After an often tumultuous tenure as attorney general of the United States, Janet Reno ’63 leaves office as she arrived–standing up for what she believes in

The reporter was badgering the U.S. attorney general. Nothing unusual about that; Janet Reno ’63 had faced the questions for seven years, coming from all angles, trying to penetrate her determination to say only what need be said. But as this was in the teeth of the Elian Gonzalez saga, when all eyes were on a little boy in Florida, the questions slowly gained heat and velocity. The moment was about to boil.

And then just as suddenly it was a uniquely Janet Reno moment.

Why, the reporter pressed, don’t you avoid the political maelstrom and take the matter to federal court immediately?

“I won’t let you suggest to me the timing of how I do things,” Reno replied. “But one of the things . . .”

She stopped, for a fraction of a second. “Yes, you can always suggest to me,” she added. “I’d take that back.”

People can suggest anything to Janet Reno (and they do). She will listen, to the president of the United States, to top government officials, and to people all over the country who hold no title beyond citizen. And then she will make her decisions, tough decisions sometimes scrutinized for years, based on her own experience as a lawyer and prosecutor, and an upbringing in which some of her most formative lessons were learned. But she will always listen, unfailingly polite and unfailingly focused on carrying out the mission of the Justice Department. In January Reno ended her tenure as the longest serving U.S. attorney general of the 20th century and the first woman to have ever held the post. During a recent interview with the Bulletin, Reno spoke about her career, sometimes roiled by controversy and tragedy, but always, she said, defined by the resolve to uphold the rule of law. Yet as much as she loves the law, she also looks beyond it–to the care of young children, to the opportunities for those released from the penal system, to doing everything we can to prevent crime and conflict. Janet Reno wants us to be at peace, just like she is.

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Bill Clinton looks on as Supreme Court Justice Byron White swears in

Credit: Dirick Halstead/TimePix President Clinton looks on as Supreme Court Justice Byron White swears in Janet Reno as attorney general on March 12, 1993.

Reno has no use for the “L” word. Her staff puts nothing off limits for our interview but strongly suggests that I don’t ask her to assess her legacy as attorney general. That, she believes, is for others to decide. Her position is amplified by a sign on her office wall, displaying words she has lived by for her nearly eight years as attorney general: “If I care to listen to every criticism, let alone act on them, then this shop may as well be closed for all other businesses.”

The words are Abraham Lincoln’s and, like Lincoln, Reno has also faced tests of her times. The first, and perhaps the most frequently linked to her tenure, was Waco. The name of the town in Texas is synonymous with the incident, in which 75 members of the Branch Davidian sect were killed after FBI agents raided their compound–this 51 days after four agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms were killed when they attempted to serve a search and arrest warrant there. Reno took full responsibility and offered to resign.

The incident happened only 37 days after she became attorney general, and remains the low point of her tenure, Reno said. She will never know if she did the right thing or did it at the right time. But she does know that she learned from it. With the understanding that many more vociferously antigovernment groups exist in this country, Reno worked to prevent another Waco from happening.

Reno said of the Justice Department, “[We] tried to strengthen our negotiations capacity and better our understanding of different groups, what their motivations were in what we’ve had to deal with, and I think the way we worked out the Freemen situation in Montana is a classic example.” In 1996 the Freemen group surrendered peacefully after an 81-day standoff with FBI agents and outside negotiators.

Reno credited FBI Director Louis Freeh with the successful resolution of the Freemen dispute. While acknowledging Waco as a low point, as she did during an appearance at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government in November, she also talked about the high point of her tenure, and it has nothing to do with what she accomplished. “It is the people of the United States, the people of the Department of Justice, the people in government, not of government, who are doing so many incredible things . . . to build a sense of community, to build a democracy, to make America safer, freer, healthier, and a more positive place to live in.” When I noted during our interview that violent crime has gone down every year of her tenure, she quickly replied, “Well, it could go back up. I know that better than anybody else.”

Unlike many in Washington, she does not accept credit easily. And unlike many in Washington, she does not play the power game, preferring kayaking on the Potomac to any cocktail party with political movers and shakers. Indeed, Reno does not conform to most stereotypes of the powerful Washington official.

