She was one of a kind, Janet Reno.
The first woman to serve as Attorney General of the United States has died at age 78, suffering the debilitating effects of Parkinson’s Disease. Only one person in the nation’s history occupied the office longer, and that was back in the days of wooden whaling ships. Reno held the top law enforcement post through the Clinton administration, 1993 to 2001, which is quite remarkable when you realize that the president and his inner circle had little use for her.
I had a feeling that might be the case when she was appointed, for I knew Reno better than the folks I was covering at the White House. They had stumbled onto her as the answer to a big mess they had created. After letting it be known in Washington that they intended to name the first woman A.G., they were forced to withdraw the nomination of Zoe Baird over her failure to pay taxes on household help. The so-called “Nannygate” scandal deepened when Clinton’s second choice, Judge Kimba Wood, turned out to have similar problems.
Reno was the veteran State Attorney for Miami-Dade County in South Florida, and one thing you could be sure about was that Janet Reno was scandal-free.
But that did not mean she was uninteresting. Reno came from one of South Florida’s most memorable families, which is saying something. Henry Reno covered the cops for the Miami Herald back in the days when Miami was openly mobbed up, but unlike some later figures from the cops beat—Gene Miller, for instance, and Edna Buchanan—Henry Olaf Reno, a Danish immigrant, was never more colorful than the stories he covered. His wife, Jane Wood Reno, was the flamboyant one. While Henry was at work, Jane built a house for the family with her bare hands at the edge of the Everglades, on a homestead where she raised peacocks—the louder and more annoying to neighbors, the better. Janet, one of four Reno children, never married and never left that house, except to go to college and to run the Department of Justice. It was still home when she passed away.
Her keen intellect and organizational skills brought her to the attention of Miami’s top lawyers, beginning with Talbot “Sandy” D’Allemberte, a friend and mentor who recommended her for the role of deputy to Dade County State Attorney Richard Gerstein. When Gerstein stepped down after a long reign, Reno moved into the role, a job known in most places as District Attorney, where she became known for her awkward demeanor, complete honesty, and sphinx-like silence.
When I was hired as a new reporter at the Miami Herald in 1985, my editor ordered me on Day Two to call Janet Reno for a comment on a story. “And don’t let her get off the phone without giving us a quote!” he said sternly.
I dialed the phone. As she always did, Reno came on the line. “No comment,” she barked.
“Um, can you tell me if your office is pursuing the case?”
“Could you say what factors would go into a decision to go forward?”
Panicking as I tried to think of another question, I could feel her impatience through the line. “Is that it?” she asked.
“Uh, erm, are there any reasons why you would not go forward?”
“I’m not going to answer that.”
“Do you have any other questions?”
“Well,” I said in desperation, “is there anything I could ask you that you would answer?”
I hung up the phone and steeled myself to look over at the city desk. There was my editor, smiling broadly at the prank he had played.
No one ever got Janet Reno to do or say anything that she didn’t want to do or say. That could be her best quality, as when she amazed the country by stepping up after the disaster at the Branch Davidian compound in Waco and taking full responsibility for a raid gone horribly, tragically wrong. It could be galling, too, as it was to the Clinton loyalists who seethed as she first appointed a special prosecutor to investigate the president, then doubled down by continuing the inquiry under the relentless Kenneth Starr.
Washington would have been glad to see her go before she did. But she was as immoveable as that limestone house her mom built almost a century ago.
The last time I saw her she was running a lonely campaign for governor of Florida, driving herself around the state in a red pickup truck. I interviewed her for a story about the race. I think she knew she wouldn’t win; she was up against a Clintonesque glad-hander and slick talker with the entire Democratic establishment lined up behind him. If she cared, she didn’t show it. I told about the time my editor hazed me by calling her for a quote. She smiled.
And said nothing.