Washington is a wonderful and weird place, a city of glories and shames.

Having grown up in a family where my father was jointly-employed by the University of California and the USDA, my memory is that the federal oversight of his work always seemed a burden to him. When “Washington” came to Shafter, our little town in California’s San Joaquin Valley where the principal on-the-ground research into the state’s main agriculture took place, there was bustle in our home, and the family peace was regained when “the Beltway” left, and we returned to ordinary life

Now having lived most of my life in Washington, I understand that, but see more too. For all of its curses, as the 20th becomes the 21st-century, Washington is still the capitol city of the world. It didn’t’ use to be, and it will probably not be someday. But for now, Bono had to come here to plead for Africa. Not Dublin or London, not New York or Los Angeles, but Washington.

Understanding this, some of my friends began to work at the intersection of politics to pop culture, realizing that “the culture is upstream from politics.” The songs and stories of a people turn out to be more determinative of what we believe and how we live, than the laws—because the laws finally reflect the people’s hopes and dreams, for blessing and curse.

There is a certain poignancy to the knowledge that if our president made a speech declaring that “America has a responsibility to Africa!” most of us would yawn. In contrast, I watched Bono walk into the offices of Senators Ted Kennedy and Jesse Helms and persuade them with equal passion and charm that they should help him help Africa. Not agreeing on anything in the universe, they agreed with him, and asked, “How can I help?” As did the White House and the World Bank.

We engaged many artists over many years, in different kinds of ways asking, “How can we help you?” One of those musicians was Billy Corgan, who had moved through those years as “rock god” to someone of cultural interest, but no longer the one whose music was capturing the imagination of the next generation the world over. Over time we had several conversations with him. Once he and I met in Starbucks just off Massachusetts Ave, him with a wool cap pulled onto his very bald head. He didn’t really look like Billy Corgan, which was the point, I’m sure. And once we met at the White House for lunch, just a few of us, talking about everything: music, art, politics, and God.

He was a serious person thinking about serious things—and it was plain that by that time he had moved from his rock protest, “God is empty just like me!” to more of a pilgrim, asking honest questions and wanting honest answers. Just like all of the rest of us, at our best at least.

More could be said, but those are his stories. Seeing this brief interview online last night, with Billy talking to an Asian journalist about the stuff of life, I was intrigued to hear him now, and would love to sit at a Starbucks again, and talk about everything.


Steven Garber is the Senior Fellow for Vocation and the Common Good for the M. J. Murdock Charitable Trust. A teacher of many people in many places, he continues to serve as a consultant to colleges and corporations, facilitating both individual and institutional vocation. A husband, a father and a grandfather, a he has long lived in Washington DC, living a life among family, friends, and flowers.

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