A lot was written about the rise and fall of “bad boy” Democrat congressman John W. Jenrette Jr. of North Myrtle Beach from the mid-1960s, when he was elected to the S.C. House of Representatives, until the late-1980s, when he left Washington broke, disgraced, divorced and imprisoned.
Now, 37 years later, the inside story of the man’s extraordinary political career is put into perspective in “Capitol Steps and Missteps: The Wild, Improbable Ride of Congressman John Jenrette,” written by John F. Clark with Cookie Miller VanSice. The book is self-published and available on Amazon and Kindle.
Clark and VanSice were key aides to the 6th District congressman from his promising start in 1975 to his ignoble finish in Washington, D.C. Their 420-page story, with photos, is as captivating as it is thorough.
Sex, booze and bribes
In it you will read about Jenrette’s myriad of sexual infidelities; his headline-grabbing marriage to the glamorous Rita Carpenter; his descent into alcoholism and depression; his conviction of accepting a $50,000 bribe from FBI operatives in the infamous Abscam sting; and his 13-month stay in a minimum security prison near Atlanta.
You will also learn that:
• Jenrette, now 81 and retired, is remarried to Rosemary Long, a former Horry County public school administrator he met more than 25 years ago. They live in a lovely oceanfront house with a cupola in North Myrtle Beach and have a second home in Florida.
• Johnny Jenrette grew up poor in Loris, S.C.; graduated from Wofford College in 1958 and married a Converse College girl; got his law degree from the University of South Carolina and opened a one-man practice in Ocean Drive (now North Myrtle Beach) approximately 20 miles from his hometown. He said one reason he ran for the state House of Representatives in 1964 was to get his name in the local headlines and grow his law practice. Jenrette won that seat and 10 years later became South Carolina’s 6th District congressman. His boundless energy and charisma quickly endeared him to President Jimmy Carter, Speaker of the House Carl Albert and Majority Leader Tip O’Neil.
• Soon after Jenrette was elected to Congress, Jenrette’s first wife, Sally, sued him for divorce and won, saying she had documented his affairs with 23 other women. When his aides told him about the grounds for divorce, Jenrette did not deny it, adding, “Whew! Is that all she knew about?”
• Jenrette had addiction problems, primarily alcohol and sex, both of which probably started when he was a teenager and worked as a lifeguard at Ocean Drive. Growing up relatively poor, he was fixated on wealth, but lost fortunes in various investment deals including the sale of underwater lots in Ocean Drive and the ill-fated Oristo golf resort at Edisto Beach.
• “I have larceny in my blood,” he told an FBI operative posing as an Arab sheik who offered him a $50,000 bribe, and later testified that what actually was in his blood was an abundance of alcohol. He said he had talked tough while in his drunken stupor because he thought he was dealing with the Mafia and feared for his life if he did not cooperate. Jenrette obviously had been entrapped, but the charges stuck and Jenrette was found guilty. The subsequent hit movie “American Hustle” was loosely based on the Abscam sting.
• Jenrette’s second wife, Rita Carpenter, was a 25-year-old beauty from Texas when she moved into the congressman’s bachelor pad in Washington and began “playing house.” This was in 1975, soon after his divorce was final. Rita worked at that time as research director for the Republican National Committee; her job was to gather damaging information about Democrats. The story about their unusual liaison was reported in People magazine.
• Rita married John and thrived in her role as the beautiful martyr who had given up her career for the man she loved. She was quoted as saying John was the “most Christian person I’ve ever known,” and later went public with her infamous tale about having sex on the Capitol steps with her husband while Congress was in session. She posed nude for Playboy magazine after divorcing John in 1981, took bit parts in movies and TV commercials, and used her assets to become a highly successful real estate agent in Manhattan.
• Just last month Rita was featured on a nationally broadcast CBS television special. She is now married to an elderly Italian prince and lives in a circa 1570 villa in the heart of Rome. Her title is Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi, Principessa di Piombino. “You can call me Rita,” she told the CBS interviewer.
“Obviously, John Jenrette’s life has not always shown him to be a paragon of morality,” Clark writes in his new book, cleverly adding, “But morality has many shades of gray. Yes, he did wrong, but he never intentionally hurt anyone. He cared about and helped those in need of help.”
New South liberal
Jenrette was among South Carolina’s new breed of socially conscious Democrats when he reached Congress in the mid-1970s. President Nixon was out and President Carter was in. As a New South liberal Jenrette staked his political career on correcting inequities suffered by African Americans, and he worked hard to improve their lives as well as those of others throughout his remarkably poor congressional district in the northeastern part of South Carolina.
“John Jenrette challenged the most entrenched, hate-based feature of Southern politics — discrimination against African-American citizens, including the refusal to allow them to vote in the Democratic primaries — and he won in dramatic fashion,” Wofford College classmate, esteemed national Democratic party leader and USC professor Don Fowler of Columbia writes in the book’s foreword. “Multiple initiatives that he led were in the best, most inspirational traditions of our great American history. Unfortunately, many of those efforts were wasted by his own mistakes.”
Such is often the case for those who attempt to practice in high places what President John F. Kennedy described as “the art of politics.” John Jenrette’s story is certainly no profile in courage. It’s more like a Greek tragedy.
John M. Burbage is a writer, editor and book publisher who lives in downtown Charleston and owns a working farm in Hampton County.