Left, Right & Center
Jewish World Review / January 13, 1998 / 15 Tevet, 5758
Sonny Bono is dead, let the good times roll
WASHINGTON -- I THINK IT WAS when I turned on CNN Friday to find out what was happening in the world and instead saw live (and endless) coverage of the Sonny Bono funeral that my gag point was reached.
I don't blame the late Rep. Bono. And I am genuinely sorry for his tragic and untimely death and have unlimited sympathy for his relatives and friends.
What make me want to spit up, however, is the extravaganza of grief that the media now bestows on virtually any celebrity who dies a sudden death. After the extraordinary outpouring of public emotion following the death of Princess Diana, no media outlet, but especially TV, can afford not to give the public what it wants: incessant and uncritical coverage of big-name deaths.
And so we not only had network and local news broadcasts about Bono's life and times but C-SPAN coverage (an interview with Newt Gingrich, who seemed somewhat at a loss to explain how Bono had changed the course of politics in 20th century America), Larry King Live, Nightline, and on and on. And Sunday, six days after the death, Meet the Press devoted its flashback minute to Bono, an honor usually reserved for such figures as Richard Nixon, Nikita Khrushchev and Eleanor Roosevelt.
But, hey, none of them was ever married to Cher.
Cher's funeral oration was actually funny and touching and that it was coming from an ex-spouse is certainly a tribute to Bono. But how does CNN really justify blacking out all national and world events in order to broadcast the proceedings?
We all know the answer: ratings. People want to watch this stuff.
Perhaps it is because life is pretty good for most people in America right now -- the economy is good and no foreign power threatens us -- that we want to wallow in grief a little. Grief can be cleansing. It can put you in touch with your feelings. It can make you feel sensitive and caring. And, of course, grief over a celebrity is the best kind of grief there is because it is grief without pain.
Few of us really knew Sonny Bono (or Princess Diana), so we can afford to express grief for them because it really doesn't hurt us that much.
Along with the grief, however, is the need to elevate the dead person beyond what he or she actually was in order to justify our own overreaction to his or her death. It was not enough that Bono was an amusing singer and performer who had a modestly successful career in local and national politics. (He had been a mayor of Palm Springs, Calif., for about four years, had come in a poor third in the Republican primary for U.S. Senate and had been elected to two terms in Congress.)
But in death, Bono had to be presented as a highly intelligent or at least "shrewd" public servant, a major legislative force who affected the lives of many Americans.
Rep. Jim Leach (R-Iowa) told The Washington Post: "I personally think his death is a bigger loss for Congress, and for Republicans in particular, than the death of almost any single member would have been because of the fact that there's no one like Sonny."
I understand the desire to speak well of a friend after his death, but let's get real: Sonny Bono is a bigger loss to the nation and Republicans "than the death of almost any single member" of Congress? No wonder Newt Gingrich looked a little confused. He probably thought he was a candidate for that.
Actual examples of Bono's major legislative accomplishments were a little tough to find, so most of the media dispensed with the search entirely, preferring instead to quote anecdotes about him.
Which was fine. But every now and then, a little honesty did creep into the picture. "He never tried to pretend he was some skilled orator or some skilled politician," Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.) told a reporter. "He never tried to portray himself as being adept at the art of deal-making in the grand Washington tradition. He always told me, 'Hey, this is a gig, man. The public, your audience, wants you to do the gig they're used to seeing.'"
Such candor, however, is rarely appreciated at these times. Which is a shame because Bono seemed like a person with a fair amount of personal humility and a realistic assessment of his own accomplishments. None of which is allowed to intrude when a celebrity dies.
So it was left to Cher to deliver the most extraordinary example of going over the top, not just on behalf of Sonny but on behalf of herself: "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," she said.
The most successful, beloved couple of our generation? Take that, Elvis and Priscilla! Take that, Charles and Di! Take that... well, you choose: If you can think of a more successful, beloved couple (Ron and Nancy? George and Barbara? Bill and Hillary?), let me know. But I'm telling you right now, I won't even consider the Captain and Tennille.
1/8/98: Carribbean Cheesecake: First couple has cake, eats cake