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Vote Tops Bono's Year of Decisions

Bono House Judiciary Committee member Mary Bono (R-Calif.) during Thursday's hearing. (Ray Lustig — The Washington Post)

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  • By Lloyd Grove
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Friday, December 11, 1998; Page D01

    Mary Bono is that uncommon member of Congress who doesn't pretend to more knowledge than she actually possesses.

    This makes the 37-year-old widow of Sonny Bono rarer still among her colleagues on the House Judiciary Committee, that loquacious collection of savants currently considering the impeachment of President Clinton.

    Indeed, the freshman Republican from Palm Springs, Calif. -- who thrust herself into public office after her aging pop-star husband was killed in a skiing accident last January -- readily admits to being cowed by the gravity of her position.

    "I try not to think about it too often," Bono said yesterday over a harried lunch -- between the learned disquisitions of Democratic counsel Abbe Lowell and his GOP counterpart, David Schippers. "I try to focus on the day ahead of me, the issues right in front of me. If I didn't do that, I would become very overwhelmed."

    Yet the magnitude of her task seems not to have given her any trouble making up her mind. She's a rock-solid vote for impeachment when the committee decides the historic issue today and tomorrow. The only question vexing her is why.

    "I'm still hanging my final vote on obstruction of justice," she told the press gaggle in the committee room after Lowell finished his presentation.

    "Abuse of power and obstruction of justice," she confided to a hometown newspaper reporter galloping beside her on the way to lunch. "I'm extremely concerned about the way this White House operates, the way this White House will destroy someone, which came out in [Clinton adviser] Dick Morris's testimony."

    "Absolutely, lying under oath," she ventured during an interview, when asked to give her bottom-line reasoning. "That's where I begin."

    She really began as a 22-year-old cocktail waitress, the daughter of a Pasadena surgeon and a homemaker, when she met and fell for the '60s pop singer and senior partner of Sonny & Cher. She became Sonny's fourth wife and the mother of two of his kids, to say nothing of the boss of his restaurant business -- all of which she says deferred her dream of obtaining a law degree.

    But Bono, like her late husband, may be too easily underestimated by the power elite in Washington. She has racked up two landslide victories in California's 44th District -- not only in the November balloting, but also in a special election last April. And she has plenty on her plate: two young children to worry about back in California, the buying and selling of various houses in Washington and Palm Springs, and, of course, endless press attention to her post-Sonny love life and her decision to keep her 11-year-old son, Chesare, and 7-year-old daughter, Chianna, on the other side of the country while she gets on with the people's business.

    "It's an emotionally difficult time for her and it's too early to tell" what sort of representative Bono will make, said Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts, a leader of the Judiciary Democrats. "She may know a lot about it, but she has not been a forceful participant in this process, where you have most of the members fighting for time. Last night [Wednesday], she gave up her five minutes" to question White House counsel Charles Ruff "on a couple of occasions."

    "She's like someone who's coming into football and your first game is the Super Bowl," said her Judiciary seat-mate Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a mentor on the committee. "I can't imagine how she deals with it all: Her husband has just died, she's elected to Congress and all the stresses associated with that, and then suddenly she is sitting in judgment of the president of the United States. On top of everything else, she has to contend with celebritydom."

    The widespread condemnation of Bono's recent TV Guide interview -- in which she discussed her late husband's dependence on prescription drugs -- was "very hurtful," Graham added.

    "The tabloids are having quite a time with me, oh yeah," Bono acknowledged over a cafeteria meal of House chow mein. "It's difficult and painful. But to tell you the truth, I've learned so much from my years with Sonny. I watched his reaction to it, watched him take it all in stride, and I realize it comes with the territory. With Sonny's example before me, I'm able to put it in its proper place -- out of sight, out of mind."

    In her new role, Bono has transformed her tresses from frolicsome blond to businesslike brown (her natural color) and bobbed them to perfection. She has exchanged her penchant for tight, sexy outfits, such as the faux spotted-cow-skin get-up she once wore to a Republican convention barbecue in Houston, to smart designer suits. And where she once seemed at public events like Sonny's silent partner, she now talks a blue streak when given half a chance.

    "I think when people come up and thank you for the job you're doing, that really means something," she said, when asked her reaction to being ridiculed in the media, especially by radio shock jock Howard Stern. "This husband and wife in their seventies came up to me after a speech, and the man's got tears in his eyes. And I said, 'Why are you crying?' And he said, 'I'm a veteran of the Marines, and I want to thank you for the job you do for this country.' I will never ever forget that moment -- the seasoned veteran and the tearful thanks for the job I do. That, to me, kicks Howard Stern in the butt."

    Over lunch, Bono seems most comfortable fielding questions about her everyday life. Confronted with questions about her impeachment position, she tends to speak with increasing velocity but declining sense of direction. "I'm rambling," she interrupted herself at one point, and forcibly changed the subject.

    "I thought this was for the Style section -- don't you want to know what kind of shoes I'm wearing and stuff like that?" she demanded.

    Okay, what kind of shoes?

    "Black shoes," she coyly replied. "And my suit, it's a $300 suit my friend" -- a female staffer sitting at the table -- "bought for me yesterday." Bono then teased her rumpled interviewer: "And what are you wearing? I'd like to note, for the record, what the Style section writer is wearing. Maybe you should work for the Metro section with clothing like that."

    As for her romantic entanglements -- which Bono has shown no reticence to discuss with reporters -- she was nonplused by a rumor going around the press gallery yesterday that she'd dated a Republican colleague.

    "I have not dated whoever it is you said I dated," she said friskily. "I'm surprised to hear it. I just want to know if it was a good time. Did he spend a lot of money? Did he take me somewhere nice? Tell him, if this is his way of asking me out, forget it."

    She said she continues to be involved with country musician Brian Prout -- about whom she raved to The Washington Post after spending much of a recent weekend in his company. "Yeah," she said, "to the extent I have time to see anybody, let alone between my life here and in Palm Springs, and his life in Nashville and on the road."

    Meanwhile, Bono commutes relentlessly back and forth to spend time with her children, who live in Palm Springs with their nanny of eight years. When in Washington, she stays in touch by e-mail and talks to them twice a day on the phone. Every so often they fax her their homework to check.

    "What's important is for children to know that you love them," Bono said. "I believe a mother can be there 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and still be a rotten mother. . . . I believe people who publicly criticize me are carrying their own baggage perhaps."

    Despite the strains on her private life, Bono seems excited by her membership in the House of Representatives and ingenue part in history-in-the-making. She increasingly talks about her political career as being independent from Sonny's.

    "I no longer sit in his seat, I've won my own seat," she pointed out. "Well, come January, it'll be my own seat," she revised. "I could not have done it without him. I do carry his beliefs and principles -- his belief in how the world works.

    "And I can tell you that I also carry -- "

    Suddenly Bono is choking back sobs, struggling to continue. "Sorry," she murmurs, trying to regain her composure.

    "I guess I carry his spirit." She dabs her eyes with a napkin. "Every time I look into the eyes of my children. I mean, you can't look at -- sorry -- the kids and not see Sonny in all of his smiling spirit."

    © Copyright The Washington Post Company

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