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DECKER

Bono's Season of Tragedy and Triumph

September 29, 1998|CATHLEEN DECKER

Eight months ago, she was a stay-at-home mom, riding the carpool-and-homework circuit. Today, she is one of 35 members of Congress with a front-row seat to history.

But Mary Bono is not pondering the cosmic significance of her lightning transformation from full-time mother to congresswoman, from grocery shopper to member of the House Judiciary Committee, now determining the fate of President Clinton. For one thing, she doesn't have the time.

Delayed by a lengthy Judiciary Committee meeting Friday, during which members agreed to release Linda Tripp's audiotapes, and the House tax cut votes on Saturday, Bono shot out of D.C. on Saturday afternoon, heading home to her two children in Palm Springs. She left there at the crack of dawn Monday, back to the capital, one more circuit completed in her logistically challenged bicoastal life.

But that is not to say the freshman legislator, who won her seat in an April special election to fill the term of her late husband, Sonny, is taking the Clinton matter lightly. To the contrary, she is taking it seriously and slowly.

Ask her what she thinks will happen, and she immediately separates herself from the talk show denizens--which is to say most of the rest of Washington--who have spent hours, weeks, months publicly stoking the national guessing game about the president's future. She will not characterize his behavior, except to let it be known through aides that she found descriptions of his affair with Monica S. Lewinsky "offensive."

"I really am compartmentalizing this," she says over the telephone as she gathered herself for the trip to Palm Springs. For now, there is only one question on her mind: "Do we or do we not go forward with this?"

*

What a luxury it would be, Mary Bono told a reporter the day after Kenneth Starr's weighty report came out, to not have to deal with this at all. Of course, the same thing could have been said of her entire year. She started 1998 as the wife of a goofy shtick entertainer who had transformed himself into a respected congressman. By Jan. 5, when he slammed into a tree on a family ski trip, she was a widow. Weeks later, she was a candidate; three months later, a member of Congress. So dominant were her special election and primary election victories that her November opponent has already conceded the race.

Mary Bono, 36, wanted to spend her first term completing her husband's pet project, the restoration of the Salton Sea, and figuring out her new life. History had other plans, but Bono seems to have taken it in stride.

"As painful as it looks, I'm confident that we will do the right thing," she says. She allows that at this point she has no clue exactly what the right thing is. Not even Judiciary Committee members, who will soon vote whether to recommend an impeachment inquiry, have had time to pore over all of Starr's evidence.

"Everyone--members, the media and citizens at large--are operating on a small set of data," she said. "We don't have all the answers. But I do believe we have enough to warrant going forward."

That does not mean she is convinced the accusations against Clinton merit impeachment. "There is enough there that needs clarification," she says cautiously. "I'm not saying I'm certain there is a case of perjury and obstruction of justice. . . . We have an obligation to do that exploration."

Her exploration has led her to consult with former President Ford, who had his own front-row seat to the nation's last collision with impeachment, and longtime friend Bruce Herschensohn. She talks with fellow Judiciary members James Rogan and Zoe Lofgren, two of the other four Californians on the committee.

*

Of course, when the member metamorphoses back into mom, the subject does come up. Her 7-year-old daughter, Chianna, and her 10-year-old son, Chesare, know that Clinton and Lewinsky had a "sexual relationship." But Bono seems as agog as most parents trying to explain all this to the kids.

"I don't know that my 7-year-old knows what that means," she says, though her son has been clued in by his friends. When the report came out, Chianna asked her mom if there were any bad words in it. "Too many for you," Bono told her.

"I try not to leave the TV on," she adds.

The Judiciary Committee is entering its toughest debate in a generation rife with controversy--Democrats slamming Republicans, and vice versa, each contending that the other is putting politics over principle. Bono says she is frustrated at the "mean-spirited partisanship" exhibited by some members of both parties.

"For the six months I have been here, this has always been a partisan committee," she says. "This has been no different. But the process is going the way it should."

As for Bono, she says she and her children have adjusted to her new station. Eight months ago, when much of her life was flying apart, she was unsure whether she would make a career of politics. Now, she says with certainty, she wants to.

"I really like what I do, a tremendous amount," she says. "Right now is a very stressful time, a crunch time. But I really like what I do."

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