Albion Monitor /News

Sonny Bono's Theatre of the Absurd

by Scott Butki

Allegations of CIA death squads and wacky humor

(AR) RIVERSIDE -- Question: What do you get when you combine a politician, a bleeding ulcer, a missed election debate, allegations of CIA death squads and wacky humor?

Answer: Sonny Bono's re-election campaign.

If you thought the election campaign of Republican hopeful Bob Dole was bizarre at times -- as he forgot what town he was, made jokes about his age and mangled the English language -- wait until you hear about Rep. Sonny Bono (R-Palm Springs).

The quiet campaign of Bono was almost as wild and wacky as his former singing and showbiz career. He alternated between attempts at humor, which members of the Riverside County congressional district seemed to love, and discussions of Medicare and other serious issues, which sometimes fell flat on audiences.

Bono, who says he has been on the television show the Love Boat more often than any other guest, likes to tell anecdotes about his adventures in Congress, such as the time he had pizzas delivered during a lengthy Judicial Commitee hearing.

But Bono also says his celebrity status is "a double-edged sword," because he was stereotyped before he even arrived in Washington D.C. But it does provide the benefit of increased media coverage, he said.

Bono: The Fundraiser

Bono only campaigned actively for himself for about one month but he had been campaigning for other Republican leaders for much of his term. He is the second most frequently requested speaker of the Republican Party, according to the Associated Press.

His Democratic challenger, Anita Rufus of Palm Springs, a former radio talk show host, pounced on that statistic, alleging that Bono should be spending time with his constituents, not fund-raising for other Republican leaders.

But Bono responded that by fund raising he is doing a service to his constituents by trying to keep a Republican majority in Congress. It was during one of these fund-raising speeches in Virginia that Bono's campaign took an unusual turn.

Bono: The Critic

"We have a hit squad in Haiti. You know what our CIA does -- they kill people," Bono said in the speech. "If anybody ever dares to compare Bob Dole to Clinton, then they're comparing a criminal to an honest man."

"I have no idea what he is referring to," a White House spokesman responded.

Some Republican leaders, as well as the Republican Bono was raising money for, expressed disapproval with the tone of Bono's speech.

When the speech started making newspaper headlines, Bono sort of half-apologized for his remarks. He began a phone interview by saying that he apologizes for his comments about Clinton but went on to say that he thinks he is on the right track.

"I'm not a lawyer and maybe I should have used more specific legal language," Bono said. "I'm a maverick. I've always been a maverick."

Pressed by reporters, Bono said he could not prove his allegations but was frustrated that the White House was refusing to answer questions about its involvement in some political murders in Haiti.

Rufus rose to the occasion with a flurry of soundbites, saying, "The only question now is whether the voters of this district will want to put up with this type of extremism and irresponsibility for another two years."

"When Americans went to Haiti to end the reign of terror and restore democracy, they were understandably concerned about being shot at by street gangs and warlords. They never expected to be stabbed in the back by one of their own colleagues," she said at a press conference.

Bono and his spokesman, Frank Cullen, soon begin spinning, saying that what he was really trying to complain about was alleged ethical lapses by the White House, such as the so-called Filegate scandal.

A week later, at a Republican gathering, Bono made his first public speech in the Hemet area in several months. His free-flowing speech gradually returned to the subject of the death squads and criticisms of the White House, to much applause from the audience.

He repeated the CIA allegation, as well as calling his daughter's lesbian lifestyle "unfortunate," complained about the bias of the "liberal media" and accused the White House of not playing fair in the presidential race.

Other than promising never to lie to his constituents, Bono did not lay out any grand plans for a second term.

Bono: The Patient

What was already an odd campaign soon grew still more unusual. Throughout the whole campaign, Rufus had accused Bono of dodging debates and forums. Ultimately, Bono agreed to participate in just one public debate, which would take place in Palm Springs exactly one week before the election.

But on the Thursday before the debate Bono suffered a bleeding ulcer while dining with his family in Washington D.C. He was transferred to Bethesda Naval Hospital in Maryland and remained there for three days. He lost almost one-third of his blood, his spokesman said.

This prompted a surreal controversy over whether Bono should still attend the debate. For three days Rufus' campaign and Bono's campaign faxed updates on the situation to the regional media.

Rufus' campaign argued that Bono should return for the debate, or at least do it by phone.

Bono's people would send press releases stating that Bono had been advised not to travel until he is feeling "100 percent" and that he was not yet at that point. At one point they even faxed a statment by the attending physician of the U.S. Congress.

Ultimately, Bono stayed in Maryland and missed the debate, Rufus' only chance to debate him publicly. The physician for Bono praised his decision not to travel or over-exert himself.

Bono: The Analyst

The day after the non-debate, Bono stepped in with his assessment of the controversy, spurred on by a new radio ad by Rufus which said in part, "He can run but he can't hide."

Bono said that he did not consider recovering from an illness "hiding." The campaign and the news media were "politicizing' his illness, he said.

Rufus' campaign manager responded that they would not be spending so much time talking about his ulcer if he had not avoided earlier debate opportunities.

Bono said he had no intention of revising his schedule to accommodate a rescheduled debate. If that's what Rufus wants, "she can just go whistle in the wind. I won't do anything to gain her free publicity.'

Bono: The Victor

In the end, all the weirdness apparently didn't matter too much to the voters, who returned Bono to Congress with 57 percent of the vote. On election night, Bono called the controversy over the debate and the ulcer "fluff" and "hullabaloo."

And in typical Bono-style he said that watching the positive election results come was like being on a show. It's like you're waiting in the wings, you can hear the applause, and you can't wait to get back on stage, he said.

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Albion Monitor November 15, 1996 (

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