In 1998, I spent weeks studying Janet Reno for a Tropic cover story. She grudgingly allotted me a 30-minute interview in her office at Main Justice -- uncharacteristically allowing the Q&A stretch to 50 minutes, keeping two groups of men in suits waiting in an anteroom.
Her answers were clipped, careful. She was never much for big quotes -- her sister Maggie was much better -- but she made a major imprint as attorney general in Washington.
Today, at noon, five days after she died, I was on WLRN's Florida Roundup show, discussing aspects of Reno's career in Miami-Dade. (That show is available HERE.)
The Washington Post Slammed Her Looks
That got me to thinking about her Washington career.
Several memories stand out: The Washington press brutalized her. In her 15 years as Dade State's Attorney, Herald reporters wrote about her physical appearance only once: an innocuous description of her hair as "poufed and swirled."
After being named AG, the Washington Post Style section had two stories on her appearance -- on the same day. One ridiculed her dowdy clothes and hair -- the other her awkward bearing and her 6-1 height that caused a man to play her on Saturday Night Live.
Reno was slammed in the Washington press for being un-political and never showing up at the parties frequented by political and journalistic bigwigs. "Remote and lonely," The NY Times Maureen Dowd called her.
|Reno in wheelchair at home in 2014. Photo: Glenn Terry|
In fact, Reno was a frequent guest at the small dinner parties of Meg Greenfield, editorial page editor of the Washington Post -- parties at the heart of the movers-and-shakers power structure.
What's more, Reno was dogged in facing problems head-on. Unlike Hillary Clinton, who hemmed and hawed about her email problems for the longest time, Reno went to Congress after her orders caused 80 -- including two dozen children -- to die at Waco, and said, "The buck stops with me."
Pols were so shocked -- and impressed -- with her honesty that her popularity went up every time that Congress grilled her. By 1997, Americans admired her their eighth most admired woman -- ahead of Queen Elizabeth II and Nancy Reagan.
She Bristled When Told She was Politically Dumb
The one time she bristled during our interview was when I quoted a critic saying she didn't understand politics. "If you can get elected five times in Miami,'' she said in a steely voice, "I think you understand politics.''
Perhaps it was that understanding -- or just her rigorous moral code -- that led her not to get involved with Bill Clinton's problems. Six times -- more than any of her predecessors -- she appointed special prosecutors to investigate administration officials, including Ken Starr to look at Whitewater and Monica Lewinsky.
Anonymous sources told news outlets that Clinton didn't want to appoint her to a second term. When she was asked about this at a press conference, she said, "I would be honored and I would look forward to it. But it would be the President's decision to make."
Clinton aides whined anonymously to the NY Times that her manuever had been a clever ploy because, after the special prosecutors, the President didn't dare to force her out. And so -- by once again being blunt -- she was able to become one of the longest serving AGs ever.
For more on Reno and the McDuffie riots, see my website, Miami1980.com.