Shared Wisdom From Sonny Bono In Halls of Power

The distinguished gentleman from California bounds onto the stage, grabs a mike, and launches into his first number, "I Can See Clearly Now...."

Young Republicans jam the dance floor. Most of the older folks at the $1,000-a-plate House-Senate Republican fund-raiser have already called it quits for the evening.

But Rep. Sonny Bono of California - his wife, Mary, shimmering behind him in a Cher-esque get-up - is ready to groove. After a few songs, the tuxedo-clad lawmaker undoes his bow tie and flings it into the crowd like a rocker several decades his junior.

If Mr. Bono - late of the popular "Sonny and Cher Show" and now one of the House's 73 Republican freshmen - had ever hoped to remake his image, he seems to have given up.

Bono regularly appears at Republican fund-raisers around the country, making him the second-most requested visitor to members' districts after House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

When asked to do the closing act at the big House-Senate fund-raiser earlier this month, Bono happily agreed. He even composed a new song, something he doesn't do much anymore, and sang it to his wife on stage.

In short, Bono has become the singing congressman, and in the eyes of the political strategist who saw him through his successful run for Congress, that's just fine. But in the odyssey of Bono's Capitol experience, a larger truth emerges that applies to all politicians from the image-challenged Bob Dole on down: Be yourself.

"Voters can smell a phony," says Eddie Mahe, a respected Republican consultant who advised Bono two years ago and is working on his reelection campaign. "Sonny Bono is not remakable. Sonny Bono is Sonny Bono is Sonny Bono."

Rep. Barney Frank (D) of Massachusetts, a colleague of Bono's on the House Judiciary Committee and another of Congress's less-conventional characters, says "it doesn't make any difference" if Bono sings in public. "What do you think, people will think he's a physics professor?"

No sequels to 'Hairspray'

Sure, when Bono entered politics eight years ago, he invested in some suits and ties. (The trademark bobcat vest sits in a closet at home in Palm Springs, Calif.) But he agrees he shouldn't try to become something he's not. The question, though, is how much extracurricular work - that is, singing and acting - Bono should slip in on the side.

His press secretary, Frank Cullen, seems inclined to keep all that to a minimum. "Sonny won't be doing any sequels to 'Hairspray,' " observes the affable Mr. Cullen, referring to a campy John Waters movie from 1988 that included a Bono cameo. Cullen also seems less than thrilled that "Sonny and Cher" reruns are now on cable TV. But the boss is excited. "I think it's fun," Bono says in an interview at his office. "I loved the 'Sonny and Cher Show' and I still love them - and I'm able to third-party them...."

It's not that Bono doesn't care about his image. He follows his press. But what he's discovered, he says, is that "if you stop trying to make people love you, they'll come around to your side. That was the extent of my strategy."

"The reason I say that is I had a persona that lived on after the 'Sonny and Cher Show' was over, so they operated off of that guy that was a straight man and a dope, and so I had to function knowing that was the person they had," he says in his nasal, meandering way. "So in the past, I'd make a great effort to try to not be the guy they thought I was, try to be extra sharp, be extremely careful. Sometimes it's like walking through a minefield."

Then he decided not to worry about it anymore. And "the magical part," he says, is that the press started getting better.

In a way, it's hard not to be won over by Sonny Bono. He's a slight, almost frail man, with a big grin and a colorful life story: Dropped out of high school. Began writing pop tunes, eventually garnering 10 gold records. Hit TV show. Restaurateur. Mayor of Palm Springs. Failed candidate for the United States Senate. (Bill Lacy, Dole's ex-campaign chief, ran that effort - a mismatch Cullen calls "Harvard meets Haight-Ashbury.") Then in 1994, Bono won a House seat with the help of a fund-raising appearance by Republican heavyweight William Bennett. Bono's constituents include former President Ford.

The Washington press corps couldn't wait to savage Bono as a lightweight. And some reporters did. But he's emerged on the other side with equanimity - and even won over some of the skeptics with a stingingly funny talk he gave at a public dinner during his first month in office.

'The Beat Goes On'

"I've always told reporters that I've never been qualified for anything that I've been successful at," he says. He points out, for example, that he can't read or write music. "I can do four chords on the piano," he says. "Like 'The Beat Goes On' is one chord.... It makes you work harder. You wish you knew a few more chords."

