Appreciation: Not-so-dumb Sonny Bono was just finding his groove as a congressman, using the simple formula that made him a star in the '70s

A BRILLIANT ACT

January 07, 1998|By JEAN MARBELLA | JEAN MARBELLA,SUN STAFF

As Cher's husband, Sonny Bono was the overmatched foil to her sharp tongue and quick put-downs.

As the mayor of Palm Springs, Calif., he was the newbie politician whose legislative legacy came down to a ban on thong bikinis.

And as a Republican congressman from California, "Sonny Bonehead," as he inevitably was dubbed, disrupted a serious committee discussion with a wide-eyed blurt: "Boy, it's been flying in this room like I can't believe."

So how did Sonny Bono, one of pop culture's perennial dumb guys, get so far in his life?

Sometimes, the fool gets the last laugh. As a musician in the '60s, Sonny Bono seemed hopelessly outdated even at his prime, yet somehow shared the top of the charts with the Rolling Stones and the Four Tops. As a television star in the '70s, his show was woefully out of step with the groundbreaking "Mary Tyler Moore Shows" and "M*A*S*H*"es but ranked right up there with them in the Top 10. And in his most recent incarnation as a politician, the high school dropout made no apologies when taking his seat on the House Judiciary Committee, one of two non-lawyers appointed.

"People in big cities sometimes confuse intellectualism with intelligence," said David Horowitz, a writer and radical-turned-conservative activist in Los Angeles. "You can be intelligent without being intellectual. Someone like Bill Clinton, who is the best politician I've seen in my time, is intelligent but . . . his image is a Big Macs kind of person. He understands symbols. Ronald Reagan was like that, and he had one of the most successful presidencies of the 20th century.

"I don't want to put Sonny in that category, but you shouldn't underestimate him."

If he wasn't Mensa material, neither was Sonny Bono as dumb as he seemed. In fact, he embraced his clueless image. Bono once told a reporter that he lived by the test that Phil Spector, the genius record producer he studied under, had for predicting whether a song would be a hit:

Is it dumb enough?

"He was saying, 'Is it simple enough communication to be just totally understood in just plain language?' and he summed all of that up in, 'Is it dumb enough?' " Bono told the Los Angeles Times, one of innumerable newspapers that published Is-Sonny-Stupid? stories after he was elected to Congress in 1994.

Always a target

It turned out the running put-downs leveled by Cher during their prime-time TV show during the 1970s were excellent training for what he would encounter in Washington. As part of the Class of 1994, the conservative wave swept into office that year, Bono quickly became an irresistible target for stunned Democrats and a scrambling media.

With his fur-vested, handlebar-mustached past, Bono got more attention than other freshmen that year. And it continued throughout his foreshortened stint in Congress: He attracted more attention from tourists in the gallery than any other non-Kennedy, it was observed, and was second only to Newt Gingrich as a requested speaker on the Republican circuit.

At first, even within his own party, there were some raised eyebrows.

"We thought he got there because of his celebrity while the rest of us had to work for it," said Baltimore County Republican Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

The pair were elected to Congress at the same time and, at their first orientation dinner, happened to be seated next to each other. They were friends ever since, said Ehrlich, adding that Bono was well aware of his dumb-guy image and was just starting to get past it.

"He was very serious about the issues and about the Republican Party," Ehrlich said. "People were starting to take him more seriously."

What served Bono politically was much like what served him in his previous incarnation as an entertainer: Go ahead and laugh at him, he'll meet you at the finish line. Consider that Bono was the one who overcame his loopy, flower-power past and ended up in Congress, while his ex-wife is the one trying to reclaim it with endless plastic surgery and ever younger toy boys.

His success in his various roles came in part because he was laughable, and thus more human and less threatening. As an entertainer, he made rock music and psychedelic clothing safe for middle America. As a congressman, he presented an entirely human face, whether growing exasperated with the long-winded bureaucratese of his colleagues or showing that you could love a lesbian daughter even if you opposed her progressive politics.

"He had genuine human feelings, which is unusual for a politician. His humanity just leaked out all over the place," said Horowitz, whose recent book, "Radical Son," traces his transformation from radical leftist to conservative. Horowitz worked with Bono on the congressman's Entertainment Task Force, which sought to bridge the House Republican leadership with the traditionally Democratic show biz industry. "He was not someone you feared."

Similarly, as an entertainer, Bono was something of a bridge.

The TV years

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