Variety, as the old saying almost goes, is the life of spies. Rita Carpenter, a 26-year-old blonde from Austin, Texas, came north this year to discover that—and the bruising way the political intelligence game is sometimes played in Washington.
Carpenter landed a job as “opposition research director” for the Republican National Committee. Seven people worked for her, culling 40 newspapers and other sources for dirt about the Democrats. She herself was once sent on a secret mission to New England. Her boss gave her a press card and asked her to find juicy material on John Durkin, the Democratic senatorial candidate in New Hampshire. She spent $600 in expenses but found nothing.
Rita’s $11,000-a-year salary at G.O.P. headquarters was pretty skimpy, but otherwise she was happy in her work. Then one day she met a young congressman named John Jenrette on, of all romantic places, the Capitol steps. He was charming, good looking and a fellow Southerner from South Carolina. Alas, there was one terrible drawback: He was a Democrat. The Montagues and the Capulets were not in politics, but they would have understood the problem.
Nevertheless, Carpenter began making the Washington scene with Jenrette, 39, a divorcé who has had a stormy political career punctuated by lawsuits (including a rather messy divorce). He appeared politically vulnerable to the G.O.P., and though Rita didn’t know it at the time, researchers were trying to get something on Jenrette. What they got was Rita Carpenter. A G.O.P. snoop staked out Jenrette’s house. Sam Spade he wasn’t. One morning, Rita reports, “as we came out, he couldn’t get his car started-He must have been playing his radio all night. We almost volunteered to help him.”
At the office, meanwhile, things became sticky. “Do you realize,” Rita’s boss asked, “what you’re getting into? I’ve seen a file two inches thick on that guy. What will your parents say?” Rita was not rattled. “There isn’t anything in that file,” she said coolly, “that I don’t already know.” At this point, Rita’s G.O.P. bosses told her to take a couple of hours off and decide which was more important: Jenrette or the job.
“I knew immediately what I’d do,” said the spunky Carpenter. “Even if I wasn’t serious about John, I was going to quit. Nobody can dictate to me about my private life!” Her letter of resignation was short and sour. “I resign,” it said. The committee later defended itself: “She was involved in an obvious conflict of interest.”
Understandably, the Republicans are not interested in helping Rita find another job. “They treat me like the enemy,” she laments. “I’m scared sometimes. Life just isn’t the same after you’ve been followed.”
Things are not really quite that bad. Rita has settled in a $125-a-month room in Chevy Chase. She still has visiting privileges at Jenrette’s spiffy pad on Capitol Hill. And with her qualifications, a B.A. from the University of Texas, fluent Russian, Peace Corps service and two years with the Texas G.O.P., she does not seem like a hard-core unemployable. Rita also has performed professionally on the guitar and composed half a dozen songs.
While Jenrette worries how his rural district will react to all this fuss, Rita has talked to a lawyer about suing the Republican National Committee for sex discrimination and violation of the right of free association. As another old saying almost goes: Democrats hath no fury like a woman scorned.