My life as a congressional wife ended several weeks ago. I knew my days as Mrs. Congressman Jenrette were numbered when my husband was indicted in the Abscam scandal earlier this year. When he was found guilty in federal court in October, his hopes for reelection were dashed. If his legal appeal fails, he will probably go to prison.
But speaking for myself, I regard the end of the six-year congressional career of Rep. John Jenrette (D-S.C.) with something less than sorrow.
Quite bluntly, I hated my life as a congressional wife. If I never attend another Darlington, S.C., Moose Lodge meeting -- during which grown men parade around a room with antlers on their heads -- that will be fine. If I never eat another plate of chicken bog, a South Carolina delicacy that I never did acquire a taste for, you won't hear this vegetarian complaining.
I hope I will never again open the door of my Capitol Hill townhouse at midnight to find a constituent with a suitcase who thinks his congressman's house doubles as a Washington motel for Democratic voters from the Sixth District of South Carolina.
I will not miss the abrupt phone calls from my husband's staff informing me that the congressman had to fly south suddenly to tend political brushfires. Nor will I miss spending my birthday dinners talking precint tallies with small-town mayors who test my tolerance as they try to act clever.
There is the danger of sounding snobbish or petulant in writing thoughts that were previously private, thoughts most political wives only share among themselves. As my husband's career came to a forced end, and as it became clear that my actions or inactions would have little bearing on his reelection, I was told by his staff and desperate supporters that speaking frankly was ill-mannered, that I should go quietly and smilingly into the sunset.
But I have played that game long enough. I'm fed up with people trying to paint me as a dumb blonde and a gold digger because I am an attractive woman who happened to marry a congressman. I'm tired of having to smile and be polite while constituents and lobbyists elbow me out of the way so they can rub shoulders with my husband. I've had it with smalltown reporters who never bother to check the facts and then accuse me of being publicity-hungry when I try to set the record straight.
I have nothing left to lose now. Nor does my husband. For five years of living as Mrs. Congressman Jenrette, I have watched and remembered.
With the permission of the chair, I would like to say a few words, while reserving the priviledge of revising and extending my remarks. My intent is to be candid, not vindictive. And if this account hits too close to home, so be it. Perhaps it will jar a congressman or two back to reality.
I met John Jenrette one August day in 1975 when I arrived in Washington to interview for a job as a $13,000-a-year researcher with the Republican National Committee. I was leaving behind Austin, Tex., a brief, failed marriage, and a job with the Republican Party of Texas, which was a reprieve from selling cosmetics in a department store while I attended graduate school in history at the University of Texas.
John was a first-term congressman whose political epitaph was already being penned by South Carolina political pundits after his messy divorce. His first wife had filed suit on grounds of adultery in South Carolina, before they eventually were divorced in the Dominican Republic, and rumors circulated that she had named 23 corespondents. Although John denies saying it, Washington gossip columnists and South Carolina newspapers reported his response as one of surprise that the first Mrs. Jenrette had been able to come up with only 23 names.
His reported remark was not the kind to endear him to his conservative, Bible Belt constituents. And even if he didn't say it, the remark was all too characteristic of John, who was never one to measure his words carefully. As recently as the Abscam trial, for example, John joked with reporters outside the courtroom: " Do you know how to tell the difference between a sheik and an FBI agent?"
"No, how do you tell the difference," came the reply.
"I don't know," John answered. "I sure couldn't."
Although I would like to think that is one wisecrack I would have resisted making, I've been known to speak before I think. But outspokenness and impulsiveness are not punishable crimes, except perhaps in Washington. Some might even argue that these qualities are virtues. Looking back, I think that John's impulsiveness was what first attracted me to him.
That August day, I was on my way out of the Longworth House Office Bulding when John, or rather his sports jacket, caught my eye. The coat was a riveting blaze of orange, green and yellow plaid. I remember thinking it was the ugliest coat I had ever seen, when I felt a tap on my shoulder. Standing at my elbow was the smiling stranger in the electric coat.
He introduced himself, said he was an elevator operator on an errand to the Capitol and invited me to come along with him. I thought he was cute in a boyish way, and I liked his mischievous grin.
I followed him across the street and inside the Capitol to a door marked MEMBERS ONLY. "I'll only be a minute," he said, gesturing toward the door. "Now, you wait here."
I figured he either had a lot of chutzpah or a lot of clout to be using the members' door, so I asked him about it. "I'm really a congressman," he said, "from South Carolina. If you wait while I run in here to vote, I'll take you over and show you my office."
