I Got Newt, Babe

IT IS MARCH 29, AND ON THE FLOOR OF THE U.S. HOUSE OF Representatives the Democratic Gentleman from Florida is suggesting an amendment to the Republicans’ new term limits proposal. And the Gentleman from California is steamed. Unable to contain himself, he speaks out. “You’re gaming!” he shrieks, his nasal twang slicing through the cavernous House chamber. “You’re running a game and that’s exactly what the public hates!” Twice, another member asks the Gentleman from California to yield the floor, and twice he refuses. “Stop gaming the public!” he cries, now haranguing his colleague at fever pitch.

Meet Rep. Salvatore “Sonny” Bono, 60, former ’60s singer-songwriter (“I Got You Babe”), clown half of the ’70s TV duo Sonny and Cher and, since January, freshman Republican congressman from California’s 44th district. It was there, in Palm Springs, that Bono registered to vote in 1987 for the first time in his life. One year later the locals elected him mayor. Before leaving office in 1992 to make a doomed U.S. Senate bid, he purged thong bikinis from his city’s streets, founded the Palm Springs International Film Festival and inspired a fervent recall movement. Mayor Bonehead, the insurrectionists called him.

They lost, he won, and now he’s the Gentleman from California, a Republican swept into the House last fall with 56 percent of the vote. As House Speaker Newt Gingrich sets in motion the GOP’s Contract with America, Bono is marching shoulder to shoulder, fighting hard for legal reform, welfare reform, tax reform and—as his fiery March 29 face-off with the Gentleman from Florida, Democrat Douglas “Pete” Peterson, attests—term limits. “We’re going at 190 miles an hour,” Bono says. “It’s a bigger task than anyone imagined.”

Clearly, though, Bono’s greatest challenge is to overcome his image as a Hollywood featherweight—which, after all, dogged him even in his halcyon days as Cher’s affable stooge. At this year’s White House Correspondents Association Dinner on April 29 in Washington, guest speaker Conan O’Brien drew titters when he spoke of the awe he felt “walking the same streets as Jefferson, Madison, Lincoln…Bono.”

“It’s a hurdle,” says former Democratic congressman Ben Jones of Georgia. Jones should know; he played the dim-witted Cooter on TV’s The Dukes of Hazzard. “On the other hand, Sonny is the star of his class. He comes in, and everybody knows who he is. And a lot of politics is performing.”

Bono has done plenty of that on the Hill, introducing one bill (which is intended to make it more difficult for federal courts to block state voter initiatives) and cosponsoring more than 70 others. More important, perhaps, he has established his D.C. persona: the shuffling naïf among the sharpies—or, in the words of The Washington Post, “the idiot savant from way beyond the Beltway.” In so doing, Bono has articulated—more or less—the crux of his political philosophy: less federal bureaucracy and a desire for a plainspoken, commonsense approach to government.

On that score he has repeatedly chided his colleagues for bandying about too much arcane legalese. “Boy, it’s been flying in this room like I can’t believe,” he once griped during a meeting of the House Judiciary Committee. Snapped Rep. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.): “We’re making laws here, not sausages.”

But Bono—one of only two nonattorneys on the 35-member committee—was unchastened. He revels in his outsider role. “I’ve always been a maverick,” he declares. “When I had a bobcat vest and Eskimo boots and hair down to my shoulders, my basic principles were the same—I was a maverick then.”

Still, Democratic Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts suggests that Bono’s Capitol act may be a tad disingenuous. “He’s obviously a pretty smart guy and understands that wooing people into underestimating him may give him an advantage,” Frank says. “But he’s played the rube—the ‘aw shucks, you lawyer fellas are using these big words’—a bit too often.”

Adds Tom Kieley, a Palm Springs constituent and water lobbyist: “Oh, yeah, all of us have told Sonny jokes and said, ‘I got you, babe,’ to tease him. But he’s paying attention, he’s working hard, and he really wants to make a difference.”

For her part, Cher grants her ex no points for being elected to Congress. “I don’t have much respect for politicians,” she told The Washington Post in November. “I have no belief in the system. So Sonny’s perfectly at home there [in Congress].” Bono shrugs off her disdain. “I probably don’t know her very well anymore,” he says. “The only place those comments come from is from an inner pain, that [she] can’t let go of, but it’s baggage and it won’t do her any good…. I hope she works that pain out.”

It was with similar sensitivity that Bono fielded media queries when Chastity, his 26-year-old daughter with Cher, publicly proclaimed last month that she is gay. (She had informed Bono of her sexual orientation several years before, when, he says, he told her “it didn’t make any difference as far as our relationship.”) “I wish she had done it sooner,” he says of her announcement. “Keeping a secret like that and trying to live a double life has got to be hard.” Though a liberal, Chastity remains close to her conservative dad—and plans to profile him in an upcoming issue of the gay magazine The Advocate. “That will be really cute,” he says, warmly.

Now, Bono’s deeply lined face is often adorned with wire-rimmed bifocals, his thinning, gray-brown hair combed straight back. Because of painful bone spurs in his neck, caused by an arthritic condition, he spent some of his first 100 days in a neck brace. Otherwise, he generally garbs his slight, 5’7″ frame in elegant navy pinstriped suits and, to advertise his Republicanism, sports gold elephant cufflinks by Cartier.

