She recounts her latest bout in her husband's battle, one that took place as the two of them ran the daily gauntlet from the cold stone steps of the courthouse building to the crowd of cameras and reporters. It was the day that Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) testified at her husband's Abscam trial on charges of soliciting payoffs in exchange for his promise to introduce private immigration legislation for a phony Arab sheik.
Thurmond had called her husband "a lying skunk" in the hallway of the courthouse and Rep. John Jenretter (D-S.C.) was asked for a comment. He said he had none. But Rita Jenrette did. "I said it was a despicable thing for him [Thurmond] to say. And it was," says Rita Jenrette, recalling the incident a few days later. "As far as I was concerned, saying something like that about John was taking a direct slap at me."
They are becoming a fixture in this ttown, the wives of the men in the center of the latest storm of scandal, taking their husbands in sickness and in health, in innocence and in guilt, adding the art of the on-camera defense to the skills practiced by the Washington wife. Since Watergate and Wilbur Mills, their numbers have grown, the styles diverging, from the stolid and long-suffering mien of Clarine Mills to the blond ambition of Mo Dean.
Now it's Rita Jenrette's turn to walk the longest yard with her husband and bear her own witness amid the sordid tales and testimony. "I'm hardened now," she says, as she sits in a witness room a few doors down from the courtroom where her husband stands trial. "I've found a rage in myself I didn't know was there, not at John, but at the facade, at the hypocrisy. You can just see the fear in people's eyes when they come up to you -- like they're wondering how it's going to look to be seen talking to you. We know who our friends are now, and we'll remember who's been here when we needed them and who hasn't. You've got to get even with these people," says Rita Jenrette, "or they'll eat you up and spit you out."
She is 30 years old and blond, with the beginnings of a singing career behind her and an all-American beauty that belies the fact that she is a Washington player in her own right. As the opposition research director of the Republican National Committee, she had firsthand knowledge of the premium paid for guilty secrets. "I was supposed to go and find out if there was a blond in his past," she says of a former congressman she was asked to investigate. Later, when her employers told her to choose between her job and her budding romance with Jenrette, she knew just where to find a forum -- first, an interview with People magazine and then the one with Geraldo Rivera.
Now she casts a cold eye on the Washington before Abscam and "the tunnel vision you get smiling among all the Oscar de la Rentas." She speaks scornfully of the Washington after the scandal broke, of the "members [of Congress] who walk the other way when they see us coming," and of the "sanctimonious people in this town doing all they can to hide their own schemes and things in their past.
"You really get to see the hypocrisy up close at a time like this," she says. "It used to be that we'd have 20 people offering us tickets to a Redskin game"; now it's hard for them to find two for out-of-town friends. Now it's hard to get even the tobacco lobbyists to return a phone call.
One longtime observer of John Jenrette describes his wife as "very clever, immature, vulnerable -- an appealing person. Basically, she's an actress. I'm not sure Rita is clear on who she is." Where she's been is easier to chart than where she's going. Rita Jenrette describes her girlhood in Texas as that of a lonely little bookworm who tried to buy her friends with her parents' money. "If someone said they liked my shoes, I'd go out and buy them a pair," she remembers, but still she ended up eating her lunch in the bathroom so no one would know how unpopular she was. "People reject me now because they think I'm pretty," she says, "and they rejected me then because I was ugly. I still think I'm ugly." A Washington Education
The daughter of a well-to-do businessman and rancher, she graduated from the University of Texas in Austin. After that, there was a year in the Peace Corps, a quick turn at teaching, a stint as a department store salesgirl, a brief marriage to an Army pilot. When the marriage ended in divorce, she went to Paris for seven months and then returned to Texas. She took a job there in 1974 as a researcher for the state Republican Party.
"I was still searching for what I wanted to do," she says, and when the Republican National Committee offered her the opposition research directorship in Washington, she took it. Not too long after that, she met John Jenrette.
"I was walking out of the Longworth Building, and he gave me some line, I think he said, 'I'd like to take you to Barbados,' or someplace. I thought he came on a little too strong, I was a serious career woman; I'd already made up my mind I wasn't going to date any congressmen or senators." One night he called her all night long. "He said he already had a date but he'd get rid of her if I'd go ot with him," Rita jenrette recalls. "I kept thinking, 'Well, if he would do that to her, he would do it to me.'
After a short while on the job at the Republican National Committee, where she says she was sent to gather the dirst on Democratic office holders, Jenrette began to look better and better. Her boss got angry when he found out she was dating a Democrat, and Jenrette began leaving her messages under the name of Tex Ritter. He started saying things like, "I can't believe this -- I can have all the women in Washington and I think I'm falling in love with you.
She thought, "What b.s. But then, I was falling in love with him, too."
Finally she quit her job when the executive director insisted that she had to make a choice between the two, and they were married in Alexandria on Sept. 10, 1976. The congressman's beeper went off a few minutes after the vows were exchanged, and she drove him back to the House for a vote. That night he took off for South carolina on business; she stayed at home and wrote a song called, "Baby, Do You Love Me?"
Rita Jenrette found out quickly what she was up against as a wife in the Wasington whirl. "You're always fighting," she says. "The women who are always around hanging on your husband's very word, the constant rumors, the staff who think you're nothing but in the way. The first time I came into the office I was a little puppy dog, I was so naive. I thought "These people are going to be my friends.' That was a mistake."" Jenrette's administrative assistant, John Miles, offers no comment. "I don't want to be quoted," he says. "I perfer not to get into that. We've been through this before." 'Bombshell' With Honors
There were the rumors to cope with as well. Her husband had been single for about a year and a half between marriages, and apparently the news of the divorced.There was the ex-Playboy Bunny who came cooing about how long it had been since she has had lunch with the congressman. And there was the former admirer whose love letter to her husband Rita Jenrette took it upon herself to answer. "I call them 'lurkers,'" says Rita Jenrette, "because they're always lurking around, ready to pounce."