Still not believing him, I decided to call his bluff by sticking around to see his office. When he took me over to the Cannon Building, introduced a room full of people to me as his staff and ushered me into a private inner office, I was persuaded.
"How would you like to go out with me tonight?" he asked, closing the door behind us.
"I already have a date tonight," I said.
"So do I. But I'll break it."
"Well, then, how would you like to go to the Virgin Islands with me? We'll lie in the sand nude all day long and make love all night."
"No thanks," I said, heading for the door.
Smooth he was not.
A month or so later, our paths crossed again when I slammed on my car brakes to avoid hitting him one bleary-eyed morning as I was driving to work.
"Hi beautiful," he said, and picking up the conversation where we had left off a month earlier in his office, he asked me for a date that night. This time I accepted.
Compared to the straight-laced, humorless men I had met at the RNC during my first month in Washington -- men who thought interesting conversation was rehashing the morning paper -- John Jenrette was a corny but welcome relief. Falling in love with him was a situation comedy. He would call me at the office every hour. "I love you," he'd say, then hang up. Or, "I'm going to vote now, but I love you." Or, I'm in Tip O'Neill's office, but I love you." Although I enjoyed the attention, the daily stack of phone messages from the same Democratic congressman was beginning to draw the suspicions of my RNC colleagues, one of whom took me aside to tell me I was flirting with trouble. After that, whenever John called, he left the name Tex Ritter. "Is he still alive?" someone asked.
And to be honest, being wined and dined at embassy parties by one of the most eligible bachelors in Congress was heady stuff for this 25-year-old Texas girl. Before John, no one had ever pursued me so ardently, except for a Longhorn linebacker once. (My father, a retired Austin businessman and former cattle rancher, kept telling me that the linebacker had a great future in oil drill bits, but I knew there had to be more to look forward to than a lifetime of University of Texas homecoming weekends.)
I remember the night John, handsome in his tuxedo, picked me up for a party at the Iranian embassy. He brought me a dozen red roses and a little jade donkey pendant that looked like he had bought it at some stationery store. He was so proud of the necklace that I couldn't tell him that it didn't exactly fit with my Halston evening gown. That night Ardeshir Zahedi took me aside to whisper in my ear, "You look so beautiful tonight. The sun and moon are in your eyes."
Now, this was the glamorous Washington I'd heard about.
A month after I moved in with John, my boss at the RNC called me into his office and delivered an ultimatum: either quit seeing John the Democrat or quit my job. Too stubborn to let anyone dictate to me, I quit my job. A few weeks later, People magazine called.
The headline above the People story read "Romeo and Juliet Story Amid Big-Time Politics," Geraldo Rivera interviewed me on ABC-TV, and John hit the roof. After his much-publicized divorce, he said that the last thing he needed was a reputation as a Romeo.
A year later, he proposed during the 1976 Democratic convention. After receiving the blessing of John's campaign consultant, Marvin Chernoff, we were married before an Alexandria judge in a small ceremony which was interrupted when John's beeper went off. Chernoff was the best man.
That evening John left for South Carolina to break the news of his marriage (he said) to his political cronies. I spent my wedding night in Washington alone.
Elizabeth Ray was not the last political groupie. Every congressional wife learns there is something about a congressman that brings women out of the woodwork. He might be paunchy, middle-aged, balding and dressed in Robert Hall suits, but there will always be women willing to overlook such details. And if he's young, handsome and flirtatious, trained attack dogs won't be able to keep them away. I know: I tried.
John had always portrayed his reputation as a ladies' man to me as a political liability he was trying hard to shake. After we were married, I began to see just how hard he tried.
One night, shortly after John had made several trips to Indiana (he said) to campaign for two of his congressional colleagues, I was answering the phone in John's office while waiting for him to finish up. Accidentally, I hit the wrong button on the telephone, breaking in on a suggestive conversation between him and a woman, who was insisting that he simply had to come to Indianapolis for the 500 auto race. I jerked the phone around to the adjoining doorway, so that John could see me listening in. He hung up. I marched into his office, grabbed a priceless African statue from his bookcase, and threw it at him, smashing the statue.
After this episode and other similar ones, John would try to convince me that I was being too jealous, that he was only trying to be helpful, or kind, to some woman in distress. And I would think that he can't help it if all these women chase him. When you love a man, you're all too willing to make excuses for him.
It wasn't until after we had been married a year that I was forced to face up to the fact that my husband was doing his share of the chasing and that he had a serious drinking problem.
