Bono-Fied Winners

updated 11/21/1994 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/21/1994 AT 01:00 AM EST

On election day last week, voters didn't just speak—they roared, giving Republicans control of both houses of Congress for the first time since 1946. With all the GOP first-timers now headed for Capitol Hill, there will be plenty of new faces on C-SPAN. But there also will be some familiar mugs: those of Tennessee senator-elect Fred Thompson and new California congressman Sonny Bono. (Yes, that Sonny Bono.) Both have unusual résumés.

THESE DAYS, SONNY BONO CUTS A conservative sartorial figure. Out are the paisley bell-bottoms and fur vests of his TV heyday; in are sober suits bespeaking serious purpose. A tasteful pair of gold Cartier elephant cufflinks—a symbol of his Republican allegiance—complement his white shirts.

Though all dressed up, Bono, 59, had almost no place to go in the final days of his race for California's 44th district congressional seat. In fact, the man who once publicly traded insults with Cher, both during and after their marriage, became a political invisible man, avoiding reporters and canceling campaign appearances. His low profile masked a front-runner's confidence; on election night, Bono trounced Steve Clute, 45, a little-known former Democratic assemblyman, 56 to 38 percent.

Bono, who has 10 gold records, including one for "And the Beat Goes On," knows he will have to work hard to be respected in Washington. "I can't articulate," he has said. "That's something I guess I'm gonna have to learn—how to throw that articulation out there."

He and Cher were divorced in 1975. (Chastity, the couple's only child, is now 25.) Afterward, Bono found work as a guest on shows such as The Love Boat and Fantasy Island. He later moved to Palm Springs and opened a successful Italian restaurant with his fourth wife, Mary, now 33. In 1988 he registered to vote for the first time in his life and ran for mayor, beating a field of eight candidates. During his four-year term, Bono banned thong bikinis on the streets and pushed through expansion of a public golf resort that saddled the city with an estimated $14 million debt.

In 1992, Bono ran for the U.S. senate seat now held by Democrat Barbara Boxer, but, thrown for a loss by tricky questions about trade and foreign policy, finished a distant third in the Republican primary. This time out, Bono survived the GOP primary and assured voters, "I'm not as green as I used to be." He also spent $300,000 of his own money on commercials to spruce up his bumbling image and received plenty of campaign help from his friend Gerald Ford.

Despite his inexperience, Bono has no doubt he'll excel in Washington. As he is fond of saying, "I've never been qualified for anything I've been successful in." If Fred Thompson learned anything in Hollywood, it was how to deliver a memorable line. Addressing crowds throughout Tennessee from the back of a pickup, the 6'5" Republican candidate for senator would lean forward and intone, "If you folks are satisfied with the way things are in Washington, I'm probably not your boy."

Never mind that Thompson, 52, is the consummate insider—a big-money lawyer-lobbyist who has fashioned a side career as a supporting actor, appearing as the gruff White House chief of staff in last year's In the Line of Fire. Thompson's convincing stump performance helped him defeat six-term Democratic congressman Jim Cooper, 40, and capture Al Gore's old Senate seat.

To hear Thompson tell it, the sour anti-incumbent mood is easily explained. "They stay too long, they spend too much, and they raise their pay automatically without even having to vote on it," he says. A moderate Republican, Thompson supports term limits and a plan to cut congressional salaries in half to force legislators to seek outside work.

Thompson grew up in Lawrence-burg, Tenn., the oldest son of Fletcher Thompson, a used-car dealer, and his wife, Ruth. At 17, he married Sarah Lindsey, with whom he had three children, and worked at a bicycle plant to support his family. The couple divorced in 1985 after 25 years of marriage.

After graduating from Memphis State University in 1964, Thompson attended Vanderbilt University School of Law and worked on the 1972 reelection campaign of Republican senator Howard Baker. The following year, Baker named Thompson, then 30, minority counsel to the Senate Watergate Committee, where his interrogation of Nixon aides led to the disclosure of the Oval Office taping system. Afterward he returned to Tennessee to practice law.

In 1978 Thompson's career took an unexpected turn when he helped Marie Ragghianti, chairman of the Tennessee parole board, successfully sue the state after she was fired for exposing then-Gov. Ray Blanton's practice of selling executive pardons for cash. Hired as a consultant for Marie, the 1985 movie about the scandal, Thompson wound up playing himself.

Thompson says his work as a character actor was a mixed blessing in his underdog campaign. "People recognized my face," he laughs. "But they didn't know my name."

DAVID ELLIS
BONNIE BELL in Tennessee and SUSAN CHRISTIAN GOULDING in Los Angeles

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