She had problems with the way she was perceived -- "I think a lot of people saw me as this blond bombshell," she says. "So I would go around saying, "These are my accomplishments -- I graduated from college with honors! I was in the Peace Corps!" And of course then everyone thinks you're being egotistical."
In order to carve her own identity and cancel out an image etched, it seemed at times, in concrete, she began to spend more time in New York. She tried for a time to get a singing career together, and posed for advertisements for Clairol after she was discovered while walking in Central Park, she says, by an executive of the corporation.
She had her own friends in New Yorkas well -- Bob Rose and Linda LoPresti are professional musicans who had known Rita Jenrette for several years and have continued to provide her with a place where she could drop the demands of her Washington role. "It takes her about four hours to become herself when she gets up here," says LoPressti. "I tell her when she comes to stop smiling, she's treating me like a constituent" Both LoPresti and Rose describe Rita Jenrette as "the most faithful and tolerant person" they know, but also as someone who has "never been allowed to get her act together. Her husband was 10 years older than she was when they married," says Rose, "and it was around the time of Elizabeth Ray. People tended to react to her like she was some sort of floozy. Now I think she feels very persecuted, and very much alone." Vendettas and Avenging Angels
Even before Abscam, says Rita Jenrette, as a result of her husband's alcoholism, she found herself more isolated. She remembers the phone calls from staff members asking her to come down and rescue him from a reception, the mornings he would wake up without any memory of the day before, the evenings he couldn't account for. "I did everything wrong in trying to help him," she says now. "He'd call at 4 and say he would be home at 6 and then he'd roll in at 3 in the morning. And I blamed myself, instead of placing the responsibility on him. I thought 'What have I done wrong?I'm not intelligent enough, pretty enough, I'm not a good enough wife, lover, companion. I finally withdrew into myself. I didn't have that many friends here -- I never knew if I made plans with other people whether he'd be in any condition to keep them."
In fact, she says, it was her husband's drinking that first made her aware, although indirectly, of the infamous house on W Street where the FBI was deep into its adventure in videotape. "He would come back from there intoxicated and finally I said to John Stowe [who, with Jenrette, is a co-defendant in the trail], I don't know where you're taking my husband or who these characters are that you've introduced him to, but I don't like it. You know my husband's an alcoholic and the next time you go I'm going to follow you.'"
At the same time, she says, she became increasingly concerned to hear her husband talking about life insurance policies and getting his affairs in order. hBut it wasn't until two FBI agents came to the house to talk to her husband that she found out what was happening. She was standing at the top of the stairs listening, she says, and she ran down and ordered them out of their Capitol Hill home. "I said 'Well, you finally set my husband up," she says." 'You finally got him.'"
Which is how she sees it. A vendetta "Southern style -- they go for the jugular," perpetrated by her husband's political enemies in his home state. Back home, according to a veteran observer of South Carolina politics, Rita Jenretta was "pretty much her husband's spokeman while he was in the tank drying out. She was down here talking about how much they had suffered and how they would endure and she was prtty good at whipping up sentiment among those who wanted to be convinced."
In addition, the source says, Rita Jenrette knows how to play "the avenging angel." She lights into reporters who, she had decided, have been unfair to her husband, later gracing them with her forgiveness once the incident has passed.
"She's an active weapon in Jenrette's political arsenal," says a veteran politician from the opposition camp. "She's got a lot of moxie, I'll give her that. But she's typical of the polarization of attitudes toward Jenrette in the district. The Sixth District is a nice, rustic bucolic community full of workingmen and farmers. She's a blond bombshell -- just the sort of person you'd expect a guy running around with sheiks and Arabs to be associated with. She's not exactly typical of the district. All the wives are threatened by her, naturally. She's great with the high-roller-type Democrats, but I wouldn't send her out on tour with the farmers," he adds, giving the kind of gratuitous advice expected from the opposition. 'A Blesing in Disguise'
Rita Jenrette is confident her husband will retain his seat in November. Meanwhile, she says, there are ways in which Abscam has been "a blessing in disguise." Most important, she says, has been the fact that he stopped drinking after the scandal broke -- last Saturday marked the six-month milestone in his sobriety.
Even if Jenrette loses his seat, or for that matter, the trail, "it won't kill us," she says. "I think John knows that being the big congressman isn't everything. He's acquired a lot of depth. She is grateful for the friends who have stuck by them and scornful of the ones who haven't.
Although she is not allowed in the courtroom where her husband is on trail until it's time for her own testimony in the case, Rita Jenrette waits at the courtroom for him nearly every day. "He likes to have me there," she says. "He likes to bounce things off of me." It is also, she says, "kind of a political thing. There was one day where I didn't come and we got calls from South Carolina asking where I was."
The long days of tape and testimony have seen some changes in Rita Jenrette; even her clothes have evolved from a tight-sweatered sexiness to a more demure high-collared look. "My clothes reflect things about me," she says. "I think maybe it was a Joan Kennedy thing -- like when she wore that micro-mini to the White House. I think I have more confidence in myself. People take me more seriously, so I dress differently."
Toward the end of the interview, John Jenrette wanders in while the trail takes a brief recess. He looks tired, preoccupied, as he holds a quick communion with his wife. "She keeps me going," he says, as he heads back to the courtroom.