I knew the honeymoon was over when I rolled over one morning to find John's side of the bed unruffled. After a rampaging search of the house in Myrtle Beach where we were staying, I found him: drunk, undressed and lying on the floor in the arms of a woman who I knew was old enough to be his mother. I punched my fist through the glass-paned door, screamed at him every epithet I could think of and ran out. I packed my suitcase and caught the next plane home.
By the time I arrived in Washington, John's pals had already calculated the political damage of a second divorce in three years. They were on the phone pleading with me not to do anything rash. Think of the political consequences they urged me. I laughed and slammed down the phone.
I had learned in my first year as a congressional wife that a congressman's first priority was to consider the political consequences of any unpleasant occurrence. His marriage, his integrity, even his voting record -- seemed to take a back seat to the primary concern of staying in office. No sooner is he elected than he must begin worrying about reelection with its concomitant fundraising, fence-mending and campaign trips back home every weekend.
To do it all properly requires becoming something of a robot with both one's emotional and intellectual machinery put on standby until it's all over. To want to do it at all requires an enormous ego that quickly becomes overblown as political staffers compete for your favor and political groupies hang on your every word.
Sex and alcohol become a convenient pit stop on the congressional fast track. "I drink hard, I play hard, but I work hard, too," John once told a newspaper reporter in a rare moment of introspection. The hard work of endless campaigning, late-night sessions, fund-raisers, speeches and meetings with lobbyist apparently justified the hard living.
I knew from talks with other congressional wives that mine was not the only marriage threatened by such excess. One of them, a bright, attractive woman who was a close friend, confided to me over lunch that she could no longer put up with her husband's cocaine habit. She blamed the drug for his increasingly frequent visits to 14th Street massage parlors. He started demanding that she come with him. When she refused, he invited out-call massage girls to their home and tried to persuade his wife to join in.
She figured it was only a matter of time before he was caught visiting a sleazy sex parlor or snorting cocaine in the halls of Congress. She wanted no part of such humiliation, so she planned to leave him.
By comparison, my own troubles with John seemed minor. And the thought of being twice divorced at age 27 was sobering. When John returned to Washington later that day and pleaded with me for forgiveness, promising that he would curb his drinking and stop his womanizing, I wanted to believe him.
My introduction to South Carolina's Sixth Congressional District came during a Thanksgiving weekend fund-raiser in l975. Because the holiday coincided with my birthday, John suggested I fly down to meet him.
I had never heard of Myrtle Beach before I met John and I didn't quite know what to expect. As it turned out, I didn't see much of the town. When John met me at the airport, he said we would be spending the weekend with some old friends on their private island. It sounded romantic.
We drove to a pier where we were met by one of John's best friends, a married man in his 40s, and two young women who looked to be about half his age. As we climbed into the open speedboat that would ferry us to our weekend hide-away, one of the girls mounted the gear shift box, straddled it between her thighs and cooed, "Hit the gears."
We zoomed off into a bone-chilling November wind, headed for Sandy Island. There, we were met by two more middle-aged men and their young girlfriends.
Sandy Island was just that -- a plot of sand surrounded by water. "Isn't this beautiful?" John asked, as I stood on the desolate shore, shivering. I smiled and wondered what I was doing here. The place seemed to be inhabited only by ducks. (Which was just fine with John. Months later, I learned that this intimate, private weekend was his way of keeping me out of sight and avoiding a confrontation with an old girlfriend in Myrtle Beach).
On the weekend Sandy Island became a refuge for some men who would pack their tackle boxes or rifles, tell their wives they were going off for a little hunting or fishing and shack up with their girlfriends in one of the dirty unheated cabins.
Years later, I came to realize that such shameless subterfuges as fishing trips to Sandy Island were as much a part of life among some business and political leaders in Myrtle Beach as taking the wife and kids to church on Sunday. Cheap sex and making easy money were the preoccupations of some of these double-knit-suited, alligator-shoe boys who had prospered while developing the coastal strip of motels, condominiums, miniature golf courses and restaurants.
"When you're in politics," John liked to say, "you don't have the luxury of picking your friends." It seemed like a practical approach. The more time I spent in Myrtle Beach, the more I began to see just how slim the pickings were.
Many of the women of Myrtle Beach fell into two categories. They were either "nice girls" who married young and moved into big houses, surrounded by enough material distractions to insure either their ignorance or compliance in the goings-on outside the Baytree Golf Club. Or they were "wild girls" who knew all about life on the 19th hole. They were women who had worked their way up from the steamy back seats of souped-up Chevies to the highway Holiday Inns and "hunting" cabins of Sandy Island. They had been passed around enough times not to mind anymore.
