Janet Reno The First Woman Att’y General Dies At Age 78

Reno dies of Parkinson’s at the age of 78 at her Florida home.

Last night, Janet Reno, passed away at the age of 78 after decades of battling Parkinson’s disease, her goddaughter Gabrielle D’Alemberte said. D’Alemberte said Reno spent her final days at home in Miami surrounded by family and friends.

She was, the first woman to serve as U.S. attorney general and the epicenter of several political storms during the Clinton administration, including the seizure of Elian Gonzalez.

It was a Miami prosecutor that Reno made a name for herself as a tough, brilliant lawyer. She served almost the entire eight-year term of President Bill Clinton making her the longest serving Attorney General in modern political history.

She was 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.

Reno’s biggest case was ironically one of the biggest cases ever to come up in Florida. For those who don’t recall what happened here is a little history for you.

In the spring of 2000, Reno enraged her hometown’s Cuban-American community when she authorized the armed seizure of 5-year-old Elian. The boy was taken from the Little Havana home of his Miami relatives so he could be returned to his father in Cuba.

The Reno decision on Gonzalez likely cost Florida Democrats the Cuban vote for two generations.

Once, she left the Justice Department, Reno came home to Florida and made an unsuccessful run for Florida 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.

Janet Reno

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.

Comedian Will Ferrell memorialized her in a “Saturday Night Live” skit called “Janet Reno’s Dance Party” and Reno visited the skit the night she left the Justice Department in January 2001.

Reno began her career in Miami in the mid-1960s and had her first encounter with the “glass ceiling,” getting passed over for a job at a law firm because she was a woman. She later made partner. In 1972, she lost a race for a Miami-area legislative seat but learned the importance of sticking to her principles from mentor John Orr, a former state lawmaker.

After losing that election, Reno was hired by the Dade State Attorney’s office, where she established herself as an organized and competent lawyer. In 1978, when State Attorney Richard Gerstein decided to step down, Reno was named his successor.

As prosecutor, Reno built programs to help reform drug dealers and combat domestic violence. Another program strong-armed deadbeat dads into paying child support, inspiring a rap song named after her.

It included the line: “All the money you get, all the checks you make; Janet Reno will make sure and take.”

She also weathered a 1980 riot after an all-white jury acquitted five police officers for the beating death of a black insurance salesman. Eighteen people were killed in the rioting and crowds chanted Reno’s name, accusing her of being a racist and demanding her resignation. Reno refused.

“To resign was to give into anarchy,” she said.

Reno eventually won the support of the city’s black community, attending countless community meetings, church services and parades.

Her last foray into politics was the race for Florida governor. Known for being down-to-earth – her home number was listed in a city directory both before and after Washington – and even folksy, she crisscrossed the state to campaign in a red Ford Ranger pickup truck. But Reno lost the primary to Tampa lawyer Bill McBride despite her name recognition. Republican Gov. Jeb Bush defeated McBride to win a second term.

After retiring from politics, Reno served on the boards or as an adviser to several organizations. In 2004 she joined the board of the New York-based Innocence Project, which works to free prisoners who can be proven innocent through DNA testing.

She also spent more time with her family. Shy and admittedly awkward, Reno never married but remained extremely close to her tight-knit family.

Asked to describe her legacy after ending her gubernatorial campaign, Reno quoted George Washington: “If I were to write all that down I might be reduced to tears. I would prefer to drift on down the stream of life and let history make the judgment.”

Some information used in this story came from the Associated Press. Video, CNN and ABC News. 

 

 

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Jim Williams is the Washington Bureau Chief, Digital Director as well as the Director of Special Projects for Genesis Communications. He is starting his third year as part of the team. This is Williams 40th year in the media business, and in that time he has served in a number of capacities. He is a seven time Emmy Award winning television producer, director, writer and executive. He has developed four regional sports networks, directed over 2,000 live sporting events including basketball, football, baseball hockey, soccer and even polo to name a few sports. Major events include three Olympic Games, two World Cups, two World Series, six NBA Playoffs, four Stanley Cup Playoffs, four NCAA Men’s National Basketball Championship Tournaments (March Madness), two Super Bowl and over a dozen college bowl games. On the entertainment side Williams was involved s and directed over 500 concerts for Showtime, Pay Per View and MTV Networks.