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Janet Reno, the first woman to serve as attorney general, dies at 78

By Timothy M. Phelps • Nov 7, 2016 at 8:55 PM

WASHINGTON — Janet Reno, whose unusually long tenure as the United States’ first female attorney general began with a disastrous assault on cultists in Texas and ended after the dramatic raid that returned Elian Gonzales to his Cuban father, has died after a years-long struggle with the debilitation of Parkinson’s disease. She was 78.

Her goddaughter Gabrielle D’Alemberte said Reno spent her final days at home in Miami surrounded by family and friends, according to the Associated Press.

When Reno arrived in Washington in 1993 as President Clinton’s third choice for the job, she cut an unusual figure for the nation’s top law enforcement official, not only because of her sex.

She was tall (nearly 6-foot-2), single and brought with her a somewhat mythic reputation as a woman who had wrestled alligators while growing up in rural south Florida and as a tough prosecutor in Miami who wrestled with mobsters and drug dealers.

Within a few weeks she made what she acknowledged was a deadly blunder, approving an FBI assault on a cult compound in Waco, Texas, that led to the death of about 80 children, women and men.

The disaster could have sent her packing, but the fact that she forthrightly took the blame (“I’m accountable. The buck stops with me.”) instead established her in the public mind as the rare political figure who accepted responsibility for her actions.

“People really liked Janet Reno,” said Carl Stern, a former network news correspondent who served as her spokesman. “People judged her to be authentic and sincere and working in their service.”

Her blunt, no-nonsense demeanor stood her well in public opinion polls through much of her nearly eight-year stint in the job, even as she increasingly got caught in the political crossfire between Republicans and Democrats over demands to investigate the Clinton administration.

She appointed seven special prosecutors to investigate aspects of the Clinton administration, including the Whitewater real estate deal, Secretary of Agriculture Mike Espy and Housing Secretary Henry Cisneros, earning her increasing enmity from the Clintons. But she refused to appoint, over the objections of the FBI, an eighth special prosecutor to look into campaign finance violations by Clinton and Vice President Al Gore in 1996. Republicans in Congress demanded her resignation, saying she had politicized her office, and continued their attacks until she left Washington with Clinton in January 2001. Only one other person had served longer in the job.

Frances Fragos Townsend, a Republican who worked in the Justice Department under Reno and went on to be homeland security adviser to President George W. Bush, said the impression that Reno was a politically polarizing attorney general was a fiction created by her Republican opponents and the media.

“They created this story around her,” Townsend said. It was a “caricature and inaccurate … it’s just not who she was. She was very down to earth and simple in the sense that what drove her was the facts.”

A year after returning to Miami, where she was born on July 21, 1938, Reno made an attempt to return to public life, despite hands that by then were shaking badly due to the Parkinson’s disease. She ran unsuccessfully for the Democratic nomination to oppose Republican Jeb Bush for governor, losing a 30-point lead in the polls in just two months, then left the stage for good.

Reno had no middle name, according to the Palm Beach Post, because her mother said she was too exhausted from labor to come up with one. Her parents were reporters in Miami, and her mother, by all accounts, was a swashbuckling eccentric who taught her daughter to speak her mind.

Her mother, Jane Wood Reno, built the family house herself in what then was a rural suburb of Miami, originally on 21 acres with a barn, cows and other farm animals not far removed from the Everglades. It was her mother who was known for wrestling alligators, though Janet said she could handle “the little ones.” Janet returned to the family home from Washington to spend the rest of her life.

Reno studied chemistry at Cornell University, where she did well enough to be accepted at Harvard Law School after flirting with the idea of becoming a doctor. She graduated from Harvard in 1963. After nine years in private practice in Miami, starting in real estate law, Reno moved to Tallahassee, the state capital, to become general counsel to the House Judiciary Committee. She is credited with writing the state’s no-fault divorce law and overseeing a comprehensive reorganization of the state’s court system.

She ran for state representative in 1971, winning the primary but narrowly losing the general election.

After a stint in the Dade County state attorney’s office and a return to private practice, she was appointed to the top prosecutor’s job in Miami in 1978, serving for 15 years. She repeatedly won re-election to keep that job despite presiding over a sharply escalating murder rate and drug trade and criticism from the local papers that she was more of an administrator than a courtroom lawyer.

She also had to overcome a prosecutorial disaster early in her tenure. When her office failed to convict four white police officers who were charged with beating to death a black insurance executive, riots broke out in Miami, killing 16 people over four days, with more than 1,000 arrests. She found herself alienated from her black constituents, but won them back through repeated visits to black churches and neighborhoods.

Under pressure to name a woman to the attorney general post, Clinton turned to Janet Reno only after his first two choices for the job, Zoe Baird and Kimba Wood, withdrew because they had both employed nannies who were illegal immigrants. Reno had ample qualifications, and she was childless and therefore had no nanny problems.

Even some close insiders were critical of her management style as attorney general. She was a workaholic who arrived at her office at 7 a.m. (on foot, from her apartment 10 minutes away) and often stayed until late at night. But at least initially, she refused to delegate authority, which in a department with 95,000 employees could be disastrous. She also was criticized for not prioritizing the incessant lists she demanded action on, and sometimes for not acting quickly herself on recommendations.

Legal issues surrounding children were a major focus of the new attorney general, so much so that it engendered some sniping within the Justice Department that she was the attorney general for children. Though attorneys general before and after her focused on such topics as organized crime or pornography, Reno liked to talk about pushing children out of poverty and programs to steer teenagers away from violence, as well as broader issues such as prevention and rehabilitation and creating empowerment zones in the inner city.

It may have been concern for children that got her in trouble in Waco, because the FBI told Reno, who had refused to authorize an attack on the Branch Davidian compound there, that they needed to use force in part because children were being abused. That turned out to be false, and the attack resulted in the death of 25 of the children she had wanted to protect.

Another assault involving a child, this one successful but equally controversial, defined the end of her tenure as Waco defined the beginning. Reno ordered 6-year-old Elian Gonzalez, whose mother drowned as they tried to reach Florida from Cuba, forcibly removed from cousins in Miami and returned to his father in Cuba. Though the move was popular nationally, it was reviled in the city to which Reno was about to return.

Also on the list of Reno’s accomplishments, though very much out of sync with her rhetoric, was passage of the get-tough-on-crime 1994 crime bill. Though largely a Clinton initiative, Reno lobbied for it and helped persuade some liberals to back it, in part by promising tough standards in death penalty cases. It funded 100,000 new local police officers, greatly expanded the federal death penalty, provided funds to investigate violence against women and banned certain assault weapons.

But one of Reno’s greatest accomplishments may have been the tone she set as attorney general. She fashioned herself after one of her predecessors, Robert F. Kennedy, whose portrait hung in her private office.

“She was the quintessential American idealist,” said Jeremy Travis, president of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. Travis, who worked for Reno for six years at the Justice Department, said she was nonetheless pragmatic and focused on results. “She believed that the country was full of people with good ideas and that we could improve our society in important ways and people of good will acting together could make a noticeable difference” he said.

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