Rita Jenrette’s “Diary of a Mad Congresswife” Scandalizes Washington Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Shortly after her husband, a three-term Democratic representative from South Carolina, resigned his House seat after being convicted as part of the Abscam sting operation, Rita Jenrette provoked a scandal with her account of her time as a “Congresswife” in Washington, D.C. The magazine excerpt and subsequent book, My Capitol Secrets, tell the tale of profligate behavior, alcohol abuse, influence peddling, rampant promiscuity, and wild sex.

Summary of Event

After graduating from the University of Texas in 1971, Rita Jenrette made an immediate impact in the Texas Republican Party with her savvy knack for political strategy. She was a lecturer in political science at Trinity University and, by 1975, she headed the Republican National Committee’s Opposition Research branch, a division of the party that, in the wake of the post-Watergate turmoil and the downfall of the Richard Nixon White House, investigated Democratic nominees for problematic pasts and designed often incendiary attacks ads to promote Republican nominees for office. [kw]Jenrette’s “Diary of a Mad Congresswife” Scandalizes Washington, Rita (Dec. 7, 1980) [kw]"Diary of a Mad Congresswife" Scandalizes Washington, Rita Jenrette’s (Dec. 7, 1980)[Diary of a Mad Congresswife] Diaries;Rita Jenrette[Jenrette] "Diary of a Mad Congresswife" (Jenrette)[Diary of a Mad Congresswife] Jenrette, Rita Jenrette, John W., Jr. Diaries;Rita Jenrette[Jenrette] "Diary of a Mad Congresswife" (Jenrette)[Diary of a Mad Congresswife] Jenrette, Rita Jenrette, John W., Jr. [g]United States;Dec. 7, 1980: Rita Jenrette’s “Diary of a Mad Congresswife” Scandalizes Washington[01920] [c]Publishing and journalism;Dec. 7, 1980: Rita Jenrette’s “Diary of a Mad Congresswife” Scandalizes Washington[01920] [c]Sex;Dec. 7, 1980: Rita Jenrette’s “Diary of a Mad Congresswife” Scandalizes Washington[01920] [c]Politics;Dec. 7, 1980: Rita Jenrette’s “Diary of a Mad Congresswife” Scandalizes Washington[01920] [c]Corruption;Dec. 7, 1980: Rita Jenrette’s “Diary of a Mad Congresswife” Scandalizes Washington[01920]

Representative John W. Jenrette, Jr., and Rita Jenrette outside the capitol in Washington, D.C., in 1976.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

In 1976, the strikingly beautiful Jenrette (she was a regional beauty queen and briefly toyed with a singing career) surprised many by marrying not a Republican but a left-leaning Democrat, John W. Jenrette, Jr., a U.S. representative from the well-to-do environs of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. John had ridden to election in 1974 on the wave of anti-Nixon sentiment and the public’s distrust of the Republican Party and was, by 1976, one of the rising stars of the Jimmy Carter-era Dixiecrats. Engaging, savvy, youthful, and vigorous, John advanced quickly within the party power structure and was elected the majority whip of the U.S. House of Representatives by 1978. For a time, the Jenrettes were among the most sought-after power couples in Washington, D.C., as Rita maintained her credentials as a Washington insider working for the Food for Peace Program and other agencies. However, everything would soon change dramatically.

In 1978, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), reeling from public outrage over revelations of corruption in the Nixon administration that brought down a presidency, initiated a sting operation targeting powerful and influential state and national politicians. The sting had federal agents pose as Middle Eastern business operatives representing a fictitious sheik trying to bribe these corrupt politicians into securing special considerations. The considerations included political asylum and Money laundering;and Abscam[Abscam] money laundering for a dummy sheik (the operation was code-named Abscam, from the words “Abdul scam”). In hotel rooms under Video evidence videotaped surveillance, public officials, including state governors, Bribery;Congress members U.S. representatives, and U.S. senators, were offered huge sums of money in return for such assistance. In 1980, John Jenrette was among the more than thirty politicians indicted in connection with the FBI sting. He claimed the operation was entrapment. Nevertheless, he was convicted for accepting $50,000 in bribe money and was sentenced to thirteen months in federal prison. He was defeated for reelection later in the year and resigned from Congress on December 10, just ahead of his term’s expiration.

It was during the subsequent public outcry that Rita Jenrette first gained national attention. At the televised congressional hearings, the charismatic Jenrette, long comfortable in front of cameras, electrified the proceedings by testifying how she had found $25,000 in one of her husband’s shoes. Later, capitalizing on her newfound celebrity, she appeared on Phil Donahue Show, The (television) The Phil Donahue Show, a popular television Talk shows talk show of the time. Her husband called in to the show from jail (the format of Donahue’s live show involved such audience participation). The subsequent conversation, charged with emotion, made riveting television.

