In his day, John Jenrette of the Pee Dee was a walking god.
From 1975 to 1980, the charismatic 6th District congressman seemed destined to be speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, third in line from the presidency – his glamorous second wife, Rita, by his side.
Before and after he married Rita, countless women threw themselves at him. He was assured of a lifetime congressional seat in his district, which stretched from west of Florence to Myrtle Beach. Power, money, sex – all were his.
But then an FBI sting captured him on video saying, “I’ve got larceny in my blood.” And a federal jury convicted him of accepting a $50,000 bribe that he denied taking.
He wound up spending 13 months in prison.
A just-published book, “Capitol Steps and Missteps – The Wild, Improbable Ride of Congressman John Jenrette,” written by former Jenrette top aide John Clark of Columbia, chronicles Jenrette’s rise over great odds, his feats in the U.S. House and his sordid fall.
“John Jenrette wanted me to write his story, and I did so under one condition – we tell all,” says Clark, 73. Born in Kingstree, Clark has a liberal arts degree from Davidson, a doctorate from Syracuse, and has written two other books. After his six years with Jenrette, he spent 30 years in state government, retiring as head of the S.C. Energy Office.
Clark’s highly readable, 420-page book, with its heady blend of flesh, booze, the FBI and politics, took more than six years to research and write with Cookie Miller, another Jenrette top aide.
Like other books about Palmetto politicians such as the late governors Jimmy Byrnes, Robert McNair and John West, or the late Sen. Strom Thurmond, “Capitol Steps” is authoritative and in-depth.
But, because Jenrette’s breathless life could be a television movie, the book is far more riveting than usual biographical fare. The book’s one flaw: it lacks an index – a shame, since numerous South Carolinians are mentioned by name. Many of Jenrette’s lovers are given pseudonyms.
As insiders, Clark and Miller were eyewitnesses to many incidents in the book and used newspaper clippings – including many from The State newspaper’s longtime political columnist, the late Lee Bandy – and other records for accuracy. Jenrette cooperated, but he did not have editorial control. He will not profit from sales.
“He had his flaws, but he didn’t have an ounce of meanness in him,” says Clark, who obviously admires Jenrette’s poor farm-boy rise to the big time and how he did it. “He’s just a good person who made some mistakes.”
Clark’s commitment to “tell all” brings to life a congressman whose sexual exploits were the stuff of legend and whose drinking and money issues made him easy prey to the FBI and its hidden cameras. Jenrette’s sexual exploits – including his sleeping with another woman on his wedding night – are described in depth, as are his struggles with alcohol, his questionable beachfront land dealings and the FBI.
Clark’s detailed account of how Jenrette fell victim to an aggressive FBI sting called Abscam leaves no doubt that he believes heavy drinking and huge debts made the congressman vulnerable to an entrapment that was both predatory and unfair – but also legal.
“This book contains lessons for people, good and bad, for people in the 21st century,” said University of South Carolina political science adjunct professor Don Fowler. He is a former Democratic National Committee chair and has been involved in state and national politics for more than 50 years. He wrote a foreword for the book.
Fowler says in 1972, when Jenrette first ran for Congress in the Pee Dee – which only 15 years before had a major Ku Klux Klan presence and an entrenched white supremacist congressman – that was a heroic action. Jenrette pulled off an upset against Rep. John McMillan, D-S.C.
But then Republican Ed Young of Florence beat Jenrette in the general election.
“John Jenrette took a very courageous stand against one of the most long-lasting evils in American society – racism and the habit of denying African-Americans the right to vote. He was the first white S.C. politician who took that issue head-on and sought their vote,” said Fowler.
“People said it would be the death of him, but it wasn’t. It was his key to success. His virtue paid off in a very practical way, and it was a great contribution to politics all over the South. It broke new ground,” said Fowler, who roomed with Jenrette.
In his 1974 rematch, Jenrette trounced Young, In his first year in Congress, Jenrette won leadership roles and began to support all kinds of progressive causes opposed by Republicans – cost of living raises for Social Security, solar power, more federal money for public education. Over great odds, he also got Lake City native Ron McNair in NASA’s space program. McNair became the second African-American in space.
Jenrette was a Shakespearean character who did himself in, Fowler said: “He fell victim to human frailties, in terms of his use of alcohol and his fairly spectacular sexual escapades.” His ouster from politics in 1980 removed a figure who could have been a progressive inspiration for decades to come, Fowler said.
In 1980, after being arrested by the FBI and then convicted for bribery, Jenrette still managed to win his primary. But in the general election, Marlboro County lawyer John Napier, who had a squeaky-clean image, beat Jenrette with the help of GOP consultant Lee Atwater.
Jenrette never ran for public office again.
After divorcing Jenrette in 1981, Rita posed nude for Playboy and wrote a memoir, “My Capitol Secrets.” She remarried and became an Italian princess.
“John grasped too far, too fast. It’s a tragedy, and one of the reasons it’s a tragedy is because he had so much potential,” Clark says. “He had so many talents, he reminds me of the character in (the movie) ‘On the Waterfront,’ who says, ‘I coulda been a contender.’”
These days, Jenrette lives in a beachfront house on Myrtle Beach’s “Golden Mile.” Now 81 and remarried, he made a comeback in business dealings and is even a member of a retired Members of Congress club and goes on trips with them, Clark said.
Reached by telephone last week after Clark and Miller delivered a new copy of the book to him, Jenrette said he’s looking forward to reading it. He said he’s been embarrassed about some things “I got caught up in,” and hopefully the book will make it easier for him to talk to others about his journey.
But overall, Jenrette said, referring to his triumphs and people who helped him along the way, “I’ve been blessed since that time.”
How to get the book
“Capitol Steps and Missteps – The Wild, Improbable Ride of Congressman John Jenrette” is on sale at Amazon.com, priced at $19.95 for a softcover print book or $9.95 for Kindle.