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Former U.S. Rep. John Jenrette discusses life after politics, new book

MYRTLE BEACH — John Jenrette considers himself lucky. 

The 81-year-old former Democratic congressman, who represented the Grand Strand and the Pee Dee from 1974 to 1980, might seem anything but fortunate. Once a rising liberal star buoyed into office by the enfranchisement of black voters, he is now best known for the scandal that ended his political career — the FBI Abscam sting, which led to a bribery conviction. 

In the three decades since Jenrette finished his 13-month prison sentence, he has largely stayed out of the headlines. But the Loris native hasn't been idle, bouncing from one venture to the next: marketing an experimental balloon-operated flotation device; running (and then folding) a national chain of timeshares; breeding horses in Bulgaria; and selling cigarettes in Eastern Europe immediately after the fall of the Soviet Union.

"I made some mistakes but I lived a great life," Jenrette said. "I’ve been blessed. I’ve been around the world and done things I never even thought I could do."

Lately, Jenrette has been making appearances around South Carolina to promote a new book about his rise and fall in the U.S. House of Representatives. "Capitol Steps and Missteps: The Wild, Improbable Ride of Congressman John Jenrette" is written by John Clark and Cookie Miller VanSice, both former aides. 

The book, told primarily from Clark's point of view, shows an admiration for Jenrette's rise from poverty and ability to deliver for his constituents, even as it lays bare the scandals of his congressional tenure.

Jenrette was so poor growing up in rural Horry County that he didn't know what an indoor toilet looked like until he was 7 years old, he said. He was able to attend Wofford College on a partial athletic scholarship, and later, law school at the University of South Carolina. As a young lawyer in the area that later became North Myrtle Beach, he would sometimes accept sweet potatoes and oysters as payment from hard-up clients. 

After he won a seat in the General Assembly, his law practice gained more prominence and financial stability. He spent eight years as a state representative in Columbia before being elected to his first of three terms in the U.S. Congress. Jenrette was a rising star among a class of freshmen ushered in by the Watergate scandal, serving as the first-ever freshman whip, and had his eye on a top spot in congressional leadership.

But his political ambitions came crashing down when he was ensnared in the Abscam sting. The FBI corruption investigation involved a middleman approaching a public official with word that a fictitious Arab sheik named Abdul was interested in making a large investment in the United States, but only in exchange for assistance immigrating to the country.

Politicians were trapped and indicted if they accepted money in exchange for immigration assistance. The effort resulted in 12 convictions, mostly of congressmen and local officials from the Philadelphia area. Jenrette was convicted for accepting a $50,000 bribe. 

In the book, Clark argues that law enforcement took advantage of Jenrette's alcoholism and dire financial straits, maintaining that he never directly accepted the $50,000, but accepted a $10,000 loan from a friend who had taken money from the FBI sting.

The portrait the book paints of his second wife, Rita, is not warm. The couple divorced in 1981, after Jenrette's conviction. In the immediate aftermath of the episode, Rita Jenrette wrote tell-all articles and a memoir that detailed her husband's infidelity. She also posed nude in "Playboy."

She now lives in Rome, married to an Italian prince since 2009.

“I guess I would not have been as strong as that," Jenrette said of the book's depiction of his former spouse. "We had some wonderful, wonderful times."

"Capitol Steps" largely skips over the time since Jenrette's days in Congress, which, in his telling, is even more eye-popping.

Most of his stories include Jenrette at the peak of a lucrative venture that comes crashing down. He spent the early '90s selling cigarettes for Phillip Morris in Russia, Ukraine and Belarus, he said, until Boris Yeltsin, the first president of the fledgling Russian Federation, noticed how profitable that business was and politely asked Jenrette to step aside. 

Jenrette said he smoothed over the situation for a time by arranging for tennis stars like John McEnroe to attend a birthday bash for Yeltsin, who was a fanatic of the sport. But the second time Yeltsin told Jenrette to leave, the tone was menacing enough that he decided to exit the region.

In a separate business, Jenrette operated a chain of timeshare resorts in New Orleans, Los Angeles and elsewhere. But the operation had to fold when a salesman insulted a seemingly reticent potential buyer at the Hilton Head Island location. The customer was actually an executive for Piedmont Airlines, which had been flying buyers to the resorts at a discounted cost.

Jenrette's deal with the airline, including his complimentary first class flights, vanished. 

"It seems like I‘ve been kicked out of so many real good things," he said.

Today, Jenrette is largely retired, but has enjoyed appearing at events to promote the book at events around the state. He has remarried and resides primarily in a 1930s home on North Ocean Boulevard in Myrtle Beach with Rosemary Long, a former public school administrator who now works in a furniture store in Conway. 

He shies away from the local political scene but did make an appearance on behalf of a friend, John Rhodes, as Rhodes ran for a fourth consecutive term as Myrtle Beach mayor this fall. Jenrette gave a fiery speech on voter turnout at a November meeting in a historically black neighborhood that left the crowd cheering.

"You've got to vote in order to maintain your position as a part of a community!" Jenrette thundered at the gathering. The next day, however, Rhodes lost to businesswoman Brenda Bethune two-to-one

At home, Jenrette has amassed a collection of artwork and souvenirs that are connected to some of his more successful political endeavors.

Many mementos date back to friendships from his time on Congress, like a clock and a painting given to him by Happy Rockefeller, the second wife of former Vice President Nelson Rockefeller. Both came from the townhouse where her husband was found dead of a heart attack with a mistress in 1979. Happy Rockefeller didn't want the reminders, Jenrette said.

His most prized possession is a white marble urn given to him by an official from the Chinese government.

Hundreds of years old, the four sides of the urn each show a different stage of reincarnation, ending with entrance to nirvana — a fitting symbol for a man who has remade himself countless times.

Reach Chloe Johnson at 843-735-9985. Follow her on Twitter @_ChloeAJ.

Chloe Johnson edits the Health and Environment team and writes about South Carolina's changing climate. Her work has been recognized by the Society for Features Journalism, the Scripps Howard Foundation and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.

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