These were the conservative, Bible Belt constituents I was always hearing so much about?
Because John walked a narrow line between defeat and re-election during his six years in Congress, keeping his job required weekly campaign trips back home to ensure his slender majority. Spending half our time in the living rooms and church halls of Horry County became the price we paid to retain the fashionable Capitol Hill townhouse, the Mercedes, the interesting friends and the embassy row invitations.
And what a price it was.
The impression most people have of campaigning is shaped by television news clips of presidential candidates being ferried from rally to parade to convention hall by limousines and chartered planes. It seems painless enough. cShake a few hands. Smile for the cameras, a wave, and you're off.
But for the small-town congressman, campaigning involves milk-run flights connecting with white-knuckle prop planes and an endless round of church suppers, high school football banquets and greased pig contests.
Ladies night at the Darlington Moose Lodge was one of the most unforgettable evenings I spent on the campaign trail. I knew this was no ordinary occasion when I walked into the gray cinder block building to find a room full of men wearing antlers on their heads.
John and I took our seats on metal folding chairs next to the dais while these men, antlers and all, paraded around the room -- a sort of warm-up act for the evening's headliner: a speech by the Head Moose of South Carolina. fHe began the speech by flicking a switch next to the podium which illuminated a religious-style scene, painted on an electric sign, of a man and boy holding hands.
That night, Rita Carpenter Jenrette, who had once been dubbed by a Washington gossip columnist one of the "four gorgeous blondes to look out for in 1978" (a list that included Helga Orfila, Susan Goldwater and Mary Ellen Brademas), became an honorary Moosette. As I accepted my cardboard-framed certificate commemorating the occasion, I wondered how the other three gorgeous blondes were spending their Saturday night.
John Jenrette was a controversial character in South Carolina politics long before Abscam. He was a born ham who played to newspaper reporters and earned a reputation for flamboyance. He courted organized labor in the same state where the J. B. Stevens Co. waged a 17-year fight against unionized mill workers. He rallied the black vote, previously ignored even though blacks comprised 42 percent of the Sixth Congressional District. And he stepped on the toes of the Chamber of Commerce types, the religious fundamentalists and the old-boy political network.
He won his last primary after having been investigated by the state for questionable real estate practices, quizzed about jury tampering in the case, probed for wispy allegations ranging from drug smuggling to questionable campaign and office finances by a federal grand jury that eventually dropped the matter, and indicted by another federal grand jury in the Abscam case.
"Even people who can't stand him are fascinated by him" said The Georgetown (S.C.) Times in an editorial which suggested that John's political career ought to be serialized on television as the "Dallas" of politics. "He has gathered an 'audience' of sorts for the drama that has been his life."
As Mrs. John Jenrette, I suppose it was inevitable that I would inherit some of the jeers. But I wasn't prepared to be cast in the role of Sue Ellen.
I had been married to John one month when, as I was shaking hands at a post office in Hartsville, a white-haired grandfatherly man shouted at me through the crowd, "You're nothing but a harlot and your husband is a whoremonger." I later learned the man was a preacher.
Another concerned constituent, whom I barely knew, used to take it upon himself to call me in Washington if I missed one of the weekly trips back to the district and demand to know if John and I were having "problems." Then he would scold me for being a bad wife by sending my husband off alone.
But the last thing I expected to suffer as the wife of a congressman were sneers from some of my husband's staff. After all, who was running whom here? I quickly learned.
Initially, I suppose I seemed some sort of modern-day Delilah to John's staff, a temptress planted by the Republicans to get the goods on their boss. But by choosing John over my job at the RNC, I thought I had established clearly whose camp I was in.
I came to see, however, that for John's staff there was only one loyalty test, and it had to do with how many stamps you'd licked or how many phone calls you'd made working on the front lines of the campaign back home.
At best, I was regarded as a dumb blonde, a nagging problem best kept at arm's length. At worst, I was a political gold digger who had married John for his position. When it became clear that I wouldn't just fade away, they set about trying to remodel me into a wife more platable to the preachers of Hartsville.
