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Janet Reno, First Female U.S. Attorney General, Dies At 78

Nov 7, 2016
Originally published on November 7, 2016 11:05 am

Janet Reno, the first woman to serve as attorney general of the United States, died early Monday from complications of Parkinson's disease. Reno's goddaughter Gabrielle D'Alemberte and sister Margaret Hurchalla confirmed her passing to NPR.

Reno spent her final days at home in Miami surrounded by family and friends, D'Alemberte told The Associated Press. She was 78.

Reno served longer in the job than anyone had in 150 years. And her tenure was marked by tragedy and controversy. But she left office widely respected for her independence and accomplishments.

She was not President Bill Clinton's first choice to head the Justice Department, nor his second. But after his No. 1 pick went down in confirmation flames, and his second choice also proved controversial, Clinton finally turned to Reno.

She was an unexpected pick. She had no connections to Clinton or Washington. But Clinton wanted a woman, and Reno was a big-time prosecutor, holding the top prosecutor's job in Miami-Dade County, a position she had been elected to four times over 15 years.

Jamie Gorelick, who would later become deputy attorney general, was assigned to prep Reno for her confirmation hearing. "She was the least air-brushed candidate we have ever had for a Cabinet-level position," says Gorelick. "She was herself, and she didn't change herself for Washington."

Reno arrived at the Justice Department knowing no one, and was immediately plunged into the siege at the Branch Davidian compound outside Waco, Texas. Four federal agents had been killed and 16 wounded while serving a warrant to search for illegal guns. Seven weeks into the siege, pressed by the FBI, Reno authorized a raid on the compound, resulting in 76 deaths, including as many as 25 children and the Davidian leader David Koresh, who ordered his followers to set fire to the compound.

In two sets of Waco congressional hearings over the next two years, Reno would successfully quell critics on the right and left.

"What haunted me," Reno explained at one hearing, "was that if I did not go in, I might be sitting there 10 days [later] ... when [Koresh] came out with explosives, blew himself, some agents and the entire place up."

Years later, however, in an interview with NPR shortly before leaving office, her regret was palpable. "We'll never know whether it was a mistake or not, in one sense," Reno admitted. "But knowing what I do, I would not do it again. I would try to figure another way."

"Waco didn't make her hesitant: It made her insistent about getting her own information," observes Walter Dellinger, who served in two top Justice Department jobs under Reno.

Dellinger believes, for instance, that it may have been the Waco experience that led Reno to go personally to Miami in April 2000 to see if there was a way to avoid a forcible removal of 6-year-old Cuban refugee Elián González from the home of a great-uncle so the boy could be returned to his only living parent, in Cuba.

Elián had been rescued at sea after his mother and eight others drowned trying to get to the United States. Rescued by fishermen and brought to the U.S., he was soon turned over to his great-uncle. The Cuban community in Miami was in an uproar over the idea of returning the boy to his father, who lived in Cuba, and the furor soon bled over to Congress.

But when negotiations with the great-uncle failed, armed federal agents, acting on Reno's orders, raided the home, removed Elián, and turned him over to his father, who had come to the U.S. to receive his son. When the U.S. Supreme Court refused to intervene, the two returned to their home in Cuba.

Over the course of time, Reno would become embroiled in many controversies. She sought the appointment of a series of independent counsels to investigate four fellow Cabinet members and President Clinton himself. But she refused to authorize an independent counsel investigation of contributions to the Clinton-Gore campaign after Justice Department lawyers concluded no crime had been committed by either the president or vice president.

The decision so infuriated Republicans that some called for her impeachment. "This is the most politicized Justice Department in the history of the United States," railed Dan Burton, the Republican chairman of a key House oversight committee.

At 6 feet 2 inches, however, Reno stood tall in the political crosswinds. Gorelick observes that when members of Congress, like Burton, were unhappy with a government official, they threatened to call that official to testify. But Reno, who had served as a staffer in the Florida state Legislature, always said, "Fine, I'll be there."

As a result, says Gorelick, "eventually all those who were threatening her with a hearing stopped doing that, because she prevailed in every outing that I can recall — she just went in there and laid out her views and bested those who would challenge her."

The controversies that the Justice Department faced during Reno's reign often eclipsed the many things that went well: the quick apprehension and successful prosecution of the Oklahoma City bombers, for example; the pursuit of bombers of women's health clinics that provide abortions; and the solving of the so-called Unabomber case.

After nearly two decades of fruitless pursuit, the FBI still had no idea as to the identity of the man dubbed the Unabomber, who had killed three people and injured 23. Then, in 1995, the bomber sent a letter to The New York Times offering to cease his terror campaign if the Times or the Washington Post would publish his 35,000-word manifesto against modern industry and technology. Neither newspaper was inclined to do that initially, but Reno, the daughter of two newspaper journalists, persuaded the newspaper owners to jointly publish the essay in the interests of public safety.

