now, with the goal of bringing all combat brigades home by March 31st, 2008.

Now, we know the President vetoed a bipartisan plan just like this one a few weeks ago. And I’m proud I voted against giving a blank check to the man who said he sees us keeping our troops in Iraq for as long as we have in Korea.

But we can’t give George Bush the last word here. We are sixteen votes away in the Senate from ending this war. And so we need to keep turning up the pressure on all those Republican Congressmen and Senators who refuse to acknowledge the reality that the American people know so well. We will call them, and knock on their doors, and we will bring our troops home. It’s time to turn the page.

It’s time to show the world that America is still the last, best hope of Earth. This President may occupy the White House, but for the last six years the position of leader of the free world has remained open.

It’s time to fill that role once more. Whether it’s terrorism or climate change, global AIDS or the spread of weapons of mass destruction, America cannot meet the threats of this new century alone, but the world cannot meet them without America. It’s time for us to lead.

It’s time for us to close Guantanamo and restore the right of habeus corpus. It’s time to show the world that we are not a country that ships prisoners in the dead of night to be tortured in far off countries. That we are not a country that runs prisons which lock people away without ever telling them why they are there or what they are charged with. We are not a country which preaches compassion to others while we allow bodies to float down the streets of a major American city.

That is not who we are.

We are America. We are the nation that liberated a continent from a madman, that lifted ourselves from the depths of Depression, that won Civil Rights, and Women’s Rights, and Voting Rights for all our people. We are the beacon that has led generations of weary travelers to find opportunity, and liberty, and hope on our doorstep. That’s who we are.

I was down in Selma, Alabama awhile back, and we were celebrating the 42nd anniversary of the march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. It was a march of ordinary Americans – maids and cooks, preachers and Pullman porters who faced down fire hoses and dogs, tear gas and billy clubs when they tried to get to the other side. But every time they were stopped, every time they were knocked down, they got back up, they came back, and they kept on marching. And finally they crossed over. It was called Bloody Sunday, and it was the culmination of the Civil Rights Movement.

When I came back from that celebration, people would say, oh, what a wonderful celebration of African-American history that must have been. And I would say, no, that wasn’t African-American history. That was a celebration of American history – it’s our story.

And it reminds us of a simple truth – a truth I learned all those years ago as an organizer in Chicago – a truth you carry by being here today – that in the face of impossible odds, people who love their country can change it.

I am confident about my ability to lead this country. But I also know that I can’t do it without you. This campaign that we’re running has to be about your hopes, and your dreams, and what you will do. Because there are few obstacles that can withstand the power of millions of voices calling for change.

That’s how change has always happened – not from the top-down, but from the bottom-up.

And that’s exactly how you and I will change this country.

If you want a new kind of politics, it’s time to turn the page.

If you want an end to the old divisions, and the stale debates, and the score-keeping and the name-calling, it’s time to turn the page.

If you want health care for every American and a world-class education for all our children; if you want energy independence and an end to this war in Iraq; if you believe America is still that last, best hope of Earth, then it’s time to turn the page.

It’s time to turn the page for hope. It’s time to turn the page for justice. It is time to turn the page and write the next chapter in the great American story. Let’s begin the work. Let’s do this together. Let’s turn that page. Thank you.

I am a singer and a songwriter but I am also a father, four times over. I am a friend to dogs. I am a sworn enemy of the saccharine; and a believer in grace over karma. I talk too much when I'm drunk and sometimes even when I'm not.

I am not drunk right now. These are not sunglasses, these are protection.

But I must tell you. I owe more than my spoiled lifestyle to rock music. I owe my worldview. Music was like an alarm clock for me as a teenager and still keeps me from falling asleep in the comfort of my freedom.

Rock music to me is rebel music. But rebelling against what? In the Fifties it was sexual mores and double standards. In the Sixties it was the Vietnam War and racial and social inequality. What are we rebelling against now?

If I am honest I'm rebelling against my own indifference. I am rebelling against the idea that the world is the way the world is and there's not a damned thing I can do about it. So I'm trying to do some damned thing.

But fighting my indifference is my own problem. What's your problem? What's the hole in your heart? I needed the noise, the applause. You needed the grades. Why are you here in Harvard Square?