His working quarters are more quotidian—a cramped, modest four-room office suite. The walls are beige, the curtains blue, the mahogany desks scuffed (Sonny’s less so) and most of the leather couches and chairs well-worn. There are no artifacts from his entertainment career. The suite was assigned by a lottery held to accommodate the 86 newcomers in the 104th Congress. “I got Siberia,” says Bono. Tucked in a remote corner on the top floor of the five-story, beaux arts Cannon House Office Building, across the street from the Capitol, Bono’s digs are a 5-minute walk from the House floor, a journey that involves two elevator rides and negotiating a warren of underground passageways. Bono, with his familiar ebullience, frequently stops to greet tourists and other well-wishers, many of whom dun him for autographs. “People feel like they know you like a cousin,” he says.

So how does an erstwhile second banana, who never earned a high school diploma because—so he claims—he didn’t fulfill the phys ed requirement, walk the walk of Henry Clay and Sam Rayburn. For one thing, he relies heavily on his eight staffers, who brief him constantly on the unrelenting tide of legislation. “There is a tremendous learning curve,” Bono says. Part of that curve is adjusting to the daily grind of hearings, votes and an endless parade of special-interest lobbyists. One of the latter was film titan Martin Scorsese, who came calling because Bono sits on a House Judiciary subcommittee that deals with copyright and intellectual property. The director hopes to enlist the freshman congressman’s support for two bills protecting the rights of moviemakers whose works are significantly altered—through, say, editing—by studios after being released. “He’s an artist in his time, and he understands what it is to have something created and then changed,” Scorsese says of Bono, who is sympathetic but noncommittal about the bills.

Fifteen years ago, of course, Bono probably couldn’t have bought a meeting with him. Now Scorsese is courting his favor. Does Sonny see—even savor—the irony? If so, he’s not letting on. “I love his movies,” he says. “GoodFellas was probably one of my favorite’s ever.”

Bono and his fourth wife, Mary, have settled quietly into a $580,000 redbrick townhouse, part of a gated private community in fashionable Georgetown. (They also have a $2.75 million mansion back in Palm Springs.) Married since 1986, they met when she and a girlfriend, who were celebrating her graduation from the University of Southern California, dined at Bono’s West Hollywood restaurant. Now 33, Mary is a homemaker and a martial-arts enthusiast. She is also the only one of Bono’s wives—Cher was his second—to have made it past her 20s without becoming his ex.

Mary serves as a canny sounding board for her husband. “It’s a nice balance,” Bono says. “Mary has practical vision and I’m a visionary.” The couple, who rarely have time to socialize, have two children—a son, Chesare, 7, and a 4-year-old daughter named Chianna. Rep. Sonny isn’t rolling pennies to help with the double mortgage payments: with a fortune of $2 million (on top of his $133,600-a-year congressional paycheck) he is reportedly the 50th wealthiest legislator in the 435-member House. And yet the Bonos appear to be pursuing a middle-class lifestyle—sometimes lunching at Taco Bell, shopping at the discount Price Club (where they recently bought two TVs and an ironing board) and patronizing Dial-A-Mattress.

To unwind, Bono cooks. “It’s his biggest passion and hobby,” Mary says. Even when the Bonos eat out, he wears a beeper to signal him when there are imminent congressional actions. Alerted, he drops whatever he’s doing and bolts for the Capitol.

Mary, for her part, shows some signs of impatience. “I told Sonny, ‘I can’t sit here and live my life between votes,’ ” she says. On the other hand, she was entranced by a White House reception: “You could feel the aura. When the orchestra began playing the theme song from the movie Romeo and Juliet, that’s when it really hit me—’They’re playing this romantic song, and here we are.’ ”

Indeed. On April 7, Bono was there on the Capitol steps, amid brass-band music and waving flags, when Gingrich and his GOP Contractors celebrated their 100-day string of legislative victories. “It’s amazing when you go from an outsider to an insider,” Bono marvels.

Looking ahead, he plans to press against what he calls the insanity of the federal government’s stewardship of endangered species. “When they’re saving whales and elephants, I’m as active as anyone,” Bono says. “But underneath that, they’re dealing with the kangaroo rat and the fringe-toed lizard, at the expense of people’s survival.” He would also like to abolish the National Endowment for the Arts. (“I’m an artist, but I would never have qualified for an endowment. What is considered art and what isn’t?”) Bono concedes that when he came to Washington, he thought people were thinking, “What’s he doing here?” But he is convinced that he is reassuring the doubters. “I think I’ve developed a tremendous amount of credibility,” he says.

Obviously, more work lies ahead. Outside Bono’s office, while the congressman is at lunch, Sarah Walsten and Amy Armbrecht, Iowa teenagers in town for the National 4-H Conference, take pictures of each other under the nameplate on his door. “We just thought it would be kind of neat,” says Sarah, as her friend sings softly, “I got you babe (um da-da, um da-da, um da-da, um)…! I got you, babe…”

Then they giggle.



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