On July 21, 1938, she was born in Miami, Fla., where she was raised and lived until 1993, and where she returned when she left the attorney general’s office. Her father, Henry Reno, worked for 43 years as a police reporter for the Miami Herald until his death in 1967. Her mother, Jane Wood Reno, raised four children and then worked as an investigative reporter for the Miami News. When she does talk about her accomplishments, Janet Reno will point to this as one of her proudest: She took care of her mother when she was dying of cancer and made her comfortable until the end, December 1992, a few weeks after Bill Clinton was first elected president. References to her mother’s influence and exploits pepper Janet Reno’s speeches. Jane Reno, with her own hands, built a house on the Everglades that survived the fierce winds of Hurricane Andrew; Jane Reno was made an honorary Seminole Indian princess; Jane Reno grappled with alligators; the Jane Reno who told her daughter Janet, “Don’t worry about being a little different. It’s a lot better than being like the smoothest stone and the roundest pebble in the stream.”

Unconventional as she was, Jane Reno was a traditionalist about one thing–she did not want her daughter to go to law school. In fact, she forbade Janet, a teenager at the time, from becoming a lawyer, saying that men were better suited to the profession. So Janet worked to become a doctor, majoring in chemistry at Cornell. But the law, something Reno always wanted to practice, finally drew her back, and she applied to and was accepted by Harvard Law School. Her mother’s reaction then befitted her character.

“When I called her and told her I had been accepted at Harvard Law School, she whooped with joy and said she had guessed she had always wanted to do it herself,” said Reno.

Of course, Reno’s mother was not the final obstacle she had to overcome. Dean Griswold told Reno and 15 other women in a class of over 500 men, “I don’t know what you are going to do with your Law School education.” Yet Griswold also offered support and encouragement to Reno over the years, she said. Reno acknowledged that attention shortly after becoming attorney general, when she spoke at an event that Griswold attended.

“I had told the story about what he had said, [that] he didn’t know what we were going to do with our Law School education,” Reno recalled, “and I said, ‘I hope I’ve answered your question, Dean.'”

Reno understands that she is a role model for girls across the nation, who see in her the possibilities for their future. Reno was in their shoes once, at 7 years old, when Dixie Chastain, one of Florida’s first female attorneys and a judge, came to her house. Reno said to her mother then, “Yes, I can become a lawyer because Dixie Chastain is a lawyer.”

Nearly 50 years later, her gender, it can be argued, helped gain her the attorney general’s job. President Clinton, determined to appoint a female attorney general, first tapped Zoe Baird and Kimba Wood ’69, both of whom withdrew amid questions surrounding the employment of nannies. Reno then passed an intensive vetting process, and was sworn in on March 12, 1993.

At the same time, Reno clearly does not want to be identified as “the female attorney general.” Being a woman, she said, does not add to the burden of a job that already has its share.

“I don’t feel an extra responsibility,” Reno said. “I have always tried to conduct myself so that people who believed in me were not disappointed.”

Her gender certainly did not help immediately after Reno earned her HLS degree. A large Miami firm turned her down for a job because she was a woman. But she eventually found a position in another firm and worked in private practice until 1971, when she became staff director of the Judiciary Committee of the Florida House of Representatives. She later served as counsel for the Florida Senate’s Criminal Justice Commission for Revision of the Criminal Code and assistant state attorney for the Eleventh Judiciary Circuit of Florida. In 1978, Florida Governor Reubin Askew appointed her state attorney for Dade County, a position she held through four elections and for 15 years.

It was in this job that she began to heed Lincoln’s words. For the first time, Reno felt the heat of criticism, vitriol that spilled onto the streets of the Liberty City section of Miami. It began when a black man, Arthur McDuffie, died in the custody of police, allegedly beaten with heavy flashlights. Reno’s prosecution of the officers ended in not guilty verdicts, and for three days mobs ruled the streets, leaving 18 dead, 400 hurt, and $100 million in property damage. The people of Liberty City chanted Reno’s name, wanted her banished from office. Yet she would not budge.

“I went to the community relations board meeting and I talked with people, and they demanded that I resign and said that if I didn’t I would have deaths that might occur that night on my conscience,” said Reno. “I said no to resigning and giving in to anarchy. That was not the way to do it. Besides, they had the perfect way to get rid of me. I had to run for office that summer. Nobody ran against me, and somebody said it was because nobody wanted the job.”

Reno not only won office again but won over her most strident critics. She did so by attending community meeting after community meeting and listening to the concerns of the people, not only about crime in their neighborhoods but about raising their families. A few years after the Liberty City riots, she walked in the Martin Luther King parade with her mother. The same crowd that had shouted her name in contempt was now lauding her. Even Reno’s mother was surprised. “Why are they cheering you?” she asked.

