"I have never sought publicity," Rita Jenrette said, at a crowded New York press conference yesterday. "It just sort of happened." Playboy asked her to pose for them and write an article, and Bantam Books asked her to write a book which will be out a mere few weeks from now. And she had nothing to do with the mysterious appearance of a few of the pictures that accompany the Playboy article, pictures that somehow appeared on the wire services last Friday.

Capitalizing on her now estranged husband's conviction in the Abscam scandal? Of course not.

It all seemed a familiar ritual: Washington scandal is exposed . . . sex bomb tells all . . . signs contracts for books, magazine articles or performances, and announces her new career as an actress and liberated woman. She holds a well-attended press conference or three, is grilled for being an opportunist and then delights and appalls the public with confessions and hints of various private peccadilloes.

"When a man like Daniel Ellsberg writes an expose, he's applauded, but when a woman does it, suddenly it's kiss and tell," she said, somewhat plaintively, opening her big brown eyes wide. But Daniel Ellsberg didn't take his clothes off for Playboy magazine, she was reminded, and his "expose" wasn't revealing that he made love with his wife on the steps of the Capitol, as Rita Jenrette has reported about her husband John, who resigned his South Carolina congressional seat because of Abscam.

"I don't see what taking off my clothes has to do with what I wrote," she said, as about 50 reporters and photographers ate a Playboy-sponsored lunch at 21 in New York and recorded her every word. The lunch was held in the wood-paneled "Hunt Room," which is decorated with drawings of women in various stages of undress.

To describe these pictures as "taking her clothes off" is like saying that Dean Martin has an occasional cocktail. There are eight pictures of her in the 10-page photospread in which her abundant breasts are prominently displayed, sometimes set off with a parenthesis of black chiffon or a swatch of red feather boa, in one enclosing a strand of pearls. She is wearing black stockings and a garter belt, and little else -- and finally, a reclining pose with her legs in the air, closed but uplifted enough to reveal more than can be described in a family newspaper.

"I don't think they're lewd," she said.

"I did it to recover my self-esteem."

"Yes, I consider myself a feminist," she said.

"No one ever knew I implemented the sunflower program in South Carolina," she said.

"As Thoreau has said, and I have always adhered to this, I march to the beat of my own drummer," she said.

The 31-year-old former Texas beauty queen, who was interviewed earlier in the day on "Good Morning America," was wearing a neck-high flowered dress, the front straining a bit at the buttons, and was shrouded in a large gray jacket that hid most of her figure. She had small diamonds in her ears and a diamond and emerald ring her husband gave her on her finger. In one room half a dozen television crews took turns at interviewing her while she sat at a small round table. After leaving the television room she posed, standing on a stairway for photographers on the stairs below, obligingly revealing a little thigh.

Six women from Playboy -- staff members, not Bunnies -- handed out copies of the magazines and helped herd her from the TV room to the press lunch, one of them saying, "Thank you very much," loudly when she wanted the press conference to end. Just like press secretaries do for congressmen. Several male reporters asked her to autograph copies of the magazine when it was over.

Jenrette also came equipped with several news tidbits. "News from Playboy magazine," trumpeted the press release, revealing that John Jenrette, while a congressman, tried to arrange a deal with arms dealer Frank Terpil and former Ugandan dictator Idi Amin to free the hostages then being held in Iran.

"I said to John, 'Don't you know Idi Amin is a bad guy?'" she said. "He said, 'Listen Frank Terpil taught Idi Amin how to pull fingernails out.'"

She writes that Amin wanted his children educated in American Catholic schools in return for any help. The State Department evidently did not encourage an inquiry Rep. Jenrette made about this plan.

Rita Jenrette also hinted that a new sex scandal was about to break in Washington -- involving some Republican officeholders, including two senators and several congressmen, who have been videotaped in a female lobbyists's love nest. "I can't tell you any more than that," she said.

By this time some of the reporters were starting to feel that their brain circuits were getting overloaded. The waiters poured Cabernet Sauvignon and served beef stew on rice. Jenrette kept talking, batting back each question like it was a tennis ball and she was Chris Evert Lloyd. If some of the balls landed out of the court -- well, Rita Jenrette, for one, wasn't noticing.

"John was a very good congressman from the Sixth District," she said. "He hired a number of blacks with real authority and salaries . . . and he was very good on women's issues. He voted for ERA."

This was the man she said a few minutes earlier she'd discovered "at least 15 times" in the arms of other women, the man who the very day he was convicted of taking $50,000 in Abscam money was weeping for the television crews and telling them how much he loved his wife, and later that same day, she added, was trying to seduce a female television producer.

