Janet Reno, First Female U.S. Attorney General, Dies At 78 : The Two-Way Reno's tenure was marked by tragedy and controversy. But she left office widely respected for her independence and accomplishments.

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

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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.


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.


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.


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."


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.




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.


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.


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.

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