Why do you have to listen to me? What have you given up to get here? Is success your drug of choice or are you driven by another curiosity? Your potential. The potential of a given situation. Is missing the moment unacceptable to you? Is wasting inspiration a crime? It is for a musician.

If this is where we find our lives rhyme. If this is our common ground, well, then I can be inspired as well as humbled to be on this great campus. Because that's where I come from. Music.

But I've seen the other side of music -- the Business. I've seen success as a drug of choice. I've seen great minds and prolific imaginations disappear up their own ass, strung out on their own self-importance. I'm one of them.

The misery of having it all your own way, the loneliness of sitting at a table where everyone works for you, the emptiness of arriving at Aspen on a Gulfstream to stay in your winter palace. Eh, sorry, different speech ....

You know what I'm talking about -- you've got to keep asking yourself why are you doing this? You've got to keep checking your motives.

Success for my group U2 has been a lot easier to conjure than, say ... relevance. RELEVANCE ... in the world, in the culture.

And of course, failure is not such a bad thing ... It's not a word that many of you know. I'm sure it's what you fear the most. But from an artist's point of view, failure is where you get your best material.

So fighting indifference versus making a difference. Let me tell you a few things you haven't heard about me, even on the Internet.

Let me tell you how I enrolled at Harvard and slept with an economics professor.

That's right -- I became a student at Harvard recently, and came to work with Professor Jeffrey Sachs at CID -- to study the lack of development in third-world economies due to the crushing weight of old debts those economies were carrying for generations.

It turns out that the normal rules of bankruptcy don't apply to sovereign states. Listen, it would be harder for you to get a student loan than it was for President Mobutu to stream billions of dollars into his Swiss bank account while his people starved on the side of the road. Two generations later, the Congolese are still paying. The debts of the fathers are now the debts of the sons and the daughters. So I was here representing a group that believed that all such debts should be cancelled in the year 2000. We called it Jubilee 2000. A fresh start for a new millennium.

It was headed up by Anne Pettifor, based out of London -- huge support from Africa. With Muhammad Ali, Sir Bob Geldof, and myself, acting at first just as mouthpieces. It was taking off. But we were way behind in the U.S.

We had the melody line, so to speak. But in order to get it on the radio over here, we needed a lot of help. My friend Bobby Shriver suggested I knock on the good professor's door. And a funny thing happened. Jeffrey Sachs not only let me into his office, he let me into his Rolodex, his head and his life for the last few years. So, in a sense, he let me into your life here at Harvard.

Then Sachs and I, with my friend Bobby Shriver, hit the road like some kind of surreal crossover act. A rock star, a Kennedy, and a Noted Economist criss-crossing the globe. Like the Partridge Family on psychotropic drugs. With the POPE acting as our ... well ... agent. And the blessing of various Rabbis, Evangelists, mothers, unions, trade unions and PTAs.

It was a new level of "unhip" for me, but it was really cool. It was in that capacity that I slept with Jeff Sachs, each of us in our own seat on an economy flight to somewhere, passed out like a couple of drunks from sheer exhaustion.

It was confusing for everyone -- I looked up with one eye to see your hero -- stubble in all the wrong places .... His tie looked more like a headband. An airhostess asked if he were a member of the Grateful Dead.

I have enormous respect for Jeff Sachs, but it's really true what they say. "Students shouldn't sleep with their professors ...".

While I'm handing out trade secrets, I also want to tell you that Larry Summers, your incoming President, the man whose signature is on every American dollar is a nutcase -- and a freak.

Look, U2 made it big out of Boston, not New York or L.A., so I thought if anyone would know about our existence it would be a Treasury Secretary from Harvard [and M.I.T.]. Alas, no. When I said I was from U2 he had a flashback from Cuba 1962.

How can I put this? And don't hold it against him -- Mr. Summers is, as former President Clinton confirmed to me last week in Dublin, "culturally challenged." But when I asked him to look up from "the numbers" to see what we were talking about, he did more than that. He did -- the hardest thing of all for an Economist -- he saw through the numbers.

And if it was hard for me to enlist Larry Summers in our efforts, imagine how hard it was for Larry Summers to get the rest of Washington to cough up the cash. To really make a difference for the third of the world that lives on less than a dollar a day.

