If you had made a friendly wager back in 1974 as to which pop-music figure might go on to serve in the United States Congress in 20 years’ time, you might have picked someone with an apparent political agenda, like Joan Baez, or at least one who was associated with some kind of cause, like nature-lover John Denver. You almost certainly wouldn’t have placed your bet on Sonny Bono, a singer of arguably limited talents who appeared content to stand, literally and figuratively, in the shadow of his far more popular wife, Cher. It was indeed Salvatore “Sonny” Bono, however, who had a future in elective politics—a future that included his election to the United States House of Representatives from California’s 44th Congressional District on November 8, 1994
Sonny Bono fell almost completely out of the public eye following the cancellation of The Sonny and Cher Show in 1977. While his ex-wife and erstwhile musical partner, Cher, launched a hugely successful second phase of her career with well-received acting roles in the 1980s, Sonny left the spotlight behind to focus on the restaurant business. Although he presented himself as a none-too-bright bumbler during his days on television, Bono had been an astute operator in shepherding his and Cher’s early musical career and in his later business dealings. The owner of several successful restaurants, Bono got involved in politics after growing frustrated with the bureaucratic hurdles placed before one of his restaurant construction projects by local officials in Palm Springs, California, in the late 1980s.
Though he himself had registered to vote for the first time only one year earlier, Bono was elected mayor of Palm Springs in 1988. Following a failed run in the California Republican Senatorial primary in 1992, Bono turned his attention to the 44th District’s Congressional seat in 1994. A conservative Republican, Bono was swept into office as part of the Newt Gingrich-led Republican “revolution” that year, and he was re-elected in 1996.
During his time in office, Bono did not treat his fellow lawmakers to any singing performances, but the man behind the hits “I Got You Babe” (1965) and “The Beat Goes On” (1967) did trade on his public persona as a good-natured, non-threatening nice guy. As The Washington Post noted in its obituary following Bono’s death in a skiing accident in 1998, “Bono brought to Congress a rare skill: He could make lawmakers—even the most pompous among them—laugh at themselves.” Or as President Bill Clinton said, “”His joyful entertainment of millions earned him celebrity, but in Washington he earned respect by being a witty and wise participant in policymaking processes that often seem ponderous to the American people.”