Congressman Sonny Bono, enjoying the grand old party AND THE BEAT GOES ON


Washington -- To remind himself of how far he's come, Congressman Sonny Bono may be tempted to rise from his polished desk and stare out the window at the spectacular view of the Capitol. The problem is, there is no spectacular view of the Capitol.

Instead, from the fifth floor of the Cannon House Office Building, the view is decidedly less inspiring: sandstone walls the color of dishwater, and a dreary courtyard down below, which looks like a pleasant place to eat lunch only if your last meal was in a subway tunnel.

Still, Sonny Bono, a conservative Republican who represents California's 44th District, does not complain about his new digs the way some whiny Democrat would.

As the GOP basks in its control of both houses of Congress for the first time in four decades, he realizes that his is perhaps the most improbable story of all to come out of politics this election. The long-haired, '60s pop singer who once wore fur vests and penned the gooey "I Got You, Babe" and had Cher openly question the size of his brain on national TV, the washed-up entertainer who drifted through celebrity hell with appearances on "The Love Boat" and "Fantasy Island," is now an energetic 59-year-old statesman who helps make the laws of this land.

There are some who will read that last sentence with misty eyes and think: "God, this is a great country!"

But others see Sonny Bono rise from his chair in the House of Representatives during a debate on unfunded mandates and immediately think: "What's Wrong With This Picture?"

No matter what you think of him, Sonny Bono didn't fall off a turnip truck to get here. This was clear from his performance at the Washington Press Club Foundation dinner Wednesday night a performance that became the talk of the town.

Deftly poking fun at his new job and his fellow congressmen, he told a black-tie audience: "I am so pleased that we are all so dedicated to mankind -- unlike show business where you have egomaniacs and you have power mongers and you have elitists."

"I do reflect on how far I've come -- all the time," the congressman is saying on a rainy Washington afternoon. "The hotel I'm staying in now, it's kind of amazing. It has a straight-on view of the Capitol, and sometimes you look out the window . . . and go: 'Gosh, that's my office!'

"It's very exciting . . . and hopefully you can be a contributor to society and a part of history."

Sonny Bono has been a member of Congress for a little over three weeks, so there is no measuring his contributions there just yet. A millionaire with 10 gold records, who wears gold Cartier elephant cuff links, he nevertheless sees himself as a dyed-in-the-wool populist.

The issues

He wants big government off the little guy's back. He wants to cut regulations. He wants local government to assume a larger role. He wants to get rid of professional politicians.

He's big on family values, he's anti-gun control, he's pro-death penalty. Oh, yes, he also stands solidly behind the GOP's touted "Contract With America" and its Maximum Leader, Newt Gingrich.

Party-line Republicanism?

"Yeah, it is," says Mr. Bono, a member of the Judiciary and Banking and Financial Services committees. "I had my choices. I wore my hair down to here and bobcat vests and Eskimo boots, but I always felt . . . I had to be responsible as an individual. I like the Republican philosophy because it stresses responsibility."

As for his own district: "Illegal immigration is a big issue. Seniors [are] a very big issue and a big part of my constituency. Their housing . . . they have a situation where they're regulated to a degree that they don't have any freedom." Still, for all his earnestness and hard work, there is no shortage of critics on the Hill and home in California who view Mr. Bono as hopelessly overmatched, who still think of him, in the congressman's own words, as "Sonny Bonehead."

Some of this is a carry-over from his failed 1992 campaign for the California U.S. Senate seat eventually won by Democrat Barbara Boxer, during which he displayed all the polish of a guy running for president of the Elks Club.

At one news conference, asked for his views on foreign trade, he answered: "Now that's a tricky one."

And some of the criticism goes back to his four years (1988-1992) as mayor of Palm Springs, the famed desert resort, when the highlight of his term was his decision to ban thong bikinis.

"Sonny Bono is just not qualified to be a U.S. congressman," Frank Bogert, mayor of Palm Springs for 14 years and a loyal Republican, told the San Francisco Chronicle during Mr. Bono's run for office last November. "Sonny is a nice little actor, and I like him, but he has no education, no background, no political ability, and he did a horrible job as mayor here."

Other than that, Mr. Bogert liked him just fine, as did assorted other GOP bigwigs, who viewed the candidacy as an embarrassment even as Mr. Bono whipped former Democratic Assemblyman Steve Clute by 18 percent of the vote.

