Outside Union Station in Washington on Tuesday morning, a homeless man was playing “Taps” on the trumpet. All the flags on Capitol Hill were at half-mast. As I walked to work, I heard a Senate aide say, “Can you believe it? All for Sonny Bono?” Indeed. If, 25 years ago, someone said that one day the nation’s capital would be officially mourning the death of Sonny Bono, the appropriate reply would have been, “Man, what are you smoking?”
Bono, who died Monday as the result of a skiing accident near Lake Tahoe, Nev., came to fame as a joke, the short guy with the droopy mustache, the target of unrelenting barbs from his glam-and-gammy wife and singing partner, Cher. His successful 1988 run for mayor of Palm Springs, Calif., after years in oblivion interspersed with guest spots on “Fantasy Island,” was prime material for many a late-night comic. His ascent to the House of Representatives from a conservative Southern California district was also something of a national joke, a wacky sidebar to the Republican triumph of 1994. Congressman Bono? From Fred Grandy — who played Gopher on the “Love Boat” before being elected to the House — Bono inherited the mantle of Rep. Can-You-Believe-It?
But Bono was clever enough to turn joke-status into an asset, and he benefited from low expectations. He seemed to recognize the improbability of his status as a lawmaker and mastered the art of self-deprecation. The good-natured bantering skills he developed on a television stage served him well in Washington. His amiability made him many friends in the House and he became one of the GOP’s most popular speakers on the fund-raising circuit. Hey, here was a guy who wanted to cut back government, slash welfare benefits, toss tax breaks to the well-to-do and he had slept with a movie star. He was the hippest Republican around.
Though elected with the Gingrich gang of fire-breathing revolutionaries, he remained a step removed from the yahoos of the Black Helicopter caucus. He went along with the overall program — calling for abolishing the United Nations, for example — but he displayed streaks of independence. He supported abortion rights (but not in the case of late-term abortions). And he chastised his colleagues for being too “hard-edged” and “antagonistic.” Perhaps the most poignant moment of his congressional career came during a 1996 committee hearing on a bill to ban same-sex marriages. Bono, whose daughter Chastity is a lesbian, apologized to Democratic Rep. Barney Frank, a homosexual, for supporting the legislation: “I’m not homophobic. I simply can’t handle it yet, Barney. I wish I was ready, but I can’t tell my son it’s OK … I can’t go as far as you deserve, and I’m sorry.”
There were a few slip-ups that kept Bono in the not-ready-for-prime-time category of legislators. His floor speeches rambled on. At a 1996 fund-raiser, he called President Clinton “a criminal” and claimed that the CIA was running a “hit squad” in Haiti against opponents of the U.S.-backed president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide. In the ensuing controversy, Bono was forced to apologize. But he still asserted there was evidence to support his charge, although no such material ever emerged.
Still, Bono was a likable fellow — and not many on the Hill can claim that. At a big Washington soiree two years ago, I found myself next to him. He introduced himself — as if that were needed! — and for some reason the conversation turned to the late soul singer Sam Cooke. Playing himself well, Bono eased into show-biz lingo, ’60s-style: “Yeah, sure, I knew Sammy. He was a friend. A great guy. I got my start in the biz because of Sammy. He didn’t want to cut a particular song, so the producer called me in. I made the record and got started all because of Sammy.” I asked him what he thought of Cooke’s demise (the singer was shot and killed under somewhat mysterious circumstances). “Never could figure that one out, but I always thought there was something funny there.” Might it be worth a congressional investigation? “Yeah,” he said excitedly with a smile, “that’s a good idea. A real good one.” It was hard to tell if he was joking.
Bono was the Ronald Reagan for the bell-bottom set. Like Reagan, he enjoyed himself and did not seem to take the gig too seriously. Some thought he had a bigger future, but he recently passed on the chance to run for the Senate. Given that he was 62 years old, that was probably a sign his political ambitions had been met. He leaves behind a House seat that will likely remain in Republican hands.
Sonny Bono will not be remembered as a great legislator. He never came to be identified with any major issue of the day. There is no Bono Act. He may even be destined to become no more than an answer to a trivia question about celebrity ski deaths. But he was a wild success in reinventing himself. From a cheesy Hollywood version of a hippie-noodnik to a popular Congressman — Bono had the last laugh.