John Jenrette, former S.C. congressman jailed for bribery
John W. Jenrette Jr., the former South Carolina congressman whose ascension in politics was brought low by scandal, died Friday. He was 86 years old.
His wife, Rosemary Jenrette, confirmed his death Saturday.
The Democratic congressman’s colorful escapades and dramatic downfall obscured a common touch and many years of service to South Carolina. He was seen as a possible contender for speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives.
Born in Conway, S.C., Jenrette attended Wofford College and graduated from the University of South Carolina School of Law. He worked as a businessman, a lawyer and a city judge and served in the state House of Representatives representing Myrtle Beach from 1965 to 1972.
A liberal politician from the conservative Pee Dee, Jenrette was gifted with roguish charisma and the ability to make a deal.
He was elected three times to represent South Carolina’s 6th Congressional District along the Grand Strand as a Democrat, in 1974, 1976 and again in 1978, when he ran unopposed.
“The 6th District was his heartbeat,” his wife, Rosemary, told The State Media Co., but “he was as much South Carolina as he was Myrtle Beach.”
In Congress, Jenrette quickly rose in leadership as the face of the New South, according to a former staffer. He was elected to be the whip for the incoming class of freshman Democrats, and he remained in leadership throughout his time in Congress. But at home he was committed to constituent services and was an advocate for farmers in the Pee Dee.
He actively courted the vote of Black Americans and helped give voice to a long marginalized community that was just starting to be reflected in large numbers at the southern ballot box, the former staffer said.
“He was one of the most engaging people I ever met, always ready with a quip and a smile,” said John Monk, a journalist with The State who covered Jenrette as a reporter at The Sun News of Myrtle Beach.
His time in Congress became more associated with his second wife, Rita, whom he married when she was 25 and he was 39. The former Republican political operative would go on to pose nude in Playboy and reveal to the magazine the story that has perhaps become the most famous of Jenrette’s time in Congress: That the couple had sex on the Capitol steps during a break in a late-night session. She has since renounced the story, but the reported shenanigans inspired the name of the comedy troupe, The Capitol Steps.
But in 1980 his political star went dark. In October of that year, Jenrette was convicted of accepting a $50,000 bribe from an undercover FBI agent posing as an Arab sheikh as part of the “Abscam” corruption investigation. Seven members of Congress were convicted of bribery and corruption following the investigation.
On a grainy black and white video from the sting, Jenrette could be heard saying: “I’ve got larceny in my heart.”
Jenrette would admit to being drunk at the time. That November, he lost reelection, and he served 13 months of a two-year prison sentence.
“He had no campaign money, and he’d just been convicted three weeks before, but lost by only three percentage points,” said John Clark, a former staffer for Jenrette and author of the book “Capitol Steps and Missteps: The Wild, Improbable Ride of Congressman John Jenrette.”
“He was basically beloved by a large segment of the population (in his district),” Clark said.
At his sentencing hearing, Jenrette told the judge that his drinking was a ‘‘temptation that made me lose my judgment.’’ In 1983, The New York Times reported that Jenrette had stopped drinking and was living in Florida.
He would go on to pursue a number of business ventures, including representing tobacco-giant Phillip Morris in Eastern Europe following the fall of the Iron Curtain, starting an import export company, pursuing land deals and selling long distance phone lines, Clark said. He married his third wife, Rosemary, in the early 1990s. The couple would go on to purchase and live in a beachfront home in Myrtle Beach.