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

January 29, 1995|By Kevin Cowherd | Kevin Cowherd,Sun Staff Writer

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.

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