The Biggest News Around
There is a time to navel-gaze, and convention season '04 is one of those times. Post-9/11, it's America's first chance to think collectively about what lies ahead. The big problems. The big solutions.
Sounds exciting to me. The conventions have barely started, but the television networks are saying there won't be any news. That's not how the rest of the world sees it. Two men are going to speak, and for the next four years one of them will be the most powerful person on the planet. To the rest of the world, what they say is the biggest news around.
That's why I'm going to both conventions. Not just to listen, but to talk. Because when I last looked I couldn't find the biggest global challenge, AIDS and the extreme poverty in which it thrives, on the schedules.
Every constituency wants its box checked, its issue mentioned by the candidates, but this isn't just any "issue," and the people most affected are not a constituency. They don't vote in America; they don't pay taxes in America. They live far away on the plains of the Serengeti or the shantytowns of Senegal, but like it or not, our future in the West is eerily bound up with theirs.
I know this doesn't look good; I'm a rich Irish rock star, not even a rich American rock star. It makes people wince, including myself. But there's a real opportunity for America to lead an adventure, and the adventure is this: We are the first generation that really can do something about the kind of "stupid" poverty that sees children dying of hunger in a world of plenty or mothers dying for lack of a 20-cent drug that we take for granted. We have the science, we have the resources, what we don't seem to have is the will.
At the conventions, would better billing for this subject make any difference to the star issues already at the top? Jobs? No. Security? Yes. The perception of America? Definitely. Never before has this great country been so scrutinized, and never has the "idea" of America been under such attack. Brand USA could use some polishing, and I say that as a huge fan.
This is an opportunity to show what America stands for. Antiretroviral drugs are great advertisements for American ingenuity and technology. I've said to President Bush and Senator Kerry, both of whom care about this issue passionately, to go ahead and paint these pills red, white, and blue. Because these pharmaceuticals will not just transform the communities and countries that we see on the nightly news, they will transform the way they see us.
I've seen the look in the eyes of people dying three to a bed in Malawi, knowing that save for an accident of latitude or longitude they would be saved. Oddly, their looks are never accusatory or defiant – it's the children they leave behind who may become the problem.
Eighteen million AIDS orphans by the end of the decade in Africa alone. What will they think of us and from where will order be introduced into their chaotic lives? Whispering extremists attract recruits when hope has broken down. Surely, in nervous, dangerous times, it is smarter for America to make friends now of potential enemies than defend itself against them later.
Look; this is more than a hill to climb, and there are a few chasms to cross.
Unfair trade is a big one. No one in the West is ready to jump that yet, but they should. Foreign assistance is another. The United States is 22nd in the list of richest countries when it comes to how much it gives to the poorest as a percentage of our wealth, including private philanthropy. The explanation for this might be the next chasm we have to leap – a healthy skepticism about whether this money will get into the right hands.
Bush's Millennium Challenge, which rewards countries that fight corruption, and the Global Health Fund, which Kerry has pushed for and which audits every penny, overcome this concern and are smart ways of getting bang for your buck.
When Americans know what a difference this money will make, they will be the most generous in the world. We're already seeing the beginnings – a historic $2 billion increase to fight AIDS and extreme poverty thanks to bipartisan support in Congress this year.
Americans are joining a campaign to be part of something that is bigger than themselves. At the conventions there's history in the making for both parties. That's what people from around the world will be tuning in to hear on their transistors. That's why I'm going to be there. I want to be a nagging presence in sunglasses, a visual reminder of people who have a life-or-death stake in what is and isn't discussed on the convention floor.