I was too flashy-looking, they said. Couldn't I tone down the blond color of my hair? And my style of clothes -- they had to change. The skirts were slit too high and the necklines plunged too low. Or, I dressed too expensively of the wife of a congressman whose political constituency was built on the poor and working class voters. Couldn't I find some demure polyester skirts and jackets somewhere? "And for God's sake," I was told, "leave your mink coat at home." Admittedly hypersensitive about my looks throughout my ugly duckling adolescence, I became so self-conscious in my first months of marriage that I considered plastic surgery at one point. Instead, I had shoulder length blond hair trimmed to just below my ears and then burst into tears when John, unaware of my motive, told me he hated it. At least, I consoled myself, I looked less attractive.
Ironically, it was John's growing drinking problem that brought his staff and me together. I wanted to protect my husband's and our failing marriage. They wanted to protect their jobs. So we became collaborators in trying to keep John on the wagon and the word of his alcoholism out of the press.
The summer of 1979 we persuaded John to check into the Schick Center in Dallas for an intensive, two-week treatment that relies on aversion therapy to overcome alcoholism. (Months later, I learned that John, a brandy-drinker, had developed an aversion to Scotch, which he had told the Schick doctors was his favorite drink.) We all thought he was recovering splendidly. But once he returned to the cocktail receptions and lobbyists' lunchions in Washington and the political good-old-boy gatherings back home, he slipped back into drinking again.
Many nights, after he had told me to expect him for dinner, John would stagger in at 2 in the morning and pass out on the couch, too drunk to climb the stairs to bed. The next morning he wouldn't remember anything. I spent last Christmas Eve waiting for him to show up for a family dinner, only to have him stumble in shortly before dawn. He didn't even remember that it was Christmas.
But the lowest point came two months later, after dinner one night at the Democratic Club. We ran into a legislative aide John knew from around the Hill, and the man invited us to stop over later to see his newly renovated townhouse. By the time we arrived there it was after 10 and John had had too many drinks.
After showing us around, our host brought me a Tab and John a martini. John was already on his refill when I felt the room begin to spin. My heart was pounding, and I couldn't catch my breath. I do not drink alcohol, and I thought at first that the man had added some by mistake. He assured me that he hadn't, but I knew this was no ordinary Tab.
I wanted to get up and leave, but the room was closing in on me and I didn't think I could stand, let alone drag John home. He was out cold. I thought if I just rested my head back on the sofa pillows, the woozy feeling would pass. I closed my eyes and the next thing I knew, my host was holding me down, pushing a capsule of amyl nitrite, a drug often used as an aphrodisiac, under my nose. I tried to stand and he pushed me down again. We struggled and I started screaming to John.
How could this be happening? I was nearly hysterical, but I managed to push the man off me long enough to grab John and shake him into consciousness. pSomehow, I managed to drag us both out of the house.
A few days later, the man called to invite me to a party at his home. "How dare you?" I said, increduously. "My husband and I want nothing to do with you." I slammed down the phone.
Later, I learned that my host had a reputation on the Hill for his wild sex parties. With friends such as this, I knew it was only a matter of time before John was caught in a compromising situation.
The bomb dropped on Saturday morning last February, as John and I sat in our living room contemplating a job in the park. I answered the door to find two FBI agents standing on my front porch. They asked to see my husband.
As I showed them into the living room, the phone rang. It was John's campaign manager, Richard Davis, talking about an FBI investigation of John for something called Abscam. Although I didn't understand what this was all about, I knew it was trouble.
As a young congresswife, I was as willing as anyone to believe that Congress was a lofty institution filled with high-minded men and women. Now I know that Congress is a world of thirsts that can't be quenched. The drug habits, the drinking problems, the mistresses, the boyfriends, the broken homes attest to that.
The phone rang less after the news of Abscam broke. The dinner invitations from lobbyists and the fundraiser invitations from other members stopped.
Politicians don't need indictments or convictions to tell them when somebody is politically dead. Facing up to their own political mortality, however, is a realization never fully grasped until the last vote is counted. So it was with John.
I spent the day after the election packing up every last possession we had in Myrtle Beach. I knew when we left we would be closing this chapter in our lives once and for all.
Now, I feel that we are embarking on a new, more real life. And most important, John is starting out sober this time. In that respect, Abscam changed our life for the better by forcing John to confront his drinking. The week that the scandal broke, he checked into the Alcohol Recovery Center at the National Naval Hospital in Bethesda. He has not touched a drop of liquor since.
From here on, it's what is best for John and Rita, not what is best for 55,000 constituents. We won't be beholden to anyone anymore. We won't have to pretend to like people we don't.
I know it won't be easy. We'll have to sell the house, the Mercedes and the fur cost to finance John's legal appeal. But gaining a husband and a sense of stability is well worth that price. I've been through a lot with John Jenrette and I'm not going to give up now.