Friday 9 December 2016

Former US attorney general Janet Reno dies at 78

Published 07/11/2016 | 10:46

Janet Reno has died aged 78. (AP)
Janet Reno has died aged 78. (AP)

Janet Reno, the first woman to serve as US attorney general and the epicentre of several political storms during the Clinton administration, has died aged 78.

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Ms Reno died early on Monday from complications of Parkinson's disease, her goddaughter, Gabrielle D'Alemberte, said.

Ms D'Alemberte said Ms Reno spent her final days at home in Miami surrounded by family and friends.

Ms 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.

One of the administration's most recognisable and polarising figures, she faced criticism early in her tenure for the raid on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, where sect leader David Koresh and some 80 followers died.

She was known for deliberating slowly, publicly and in a typically blunt manner. She frequently told the public: "The buck stops with me", borrowing the mantra from President Harry S Truman.

After Waco, Ms Reno figured in some of the controversies and scandals which 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 Clinton-Gore re-election.

In the spring of 2000, she enraged her hometown's Cuban-American community when she authorised the armed seizure of five-year-old Elian Gonzalez. The boy was taken from the Little Havana home of his Miami relatives so he could be returned to his father in Cuba.

After leaving Washington, Ms Reno returned to Florida and made an unsuccessful bid to be the state's governor in 2002 but lost in a Democratic primary marred by voting problems.

The campaign ended a public career which started amid humble beginnings.

Born on 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, she became one of 16 women in Harvard Law School's Class of 1963. Ms Reno, who stood over 6ft tall, later said she wanted to become a lawyer "because I didn't want people to tell me what to do".

In 1993, Mr 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. Ms Reno was 54.

"It's an extraordinary experience, and I hope I do the women of America proud," she said after she won confirmation.

President 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, Ms Reno became embroiled in controversy with the raid on the Branch Davidian compound near Waco.

The stand-off had started even before she was confirmed as attorney general. On February 28 1993, agents from the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms made a surprise raid on the compound, trying to execute a search warrant. But during the swoop, gunfire erupted, killing four agents and six members of the religious sect.

That led to a 51-day stand-off, which ended on 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.

Ms Reno had authorised the use of the tear gas to end the stand-off and later called the day the worst of her life.

"It was a dangerous situation," she 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 Ms Reno was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease 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.

AP

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