As the fortunes of the Republican Party in the Congress collapsed, I found myself in the middle of a book tour in Palm Springs, California. Promenading down Palm Canyon Drive, I stopped by the larger than life statute of a smiling mustachioed man with an open collar sitting on the edge of a fountain in the center of town. Sonny Bono, singer, songwriter and mayor, was perhaps the most unlikely person elected in the self-proclaimed Republican "revolution" of 1994.
To mark his rise to power, the new Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, "held a mad celebration featuring people dressed as the cartoon Power Rangers and Rush Limbaugh," as I write in "How Bush Rules: Chronicles of a Radical Regime." "One new Republican member, Sonny Bono, who had fallen from grace as a celebrity, warned Gingrich to guard against hubris."
Bono was the only one at the beginning to warn Gingrich that his arrogance and unchecked will to power would be his undoing. "You're a celebrity now," Bono said. "The rules are different for celebrities. I know it. I've been there. I've been a celebrity. I used to be a bigger celebrity. But let me tell you, you're not being handled right. This is not political news coverage. This is celebrity status. You need handlers. You need to understand what you're doing."
Bono saw the dramatic events unfold before him through the prism of his own dimmed star. He had had it all with Cher and lost it, staging a recovery in the Palm Springs oasis as a politician, which to him was a secondary level of celebrity. Yes, the beat went on, but he had heard it before and louder. That was the insight he imparted to the new Speaker that was instantly ignored.
Gingrich gloried in his rhetoric about "the revolution." He had little use for the experience of the older and wiser song-and-dance man. Instead Gingrich, a failed professor, described himself as a world-historical figure, leader of a universal transformation. It was befitting that one of his closest advisers, the lobbyist Grover Norquist, co-author of Gingrich's political program, the Contract with America, hung a picture of Lenin on his wall. Gingrich was a self-styled Republican Lenin "determined to annihilate his enemies and extirpate the 'counterculture,' as I write in my column in Salon and The Guardian.
This Republican Lenin was followed by the Republican Stalin, "the ruthless consolidator and centralizer," Tom DeLay, the Sugar Land, Texas exterminator. After Gingrich's demise, DeLay put into place his puppet as Speaker, Dennis Hastert, the former small-town Illinois wrestling coach. When DeLay was indicted for corrupt campaign practices and resigned, the "revolution" was left in Hastert's ham-fisted hands. Just as he had tried to cover-up DeLay's ethical transgressions, he and his aides were implicated in the cover-up of Rep. Mark Foley's sexual preying on teenaged pages. Hastert, the bewildered party boss, "transmuted from omnipotent Leonid Brezhnev into ghostly Konstantin Chernenko, presiding over the final decrepit stage."
If only the Republicans had taken Sonny Bono's advice, gleaned from Hollywood, they might not resemble the Soviet Union today.