Mr. Bono himself is well aware of his shortcomings. When Cher calls you the equivalent of a dopey little nerd in front of 60 million people week after week, you develop a hide as thick as a rhino's. But run for elective office and people line up from here to Vermont to tell you what you're doing wrong.

"I can't articulate," People magazine quoted Mr. Bono as saying last November. "That's something I guess I'm gonna have to learn -- how to throw that articulation out there."

And yet, maybe there's something to be said for being inarticulate. At a candidates' forum during his run for the Senate in 1992, each candidate was given several minutes to address the topic of what to do about illegal immigration.

"I don't understand the argument," Mr. Bono said when it was his turn. "It's illegal. Just enforce the law."

Then he sat down. The other candidates were stunned. The audience loved it. Bruce Herschensohn, who would go on to capture the Republican nomination, followed Mr. Bono to the podium and said:

"Y'know . . . he's right."

Still, until his win in the November elections, Mr. Bono was viewed by many as a frivolous, if engaging, candidate. The media used him as a pinata. He understood why.

"Although I was mayor, the perception is that I'm . . . show business," he says. "So there's a . . . difficulty factor for people to believe that you're really doing these things for the purpose you're supposed to be doing them for, that you're qualified, that you're serious."

For all his focus on his new job, Mr. Bono still tends to distill his experiences as a legislator through his former life. He's not the first show business personality on the Hill -- Republican Fred Grandy, who played Gopher on "The Love Boat," served three terms as an Iowa congressman, and actor Fred Thompson, whose most recent film was "In the Line of Fire," is now a Republican senator from Tennessee. But sometimes it's hard to let go of your past.

There is a wonderful story going around Washington -- a story which happens to be true -- of the opening day of Congress when Congressman Bono was hustling to be interviewed on "CBS This Morning."

By chance, he ran into Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole and Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich. Gazing at the string of reporters and TV camera crews trailing Mr. Bono, Mr. Gingrich said: "Now I understand the celebrity you've dealt with all your life."

Mr. Bono smiled and told Mr. Gingrich, the man who had just ascended to his dream job: "You understand now what it's like to get your first gold record."

The idea of Newt Gingrich and Sonny Bono trading bons mots in the halls of Congress tends to freeze the blood of liberal Democrats.

But in at least one part of the country, the idea of the speaker

and the congressman being buddy-buddy was considered just swell.


California's 44th Congressional District is a narrow ribbon of land that ranges from the high desert in the west to the Arizona border. It is affluent, elderly and deeply conservative. Conversation tends to be dominated by a singular urgent theme: "What time do we tee off?"

It is, all in all, an unlikely political base for a man who once wore paisley shirts and bell-bottoms and hair down to his shoulders, and who, according to his own autobiography, went through women the way other people go through socks.

Not to mention a man who didn't register to vote until he was 52 years old. Still, it was in Palm Springs that Sonny Bono experienced not only his political birth, but a rebirth of another sort, as well.

By all accounts, the '80s were a lonely, frustrating time for Mr. Bono. He was operating his Italian restaurant, Bono, but having trouble finding work in show business and still feeling the effects of his 1975 divorce from Cher.

"When we split up, all my credibility was gone," Mr. Bono told the New York Times two years ago. "Cher got it. The whole show ['The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour'] was focused around making Cher cool and me the straight man."

Then, eight years ago, he met Mary, now 33, his fourth wife and the mother of his two young children, Chesare and Chianna. (He has two older children, Chastity, 25, his daughter with Cher, and Christine, his daughter from a previous marriage.)

"My wife was very, very influential in getting me out of a funk," he says. "You know, when you're very, very successful, and then you lose it, you lose your confidence as well."

Reinvigorated, he seemed to embrace life again, even managing to talk about Cher without wanting to hurl himself off a cliff. Then came the incident which ignited his run for mayor in 1988.

"I applied for some licenses to get a sign for my restaurant," he says. "And it became a major project. And it was so simple! I became fascinated with the [bureaucratic wrangling]. And eventually I decided the best solution to the problem was to get involved and change the procedure."

So Sonny Bono took his mayoral campaign to the streets of Palm Springs. He shook hands and posed for pictures and kissed babies, although, given the demographics of the electorate, there weren't a whole lot of babies to be kissed.

"Vote for me, vote for me," he told everyone. "I'm even voting for me!"

Which is when it was pointed out that he had never registered to vote.

As far as the other candidates were concerned, this was like lobbing a live pig into a shark tank: 52 and never voted! And this guy's running for mayor?