Why did she pose for Playboy -- after initially saying she could NEVER take her clothes off for millions of readers?

Well . . . "maybe it was my way of assuring I would never have to be a congressman's wife again."

Later: "Economic reasons. I was the sole breadwinner at the time."

Also: "It was originally John's idea -- but when I brought back the first pictures which were not totally unclothed, he seemed really threatened. He made derogatory remarks -- like why would they use a 31-year-old when they can get all the 18-year-old they want. He hurt my feelings."

Also: "The Playboy photographer was a really delightful fellow. I expected someone with gold chains around his neck, but this guy is the leading nude photographer with Hefner. He kept talking about his wife of 30 years, and before I knew it he made me feel like I was a piece of art. I had such low self-esteem. I didn't think I was pretty, I didn't think I was desirable. When you're married to a man who runs around all the time you lose confidence in yourself.It [the nude photos] was worth six years of therapy."

"The Playboy people are intelligent," she said. "They're almost Ivy League, not leering or lewd. They have fine articles. . . Ursula Andress has appeared in Playboy," she said, "and Elizabeth Taylor." Nude? "Well, it was her back."

And later: "I never regret anything I've done."

A reporter asked how she felt when she saw herself displayed in the magazine. "It feels, uh, I don't know how it feels, really." The only picture she really liked, she said, was one that shows her facing the camera with merely a hint of thigh and buttock exposed. Her mother -- well, her mother feels "like any mother would feel. She's not too thrilled."

Currently Rita Jenrette is working on her autobiography, a project aided greatly by the diary she has kept for the last five years, she said. She has taken an apartment in Greenwich Village and expects to carry on with her career as a singer and actress. She was offered a role in a movie "with a big-name movie star" but she wouldn't say who, and although she lost the part, "I was honored to have been considered."

It was suggested that there are parallels between her and another season's blond sex bomber from Capitol Hill, Elizabeth Ray. "She was a mistress," Jenrette snapped. "I was a wife. I wrote speeches, I spoke at every high school in the district. She just met [former Ohio congressman] Wayne Hays in a motel."

As she portrayed it, Rita Jenrette has just emerged from five years of suffering, verging on suicide at times. There were mornings when she could hardly get out of bed -- she, who had graduated with honors from college, who had written, she said, a report on world hunger for the late Hubert Humphrey. Sure, people had told her John Jenrette was a playboy, but she believed him when he told her the rumors weren't true.

For five years she was a "perfect wife" and a good stepmother to Jenrette's two teen-agers from his first marriage. But Jenrette was "incapable of monogamy" and then, of course, the FBI showed up with tapes that led to his conviction for taking bribes. She stood by him as long as she could. But then came the fateful morning when she found $25,000 in one of his brown suede shoes. "I believed he didn't take the money," she said. "I don't know what I believe now."

Jenrette is reportedly writing his own book. "Since he was intoxicated" often, "I think my revelations are more accurate," she said tartly. Her revelations are partly her way of saying "I'm not such a fool," she said. "John was never discreet."

But other congressmen's wives have suffered as she has -- according to her, and yet they have not chosen the forum of Playboy magazine to declare their own identities and independence.

"How many women have found $25,000 in their husband's shoe?" she asked.

As the press conference went on, the women reporters asking more questions about Playboy and the male reporters asking about Abscam -- she began to get a little tense, a little defensive, "Let them walk a mile in my shoes," she said, "before they call me tacky.

"How many women in this room can empathize with me who've gotten into a negative relationship with a man to being at the point of suicide?

. . . All wives can relate to this predicament. You marry with a particular expectation, and the expectation is never realized. . . I've been through a hell of a hard time. I understand how you might feel skeptical about me. . . I've got to live. I don't know what will happen to my career after all the criticism of what I've done dies down. I'm in between. If my book helps one congressional wife see there is a life beyond, then it will have been worthwhile."

But she never broke, never lashed out beyond a few snide remarks to two reporters from South Carolina who'd been covering her for a long time. "She's pretty smart," said one photographer.

And it is expected to sell Playboy magazines in Washington. Ed Davis, assistant manager for finance at the District News Co., said:

"We are expecting an unprecedented demand for sure. In fact, we've ordered 115,000 copies of the April issue, a 40,000 increase over March distribution. That's a whopping increase. We've normally been running a very, very high sale of Playboy and we expect it to continue with this issue." v

And today she will go through it all again at a press conference here. And Wednesday on Phil Donahue. And later on Canadian television. . .