"It's disgusting, that's really the best thing I can think of to say about it,"' said Arlene Crane, wife of Rep. Phil Crane (R-ILL.). "You know it's fiction, it's just got to be. It's so unlike my life, or the lives of any of the congressional wives I know. I have compassion for Rita Jenrette, but really, I can't imagine anyone messing up their lives the way they did."
For days now Rita Jenrette -- ex-political wife and Playboy nude in an article entitled " The Liberation of a Congressional Wife" -- has been the toast of the airwaves. She's done talk shows, and press conferences for Playboy, and even quarrelled with her estranged husband, John Jenrette, the ex-congressman of Abscam fame, when he called in during her appearance on "The Phil Donahue Show." (The show will be rebroadcast this morning in Washington at 9.)
Rita Jenrette's been telling tales about Washington -- tales of shallow relationships, hollow marriages and the degrading ordeal of life as a congressman's wife and political "Barbie Doll."
Now the usually reticent congressmen's wives have begun to talk back. Two of them appeared on "Good Morning America" last week to rebut Rita Jenrette's claims. Four wives will be appearing on a Boston talk show, and two on a show in Baltimore. At a luncheon of the Congressional Wives' Club last week there were several sizzling exchanges about Jenrette's ribald revelations.
"I went to a nonpolitical brunch on Sunday," said Arlene Crane. "Everybody was talking about it. I set them straight.
"She says that she likes silk blouses, and we like tweed suits. Well, I like silk blouses, and we like tweed suits. Well, I like silk blouses, too. And I can't see that she's more feminine than me just because she was in Playboy. I don't know where she got some of that stuff," Crane continued. "It's just trash. She's just a no-no."
"I think she's a very bush-league Marilyn Monroe," said June Bingham, wife of Rep. Jonathan Bingham (D-N.Y.). "She has Marilyn Monroe's problem of good looks and no self-esteem. People like that just want admiration.
"Her experience is atypical of the congressional wives. Most of them are very good team players with their men. Washington can be a hard life, but there have been some stunning political marriages here. The Frank Churches, and the Charles Percys, for example.
"She has a vacuum where the rest of us have self-esteem, I suppose this thing has given us a bit of a black eye, but really, it just isn't that interesting. She's fantasizing.
"There are many careers, the foreign service and the military, for instance," said Bingham, "where you have to pull up stakes and move frequently. That can be a strain. But, my goodness, Rita Jenrette didn't even have the major problem of children!"
"Our image as being pure and prim is as far off as this other extreme, of course," said Carol Vander Jagt, wife of Rep. Guy Vander Jagt (R-Mich.). "We've always had the image of being quiet little mice, who stand behind their husbands. The truth is, we're a very diverse group. I feel sorry for her of course. But I feel sorry for the headmistressof the Madeira school, too.Of course," she added quickly, "that doesn't mean that I think she's innocent."
"We feel sorry for Rita," said Norma Lagomarsino, president of the Congressional Wives Club and wife of Rep. Robert J. Lagomarsino (R-Calif.), "but this is really ridiculous. Because the rest of us really do enjoy the life. We see the good side of things. Our men work hard, and if we didn't enjoy the life, we wouldn't be here. The ladies I know are bright and energetic, and could do anything. All I can say is, she must have a very big ego, or else none at all."
One-time Washingtonian Barbara Howar, author of "Laughing All the Way," a sardonic look at her years in the capital during the Johnson administration, has her own views on the matter. "I think her observations are as loosely proportioned as her body," Howar said in an article in the Baltimore Sun. "I don't know Rita Jenrette but maybe the reason she's been overlooked and treated in a second-class way in washington is because she's a second-rate person."
After the escapades of dancer Fanne Foxe, who fell into the Tidal Basin, and the brief but well-publicized non-career of Elizabeth Ray, at least some of Washington has to be stifling a great big yawn about the mournful ode of Rita Jenrette. But for a congressman, or a congressman's wife, there are always the constituents back home to think about. Now more than ever.
"It's the classic kiss-and-tell story," said Arlene Crane. "And it boggles the mind. It's wretched! I have eight children! My mother called me up and said, 'What are you people doing up there?' She wanted me to pack up the kids and bring them home!"'
"Obviously it hurts the image," said Wren Wirth, wife of the Democratic congressman from Colorado. "You're not just talking about people in Washington. The country's sufficiently larger than that," she continued. "You're talking about people in Iowa. What do they know but what they read?"'
"Our constituents at home know us," said Lagomarsino, "so this doesn't reflect on us. But what will they think of others, whom they don't know, and never will?"'
It is difficult, as the wives of congressmen will tell you, to generalize about their lives. Some are mothers, some are career women, many are both. But they all live in Washington, and some -- their disapproval of Rita Jenrette notwithstanding -- feel compassionate toward Rita Jenrette.
"In a way I can almost understand why she's doing this," said Pat Derwinski, a real-estate agent and wife of the Republican congressman from Illinois, "but then again, I can't, not being in her situation, thank God.
She went through the Abscam trial with him. He has nothing now. I guess you don't always think things through when you're in that kind of trouble, when the rent has to be paid. You don't always act with discretion. I feel very badly for her, but I'm certainly not going to stick my head in the sand. My daughter at the University of Virginia has taken a little ribbing about all this, but she's a big girl, and she's lived here all her life."
"I'm aware that there are less-contented wives," said Joanne Kemp, wife of Rep. Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.). "There ae many who have compensated for that. Coming from where she was coming from, I'm sure she's been very honest about what she saw.
"Everyone brings to their way of life a predisposition. She may have said what she felt 10 minutes out of the day."
"It's not the easiest life, everyone knows that," said Arlene Crane. "I put up with absences. But so do the wives of corporate executives. But I'm used to it. I have peaks and troughs just like everyone else. It's such a fishbowl existence. But you stay busy. I do and so do 90 percent of the wives."
"I think she happened into a very unlucky marital situaion. It's obvious where she puts the blame," says Peggy Stanton, wife of Rep. J. William Stanton (R-Ohio) and a former TV correspondent.
"Imagine the letdown Rita will have when all the publicity is over," Stanton continued. "I give her 6 months."