It paid off. The Unabomber's brother recognized the style and ideas in the essay and tipped off the FBI, ending the bomber's long reign of terror. Theodore Kaczynski, aka the Unabomber, is now serving a life term in a maximum security federal prison.

In 1995 Reno was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. She did not slow down, but her hands sometimes shook so hard you could hear them knocking against the table at a congressional hearing. She even joked about the disease, claiming that "shaking sometimes helps," as in playing a steel drum or balancing her kayak.

That combination of toughness and self-deprecating humor, plus her determination to protect the Justice Department from improper influence, made her a hero to many who worked for her.

"Janet Reno led with her values," says former Deputy Attorney General Gorelick, the department's No. 2 official. "And that meant that if she decided that a certain path was the right thing to do, the people around her believed her and would charge up any hill behind her. ... I'd never seen that before in quite the same way."

Reno won enormous respect inside the department as well, because of her work ethic and dedication to understanding issues in the many parts of the Justice Department — from national security, to environmental questions, to the generally obscure field of Indian law.

U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch called her "one of the most effective, decisive and well-respected-leaders in [the department's] proud history" who "never shied from criticism or shirked responsibility." And former Attorney General Eric Holder said that "in a city where too many compromise their values for short term political gain, Janet Reno stood out as a person of integrity and of enduring values."

Former Solicitor General Dellinger believes that Reno was prepared for the attorney general's job early in life by her intellect and ungainly height. "This is a woman that went to Cornell and Harvard Law School at a time when very few women went to Harvard Law School, went through junior high and high school being twice as tall as anybody else and probably twice as smart ... and that's really, really tough."

There were, of course, ups and downs in the eight years of Reno's reign. But she said she always took the long view of her job.

"If the end brings me out right, what people said about me won't make any difference, and if the end brings me out wrong, 10 angels saying I was right won't make any difference," she said in an interview with NPR in 1997.

President Clinton made little secret of his frequent displeasure with Reno and the wall of separation she erected between the Justice Department and the White House. Still, he never asked her to resign. Reno was the last Cabinet member he reappointed after his re-election in 1996.

"It was actually quite wonderful," said Dellinger. "She just decided to stay, and it turns out that nobody could fire her."

The tension between Clinton and his attorney general was apparent even as Clinton's time in office drew to a close. In an interview with CBS News' 60 Minutes, Clinton went out of his way to praise friends and foes alike, but when it came to his evaluation of Reno, he was tepid, to say the least.

"Good woman," he said. "Tried really hard to do a good job. She's a good person."

"At least he didn't say I was a bad person," replied Reno, with a laugh. "I'll take what I can get!"

Indeed, by the end of her tenure, Janet Reno had outlasted her critics and earned such a reputation for integrity and independence that comedian Will Ferrell's parody of her became one of the iconic skits on NBC's Saturday Night Live. The recurring skit was inspired by reports that Reno had cut quite a figure dancing at a Justice Department party.

On the last episode of the "Janet Reno's Dance Party" parody, Ferrell, wearing a blue dress and pearls, reminisces about past glories and laments that the end of the party is near. Then, suddenly, the real Janet Reno comes crashing through the wall of the set, wearing the same blue dress and pearls as Ferrell, to deliver one of Ferrell's signature lines: "It's Reno Time!"

"Oh, Janet," he says to the real Reno, as he mourns the end of the skit's run, "what do you do when you get sad?"

"I just dance," Reno replies, commanding the orchestra, "Now, hit it!" as she breaks out her best moves to "Twist and Shout." It was her last day in office.

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Janet Reno, the first woman to serve as attorney general, died early this morning. She served longer in that job than any other attorney general in 150 years. And as we'll hear in a few moments, her tenure was marked by controversy and also tragedy. Yet, she left office widely respected for her independence and her accomplishments. She was 78 and had long-suffered from Parkinson's disease. NPR legal affairs correspondent, Nina Totenberg, has more.

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: Janet Reno was not President Clinton's first choice to head the Justice Department - or his second. But after his number one pick went down in flames of confirmation controversy, Clinton finally turned to Reno. She was an unexpected choice. She had no connections to Clinton or Washington. But Clinton wanted a woman, and Reno was a big-time prosecutor. She was the Miami state's attorney, a job she'd been elected to four times over 15 years. Jamie Gorelick, who would later become deputy attorney general, was assigned to prep Reno for her confirmation hearing.

JAMIE GORELICK: Janet Reno was the least airbrushed candidate we have ever had for a Cabinet-level position. She was herself, and she didn't change herself for Washington.