He more than tried. He was passionate. He turned up in the offices of his adversaries. He turned up in restaurants with me to meet the concerns of his Republican counterparts. There is a posh restaurant in Washington they won't let us in now. Such was the heat of his debate -- blood on the walls, wine in the vinegar.

If you're called up before the new President of Harvard and he gives you the hairy eyeball, drums his fingers, and generally acts disinterested it could be the beginning of a great adventure.

It's a good thing that I got invited up here before President Rudenstine hands over the throne.

Well. It's at this point that I have to ask -- if your family don't do it first -- why am I telling you these stories? It's certainly not because I'm running for role model.

I'm telling you these stories because all that fun I had with Jeff Sachs and Larry Summers was in the service of something deadly serious. When people around the world heard about the burden of debt that crushes the poorest countries, when they heard that for every dollar of government aid we sent to developing nations, nine dollars came back in debt service payments, when they heard all that, people got angry.

They took to the streets -- in what was without doubt the largest grassroots movement since the campaign to end apartheid. Politics is, as you know, normally the art of the possible, but this was something more interesting. This was becoming the art of the impossible. We had priests going into pulpits, pop stars into parliaments. The Pope put on my sunglasses.

The religious right started acting like student protesters. And finally, after a floor fight in the House of Representatives, we got the money -- four three five million. That four three five -- which is starting to be a lot of money -- leveraged billions more from other rich countries.

So where does that money go? Well, so far, 23 of the poorest countries have managed to meet the sometimes over-stringent conditions to get their debt payments reduced -- and to spend the money on the people who need it most. In Uganda, twice as many kids are now going to school. That's good. In Mozambique, debt payments are down 42 percent, allowing health spending to increase by $14 million. That's good, too. $14 million goes a long way in Mozambique.

If I could tell you about one remarkable man in rural Uganda named Dr. Kabira. In 1999, measles -- a disease that's almost unheard of in the U.S. -- killed hundreds of kids in Dr. Kabira's district. Now, thanks to debt relief, he's got an additional $6,000 from the state, enough for him to employ two new nurses and buy two new bicycles so they can get around the district and immunize children. Last year, measles was a killer. This year, Dr. Kabira saw less than ten cases.

I just wanted you to know what we pulled off with the help of Harvard -- with the help of people like Jeffrey Sachs.

But I'm not here to brag, or to take credit, or even to share it. Why am I here? Well, again I think to just say "thanks." But also, I think I've come here to ask you for your help. This is a big problem. We need some smart people working on it. I think this will be the defining moment of our age. When the history books (that some of you will write) make a record of our times, this moment will be remembered for two things: the Internet. And the everyday holocaust that is Africa. Twenty five million HIV positives who will leave behind 40 million AIDS orphans by 2010. This is the biggest health threat since the Bubonic Plague wiped out a third of Europe.

It's an unsustainable problem for Africa. And, unless we hermetically seal the continent and close our conscience, it's an unsustainable problem for the world. But it's hard to make this a popular cause because it's hard to make it pop, you know? That, I guess, is what I'm trying to do. Pop is often the oxygen of politics.

Didn't John and Robert Kennedy come to Harvard? Isn't equality a son of a bitch to follow through on? Isn't "Love thy neighbour" in the global village so inconvenient? GOD writes us these lines but we have to sing them ... take them to the top of the charts, but it's not what the radio is playing -- is it? I know.

But we've got to follow through on our ideals or we betray something at the heart of who we are. Outside these gates, and even within them, the culture of idealism is under siege beset by materialism and narcissism and all the other "isms" of indifference. And their defense mechanism -- knowingness, the smirk, the joke. Worse still, it's a marketing tool. They've got Martin Luther King selling phones now. Have you seen that? Civil Rights in America and Europe are bound to human rights in the rest of the world. The right to live like a human. But these thoughts are expensive -- they're going to cost us. Are we ready to pay the price? Is America still a great idea as well as a great country?

When I was a kid in Dublin, I watched in awe as America put a man on the moon; and I thought, wow -- this is mad! Nothing is impossible in America! America, they can do anything over there! Nothing was impossible, only human nature, and it followed because it was led.

Is that still true? Tell me it's true. It is true isn't it? And if it isn't, you of all people can make it true again.

Head back to the top.