It was Sonny and Cher, together one last time. Cher replaced the slinky Bob Mackie gowns that once were her trademark with a black suit and reading glasses. Sonny, once the lovable clown in the fur vest and bell-bottoms, now lay in a flag-draped casket, honored and mourned by leaders of the nation.

Salvatore "Sonny" Bono, who died this week in a skiing accident, may have seemed clownish, his ex-wife and partner in the pop pantheon declared in her eulogy here today. But the man who invented Sonny and Cher, saw his career collapse when they divorced, then reinvented himself as a politician and made it to Congress -- he was no dope.

"He was smart enough to take an introverted 16-year-old girl and a guy with a bad voice and turn them into the most successful, beloved couple of our generation," Cher said, wiping tears and fighting back sobs. "He allowed himself to be the butt of our jokes, but people don't realize he created Sonny and Cher.' He knew what was right for us. . . . He had the confidence to be the butt of jokes."

Bono was buried in a bittersweet ceremony today at which political elites mixed with Hollywood personalities while hundreds of nostalgic citizens overflowed St. Theresa's Catholic Church in this desert oasis. Cher sat just in front of former president Gerald Ford; Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) was across the aisle from '70s star Tony Orlando.

The funeral Mass was punctuated by laughter and tears. Bono, who was 62 when he died Monday on the ski slopes at Lake Tahoe, was eulogized as a genial, generous character who was unafraid to play the buffoon, on television and on Capitol Hill.

"He was yes, cheerful, yes, pleasant, but also ambitious," said Gingrich from the pulpit of the packed church. "But you don't break into show business and politics, two of the most ruthless businesses there are, without intelligence and a willingness to apply yourself."

But the most moving words at the service came from Cher, who recounted how she met Bono when she was just a teenager and was immediately taken with his energy and his "weird hairdo, something in between Caesar and Napoleon."

They married, recorded a string of hits such as "I Got You, Babe" and "The Beat Goes On," and starred together in a hit television variety show that now airs in reruns. In a final tribute, Cher cited a standing feature of Reader's Digest, which profiles a "most unforgettable person." "For me that person is Sonny Bono, no matter how long I live, or who I meet," Cher said. "That person will always be Sonny for me."

Dozens of members of Congress attended the services, as well as former vice president Dan Quayle. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt was there representing President Clinton. The crowd was testimony to the respect that Bono earned during his two terms as a Republican congressman, despite initial derision. "There is an outpouring of grief here mixed with respect," said Jack Kemp, 1996 vice-presidential nominee and ski buddy of the deceased.

"He was an outstanding entertainer, but he seemed to bridge that with good political sense," said Ford, seated in the church. "Betty and I live here, and we feel like we've lost a darn good congressman."

But for the hundreds of regular citizens who gathered outside the church and attended a vigil on Thursday, Bono represented part of their youth; his death was the latest reminder of the baby boomers' passing years.

Chris Lenkos, who came from Northern California in a motor home with her 12-year-old-daughter, said she felt Bono had been a part of her life. "I grew up with bell-bottoms," she said. "I watched his life, I watched how he changed. I listened to The Beat Goes On' the other day. The words are so true -- the beat does go on. The sun is still shining. Sonny's dead but the sun is still shining."

Lorraine Mejia came from Orange County because "I Got You, Babe" reminded her of her first boyfriend. "I really wanted to be here," she said. "I still like his music; I like Cher."

California Gov. Pete Wilson (R) eulogized Bono with gentle humor, saying, "I can almost hear him greeting St. Peter . . . You got me, babe.' "

Wilson added: "When his life presented a challenge, he went on and prevailed."

Among the Hollywood figures in attendance was former talk show host Morton Downey Jr., who called Bono "a quiet, decent man. There wasn't a mean bone in his body." The funeral also attracted numerous colorful figures, including an elderly woman dressed as Charlie Chaplin and a man dressed in full clown regalia.

In an interview with the Palm Springs Desert Sun published today, Bono's widow, Mary, said just hours before her husband struck a tree while skiing and died they had discussed buying a helmet to avoid such injuries. Michael Kennedy, son of the late senator Robert F. Kennedy, had died in a similar accident five days before.

"Our vacation was almost over. He said he'd do it at the beginning of the next ski trip," Mary Bono told the newspaper.

An autopsy showed Bono died instantly of head injuries after colliding with the tree, apparently while trying to crossover from one ski run to another at the Heavenly Valley resort. Bono and his family had gone to the resort, long a favored vacation spot, just after Christmas.

Mary Bono sat in the front row of the simple wooden church with her two children by the congressman, Chianna, 6, and Chesare, 9. They were joined in the pew by Cher and her daughter with Bono, Chastity; by Bono's sister, Fran, and by his mother, Jean. "Sonny called me the day after Christmas just to say, I love you,' " said his mother, who wears the same fringed haircut that Bono did in the 1970s. "He always said that -- I love you. I love you, Mom.' "

The frequent laughter during the service was appropriate, many mourners said, given Sonny Bono's nature. Gingrich recalled that Bono recently walked into his office with a large bowl of pasta "because he thought, Newt doesn't have enough pasta.' " Yet, the House leader emphasized that despite Bono's comic touch, he was serious about issues that concerned him, noting that their last conversation concerned drug abuse by children and an environmental project to save the Salton Sea, a large lake in the California desert.

Gingrich said he intended to take on the environmental project in Bono's honor.

After the mass, the coffin was borne for burial to Desert Memorial Park in nearby Cathedral City. There, soldiers fired off a military salute and Bono's family released white doves. CAPTION: Sonny Bono's ex-wife and singing partner Cher wipes her tears while delivering a eulogy at his funeral yesterday. CAPTION: Carrying the U.S. flag that draped her father's coffin, Chianna Bono departs Desert Memorial Park with her mother, Mary, and brother, Chesare. Bono was buried with military honors because of his service in Congress. CAPTION: House Speaker Newt Gingrich, speaking of his former colleague at yesterday's funeral in Palm Springs, Calif. CAPTION: Chastity Bono grieves for her late father during funeral services.