Monday 5 December 2016

Obituary: Janet Reno

US attorney general during Clinton's presidency known for her integrity and forthright manner

Published 13/11/2016 | 02:30

CHALLENGE: Janet Reno, the first woman to serve as US attorney general, making a speech in Miami Lakes, Florida
CHALLENGE: Janet Reno, the first woman to serve as US attorney general, making a speech in Miami Lakes, Florida

Janet Reno, who died last Monday aged 78, was the first woman to serve as attorney general of the United States and became the longest-serving head of the US Justice Department in the 20th Century.

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When President Bill Clinton nominated her in February 1993, Janet Reno was his third choice for the post after his first two women nominees were disqualified for employing illegal immigrants as nannies.

As chief prosecutor for 14 years in Miami, she had built a reputation for her rock-solid integrity and as a fair but brusque and - at 6ft 2in tall - physically imposing boss.

Within weeks of her appointment she faced the greatest challenge of her career: confronting followers of self-proclaimed prophet David Koresh at the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Texas.

Koresh had already killed four federal officers and had withstood a stand-off with the FBI lasting several weeks when Janet Reno was asked to authorise a raid of the compound.

She gave the go-ahead for the agents to storm the building with tear gas, believing reports that children were being abused inside, but the assault went horribly wrong. The compound went up in flames, leaving more than 80 people dead, including 25 children. The debacle was seen live on national television.

Later that day, an anguished-looking Reno went on television, saying that she took full responsibility and offering to resign. Viewers, unaccustomed to forthrightness from those in high office, were stunned. She was deluged with messages of support and by the summer had become the most popular person in the Clinton cabinet. "Reno is pure oxygen in a city with thin air and she's gone to its head," declared Time magazine.

While she continued to win praise for her integrity, her popularity waned and her relations with the Washington establishment came under strain. She was never part of the Clinton inner circle, and her preference for kayaking on the Potomac River over hobnobbing on the capital's cocktail circuit meant that she never became part of anyone else's.

Even though she served in the Clinton cabinet for two terms, her relationship with the occupants of the White House was tested by her decision to let an independent inquiry into a failed Clinton land deal in Arkansas, the so-called Whitewater investigation, expand to include Clinton's sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky, an episode that led to his impeachment.

Republicans, on the other hand, accused her of protecting Clinton and Vice-President Al Gore when, in 1997, she refused to allow an independent counsel to investigate allegations of fundraising improprieties in the White House.

Nor did she endear herself to journalists. Even veteran reporters came to dread her terse rebuke: "You haven't done your homework, have you?"

Her homely appearance and awkward manner made her a regular butt of jokes for late-night comedians.

Reno had progressive views, notably on capital punishment and abortion, but often found her principles tested by circumstances. She authorised prosecutors to seek the death penalty for Timothy McVeigh, responsible for the 1995 bombing in Oklahoma City which killed 168 people and injured scores more.

He was killed by lethal injection in June 2001, the first federal execution since 1963.

In 2000, late in her term as attorney general, she intervened in the case of Elian Gonzalez, a six-year-old Cuban boy whose mother had drowned as the pair attempted to flee to the United States, and whose Miami relatives were refusing to comply with a court order that he should be returned to his father in Cuba. Faced with their intransigence, she authorised federal agents to seize the child; a photograph of a border patrol agent pointing a gun at the young boy was plastered all over the newspapers. Many Cuban Americans never forgave her.

Janet Reno was born in Miami on July 21, 1938, the oldest of four children of two hard-drinking, unconventional local newspaper reporters called Jane and Henry Reno. Henry was the son of Danish immigrants who had changed their name from Rasmussen to Reno (chosen at random from a map of Nevada). The family lived in a log house they had built themselves in the Miami suburb of Kendall, where they took in unwanted pets and kept a yard full of peacocks, all called Horace. On one occasion, police raided the house, having been tipped off about a possible rape on the property, because the opera-loving Henry had been listening to La Traviata at full blast, driving the peacocks into a frenzy.

Henry died when his children were still young, leaving Jane to bring them up on her own. Irascible and outspoken, she subjected them to strict discipline, making frequent use of a bridle strap. But she also taught them to appreciate Beethoven, Coleridge and Kipling, how to use a rifle, scuba-dive and catch alligators (some were sent to London Zoo).

She advised her girls, Janet and Maggy, that they should not marry a man unless he made their heart go "potato, potato, potato", and set an example of defying convention by refusing to wear dentures after her teeth rotted.

Jane Reno's definition of a friend was someone who, if you called at 1am and said: "I find myself in a phone booth without any clothes on. Can you come get me?" would come without asking questions.

Janet Reno was a debating champion at Coral Gables High School and went on to study chemistry at Cornell University, hoping to become a doctor. Instead she decided on a legal career and in 1960 was one of 16 women accepted by Harvard Law School.

Graduating in 1963, she worked for two Miami law firms. In 1971 she entered government service as general counsel to the Judiciary Committee of the Florida House of Representatives, where she was responsible for drafting the state's no-fault divorce law and engineering a reorganisation of its court system.

In early 1978, the state governor appointed her interim state attorney for Dade County, which contains the city of Miami. She was elected state attorney in November and, despite running as a Democrat in a predominantly Republican county, was returned to office by the voters four more times.

In 1988, one of the contenders for her job was a born-again Christian called Jack Thompson who, during a public debate, accused her of being a lesbian.

"Don't worry, Mr Jackson," she said, putting a friendly arm around his shoulders. "I love big, strong, handsome, rational, intelligent, kind and sensitive men and I understand why you might be concerned." Jackson attempted, unsuccessfully, to sue for assault.

As state attorney, Janet Reno experimented with new approaches to law enforcement which became a model for programmes around the country, such as giving first-time drug offenders the chance to wipe their criminal records if they went into rehab and stayed clean for a year.

She also demonstrated remarkable bravery and resilience. In May 1980, her office prosecuted four white police officers for beating an unarmed black motorcyclist to death.

When all four were acquitted by an all-white jury, Miami erupted in rioting that ended with 18 people dead. As the losing prosecutor, Reno was accused of being a racist, received death threats and was told to resign.

She refused and instead set out to rebuild her office's reputation in the black community, travelling without a bodyguard to poor black neighbourhoods, listening as crowds vented their rage. Her sincerity did much to calm tempers and earned her grudging respect.

After retiring as attorney general in 2001 and despite suffering from Parkinson's disease, in 2002 she mounted a surprise bid in Florida to unseat Governor Jeb Bush but lost in the Democratic primary, her support undermined by continuing anger in the Cuban community at her handling of the Elian Gonzalez affair.

Janet Reno was unmarried.

© Telegraph

Sunday Independent

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