“JEN-RETTE!” “JEN-RETTE!” chanted the crowd at the Democratic election night party in South Carolina’s 6th District in November 1980.
Rep. John Jenrette, D-SC appeared among his cheering supporters with wife Rita, who had made worldwide news as the subject of reports that she and her husband had sex on the Capitol steps during a late-night session of Congress. She also posed nude in Playboy.
It appeared he was pulling off the upset of the year.
Convicted just days before of bribery in the notorious ABSCAM case and filmed telling an FBI agent posing as an Arab sheik he would readily take bribes because “I have larceny in my heart,” Jenrette was — almost incredibly — winning re-election in a tight race.
National Republicans had targeted the embattled lawmaker for re-election and given maximum financial backing to their nominee John Napier. But Jenrette had carefully courted the district in the Palmetto State with the largest Black population (40%) and had been an early backer of President Jimmy Carter, who was leading in the 6th District while losing big nationwide.
But it was not to be. By 5,190 votes out of more than 146,000 cast (or a margin of 3.5%), Napier finally eked out a win over Jenrette.
The congressman subsequently resigned his seat and pleaded that he was drunk at the time of the ABSCAM encounter and was truly sorry for his behavior. Jenrette was subsequently sentenced to two years in prison, of which he served 13 months.
When Jenrette died in obscurity on March 17 at age 86, reports of his death focused on his downfall and the storied sexual encounter on the Capitol steps. For younger South Carolinians, it was hard to believe that the former congressman was considered one of the Democratic Party’s most up-and-coming stars.
The young Jenrette was a three-star varsity athlete in high school and earned a partial football scholarship to Wofford College. He graduated from the University of South Carolina and, following a stint in the U.S. Army, set up a law firm in North Myrtle Beach.
At age 28, Jenrette won a seat in the state House of Representatives in 1964. Eight years later, he set his sites on Rep. John L. McMillan, the longest serving (34 years) House Member in South Carolina history and chairman of the House District of Columbia Committee.
To the consternation of Black residents of Washington D.C., the congressman known universally as “Johnny Mac” had for years kept home rule for the nation’s capital from coming to a vote. When appointed D.C. Mayor Walter Washington sent his first budget to Congress in 1967, McMillan sent a truckload of watermelons delivered to his office.
“Washington D.C. — The Last Colony” read the bumper sticker brandished by angry Black drivers. Led by then-community organizer and Mayor-to-be Marion Barry, hundreds of D.C. Black residents boarded buses bound for the Pee Dee to canvass for Jenrette in the hope of defeating McMillan.
It worked. Jenrette himself campaigned vigorously throughout the district and as its current U.S. Representative, House Democratic Whip James Clyburn put it, “John had a passion to help the powerless.” In one of the major upsets anywhere in 1972, Jenrette upset McMillan — whose much-reported explanation of his defeat was “[t]he colored people were bought out.”
Because most of McMillan’s supporters turned to Republican Ed Young, Jenrette lost in November. Two years later, Jenrette turned the tables on Young and won.
The South Carolinian rose fast. As the first member of Congress anywhere to endorse Jimmy Carter for president, Jenrette had a friend in the White House. He became a member of the powerful House Appropriations Committee and chaired the House Tourism Caucus. Rumors abounded that he would run against Republican Strom Thurmond (who, Jenrette told the ersatz sheiks, he could entice into taking a bribe — leading the venerable senator to call his colleague “a lying skunk”).
Jenrette spent his twilight years as a property developer in North Myrtle Beach and, as he told two former staffers who wrote a biography of him, “marketing an experimental balloon-operated flotation device; running (and then folding) a national chain of timeshares; breeding horses in Bulgaria; and selling Phillip Morris cigarettes in Eastern Europe immediately after the fall of the Soviet Union."
Wife Rita divorced him and married (and later divorced) an Italian count. She insisted that the story of their triste on the Capitol steps was untrue, although Jenrette himself never denied it.
“Over the years, John asked me repeatedly who ‘tipped me off’ about ABSCAM and I repeatedly told him no one,” Napier told Newsmax, “John cultivated the rascal persona. We had a spirited campaign, but it was never personally antagonistic between the two of us. When we were in a room together as candidates, as well as in later life, one or the other would walk across the room to speak to the other. We both steadily maintained our differing views and styles. I was saddened to learn of his passing.”
John Gizzi is chief political columnist and White House correspondent for Newsmax. For more of his reports, Go Here Now.
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