“It’s called child support, Mother,” Reno replied.

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Women protesters holding signs that read "Is this the rule of the law?"

Credit: AP Photo/Luis Alvarez Protesters in Florida, demonstrating against the seizure of Elain Gonzolez, await the arrival of Attorney General Janet Reno for a speech in May 2000.

Child support, in all variants of the term, has always dominated Reno’s agenda. She learned in Miami, she said, that much of the criminality a prosecutor faces can be traced to childhood.

“I would see five points along the way where we could have intervened to have made a difference in a child’s life, so I developed a correlation between the delinquency and the causative factors, and the greatest causal connection was delinquency and dropouts,” Reno said. “Then we developed a dropout prevention program. That was too late. Kids were already beginning to fall behind in their earlier years. So we developed an early neighborhood intervention program around Head Start, and at that point the crack epidemic hit Miami and the doctors took me to the public hospital and showed me how 0 to 3 was the most formative time of a person’s life, and I thought, ‘What good are all the jails going to be 20 years from now if a kid doesn’t understand what a conscience is, doesn’t have a conscience, or understand reward and punishment? And what good are all the schools going to be if the kid doesn’t have the foundation of learning, if 50 percent of all learned human response is learning in the first year of life?'”

This is not, she acknowledged, typical prosecutorial tough talk. But that doesn’t mean she favors coddling criminals, or is in any way soft on crime, she said. “To raise children right you have to give them love, but you have to hold them accountable,” Reno said. “And if you approach it from that point of view, there’s going to be stiff punishment if they rob somebody. And anybody who says that a kid should get a slap on the wrist should have another thought coming. But they should get prevention programs and reentry programs to make a difference.”

When she came to Washington, she predicted the way people would react to her: “She seems like a nice lady, but she sounds more like a social worker than a prosecutor.” As her tenure ended, the attorney general continued to use her position as a bully pulpit to advance a social revolution in this country. When she spoke at the Kennedy School, the most fervent applause came not when Reno addressed crime and punishment, but when she preached about the need to provide “educare” for the youngest children, preventive medical care, after-school supervision, truancy programs, and increases in teachers’ pay.

Though unmarried and childless herself, she says that no one–not the attorney general of the United States, not any worker–should have to sacrifice a career to raise a family.

“If you had told me, in 1963, that I would have to–if I decided to raise a family–make a choice between the law and raising a family, I would have told you to get lost, and I’ll still tell you that,” said Reno. “We ought to be able to organize a workplace, and a workday, that gives both parents quality time with their children and gets them unobsessed with their [work] lives.”

Yet when reminded about the social worker comment, she notes that she seeks the death penalty as often as anyone in the country, upholding the law though she is personally against capital punishment. Most prominently, Reno helped secure a death sentence for Timothy McVeigh, whose 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City killed 168 people and injured more than 500. On the day of the bombing, Reno and President Clinton both vowed that the perpetrators would pay with their lives.

The president and the attorney general have not always stood united, however. Reno, who had never met Clinton before coming to Washington, appointed eight independent counsels during her tenure, setting in motion investigations of his Cabinet members and Clinton himself. Though she couldn’t anticipate it, the attorney general unleashed the process that would ultimately lead to the impeachment of the president when she appointed Kenneth Starr to investigate the Whitewater land deal.

This is not the way to make friends at the White House. But here too Reno said she followed the wisdom of Lincoln, trusting the evidence without considering the criticism that may follow. When she declined to appoint a counsel to investigate alleged fundraising transgressions during the president’s reelection campaign, the criticism came from another direction. This time, however, critics questioned her integrity, saying she considered president and party over justice.

If such accusations stung, Reno won’t say. “I was damned if I did, and damned if I didn’t, and I was going to get criticized,” she said. Although she campaigned for the renewal of the independent counsel statute shortly after she came to Washington, its flaws later became apparent, Reno said. In March 1999, she testified before the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee and opposed reauthorization of the Independent Counsel Act. “Almost by definition, these are significant cases that generate a lot of interest–in the newspapers, up here on Capitol Hill, and in political circles across the country,” said Reno. “As a consequence, just about every decision becomes controversial–be it an attorney general decision whether to trigger the act and seek the appointment of an independent counsel, or an independent counsel’s decision to pursue a particular prosecutorial course. And I have come to believe that the statute puts the attorney general in a no-win situation.”

