MY TURN:  Jenrette saga was uplifting, comical, tragic and always exciting

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Former Congressman John Jenrette and his former wife, Rita, in front of the Capitol in Washington during the 1970s when he served. Photo provided.

Editor’s Note:  The recent publication of former congressional staffer a new book, Capital Steps and Missteps: The Wild, Improbable Ride of Congressman John Jenrette, prompted us to ask co-author John Clark to tell us about it.  We think you’ll enjoy this part of South Carolina history.

By John F. Clark, special to Statehouse Report  |  When I first met my future boss, Congressman John Jenrette, none of the highly-publicized episodes that would later guarantee him a permanent place in the folklore of the nation’s capital—having sex on the U.S. Capitol steps, becoming entrapped in the FBI Abscam sting operation, experiencing his beautiful second wife, Rita, get naked for Playboy—had taken place.


Indeed, everything I initially knew about him was positive. He was progressive, intelligent, charming, perceptive, hard-working, kind, compassionate and possessing of many other positive attributes.

My new book, Capitol Steps and Missteps; The Wild, Improbable Ride of Congressman John Jenrette (available from in print and as an ebook), is a true story of noble causes, lust and devastating scandal. It is simultaneously uplifting, comical and tragic.

When Jenrette was first elected in 1974 to represent the 6th Congressional District of South Carolina, he became the first person in almost a hundred years to go to Washington to represent the needs and aspirations of the long-suffering African-Americans residing in the poor, rural Pee Dee section of the Palmetto State.

His selection into the House leadership at the very beginning of his first term in office was historically unprecedented, and he rose swiftly in the House power structure.  He had significant accomplishments on The Hill, and exhibited superb ability to deliver for folks back home.

But…but then there was the other stuff.  Oh, boy.  After I moved to Washington, scant time elapsed before I realized there were weaknesses and shortcomings of a personal nature that would eventually play a large part in his undoing.

I soon learned his first wife was suing him for divorce on grounds of 23 counts of adultery, all with different women.  Indeed, John’s incessant womanizing was not simply a matter of an unusually overactive libido; it was a thing of wonder.

Additionally, there were financial difficulties, as well as an increasingly dangerous drinking problem. What eventually followed was a tragedy for him, his loved ones, and his many friends and supporters, as well as for the progressive causes he championed.

I worked for Jenrette for virtually the entire six years he served in Congress.  On Jan. 2, 1981, I removed the sign reading “Office of Congressman John W. Jenrette” from the wall.  I turned out the lights.  I locked the door.  I still have the sign.

Cookie Miller VanSice, the first Jenrette staffer hired after the 1974 election victory, has collaborated with me in the writing of Capitol Steps and Missteps.  It was Cookie upon whom John called time and again, before, during and after prison.

Our tale includes Jenrette’s rough-and-tumble political campaigns, his impressive congressional career, his battle with alcohol, and his legal and financial struggles highlighted by the Abscam FBI sting operation and federal imprisonment.  It describes Rita Jenrette’s soap opera-like rise to fame that delighted many, including a long-celebrated Washington satirical troupe that derives its moniker from John and Rita’s Capitol steps’ hijinks.

Jenrette has recovered from his financial woes and now lives in ease in a beachfront home. However, a sense of immense missed opportunities pervades.

Jenrette realistically dreamed of becoming Speaker of the House, of being on the presidential ticket, of doing much, much more.  One senses a wistfulness about that which once was, for that which might have been. He is reminiscent of Terry, the washed-up boxer in On the Waterfront, who balefully tells his brother, “You don’t understand. I could’a been a contender.”

Nevertheless, Jenrette’s wild ride very often has been great fun, and, even when not fun, it has always been exciting.

John F. Clark, a graduate of Davidson College and Syracuse University, taught political science and worked in public service for 40 years. He is now a writer residing in Columbia, S.C.


One Comment

  1. William Heitsman says:

    Wonderful story and reminds me a lot of the exploits of Jerry Springer who at one time was mayor of Cincinnati and though to be the Ohio equivalent to Bobby Kennedy.

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