Bono attributes his successful entry into politics largely to timing. People were sick of government as usual, he says, and "were prepared to look at a maverick."

Back in his district, his constituents are divided. "He's a very polarizing figure," says a reporter who covers him. According to a poll commissioned in May by his Democratic opponent in the fall election, Anita Rufus, Bono has 99 percent name recognition, but only 52 percent of voters say they want him reelected. But when Ms. Rufus, who is not well-known, is matched against Bono head-to-head, he beats her handily.

Plain talk

"He's seen in the district as our harmless celebrity congressman, but if you look at his record, he's not harmless," Rufus says, noting his votes to overturn the assault-weapons ban and against a minimum-wage increase. Rufus also provides a tape of a recent radio interview in Palm Springs where Bono was asked whether he thought a national sales tax may be regressive. Bono pauses. "Regressive? What does that mean?"

But even if Bono is no Rhodes scholar, campaign adviser Mr. Mahe says part of Bono's appeal is his ability to talk about the issues in his own basic way - and to cut through the "legalese" that legislators favor.

Even Congressman Frank is something of a Bono fan. "In a technical sense, I'm fascinated by the way he uses his skills as an entertainer to analyze politics," Frank says. "Obviously, he's not sophisticated on the issues. I wouldn't go to him to understand the budget or foreign policy."

And just to make certain that Bono's constituents don't think Frank supports him politically, Frank wrote a letter June 19 to Rufus endorsing her candidacy.

But in their professional lives, Frank and Bono have struck up sort of an odd-couple friendship, often engaging in lively banter that spices up soporific House Judiciary Committee sessions.

"In a way, he's like Cher," Bono observes. "Barney's mind works the same way. I know that if I give him a straight line, he's gonna tag me."

It seems, "Sonny and Cher" is never far from Bono's consciousness - or from the public's image of him. Even abroad, where "Sonny and Cher" are still on the air, there's a curiosity about Sonny Bono, US congressman. Once Cullen was contacted by some Japanese reporters who were writing about America's "celebrity congressmen" - a pretty small club, compared with other countries where it is more typical for the already-famous to run for parliament. "Could Bono be another Ronald Reagan?" they asked.

Though Bono is hardly presidential material, he does know how to work a crowd. "He's a natural showman, and that just kinda gravitates into being a politician," says Rep. Bob Livingston (R) of Louisiana, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee and one of the less-junior Republicans to hang on for Bono's gig at the House-Senate dinner.

Of course, Mr. Livingston had another reason to stay: His wife, Bonnie, was one of the "Bonettes" up there on stage singing backup.

Sonny Bono, on the Issues, In His Own Words

On the House freshmen:

"A lot of freshmen came in like lions, you know, they were roaring. They are now feeling the effect of that. It took a year for it to actually ruin their game plan, but I just decided now I'll see the lay of the land and ... it worked out well. I have a good communication with the Speaker and with most of my colleagues...."

On his own freshman-hood:

"I have a different philosophy about coming into an institution like this. I believe that whenever you go into a new experience to this degree, you don't come in and become powerful. Just come in and look around, you know. I think it takes years to get a full sense of how to operate here, and find out where the bathrooms are...."

On life in the House Judiciary Committee:

"It's all lawyers, they're all tough. And they all feel really proud of their position, so when some guy comes walking in and he's on the committee you could feel, 'What on earth is he doing here, how could he possibly be qualified?' But again, I never try to come off like an expert."

On Barney Frank:

"One of these times I'm gonna take him out to dinner. We're in two different worlds. He's, you know, I'm conservative, he's a homosexual. So we should be at different ends of the spectrum, but we have an affinity for each other."

On Hollywood and Washington:

"I am helping out Bob Dole, and I don't think he knows it. I think the biggest problem with Hollywood and the Republicans is that they hate the Republicans and they think the Republicans hate them. And they think all they wanna do is kill whales.....

"So when I came here, I talked to the Speaker about starting a committee or a task force [on the entertainment industry].... The Speaker supported me on this totally and graciously."

On intellectual property rights:

"China is stealing from them [Hollywood] to the tune of a billion dollars a year right now and it's uncontrollable, and the administration's not controlling them, so we're trying to address that issue.... China's tough to deal with. It's a slow process, that's what we have to understand. It's gonna take a few years of consistency before we can penetrate the industry [Hollywood] to a degree where they'll depend on the GOP."

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