Congress did not renew the act.

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A journalist who spoke at HLS said that talking to Janet Reno was like talking to a brick wall. She has avoided questions a thousand times by saying that she does not do “what-ifs.” She has said even more times that she will not comment on an ongoing investigation. For people who want good copy, she can be relentlessly, maddeningly “on message.” I tried to get some information from her regarding complaints about the 2000 presidential election, for example, and she said, “In each instance we try to pursue each one to determine if it is under federal jurisdiction, whether it is appropriate for us to proceed and take whatever action appropriate.” In other words, do not stop the presses.

But being Janet Reno, she is truly sorry she cannot be more forthcoming. In one of her final press briefings, she actually apologized to the assembled press corps for her years of “no comments” and “the investigation is proceeding” responses. She also advocates for more openness in government; Florida law, the same law that provides public access to all ballots in a presidential election, should be a model for the federal government, she says.

And sometimes she offers a nugget so golden, so rich, that it seems to explain everything. Like her response when Elian Gonzalez said on videotape that he wanted to stay in Miami, and not return to Cuba with his father. For some, this surely was proof that the child should stay in the United States. Reno knew otherwise, and looked back at a girl who loved her mother more than the world, but sometimes too didn’t want to go home.

“And I can remember, I loved to go to my grandmother’s house,” Reno said at the time. “She had such a wonderful house, and she cooked us biscuits just right, and she loved us. And she took us to the movies, and she got us French vanilla ice cream. And she read to us, and she taught us how to play cards. And she was a wonderful lady. And it came Sunday afternoon, and I’d run around behind the house and cry because I didn’t want to go home.”

Reno is going home again, now that her job is done in Washington. She also has some other plans. She would like to write and teach, would like to help train both judges and lawyers to be better problem solvers. She would like to practice law a bit. Someday, she would like to work as a police officer for an hour, without a weapon, using her wits to defuse conflict.

The woman who went nowhere as attorney general without armed protection would also like to hop into a pickup truck and drive across the country. She expects to find all the mountains and rivers and the “wonderful people” she didn’t get to see when she was in Washington. She expects those people will treat ex-attorney general Janet Reno the way they would any other nice 62-year-old lady from Florida. After all, she said, “I think I’ll be the same person.”

As she rides in that pickup truck, she says she will miss the people in the Justice Department, and the residents of Washington who showed her much kindness. She will not think about “what-ifs” or her legacy. She may again recall Lincoln, who said, “I have learned to do my best, and if the end result is good, then I do not care for any criticism, but if the end result is not good, then even the praise of ten angels would not make the difference.”

There are many ways to do your best, as Reno showed on one of her several visits to HLS. During a dinner at Celebration 45, which commemorated 45 years of women at HLS, a member of the catering staff approached Reno. The woman whose job it was to run the Justice Department stopped in her tracks to meet a woman whose job it was to pour water. Reno listened to her, asked about her life, treated her as an equal. And if a person is ultimately judged by how she treats those who will never conceivably hold power or influence over her, then it is clear why Janet Reno gives not a thought to her legacy.

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We start and finish the interview talking about democracy. She says that she wants to write a book on the subject, about how to build a democracy. She has met ministers of justice from emerging democracies “with stars in their eyes,” agape at the stability and strength of democracy in the United States. But, she says, democracy is a fragile thing, as so many other countries demonstrate, and must not be taken for granted. She has seen it every day of her job and she sees it the day of our interview.

It is December 11, and at precisely the moment I meet her, a few blocks down the street from the Justice Department, nine justices conclude a hearing that will determine the next president. I tell her I have just come from the Supreme Court, and seen the throngs demonstrating and chanting and agitating and, really, having the time of their lives. And she seems to share their enthusiasm. Optimistic to the end of a sometimes bruising, contentious tenure as the chief law enforcement officer of the United States, Reno is buoyed by the grandeur and even the mess of deciding the peaceful transfer of power of this country’s presidency. “It’s really quite wonderful,” she says.

Only about an hour before, I had glimpsed what she meant when she talked about democracy.

A woman with a Bush-Cheney sign walked into a den of lions, advocates for Al Gore yelling, “Trust the people, count the votes.” She held the sign high and proud. Surely she was going to be pushed, shoved, insulted. But no. The crowd looked at her and her sign, and went on shouting to the halls of justice. And somehow I know, as the woman walked out of the crowd, slightly bewildered but smiling, that at that moment Janet Reno was smiling too.