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Book Review: Former Aide Pens Racy, Defensive Bio of SC Congressman Jenrette

Capitol Steps and Missteps: The Wild Improbable Ride of John Jenrette by John F. Clark & Cookie Miller VanSice, CreateSpace.

420 pages. £19.95.

Or, as I call it, How To Establish Fair Price Supports for Tobacco Farmers While Banging Every Babe Within 10 Miles of the Lincoln Memorial.

That, anyway, might at least be a more descriptive title for this lurid, defensive, indisputably thorough, naturally biased, mostly lively but sometimes just downright boring chronicle of the disgraced South Carolina congressman John Jenrette.

Jenrette, in case you’ve forgotten (or if you’re under 30, never knew) is the Sixth District pol who drank and screwed his way across Washington during the 1970s, married a chatty blonde bombshell named Rita and famously had sex with her on the steps of the U.S. Capitol.

He was a kid in a candy store who delivered the goods for the folks back home and paid himself handsomely in women, liquor and, finally, what may or may not have been a hefty bribe from a would-be Arab sheik.

Written by longtime aide John Clark — with the assistance of former staffer Cookie Miller VanSice and input from the Congressman himself — Capitol Steps and Missteps is a kind of late-in-the-day public relations gamble. The objective is to present Jenrette as a good man whose personal demons got the better of him, and whose final humiliating fall from grace came about because he was set up by the feds.

Having read the book — riveted by its many explicit details and dozing through the occasional franking-privilege prose — I can report that at least the first half of this proposition is persuasive.

The life story of the Jenrette we meet here bears at least some passing resemblance to that of LBJ and Bill Clinton. Like them, he grew up poor, which both deepened his empathy for the working class and spurred his ambition for wealth.

Jenrette often told audiences of his childhood home in Loris that had “two bedrooms and a path” — to the outhouse. Farmers, the underprivileged and minorities were his people.

For black voters, especially, he established himself early on by taking out a foe in the 1972 Democratic primary, Sixth District Rep. John “Johnny Mac” McMillan, who had long been a thorn in the side of minorities both locally and nationally.

At the time of Jenrette’s first Congressional race, the Washington, D.C., community was ruled by Congress; specifically, the House Committee on the District of Columbia.

As committee chair, McMillan, described by Clark as an “elderly, genteel segregationist from Marion County,” was Washington’s unofficial mayor, and had blocked every attempt at home rule by the predominantly black community.

Jenrette’s defeat of Johnny Mac in the Democratic primary took on national significance and — despite the fact that he would lose that November to Republican Ed Young — forever ensured his bona fides as a champion of voters in the predominantly black district. He would go on to win the seat in 1974, and rise through the ranks during the coming years when fellow New South Democrat Jimmy Carter was elected president.

The good times also began to roll personally, allowing Jenrette to indulge his joint addictions for alcohol and sex.

As one associate put it, Jenrette would literally “get a piece on the way to getting a piece,” by stopping off to meet one girlfriend en route to an affair with another. Jenrette was also the rare adulterous bird who hooked up with different women the day before, the night of, and the day after his marriage to Rita.

Clark doesn’t slight any of the dirty details, but it’s where the FBI sting is concerned that he believes Jenrette is more sinned against than sinning.

He lays out a good case, and it has its merits.

First there’s the whole Orwellian nature of this sting operation (dubbed Abscam), which brought the word “entrapment” into the public sphere, and raised ethical questions about the legitimacy of enticing people into criminal acts they would not have committed otherwise. While it was never clear why Jenrette was a target, the combination of alcoholism and crushing debt from bad real estate deals made him a seemingly easy mark for a bribe. Jenrette’s basic defense in court was twofold: He thought he was taking out a loan, and he also began to fear he was dealing with mobsters who would kill him if he didn’t take the money.

There is, however, no good explanation for Jenrette’s damning utterance, caught on tape — “I’ve got larceny in my blood” — that sealed his fate with jurors.

If, in the end, Jenrette doesn’t come off completely as a victim, he doesn’t easily fit the role of villain either.

There are far worse disgraced South Carolina politicians.

Maybe, to quote an old Jack Nicholson movie, he’s the leper with the most fingers.

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