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Remembering Janet Reno, the first woman to serve as U.S. Attorney General

Janet Reno (credit: Elvert Barnes)

From February 28 to April 19 of 1993, the Federal Bureau of Investigation besieged a compound in Waco, Texas, owned and occupied by the Branch Davidians.

Prior to the siege, the leader of the radical Christian sect, David Koresh, had been suspected of sexually abusing girls as young as 10 and of violating certain firearm restrictions. The latter of the accusations led to an investigation by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; the FBI soon became involved as well. After an almost two-month standoff, the FBI attempted to evacuate the compound with force. In the ensuing violence, at least 74 members of the Davidians were killed in a deadly fire. The exact cause of the fire remains a matter of dispute.

When Janet Reno was confirmed by the Senate to be the first female U.S. Attorney General on March 11, 1993, the standoff in Waco had been going for two weeks and safety concerns were escalating for both the FBI and the Davidians. On April 19, after weeks of negotiations, the FBI began using an irritant gas around the barricaded building in an effort to clear the site. In a statement to several House committees in 1995, Reno explained, “Yes, we had hoped the Davidians might not react violently if we used gas in a slow, incremental manner, but those hopes were dashed by the Davidians and their guns.” She spoke of FBI agents who “risked their lived to rescue several of them” after the fire had engulfed the building. “We will never know,” said Reno, “whether there was a better solution.”

In a press conference immediately after the Waco siege, Reno responded pointedly about the decision to allow the use of gas: “I approved the plan, and I am responsible.” The buck stopped with her.

So it was that Janet Reno began her tenure as Attorney General under the cloud of what was seen as a national disaster. Despite public criticism, Reno also received admiration for her “forthrightness” and her ability to accept responsibility. Washington lawyer and author James Doyle wrote that Reno’s response and composure in the aftermath of Waco “was a very characteristic performance. Reno had behaved much the same in the aftermath of the Liberty City riots in Miami. She took responsibility. She took her medicine. She did her public duty.”

Reno, born in Florida in 1938, was considered a bit of a Washington outsider. After graduating from Cornell University with a degree in chemistry, she went on study at Harvard Law School. At 6’1”, she was a commanding presence and known to have a “folksy charm” about her. In 1978, she became Florida’s Attorney General and was reelected five times. After President Bill Clinton’s two initial nominees for Attorney General withdrew, Reno was nominated and eventually confirmed by the Senate.

As the first female Attorney General – and the longest sitting in more than a century – Janet Reno served the country with an unshakeable sense of personal integrity and accountability. Indeed, it was these qualities that left her vulnerable to harsh criticism not only from the right but also from the left, especially from those within President Clinton’s inner circle. It was understood that her relationship with Clinton was at times contentious. In fact, The New York Times reported that their relationship became “further strained by her decision to let an independent inquiry into a failed Clinton land deal in Arkansas expand to encompass Mr. Clinton’s sexual relationship with the White House intern Monica Lewinsky.” This inquiry, of course, lead to the President’s impeachment.

Despite this opposition, Janet Reno is considered a consequential Attorney General for numerous reasons. She oversaw the convictions of Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman, the sheik who was the mastermind of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, and Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, the men responsible for the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. Despite mounting political pressure for punishment in both cases, Reno remained committed to the legal process. One observer noted, “Janet Reno does not rush to judgment. She says she is as concerned with protecting the rights of the guilty as with punishing them. This has never been an especially popular decision.”

Reno had a reputation for being “adamant that her prosecutors and agents worked outside the influence of politics, media or popular opinion.” Former U.S. Solicitor General Walter Dellinger proclaimed her to be a “very powerful force for lawfulness.” Time and time again throughout her career, Reno not only took personal responsibility for her decisions and the actions of the departments she oversaw, but also publicly reflected upon any missteps with a commitment to learn from them.

This was evident in one of her final tests as Attorney General: She personally flew to Florida to negotiate with the extended family members of the six-year-old Cuban refugee, Elian Gonzalez. Elian was found off the coast of Florida on a small metal raft and brought to the home of his great uncle in Miami. A bitter custody battle ensued as Elian’s father in Cuba fought to have his son returned to him. Reno stepped in and eventually ordered the FBI to remove the boy from the Miami home. While the move was controversial, the level of Reno’s personal involvement was characteristic of her time in office.

Reno retired as Attorney General in January 2001. After a failed bid in the 2002 Florida gubernatorial race, she left politics altogether. Her retirement plans included “a road trip to Alaska in a new pickup truck, a 120-mile kayak trip to the Florida Everglades, and writing a memoir and a book on reducing violence.” Almost a decade after Reno retired, Attorney General Eric Holder said of Reno, “In a city where too many compromise their values for short term political gain, Janet Reno stood out as a person of integrity and of enduring values.” After an almost 20-year battle, Reno died in 2016 of complications from Parkinson’s disease.

Surely, Janet Reno was at the center of some of the biggest political stories of the 1990s. But she was also a notable figure in American pop culture. Reno was famously portrayed by Will Farrell on Saturday Night Live and even appeared alongside him after her retirement, a move that showed that, although she took her job seriously, she did not take herself too seriously.

Maggie Baldridge is an intern at the National Constitution Center. She is also a recent graduate of Dickinson College.

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