"Back in your cages. Give these people a break," quipped Senator Lindsey Graham, shooing away photographers who swarmed pop star Elton John and celebrity pastor Rick Warren as they arrived Wednesday to testify about the American role in battling the global AIDS epidemic.
It is a time-honored tradition on Capitol Hill to invite global celebrities to make the case for non-controversial causes. It could be Ben Affleck talking up U.S. aid to African countries, or Seth Rogen asking to boost funding for research to fight Alzheimer's disease.
The celeb's pitch tends to be something like this: We owe Congress infinite thanks for the steps you've taken to advance (insert cause here). But there's more work to be done, and that's why I'm here. The world needs you.
Sporting bright red glasses and a purple tie, John took his turn at the witness table to make the case for continued American funding to battle HIV/AIDS before a Senate Appropriations subcommittee on global health.
"Congress's leadership has been transformational," said John, a prominent anti-AIDS activist. He credited U.S. funding with procuring lifesaving treatment for 400,000 patients and cutting the global mother-to-child transmission of HIV in half. "Because of the actions of this Congress, the course of the AIDS epidemic was altered for all of humanity," John, one of Queen Elizabeth's Knights Bachelor, told representatives of the former colonies. "This is the most powerful legislative body in the world. And this Congress indeed has the power to end AIDS."
Graham, a South Carolina Republican who is considering a run for president, and his colleagues on the panel appeared suitably impressed.
"After this, how would you like to vote against this account?" Graham said. "What would you say? The terrorists want you to vote no, I guess that's the only thing I could think about."
Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy, the top Democrat on the panel, said John's testimony on the AIDS epidemic "was something that should be heard over and over and over again."
At issue was funding for the President's Emergency Plan For AIDS Relief, or PEPFAR, launched by President George W. Bush in 2003, which like all domestic programs has been in the crosshairs of budget cuts. "A reduction in funding for PEPFAR would be a huge blow," John told Senator Steve Daines, Republican of Montana, warning of a "complete disaster" if the fund is cut.
John drew on his own experience in the U.S. to thank the generosity of Americans. "This country gave everything to me as a professional. And it gave everything to me as a human being," he said, referring to his encounter with a young American AIDS victim that turned him into a leading activist against the disease. "I was a drug-addict. I was a self-obsessed a--hole, excuse me. And Ryan White and his wonderful family turned my life around."
He was joined on the panel by Warren, an iconoclastic evangelical pastor and author of the bestseller A Purpose Driven Life. While he may have been eclipsed by John's celebrity wattage, the California-based minister drew the laugh line of the hearing while touting the value of religious communities in distributing resources for those in need.
"The actual number of people without faith is quite small outside of Manhattan and parts of Europe," Warren deadpanned, cracking up the packed room. "And if you want to talk about distribution you have to use faith communities."
After he and John made opening remarks, the crowd gathered for the hearing began to thin out. While cynics might dismiss the gathering as another feel-good opportunity for a dysfunctional Congress with a puny approval rating, there's no question that, for a brief moment at least, John and Warren drew the spotlight on the significance of U.S. foreign aid — and the urgent desire of global philanthropists for more.