TOTENBERG: She arrived at the Justice Department knowing no one and was immediately plunged into the siege at the Branch Davidian complex outside Waco, Texas. Four federal agents had been killed and 16 wounded there while serving a warrant to search for illegal guns. Seven weeks into the siege, pressed by the FBI, she authorized a raid on the complex resulting in 76 deaths, including as many as 25 children and Davidian leader David Koresh, who ordered the compound set afire. In two sets of hearings, over the next two years, she would successfully quell critics from the right and left.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JANET RENO: What haunted me was that, if I did not go in, I might be sitting there 10 days from then when he came out with explosives, blew himself, some agents and the entire place up.

TOTENBERG: One of the strongest exchanges was with Democratic Congressman John Conyers of Detroit.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHN CONYERS: This is a profound disgrace to law enforcement in the United States of America. And you did the right thing by offering to resign. And now, I'd like you to know that there is at least one member in the Congress that isn't going to rationalize the death of two dozen children.

RENO: I haven't tried to rationalize the death of children, Congressman. I feel more strongly about it than you will ever know. But I have neither tried to rationalize the death of four ATF agents.

TOTENBERG: Years later, however, in an interview with NPR shortly before leaving office, Reno's regret was palpable.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

RENO: We'll never know whether it was a mistake or not in one sense. But knowing now what I do, I would not do it again. I would try to figure another way.

TOTENBERG: Walter Dellinger served in top Justice Department jobs under Reno.

WALTER DELLINGER: I think Waco didn't make her hesitant. It made her insistent upon getting her own information.

TOTENBERG: Indeed, Dellinger believes it may have been the Waco experience that led her to go personally to Miami in April of 2000 to see if there was a way to avoid a forcible removal of 6-year-old Cuban refugee Elian Gonzalez from the home of a great uncle. There wasn't, and the child who'd been rescued at sea was turned over to his only living parent, his father, who lived in Cuba.

Over the course of time, Reno would find herself embroiled in many controversies. She sought the appointment of a series of independent counsels to investigate four fellow Cabinet members and President Clinton himself. But she refused to authorize an independent counsel investigation of contributions to the Clinton-Gore campaign, concluding that no crime had been committed by Clinton or Gore. The decision so infuriated Republicans that some called for Reno's impeachment. At 6 feet 2 inches tall, Reno, however, stood tall in the political crosswinds. Former Deputy Attorney General Jamie Gorelick observes that when members of Congress are unhappy with a government official, they threaten to call that person to testify. And Reno always said, fine. I'll be there.

GORELICK: Eventually, those who were threatening her with a hearing stopped doing that because she prevailed in every outing that I can recall. She just went in there and laid out her views and bested those who would challenge her.

TOTENBERG: The Justice Department under Reno was in the eye of the hurricane in so many controversies that she seemed to get little credit for many things that went well - the quick apprehension and successful prosecution of the Oklahoma City bombers, for example, the pursuit of abortion clinic bombers and the solving, with Reno's active intervention, of the so-called Unabomber case, putting an end to a nearly two decade one-man reign of terror that killed three people and injured 23 others.

In 1995, Reno was diagnosed with Parkinson's. The disease did not slow her down, except that her hands sometimes shook so hard you could hear them knocking against the table at a congressional hearing. President Clinton made little secret of his frequent displeasure with Reno. Still, he never asked her to resign, though she was the last Cabinet member to be reappointed in 1996. Former Solicitor General Walter Dellinger.

DELLINGER: It was actually wonderful. She just decided to stay. And it turns out that nobody could fire her.

TOTENBERG: By the end of her tenure, Janet Reno had outlasted her critics and earned such a reputation for integrity and independence that comedian Will Ferrell's parody of her became one of the enduring bits on "Saturday Night Live."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")

UNIDENTIFIED MA: It's time for the final episode of Janet Reno's dance party.

TOTENBERG: As the party proceeds, Will Ferrell, wearing a blue dress and pearls, remembers past glories and morosely starts to say goodbye when this happens.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: Awe.

(SOUNDBITE OF CRASHING)

RENO: It's Reno time. Now, hold on.

TOTENBERG: It's Reno time, cries the real Janet Reno, as she comes crashing through the wall wearing the same blue dress and pearls as Ferrell is.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")

WILL FERRELL: (As Reno) Oh, Janet, I can't believe I have to say goodbye. What do you do when you get sad?

RENO: I just dance. Now, hit it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LET'S TWIST AGAIN")

CHUBBY CHECKER: (Singing) Come on let's twist, again, like we did last summer.

TOTENBERG: And she may be dancing right now. Nina Totenberg NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.