Former Attorney General Janet Reno dies at 78
The blunt prosecutor was the first woman to hold the federal law-enforcement position.
Shy and admittedly awkward, Janet Reno became a blunt prosecutor and the first woman to serve as U.S. attorney general and was also the epicenter of a relentless series of political storms, from the deadly raid on the Branch Davidian compound at Waco, Texas, to the seizure of 5-year-old Cuban immigrant Elian Gonzalez.
Reno, 78, died early Monday of complications from Parkinson’s disease, her goddaughter Gabrielle D’Alemberte told The Associated Press. D’Alemberte said Reno spent her final days at home in Miami surrounded by family and friends.
Reno, a former Miami prosecutor who famously told reporters “I don’t do spin,” served nearly eight years as attorney general under President Bill Clinton, the longest stint in a century.
Her sister, Maggy Reno Hurchalla, told The Associated Press that Clinton called over the weekend said to “tell Janet I love her” and that many others from her career visited or called, including former Florida governor and Sen. Bob Graham.
“When I tucked her in at night, I said ‘I love you,’” Hurchalla said. “She looked like she was asleep and raised one eyebrow and said, ‘I love you too very much.’ She was surrounded this weekend by people who love her.”
One of the Clinton administration’s most recognizable and polarizing figures, Reno faced criticism early in her tenure for the deadly raid on the Branch Davidian compound at Waco, Texas, where sect leader David Koresh and some 80 followers perished.
She was known for deliberating slowly, publicly and in a typically blunt manner. Reno frequently told the public “the buck stops with me,” borrowing the mantra from President Harry S. Truman.
After Waco, Reno figured into some of the controversies and scandals that marked the Clinton administration, including Whitewater, Filegate, bungling at the FBI laboratory, Monica Lewinsky, alleged Chinese nuclear spying and questionable campaign financing in the 1996 ClintonGore re-election.
In the spring of 2000, Reno enraged her hometown’s Cuban-American community when she authorized the armed seizure of young Elian. The boy was taken from the Little Havana home of his Miami relatives so he could be returned to his father in Cuba.
During her tenure, the Justice Department prosecuted the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing case, captured the “Unabomber” Theodore Kaczynski that same year and investigated the 1993 terrorist attack on New York’s World Trade Center. The department also filed a major antitrust lawsuit against Microsoft Corp. and Reno was a strong advocate for protecting abortion clinics from violence.
Attorney General Loretta Lynch praised Reno’s integrity and status as a female trailblazer, calling Reno in a statement “one of the most effective, decisive and well-respected leaders” in Justice Department history.
Reno, added Lynch, approached challenges “guided by one simple test: to do what the law and the facts required. She accepted the results of that test regardless of which way the political winds were blowing.”
Miami U.S. Attorney Wifredo Ferrer, who worked for Reno in Washington from 1995-2000, recalled her compassion for the nation’s dispossessed, her warm relationship with employees and her practical approach to problems.
“Even if you agreed or disagreed with her, you knew she was coming from a place of integrity,” Ferrer said in an interview. “”Through her work, through her decisions, she exhibited a lot of strength and a lot of courage. And that is also inspiring.”
After leaving Washington, Reno returned to Florida to run for governor in 2002 but lost in a Democratic primary marred by voting problems.
The campaign ended a public career that started amid humble beginnings. Born July 21, 1938, Janet Wood Reno was the daughter of two newspaper reporters and the eldest of four siblings. She grew up on the edge of the Everglades in a cypress and brick homestead built by her mother and returned there after leaving Washington. Her late brother Robert Reno was a longtime columnist for Newsday on Long Island.
After graduating from Cornell University with a degree in chemistry, Reno became one of 16 women in Harvard Law School’s Class of 1963. Reno, who stood over 6 feet tall, later said she wanted to become a lawyer “because I didn’t want people to tell me what to do.”
In 1993, Clinton tapped her to become the first woman to lead the Justice Department after his first two choices — also women — were withdrawn because both had hired illegal immigrants as nannies. Reno was 54.
“It’s an extraordinary experience, and I hope I do the women of America proud,” Reno said after she won confirmation.
Clinton said the vote might be “the only vote I carry 98-0 this year.”
A little more than a month after taking office, however, Reno became embroiled in controversy with the raid on the Branch Davidian compound near Waco.
The standoff had started even before Reno was confirmed as attorney general. On Feb. 28, 1993, agents from the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms made a surprise raid on the compound, trying to execute a search warrant. But during the raid gunfire erupted, killing four agents and six members of the religious sect.
That led to a 51-day standoff, ending April 19, 1993, when the complex caught fire and burned to the ground. The government claimed the Davidians committed suicide, shooting themselves and setting the fire. Survivors said the blaze was started by tear gas rounds fired into the compound by government tanks, and that agents shot at some who tried to flee. Reno had authorized the use of the tear gas to end the standoff and later called the day the worst of her life.
“It was a dangerous situation,” Reno said of the incident during a 2005 lecture at Duke University. “The tragedy is that we will never know what was the right thing to do.”
Things got no easier after Waco. In 1995 Reno was diagnosed with Parkinson’s after noticing a trembling in her left hand. She said from the beginning that the diagnosis, which she announced during a weekly news conference, would not impair her job performance. And critics — both Republicans and Democrats — did not give her a pass because of it.
Republicans argued she should have sought appointment of an independent counsel to investigate allegations of Clinton-Gore fundraising violations. Democrats, meanwhile, grumbled that she failed to act as a team player.
Janet Reno, 78, the first woman to serve as attorney general, died on Monday of complications from Parkinson’s disease.