Far more scandalous and damaging was Jenrette’s decision to publish her memoir. On December 7, 1980, Washington Post;and Rita Jenrette[Jenrette] The Washington Post Magazine ran an excerpt of her as-yet-unpublished manuscript. The excerpt, “Diary of a Mad Congresswife,” was a lengthy exposé about her time in Washington; its publication created a sensation. It revealed the private lives of Beltway insiders, including her own husband’s numerous affairs, in unflinching and uncensored detail. Perhaps most famously, the article offered an account of the time she and her husband made love on the steps of the Capitol Building behind a pillar during a break of a particularly long all-night House session. It was a story that, much later, she said she invented. However, the story of lovemaking on the Capitol steps secured her instant notoriety and made her husband the target of comedians and political pundits. Indeed, the satiric comedy troupe The Capitol Steps used the alleged incident as the inspiration for its name, seeing in the couple’s dalliance a metaphor for reprehensible public behavior among politicians so eccentric that it bordered on the absurdly comic. Far more disturbing than Jenrette’s sexual revelations, however, were her reports of how politicians abused alcohol, even during sessions of Congress, and willingly dealt influence using sex. The Jenrettes divorced in 1981.

“Diary of a Mad Congresswife” secured for Jenrette a book deal, and within one year her memoir, My Capitol Secrets, was published. She became an instant celebrity. She posed for Playboy magazine Playboy magazine in April, 1981, and Playboy also ran expanded versions of The Washington Post Magazine excerpt. Not surprisingly, the book became an immediate best seller. It depicted politicians as quasi-rock stars who attracted a bevy of groupies, specifically women—among them lobbyists, reporters, and staffers—attracted by the aphrodisiac of power and willing to use sex as a strategy for access to these men. Jenrette spoke of rented apartments, clandestine affairs carried out in rented houses and limousines, quickies, and “nooners.” Her book was cited by the emerging conservative political movement during the early Ronald Reagan years as evidence of the sorry moral condition of the Washington, D.C., establishment, meaning the entrenched interests of the liberal wing of the Democratic Party.

Jenrette tried to parlay her notoriety into an acting career—appearing in several low-budget films during the 1980’s (with titles like Zombie Island Massacre, 1984, and The Malibu Bikini Shop, 1986). In May, 1984, she appeared again in Playboy magazine Playboy, this time on the cover in a racy pictorial with her lover at the time, hunky actor-model Phillip Anderson. Given that she was often dismissed as trying to cash in on her husband’s political crimes, she was seldom given much critical respect, although her appearance in Los Angeles in a 1982 revival of the drawing room comedy The Philadelphia Story garnered her plaudits and several regional acting awards. She appeared briefly (in 1989) as a field reporter for the entertainment news show A Current Affair, but by the end of the decade her celebrity appeared to have been exhausted.

Impact

Most obviously, Jenrette exemplifies the fifteen-minutes-of-fame principle. Indeed, there is much to suggest that she manipulated the media to secure her celebrity and to cash in on what was one of the more disturbing political scandals of the Carter years. Her turn to Nudity nude modeling and then to a string of lamentable B movies did not add much luster to her reputation. Because her tell-all book did not name specific political figures, it was more sensational than legitimate exposé.

Jenrette’s notoriety includes being one of the few women at the center of a political scandal to put together a second career, notably, a professional career in business. During the early 1990’s, with her broadcasting career at a dead end, Jenrette was still only in her forties. Determined to succeed and to use her considerable education in business and marketing, she completed a rigorous three-year program at the Harvard Business School. By 1994, she began a lucrative career in real estate in the Manhattan area, overseeing more than a decade of high-powered negotiations in excess of a billion dollars in transactions and involving some of New York’s best-known business figures. Secure in her position as one of Manhattan’s most influential real estate brokers, Jenrette has said her life in Washington represented a different person, and that her strategy of cashing in on her notoriety and playing to the media as a sex object represented poor judgment. She understands she can never entirely erase her past poor judgment, but it is one that she is content to live with. Diaries;Rita Jenrette[Jenrette] "Diary of a Mad Congresswife" (Jenrette)[Diary of a Mad Congresswife] Jenrette, Rita Jenrette, John W., Jr.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jenrette, Rita. My Capitol Secrets. New York: Bantam Books, 1981. Vivid and fascinating account of Jenrette’s years in Washington, D.C. Creates a disturbing picture of Washington political opportunism and amorality.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Katzmann, Gary S. Understanding the Criminal Process: The Abscam Case. New York: Pergamon Press, 1985. Clear and lucid detailed look into the scandal that brought Jenrette into the national spotlight. Looks into the impact of Jenrette’s testimony without the distractions of her later celebrity and treats Jenrette as a Washington insider who essentially acted as a whistle-blower.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Thompson, Hunter S. Generation of Swine: Tales of Shame and Degradation in the ’80’s. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2003. Classic appraisal of the decade by a distinguished cultural critic and “gonzo” journalist. Provides significant context for understanding politicians’ rise and precipitous fall into obscurity by providing a scathing indictment of the political sex scandals of the era.

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