"Yeah, I had never voted, and I don't say that proudly," he says. "It's just that when you're a celebrity, you're insulated . . . you have your own environment, your own manager, your own PR man, your own lawyer. You're surrounded by all these people who just take care of you. And so you don't have any necessity to go out and confront life."

This being California, the voters had no problem with a mayor who had never voted. Sonny Bono won the race by the largest margin in Palm Springs' history. But his term played to mixed reviews.

In addition to making the streets safe for the non-thong-wearing public, he brought an international film festival to Palm Springs and cracked down on beer-guzzling college students who were urinating on the bushes and driving the geezers nuts during spring break.

That led to Mr. Bono's ill-fated run for the U.S. Senate in 1992. Politically naive, dreadfully uninformed, he lurched through the campaign relying on corny jokes about Cher and anecdotes about what it was like to work with such show business giants as Tattoo on "Fantasy Island" and Captain Stubing on "The Love Boat."

But when his advisers took him aside and said: "Sonny, maybe you should cool it with the Hollywood stories, stick to the issues," he told them he'd never run from his past.

"I enjoyed every minute of my show business career," he says. "To not recognize that that's part of my makeup would be a mistake."

His campaign for Congress featured a more poised and confident Mr. Bono. This time his anti-big government message found eager disciples. He'd talk about eliminating HUD or the National Endowment for the Arts, and wrinkled heads under sun visors would nod in agreement.

It also didn't hurt when he used nearly $350,000 of his own money on TV commercials.

The GOP also got behind him. Heavyweights such as Bob Dole and former Cabinet members William Bennett and Jack Kemp all trekked out to the desert to tell the folks in the golf outfits what a swell congressman Sonny Bono would make.

The rest of the nation had a good chuckle on the morning of Nov. 9 when it awoke to headlines such as: "Mr. Bono Goes To Washington."

But the new congressman seemed undaunted. "I never had a boring moment in my life," he used to tell friends, and you had a

feeling that was going to continue.

Thoughts on Cher

It is late afternoon in Congressman Sonny Bono's office and the TV is turned to CNN's coverage of the House to see how badly the Democrats are screwing up the country.

Sonny Bono spent the morning on the House floor, in a meeting with officials of the California Banking Association in the hallowed Rayburn Room, and at lunch with his state's House delegation.

The congressman's day has gone well. But all that is about to change.

A reporter has just asked Mr. Bono if he ever hears from Cher, and now the congressman looks like a man passing a kidney stone.

"No, there's nothing for us to talk about, so we don't talk," he

says in a soft voice. "I think that for whatever reason, she's still bitter about the past. I'm not. It was fun. But there's a part of the past that she . . . hasn't let go of."

Cher, ever gracious, celebrated her ex-husband's election to Congress by telling reporters: "I have no belief in the system . . . so Sonny is perfectly at home there. . . . Politicians are one step below used-car salesmen."

"See, I think celebrities make a mistake," Mr. Bono says wearily. "They get all this attention and sometimes when you get that much attention, you start believing all your publicity and you think you're an expert on everything.

"In her case, I don't think she really has a grasp of what politics is all about."

To some, saying Cher has no grasp of politics is sort of like saying Axel Rose could brush up on tort reform. But Sonny Bono is not big on irony. So his statement hangs in the air like cigar smoke.

A few minutes later, his press secretary, Frank Cullen, coughs and tells a reporter: "We gotta wrap this up. One more question."

This guy Cullen has all the subtlety of a safe dropping 10 stories. But the congressman himself does seem tired, which is probably the body's natural reaction to any debate on unfunded mandates.

Still, this is Sonny Bono's world now, a world of serious issues and serious men in dark suits and serious places like the Rayburn Room. So as the interview ends, Sonny Bono is asked: The long hair and bobcat vests and Eskimo boots, Cher and the TV show -- does it all seem like a long, long time ago?

For an instant, he flashes that familiar, big-toothed smile and the fatigue seems to lift like a fog.

"All that seems like yesterday -- and it seems like years ago," he says. "But I'm happier now than I've ever been in my life. . . . And it's the most difficult job I've ever had. At 59 years old! I should be retired, and here I am kicking into the most active portion of my life."

In the window behind him, the sun is beginning its descent, dipping past the Capitol, which he could see if he only had an office with a decent view.

But Sonny Bono is not complaining. Only Democrats complain. And there aren't that many in this town anymore.

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