Former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno, who served through Bill Clinton’s eight-year presidential administration, died Nov. 7 from complications of Parkinson’s disease at age 78. She had been first diagnosed in the 1990s while in office.
Reno was raised near the Florida Everglades by parents of strong personalities. Her father was a police reporter in volatile Dade County for most of his adult life. Her mother, described as a naturalist, had apparently wrestled small alligators at one point.
That might be good training for fortitude, but Reno was a top student — valedictorian of her Coral Gables High School class — whose real ambitions tended toward science and law. She had a degree in chemistry from Cornell and graduated from Harvard Law School in 1963, one of 16 women in a class of about 500.
Eventually, she served as a prosecutor on the staff of the state attorney for Dade County, then became Dade County state attorney herself. She later became Florida’s state attorney, the first woman to ever hold that title.
Newly elected President Bill Clinton chose her to become the first female attorney general of the United States. At six-foot-one, she cut an imposing figure of authority, handling such controversial cases as when, in 1993, the federal government led a raid on the compound of a religious cult in Waco, Texas, in which 86 people, including four federal agents, died.
Reno was always praised for her toughness and integrity, but she was also interrogated, and sometimes attacked, by both parties. Republicans felt she was protecting Clinton during his travails and the Clintons blamed her for allowing an investigation of an old land deal in Arkansas (namely Whitewater) to go forward.
She was also in the spotlight in 2000 during the drama in which the U.S. government seized Elián González, a Cuban-refugee child, though in the end he was returned to Cuba.
Reno always conducted herself with calm and dignity, continually demonstrating her respect for the law and avoiding the appearance and substance of impropriety. She also showed that she had a sense of humor about herself after she became a regular subject and target for comedy skits on Saturday Night Live (apparently part of the job description for every person who gains a high profile in government, from the president on down).