Claims to fame: Ex-Mr. Cher; brilliant svengali; decent songwriter; lousy singer; terrible legislator; ignorant schmuck; three-time divorcé; unsupportive father; bad skier
Moral apex: It’s a toss-up between his three divorces and his betrayal of his and Cher’s lesbian daughter, Chastity. No matter how “supportive” Chas claims he was when she came out to him at age 17, the fact remains that he still voted for the cruelly anti-gay Defense of Marriage Act in 1996.
In fact, he did a lot of boneheaded, mean-spirited, typically greedy, pro-corporatist Republican things while in office; e.g., the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, which has nothing to do with sex, but which is highly annoying to those of us who would like to be able to sing “Happy Birthday to You” in public without having to pay a royalty fee.
Three divorces, you say? Yep. He was married to one Donna Rankin from 1954 until after he met Cher around 1963 or ’64 (which makes him an adulterer, too), then divorced Donna, married Cher, got dumped by Cher in 1975 (on grounds of “involuntary servitude”), turned around and married the then-very-cute Susie Coelho, then divorced Susie in 1984, and then finally, in 1986, married a much-younger former bartender named Mary Whitaker — who would, two weeks after Bono’s death, announce her intention to run for Sonny’s now-vacant office.
What we still can’t believe: That he was actually elected mayor, let alone to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1994. (No, seriously — you wouldn’t believe the number of Californians outside the isolated little right-wing haven of Palm Springs who thought Sonny’s win was as big a joke as he was. Really.)
Fun fact Example of shameful disservice #1: Mr. Republican Representative admitted that he had never voted until he was 53 years old — and then he had to register, since he was about to run for mayor.
Example of shameful disservice #2: Since he was never registered to vote, that means he never served on a jury — a duty some of us Americans take quite seriously, and recognize as an important part of our responsibility as good citizens.
So why did he get into politics in the first place? The truth: He was running a chain of restaurants, and was pissed off at the bureaucracy involved in getting city approval for a sign. That was enough to convince him that the City of Palm Springs needed him to straighten it out. And his celebrity (“celebrity” being a highly subjective word) carried his election.
Really? Yes, really.
Another thing we don’t like about him: Through his friendship with Mimi Rogers (actress and the first ex-Mrs. Tom Cruise), he became a hardcore Scientologist (his own mother said he was “brainwashed”) — but publicly, lied and said he was still a Roman Catholic, ’cause he knew how off-putting Scientology is to the reality-based world.
Where he is now: Dead. He pulled a Michael Kennedy and skiied into a tree on the Nevada side of South Lake Tahoe, on January 5, 1998, spawning a rash of really tasteless jokes (e.g., “What’s the difference between Sonny Bono and Michael Kennedy? About five days”), joining Kennedy in the running for the 1998 Darwin Awards, and eventually earning a place in the Urban Dictionary.
Why we’re glad he’s not in office even more, even if we’re sorry he’s dead: His close, personal friend, the despicable then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich, put Sonny-Boy on the House Judiciary and National Security Committees. Problem was, Sonny (by his own admission) didn’t understand all the “legal talk” — a handicap that would never improve throughout his political career, and which became more apparent every time he opened his mouth.
Sonny Bono may have been a smart businessman, but his vast ignorance made him a dangerously stupid lawmaker. Even worse, a majority of Palm Springs residents were actually stupid enough to vote for him.
What is qualified? What have I been qualified for in my life? I haven’t been qualified to be a mayor. I’m not qualified to be a songwriter. I’m not qualified to be a TV producer. I’m not qualified to be a successful businessman. And so, I don’t know what qualified means.
— During 1992 campaign
I’m not homophobic. I simply can’t handle it yet, Barney. I wish I was ready, but I can’t tell my son it’s OK … I can’t go as far as you deserve, and I’m sorry.
— To gay Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.),
justifying his support of anti-gay DoMA at a 1996 committee hearing
— His assessment of daughter Chastity’s lesbianism, 1996
We have a hit squad in Haiti. You know what our CIA does — they kill people. If anybody ever dares to compare Bob Dole to Clinton, then they’re comparing a criminal to an honest man.
— In a 1996 re-election campaign speech,
to which a White House spokesman responded:
“I have no idea what he is referring to.”
Substance never burdened Bono’s political career. …
The bumbling persona — enjoyable in the Sonny and Cher act on television — was later carried into the House of Representatives. There it became depressing. He never made any effort to fill in the giant gaps in his knowledge. He wore ignorance as a badge of honor and was elected to a second term. …
Given this checkered domestic history [of marriage], it was amusing to see Sonny Bono co-sponsoring legislation that would deny federal recognition to same-sex marriages. He asserted that unions between gay men or lesbians were not real marriages like his. All four of them?
Suggested Bible reading for Mr. Bono:
Thus my heart was grieved, and I was pricked in my reins. So foolish was I, and ignorant: I was as a beast before thee.
— Psalm 73:21-22