It is after 5 o'clock on this, his 57th day as the Republican congressman from Palm Springs, and Sonny Bono has a cold. His blue shirt is wilted from the latest lap on this speedway they call the House of Representatives. A pledge to keep its "Contract with America" in the first 100 days has made Congress a sweatshop and the pace is starting to show. One congressman falls asleep on the House floor in the middle of a debate. Another shows up to vote with a fever of 102. There are jokes circulating in Washington that one of these days this ambitious party might sit down and actually read some of the laws it's passing.
Reaching into the top drawer of his desk, Bono shakes an aspirin into his hand and washes it down with the second of the afternoon's four Cokes. There are wrinkles behind his aviator glasses and arthritic spurs aching in his neck. But all physical ailments aside, he is thriving on this new career for which colleagues address him as "the distinguished gentleman from California"--a long way from his hip-huggers and bobcat vest.
He takes a seat in his black leather chair in a cramped room in the Cannon House Building Office, at a desk with a yo-yo bearing Bill Clinton's face. A millionaire and one of the 50 richest members of Congress, Bono has owned closets bigger than this. But he seems blind to the dings in the furniture and the wrinkles in the rug, blissfully focused on his new passion--politics.
So I ask him how his party plans to eliminate a $176-billion deficit and still cut taxes. "Easy," he begins, leaning forward, political engines revving. "Cut government. Just get rid of it. Some departments are running at $2 billion a year, you start chopping departments like that and . . . ."
" What departments are those?" I interrupt.
"HRD," he answers.
"HRD?" I ask. "What's that?"
"Health and Human, uh, Health and Human . . . ." Long pause. Bono walks to his office door and gives a friendly holler in the direction of his readied staff.
"What is, uh, Health and Human what?"
"Services!" a disembodied voice yells back.
"Services!" echoes the congressman.
"HHS!" the voice reports.
"HHS!" the congressman rejoices, grinning as he heads back to his chair, unabashed. "I was right about the department but wrong about the letters."
The temptation is to total him up right there: Just as we suspected, the dim-witted, straight-man-to-Cher act was no act. Sonny Bono is dumb as a love bead, sent to Washington courtesy of the greater Palm Springs area, where the voters evidently sat in the desert sun too long, then went straight to the polls.
But if his first 100 days in Congress have revealed anything, it is that Salvatore Bono is more complex than this rube exterior lets on, an und erdog who has managed to triumph in three different careers for which he appeared woefully unqualified. Unable to read a note of music or play an instrument, Bono made 10 gold records. With no experience in television, he turned a passe hippie act into a hit variety show. Armed with little more than a famous name and a nice recipe for marinara sauce, he opened a touristy Palm Springs restaurant. Having never voted until age 53, he got elected the town mayor. Without so much as a high school diploma, he won a seat in the United States Congress.
But Washington is a tough crowd and shedding his doltish image is arguably his greatest challenge in this latest and most demanding incarnation. This is not the kind of town that readily embraces a freshman congressman who made four guest appearances on "The Love Boat." No sooner was he sworn in than the East Coast media seized upon him as just the Politics Lite they'd expect from the Chardonnay state. The Washington Post dubbed him the "idiot savant from way beyond the Beltway." When a roll-call vote was held to elect a House Speaker, Bono's high-pitched "Gingrich!" reduced some of his new colleagues to giggles.
If he came to town a laughingstock, he went straight to work making his mark. Before the first 100 days were up, he had introduced a bill to make it harder for courts to block state voter initiatives and persuaded some of the most powerful House members to co-sponsor it. He boldly upbraided his colleagues on the Judiciary Committee--where he is one of only two non-lawyers--for interminable legalese: "You break down words to the nth degree and sometimes I find it rather disgusting."
He is at once the Norm Crosby of Washington and its Mr. Smith--invoking old surf slang like "rasty" when he means "annoyed"--(as in, "Once in a while I can get a little rasty")--then breaking up a gridlocked Judiciary Committee hearing by ordering 15 cheese pizzas, the aroma of which brought the marathon session to an end.
Critics call him "Sonny Bonehead," "the ex-Mr. Cher." He is the stuff of David Letterman jokes: "Today they rejected a bill by Sonny Bono to make every Thursday national karaoke night." Democratic committee staffers play a game: Who can look at Bono the longest without laughing?